Westworld: 1.01 The Original
HBO needs a new Game Of Thrones. It's biggest show ever is reaching its endgame, with approximately 13 episodes left, split across two seasons. HBO needs something that will keep audiences hooked, draw in the viewing numbers and - hopefully - win a few awards down the line. Westworld might be it; the loose adaptation of the Michael Crichton-directed 1973 film starring Yul Brynner and book certainly had a lot of buzz around it in the lead up to its release. But now it is here, did the pilot of Westworld deliver?
The Original is quite possibly one of the best pilot episodes to a show I have seen in years. I've never been a fan of Westerns, I saw the film years ago and I have never read the book so I went into Westworld with eyes wide open. I was greeted with stunning cinematography; the look of the episode is stunning, with its sprawling landscapes that perfectly captures the Wild West wilderness, the clinical nature of the laboratory and chilling, eerie basement where decommissioned robots were placed. There was both a intense intimacy in the scenes where Dr. Robert Ford and his team studied his creations and an epic grandeur, from Ed Harris's mysterious cowboy in black on the cliffs to the thrilling shoot out near the episode's climax. This world was utterly absorbing; a Wild West theme park on some futuristic world where rich people live out their fantasies while engineers craft humans, animals and stories? It's a stupendous idea delivered with utter conviction; not for a moment did I find myself torn away from the proceedings.
I love a great title sequence - it's definitely a dying artform - and the opening credits for Westworld were beautiful; humans and horses created out of a 3D printer, skeletal and gorgeous in equal measure, it perfectly captured the cold clinic nature of the world Anthony Hopkins' Ford had created. From there were were introduced to Rachel Wood's Dolores Abernathy, naked and broken as she is interrogated in a dark, clinic room filled with harsh light. As soon as her offscreen observer asked "do you ever question the nature of your reality?" I knew this was something special. A strong sci-fi theme tinged with horror; the fly crawling across her eyeball was rather disturbing and set the audience on edge from the beginning.
The first act plays out in this evocative Wild West world. Dolores wakes, filled with joy and wonder at the world she lives in, says goodbye to her father and wanders into town where James Marsden's Teddy Flood arrives on a steam train with other guests, ready to enjoy this experience. We get a glimpse at the show's core theme - a meditation on what makes someone human - as a fellow traveller recounts how he spent his first trip fishing and enjoying the sights before he went straight up evil for two weeks on his return. The idea that this place can let you live out your wildest fantasies - good and evil - is another unsettling aspect. Teddy it seems is one of the good ones, a man who came to Westworld before and found a connection with Delores.
There is a great connection between Marsden's Teddy and Wood's Dolores . She has no idea of what she is, a synthetic creation but she finds a bond with this guest and is filled with hope. The rest of this world is intricately established around them, the tavern prostotiutes led by Thandie Newton's Maeve Millay, the Sheriff recruiting men to hunt for the violent outlaw Hector and the hustle and bustle of life. But it is Teddy and Dolores's story that kept me hooked all the way up to the shocking, brutal moment where her father was murdered. Playing the hero, Teddy kills the two bandits while Dolores grieves over her father's body...and that's where Ed Harris's mysterious cowboy in black arrives. It is quickly established that guests cannot be harmed and the episode delivers its first thrilling moment as Teddy tries to shoot the man in black before he can drag Delores away and rape her. The brutality of this place is keenly felt, none more so than the first pulling of the rug from under the audience as Harris's man in black turns and shoots Teddy in the chest and drags Dolores into the barn screaming.
The pilot sets up Teddy as the hero - the guest falling in love with the synthetic woman who doesn't know she isn't real - and this first curveball is a great moment. Not only does it raise questions about who Ed Harris's character is (a sociopath that has been playing cowboy for thirty years?) but it also subverts everything that audience has learned up to this point. Teddy and Dolores wake up in the same position as before - two robots thinking they are human, playing their role as fake guest and local farm girl - playing out some form of twisted Groundhog Day for the amusement of the guests. When things play out slightly differently and Teddy joins a group of visitors rather than encounter Delores, it is Harris's cowboy that interacts with Delores as she shops for supplies in town. She has no idea of who he is, or that he has raped her on the same night on potentially many occasions and his comment "I'm afraid I have other plans tonight Delores" is insidious.
Only after that first twist do we start to encounter the big players; the men and women who shapes the narrative taking place within the theme park. Head of programming Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and his assistant Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) study the latest updates to the Angela Sarafyan's fake prostitute Clementine Pennyfeather, fascinated by her / it's newfound ability to play out old memories through her mannerisms. Talk of any robotic creation evolving beyond their programming is always a cause for concern (we've all seen The Terminator) but it is played very subtly. Something as simple as a robot prostitute biting her lip seductively can be a cause for concern, something that leads Lowe to meet with the master creator, Hopkins' Dr. Robert Ford, who has been tinkering with the design of each 'upgrade'.
The trip into the basement with the decommissioned dolls, is chilling, adding a gothic, nightmarish tone to the facility. I noticed the basement looked like an abandoned shopping facility straight out of a zombie movie - perhaps a chilling sign of things to come? Hopkins is on top form from the moment we first meet him, drinking with an older version of a cowboy 'Old Bill'. It's a creepy but effective scene, the actor playing Bill perfectly capturing the mannerisms of an old, decaying robot, his movements jarring and rusty. And I don't know why, but I found the idea of Old Bill zipping himself into a body bag raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
If there was a good mystery in what is happening with Ed Harris and the synthetic characters in the park, the drama unfolding in the laboratory was even stronger. It's standard robot-apocalypse fare; the scientists are worried about an upgrade making their creations act out of character, but never once do we see that transform into anything aggressive towards their creators...at least not in this episode. Westworld is playing a long game and there was already plenty in the pilot episode to keep me hooked.
The power play between Lowe and Simon Quarterman's Lee Sizemore added to the unease of the whole affair while their boss Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) managed the malfunctions with cold ruthlessness. Her conversation with Lee that there is the park the guests come for, the one the shareholders know and another agenda for management speaks volumes and is a great hook for future episodes. Knudsen stole her scenes; she wasn't an aggressive power bitch but she absolutely commanded every decision, every discussion. Quarterman needs to develop his character but was perfectly serviceable in his role and Wright delivered a very understated performance. I was really intrigued by the oddness of the scene where Lowe asked if he could record Cullen's angry eyebrow; there was something a little creepy about it that meant you could see him descend into a mad scientist role if the story took him there.
The malfunctions provided a good narrative and Delores's father Peter's discovery of one of the guests photographs serviced the potential journey towards self awareness well. Louis Herthum delivered a chilling turn after his eventual malfunction, conjuring up the former personality of a Shakespeare-spouting cannibal professor as Hopkins's Ford questioned his motives. The general sense of unease as characters like the Sheriff broke down added to the potential of a guest bloodbath, making the audience uneasy at every point. The final revelation that Delores was the original robot, reprogrammed numerous times added another nice mystery to the proceedings. She might have been restored to the park (with a different robot playing her father) but I wonder how long it is before she does start to question her existence.
I couldn't end this review without mentioned the spectacular shoot out, directed masterfully by Jonathan Nolan to a phenomenal orchestral version of Paint It Black. As I mentioned, I'm not usually a fan of Westerns but even I had to admire the skillfully choreographed fights and there was the opportunity for some well-placed humour too as Rodrigo Santoro's villain Hector failed to deliver the speech scripted by Sizemore as one of the guests took the opportunity to blow his brains out. The full face shot from Maeve to one of the bandits was another shocking moment for the audience.
The pilot episode of Westworld was feast for the eyes and the brain; an intelligent sci-fi show with twinges of horror and great mysteries on multiple fronts. What does Delores being the original mean? Just what is Ed Harris's mysterious man in black looking for? What is management's plan for Westworld? Will Delores and Teddy become self aware? What has the upgrade done and is this the last we've seen of Louis Herthum's chilling malfunctioning robot? There is so much to keep the audience hooked and I can't wait to see episode two...