[This is a review of the Westworld series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
“Good things come to those who wait.” That idiom is particularly appropriate to anyone anticipating the premiere of HBO’s Westworld when it was announced and the pilot was filmed in 2014. Since then, the series has embarked on an unorthodox pre-release publicity campaign that reportedly included a scandalous casting notice suggesting inordinately high levels of debauchery to be depicted in a show where excess and privilege is a major component of the text. Meanwhile, halfway through the first season, production was halted as the immense scope of the project and its blend of genre elements from both the Western and science fiction realm became something co-creator, writer, and executive producer Jonathan Nolan referred to as an “avalanche [of production requirements]”. Now, almost two years after HBO began the journey to bring a modernized take on Michael Crichton’s 1973 proto-Jurassic Park film back to television for a deeper, more existential inspection of humankind’s hubris and the pursuit of entertainment gone wrong, the series is ready for its premiere.
Westworld begins with a bang. ‘The Original’, which sees Nolan direct and co-write along with Lisa Joy Nolan, functions somewhere between television show and unsettling theme park ride. The narrative’s fractured timeline follows ostensible series protagonist Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) as she goes about her days repeatedly playing out the loop written for her as one of the parks many semi-autonomous “hosts” or artificial life forms created by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his team which includes the great Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, a scientist and seeming heir apparent to Ford’s technological legacy. Dolores’s existence is summed up nicely in a Memento-like series of repetitious events, some of which include James Marsden’s cowboy Teddy Flood while others include the parks’ many guests – like Ed Harris as the Man in Black and later Jimmy Simpson’s surprisingly considerate William.
From the start, Nolan uses events to play around with the idea of control – who has it and who doesn’t – and Dolores’s cyclic, dreamlike existence quickly puts her in the latter. The character work is fascinating, as it doesn’t require much from the story or from Woods for the audience to understand the growing schism between Dolores and her circumstances – even if she’s not entirely aware of them herself. The horrific implication of her initial run-in with the Man in Black and the reveal that Teddy is a host, and not a guest as his initial introduction on the train, and later, his interaction with Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay would suggest, begin her story and the story of every character playing a part in the massive theme park.
More crucially to the success of the series, though, the horrific events that introduce Dolores also begins the series’ examination of entertainment, the pursuit to push boundaries and create curated experiences for consumers that reject the idea of surrendering to art in order to remain transfixed on the idea of the self. And lurking just under the surface of that desire for a personally curated entertainment experience, the show attempts to wrestle with concerns of sex and violence as entertainment versus exploitation. It very smartly tackles this in chilling fashion, introducing characters created for the express purpose of entertaining the park’s guests who are engineered to be so lifelike they are indistinguishable from the real thing, and yet they are denied consciousness. The duality of the hosts – they are given a role to play but remain unaware the true nature of their reality – mixed with the duality of the guests – they are encouraged to unburden themselves of the façade of their everyday lives and to indulge every fantasy no matter how deranged or debauched upon entry into the park – creates a compelling angle from which to examine the conceit of the series while also attaching an implicit and unnerving subtext to depictions of sex and violence as engines that drive storytelling in popular entertainment.
In some ways, Westworld aims to be about the way viewers reconcile with the content of the entertainment they consume. In the first hour alone there are several shootings, a stabbing, and more than one implied sexual assault. It’s the sort of thing that would (and will) likely launch a thousand thinkpieces about objectification and representation. But the essence of Westworld is about objectification taken to a fictional extreme. An examination of the culture of violence and the role media (a very specific kind of media, but still) plays in the transmission of that culture is baked into the series’ DNA, making the show’s subtextual interest in accountability and more overt depiction of privilege, shifting social norms, and the lingering effects of trauma an interesting addition to a series that’s also tasked with being an entertaining spectacle capable of viewer engagement on par with Game of Thrones.
As entertainment becomes increasingly about spectacle and how the next big thing must always be bigger and better and drive more profit, Westworld doesn’t forget the appeal of exhibition, even when the show is perhaps a little critical of that aspect of the business. Throughout the premiere (and the first few episodes) the series is contained entirely within the ambiguous confines of the park itself. But the manner in which the production depicts the park and all its subsections patrolled and controlled by Ford and Lowe and engaging supporting players like head of operations Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), or Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), is such that almost every scene finds a way to call attention to the sheer size of the place. Early on, Stubbs and Lowe head down to subbasement 82 to investigate some activity and find a vast warehouse full of decommissioned hosts standing eerily next to one another in the dark, their naked skin wan and glossy in the atmospheric lighting. The scene is intended to demonstrate how long the park has been up and running, and the history Ford shares with his creations (an unsetting rendition of Wild Bill Hickcok in this case), but it also hints at the autonomy Westworld enjoys from the larger world beyond its apparently vast borders.
All of this adds up to a dramatically satisfying premiere that establishes HBO’s next big thing while promising big things to come. The series might have had a rocky start, but by the end of the first hour it is clear that sometimes it just takes a little longer to make something great. And Westworld is great.
Westworld continues next Sunday with ‘Chestnut’ @9pm on HBO.