Westworld is HBO’s ambitious foray into sci-fi, hoping to mirror past success in crime and fantasy drama and achieve even more awards and acclaim in this golden age of television. But can this reboot really recreate the success of the original, or is it all just a simulation?
Westworld: “The Original”
Dolores sits motionless as she’s talked through regression therapy, reflecting on the untouched majesty she calls home and the exciting guests that regularly visit. Dolores, like all other hosts, are there to serve as actors in the fantasies their guests pay large sums to experience. Teddy, a new arrival to town, seems to indulge in this luxury, but the enticement of wild women on the frontier don’t attract his attention the way Dolores does.
Reunited, these two young lovers race back to Dolores’ ranch, only to find her parents murdered by a pair of bandits. Teddy quickly dispatches them with his lever-action rifle, but his bullets are impotent against a rapacious Man in Black. Teddy, it turns out, is a host, same as Dolores, and is incapable of harming the guest who kills him before dragging Dolores off to do as he pleases.
Westworld resets. Hosts resume their predetermined paths, and they’re monitored by a holographic diorama that gives a top-down view of the frontier as employees of Westworld proceed to process androids that come off the production line.
A new update, touched up and approved by Dr. Robert Ford, head of the company, has introduced new, more human gestures into the hosts that have Lowe entranced. Lines between man and machine are constantly blurred in this place. Some Westworld employees, like Elsie, are unable to resist the attraction of fantasy becoming reality and embraces hosts when no one is looking.
A possible disturbance in cold storage calls Lowe and security to walk among decommissioned androids and gynoids in search of a resurrected machine. They discover Ford reminiscing over the company’s early days with a janky, primitive host that struggles to share a drink with its creator.
Westworld, whatever it is now, isn’t the place he’d originally created.
Westworld resets. Guests get in the way of hosts, separating Teddy and Dolores. A tourist couple decide to get adventurous and join the town’s sheriff on the hunt for an infamous outlaw and his gang hiding in the canyons. They don’t travel far before the host bugs out, calling Theresa Cullen, head of operations at Westworld, to oversee the investigation over what’s gone wrong with one of their machines. While the recent update may be causing problems, Lowe assures her that all hosts are harmless to guests. Lee Sizemore, who leads the creative team, sees all this realism as the source of their problems. Who wants to interact with real people in a fantasy anyway? Why not roll back the hosts’ drivers to a state where they are little more than obedient robots there to serve? Theresa sees through Lee’s concerns as a way to wrestle power away from Ford and Lowe and won’t have any par of it. For now.
Another malfunction. The pair of bandits decide to shoot up a saloon, killing scores of hosts and frightening guests in the process. As Lowe investigates, Theresa isn’t entertaining his claims about a harmless update. All updated hosts are to be decommissioned and pull off rotation.
To assure the guests that the massacre was programmed, Lee has rewritten the infamous outlaw’s script to have him and his gang attack, put on a show that would give the massacre from the rouge hosts some explanation without causing a panic. Theresa withholds her applause.
Though a prudent move, Westworld’s employees hadn’t arrived soon enough to stop the Man in Black from abducting a poker dealer who he tortures on a canyon ridge under the blazing sun. The Man in Black bleeds the host before scalping him, revealing a labyrinth tattooed to its skin.
Dolores reboots along with her world. Her father is disgruntled, disturbed by a picture of a woman standing in Times Square. It’s aged and faded, but real. Neither of them can make sense of it, though he is clearly more disturbed by the artifact than his daughter. And he takes this opportunity to warn her through whispers of something evil approaching before locking into a fit that urges her to race from the ranch in search of a doctor.
She’s relieved to find Teddy in town. He’s more than willing to drop everything and help with her father, but before they can reach the doctor outlaws attack the saloon. After a brief massacre, and just before he’s about to address the town with a chilling speech, a tourist kills the outlaw and his lieutenant.
Westworld shuts down.
Ford examines Dolores’ father. The android’s malfunction, it turns out, is the result of drawing upon memories and personalities that had been deleted from this model. At an earlier time, Dolores’ father had been an occultist cannibal residing in the wilderness. The blend of that former self and the current program were conflicting, resulting in demented recitations of Shakespeare to Dolores. It’s enough to warrant his retirement, and he’s housed with dozens of other hosts unfit for Westworld.
Dolores, however, is revealed to be the oldest host of Westworld and perhaps too precious to keep out of their simulated reality. Instead, she’s reinserted, given a new model of father, and the ability to kill a fly, showing a true breach of her programming parameters.
The expectations tied to this re-imaging are pretty heavy. There are no shortage of people thinking Westworld could legitimize sci-fi for this era the way The Wire made cop shows legitimate dramas and Game of Thrones suddenly made fantasy mainstream. But betting on a pilot is always a shaky move, especially when that pilot is something of a mixed bag.
There are a few instances of overacting from some of the smaller parts that made me laugh, and there were a few too many instances of unnecessary exposition that bog down the pace of what’s here. If it turned viewers off to the show, I could see why. It really limited my first impression of a show I had no expectations of. That being said, there is something interesting taking place just beneath the surface that makes me want to keep watching.
The Man in Black confesses to the poker dealer that there’s some larger scheme to Westworld than he’s been shown. All the hosts move through simulated days, confident in the belief that they are just living their lives. They welcome guests to their little town who do all they desire, evil and benign, with no guilt because they’re not negatively affecting people. At least not real people. Clearly the genius that made this convincing simulation possible wouldn’t limit itself to an amusement park for the absurdly wealthy. There’s a deeper game to all this, and Westworld can’t help but scream it at the audience.
Theresa kind of bluntly states the grander intentions of the company when she tells Lee Westworld is amusement for guests, a return on investment to shareholders, and something secret to those in charge. This presumably excludes Ford and Lowe who appear to be the romantic geniuses that see something human in their creations. There’s something of a god complex these two share. Nothing malevolent is shown from them (yet), but a old photograph tucked away in and tearful visits with obsolete robots clearly illustrates a paternal connection to Westworld and the hosts.
Then we have the creations themselves, particularly Dolores and Teddy who are magnetically drawn to one another though their programming, but are clearly linked on a deeper level, echoing Dolores’ thoughts on destiny she ruminates over between resets. And her ability to break with that predetermination by being able to kill something alive suggests that she’ll break away more completely, challenging the intentions of the company and her creators, presumably being able to decide for herself.
Whether through updates from Ford and Lowe, decisions from a shadowy board, or the evolution of AI itself, someone is behind the malfunctions that are tipping hosts beyond the realm of things to beings. That, for now, is definitely worth the price of admission.
There’s a lot presented in the pilot, a lot of it alluding to Ghost in the Shell, even if their manufacturing process is more Vitruvian Man than Making of Cyborg (the process of making hosts is worth the watch). so we can expect a lot of philosophical exploration of the definition of humanity and self-determination. But that message is in peril of being lost by a show that has set a precedent of explaining things that are already understood by their target audience. It’s a handful of minor annoyances that would keep Westworld from reaching the bar people have set for it.
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