Westworld - "The Original" - S01E01

Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie Westworld is one of those quietly influential sci-fi movies – not particularly successful around the time of its release, but a kind of foundation for other, more popular films. Its story of an android-populated theme park gone wrong inspired Crichton’s own Jurassic Park. Yul Brynner’s role as the movie’s antagonist – the cold, unstoppable Gunslinger – serves as the origin of the Terminators, slasher movie villains, and other murderous forces of nature plaguing other movie characters. And now its legacy continues, with a modernized TV version, created by Person of Interest’s Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

(Spoilers beyond this point)

Similarly to the movie, the series is set in an Western-themed park populated by androids, here called the Hosts. The guests, called Newcomers by Westworld’s robotic denizens, pay enormous amounts of money to live a day like they used to in the Old West. Or at least, how they imagine it – as in the movie, the park’s setting is inspired by films and other visual media rather than historical accuracy. The show’s version is more modern than the cinematic original, inspired by newer westerns like the True Grit remake, or HBO’s own Deadwood – just gritty enough to seem real to rich assholes, not enough so they lose interest and leave.

The park can also be interpreted as a take on a more modern form of entertainment – an open-world, sandbox-style video game, like a tactile version of Red Dead Redemption. The Hosts, like NPCs, follow their daily routines, unchanging except for when the players (i.e., the Newcomers) engage them. Guests have an entire area to play around with, to test the limits of the game-world – to play as a saint or a villain. There’s even a main quest, with participants joining the town’s sheriff’s posse to roundup them bandits – a questline which, per sandbox game tradition, can be ignored in favor of just having fun.

Well, "fun" is debatable. The park allows its visitors more freedom than any game ever did, practically limited only by their imagination. This lets them kill, maim and rape any of the Hosts to test the limits of their freedom, and none of the androids will remember anything the next day – which is especially cruel, as these victims are literally unable to hurt a fly, or any other living thing. The movie used malfunctioning robots as its villains – the show has no illusions and just shows humans as the real abusive monsters. The series' version of the film's Gunslinger that Ed Harris is playing? He’s not one of the Hosts – he’s one of the customers.

The show chooses to demonstrate this by having him abuse the setting's endless possibilities by raping one of the female Hosts (Westworld's de facto entrypoint into its world, Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood). There's something to be said about the use of rape as way of showing a character's villainous nature – it's old, tired, and often repulsive. The episode (co-written by Lisa Joy, one of the show's creators) does not seek to titillate, opting instead for a more sensible approach: the Gunslinger drags Dolores into the shed, closing the door behind him, leaving everything else to our imagination, thereby making his behavior and character even more horrific. Even more horrifying is the next day, when Dolores, having her memory wiped, meets her rapist, acting in a more humane way towards her – but not out of remorse. He's bored with her, and just lets her go to look for other, new attractions.

This reminds me of the Channel 4/AMC show Humans. Early on in last year's first season one of its sapient female androids, Niska, ended up in an android brothel ran by a female owner, where men used the human-looking robots however it pleased them, and often in abusive ways. After a short while Niska had enough, killed one of the brothel's patrons, and upon leaving, informed the owner that "What your men do to us, they want to do to you." Westworld similarly showcases what men are capable of under such circumstances, and questions the system that allows them to cut loose.

The system is begging for something that will cleanse it, and the portions devoted to people working behind the park's scenes are already setting up its downfall. The recent update is causing serious malfunctions of the Hosts, making them buggy (in fairly disturbing looking ways) and, in some cases, altering their programming to go off-script – all seemingly thanks to Reveries, last minute additions to the update courtesy of the park's mastermind, Dr. Robert Ford (played in an understated manner by Anthony Hopkins). The team, led by Ford, head of programming Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright) and head of security Ashley Stubbs (played by Luke Hemsworth), is apparently able to fix everything, but the update has planted seeds that will likely cause the entire park's downfall. Remember how I wrote that the Hosts aren't supposed to be able to hurt living things? Take a guess at what Dolores does in the episode's final moments, following all the madness that happened in the panicked rush to debug their robotic staff.

In the movie, the unraveling of the park was a horrific event, and the rebelling android was its villain. Here, it's set up as a deserved and desired end, and the android is the hero we cheer in achieving that end.

But that's, presumably, the end goal of the first season – if the show's creators want to make it to the reported five, there has to be more meat to the story. That's what "The Original" also sets up. There's a scene in the middle, where the abrasive narrative director Lee Sizemore (played by Simon Quarterman) pledges his support to the terse chief of operations Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, whom you might know from Dannish political drama Borgen), suggesting there's some other goal for the entire operation, bigger than entertaining "rich assholes." He's right – but that's all he's able to figure out. It could be related to the phrase that seemingly started unlocking Dolores's consciousness, one that has been used in the show's marketing – "These violent delights have violent ends." Meanwhile the Gunslinger, bored out of his skull from Westworld's regular attraction, is searching for a deeper layer of the game – one that's connected to a labyrinthine symbol on the inside of a Host that he's killed.

While mostly interested in worldbuilding and setting up future mysteries, Westworld's opening hour is an intriguing offering. It's very much an equivalent of a movie's first few minutes, aiming to interest us in investing our time and attention in the full story. I'm very curious to see where it goes from there.

Dominik Zine is a nerdy lad from northeastern Poland and is generally found in a comfy chair with a book in hand.