Westworld S01E01 Recap: 'The Original' [Series Premiere]
Despite how varied his success was, Michael Crichton's career could probably be summed up in a singular thesis: that humanity's everlasting quest to perfect technology for their own pleasure may very well lead to disaster. The most beloved and well-known example of that idea was Jurassic Park, the 1990 novel quickly adapted into one of the most memorable movies arguably of all time. But Jurassic Park was actually a later example of Crichton's fascination with this topic. First came Westworld, a 1973 film written and directed by Crichton himself early in his career.
The film, as well as the subsequent HBO drama series we're here to talk about today, are about a futuristic amusement park where androids are built to fulfill the fantasies of its attendants. Pretty much anything goes. Action, adventure, sex, murder. The androids are built incapable of hurting even a fly, their memories are reset every day and every action, no matter how big or small, from speech to body language to facial ticks, have been programmed by the engineers observing their every move. Much like they did in the film, and in Jurassic Park, things inevitably go terribly wrong as humanity oversteps its bounds and controls something it isn't ready to.
Jonathan Nolan, who has adapted Crichton's work here for the small screen, has seen somewhat of a similar career path, in that his ideas and obsessions manifest themselves in more grander and elaborate ways with every new project. You might best know him for his last name, and therefore his work with his brother Christopher, particularly in co-writing Chris' Batmam movies as well as Interstellar. Readers of this site probably know him from all the fawning I did over his CBS show Person Of Interest. Now, with Westworld, Nolan's creativity, his ideas, his attention to detail has seemingly come unhinged with the "fuck you" money an HBO budget has alloted him and the ability to put just about anything on the air without having to fear the dreaded network note, or the shadow of his brother looming over him. And similarly to how we can identify patterns in Crichton's work, you can see similar ideas carrying forward in how Nolan interprets it that make you realize why he may have been drawn with it. There's a similar fasnication with technology and how it's used, all throughout the films he co-wrote, and then on Person of Interest, which is a phenomenal show which deals with Artificial Intelligence in its infancy an the battle for its control and possession. On top of that, Nolan's work has a penchant for examining the everlasting battle between good and evil, and how humankind handles technology as a tool of power.
These things are all present in Jonah Nolan's Westworld, and in the hour and fifteen minute-long series premiere, The Original, you truly get to see the potential of how far those ideas can go now that Nolan has those things under his belt, and the backing of HBO on a very ambitious series. Westworld shows us that same struggle to handle technology that humanity might not be capable of controlling, that same battle between good and evil, the idea of artificial intelligence and its shortcoming, but amplified to a greater level, for example in how he sees things in shades of gray in that "good vs evil" things instead of the usual mostly black-and-white way it was presented in Person of Interest. Westworld also seems to be a show about the struggle or tenuous grasp on control of technology, as opposed to the battle for said control.
Of course it may be too early to seize too much from this first episode of the show, but Nolan and co certainly present it in an excellent, beautiful, awe-inspiring package. Westworld, for lack of a better term, just looks, sounds and feels fucking great. It comes to us after long production delays and problems, but it was worth the wait, as the world it presents us with feels lived-in. And it's fascinating, as every twist, every turn, seems meticulously crafted to surprise us.
The first flip in the script comes when James Marsden's character, Teddy, turns out to be not the hero of the story but instead on of the creations of this fictional world, designed and programmed to fall in love and meet up with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) every day of his existence for the amusement of the "Newcomers", the people visiting the town. There's Ed Harris' Gunslinger, a mysterious man dressed in black who reveals this to us by shooting Teddy and later scalps another local in an attempt to find deeper meaning in the "game" that is Westworld. The twists keep coming all the way through the very end of the episode, when after a glitch in the most recent software for many of the androids causes them to freak out and, in some cases, revert to previous roles in the park. Dolores' "father" gets decommissioned after creepily quoting Shakespeare to his creators (Jeffrey Wright and Sir Anthony Hopkins), but Dolores, revealed to be the oldest model in the park, gets to stay after her memory is wiped clean and she's deemed okay to return. However something that her father whispers to her corrupts her, and the final moment of the episode sees her do the one thing that the show has attempted to hammer home; that these robots wouldn't be able to hurt a fly, opening the floodgates to the disaster that's inevitable in this amusement park.
But it isn't only the story that's compelling. Westworld can simply be absorbed as an aesthetic. As mentioned, the show looks beautiful and the town lived in, but Nolan and co have exceptional attention to detail and it comes through in the tiniest ways. The early narration from Wright is as haunting as Peter Abernathy's Shakespeare recital to Dr. Ford. The music that plays over it adds to that, as do the instrumental renditions of very on-the-nose songs like "Black Hole Sun" and "Paint It Black" (as well as Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" playing proper over the credits). The balance of old west stories with modern guests and park managers with no filter is effectively perfect. The guests treat the townsfolk like objects, graying the concept of who you might root for as the androids might begin to revolt in future episodes, and the engineers and park managers and security live vicariously through their existence.
I also love that the show is very willing to be obvious and on the nose. The latter idea of vicariousness happens quite literally when Shannon Woodward's programmer character Elsie makes out with a new android just to see how realistic it feels. Wright's character Bernie heads to a basement of decommissioned models with the head of security, Ashley Stubbs (Like Hemsworth) and literal floodgates open as they walk open the doors to the elevator. Stubbs jokes about the cooling system being broken, but it couldn't be a more obvious sign of things to come.
In terms of story, "The Original" doesn't give us too much to bite on. It is, after all, adapting a two hour movie into ten episodes (or more, if they don't burn through the entire thing in one season), but it paces itself quite well. The real meat is in how it presents this world, how it convinces us not only about how it feels real, but also in how quickly it'll probably go off the rails. And if the shootouts, scalpings, and insane robotic behavior of this premiere are only the tip of the iceberg, then I can't wait to see how the rest of this plays out. "The Original" gets 9 glitchy robots out of 10.
Notes & Quotes:
- The cast of this show may be one of the best I've ever seen on a show. We already mentioned some heavyweights like Sir Hopkins, Harris, Wright, Marsden, and Evan Rachel Wood, but there are some great character actors here too like Thandie Newton, and others we haven't even seen yet like Jimmi Simpson.
- Interesting to mention how Bernie notes that the park has been operating without incident for over 30 years. Also very interesting to see Dr. Ford interacting with the older model, which looks markedly faker.
- "What if I told you that you were wrong? That there are no chance encounters. That you and everyone you know were built to gratify the desires of the people who pay to visit your world? The people you call the 'Newcomers.'"
- "Clearly it's exhibiting some abhorrent behavior." "Pretty fucking abhorrent, Bernie."
Until next time, may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber.