Westworld is a technologically advanced, Western-themed amusement park populated completely by synthetic androids dubbed “Hosts”, who cater to high-paying visitors dubbed “Newcomers”, who can do what they wish within the park without fear of retaliation from the Hosts. Free to explore every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, there hasn’t been an incident between host and newcomer in over 30 years.
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated tv series all year, and what has been dubbed in the press as a Game of Thrones replacement (it’s really not), Westworld has finally arrived on our screens. Can it possibly be as good as hoped?
Talk about a weight of expectation. Amid delays, rumours of unfinished scripts and plentiful reshoots, Westworld has finally debuted. And it turns out that there was nothing to worry about for not only is it good, it is an absolute triumph, a pitch-perfect, incredibly assured, thoroughly confident first episode that takes the basic storyline from Michael Crichton’s 1973 original film and remixes it with today’s sensibilities and entertainment choices, giving the viewer much to gawp at, guess at and be intrigued by. And with a cast that wouldn’t look out of place in any blockbuster at your local multiplex, it’s evidence that the second Golden Age of television may yet still be in its infancy.
With snatches of a conversation between thoughtful put upon tech-head Bernard and sweet, optimistic and virginal blonde host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) acting as a proto-voiceover, we’re introduced to Westworld, a fully authentic, completely immersive theme park modelled on the final frontier of 19th century America. As Teddy (James Marsden) arrives in town on the train, we’re given a brief tour of the place, the bar, the prostitutes (led by Thandie Newton’s Maeve) and the stories one is able to ‘play’ as a guest. As a returning visitor remarks, it’s all well and good to play the ‘white hat’, bringing the family and going prospecting for gold and the like but on his second visit, he went evil straight away. “The best two weeks of my life”. Indeed. Teddy meets Dolores; they set out on a ride together and she points out the ‘Judas steer’ in a herd of cattle, the leader that all the others blindly follow. Yep, that’ll be important later on.
We’re led to believe that Teddy is a guest, but just as the park itself, the real isn’t as real as you think. Arriving at Dolores’ home, the craggy, thoroughly evil Man in Black (Ed Harris) is revealed, a guest who’s been coming here for decades and is searching for the hidden parts. He starts to drag Dolores off, Teddy’s bullets bounce of him – a host cannot harm a living thing – and Teddy is shot dead as the man in black takes Dolores to the barn to be raped.
It’s here that Westworld deviates substantially from the 1973 original. Then, Yul Brynner was the man in black, a malfunctioning homicidal host out to kill the guests. In the 21st century it seems we are the bad guys, none more so than Ed Harris’ despicable guest, who later goes on to torture, scalp and kill another host to obtain a mysterious map hidden under its skin.
As each day reboots, Groundhog Day is an obvious comparison. But we are instead watching a near future video game, the host’s characters able to interact with pre-planned stories, lifelike responses and an ever-increasing array of emotions. Westworld’s creator, the elderly, brilliant and somewhat odd Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has spent years striving for automatons that are identical to humans and his latest update includes ‘reveries’, small gestures that feed off ‘memories’ from previous characters each host has inhabited. Some have been rebooted hundreds of times and this will be Westworld‘s MacGuffin, the point at which things begin to go wrong.
What’s with the flies? Several times they are shown crawling over a host’s face. A host cannot harm a guest or any living thing. Nor lie. So episodes end, with Dolores confirming this before absent-mindedly swatting a fly on her neck, is a masterstroke in show-don’t-tell storytelling genius; she’s just done both, and the guests will clearly be in trouble from here on in.
Hugely satisfying, giving just enough information without massive amounts of boring exposition that give everything away, Westworld is both a deplorable place and one you’d give almost anything to visit yourself, especially if you’ve ever played Red Dead Redemption. In our Grand Theft Auto world of no consequence gaming, this is a prescient look into our recreational (far) future. It’s a somewhat horrifying thought but as a pitch-perfect, high-tech tv show, it’s one hell of an accomplishment. We’re almost glad we can’t binge on it Netflix style; this is a show to saviour and take our time over. Follow it all here at XO.TV
- Spot the modern bands played on the bar piano, including Radiohead. A nice touch.
- If the control room and head-management are so involved with all the hosts and their stories, how come they don’t notice the Man in Black?
- Or maybe they just don’t care, this sort of uber-violence being commonplace in Westworld.
- Any show that has Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris yet wouldn’t suffer without them is something special. And both bring their A-game, as you would expect.
- It is all rather sexist. At least for the moment. Maybe different parks cater more toward female guests?
- The show has been planned for five seasons, should it prove popular.
- And it’s already HBO’s biggest audience for a series debut in years. So expect those five seasons.
- With J.J. Abrams as an executive producer and a mysterious map on the underside of that scalp, there are fears of a Lost-style mystery. Please no!