Review: Westworld Episode 1

“These violent delights often have violent ends.” These are the words whispered to Westworld’s protagonist, Dolores, as her seemingly human father begins to malfunction. She later recalls his words, sitting bare-skinned in a dark examination room, her head tilted to the side as a fly scuttles down her forehead onto the surface of her left eye.

The pilot of HBO’s new science-fiction western wastes no time delving into the everyday lives of the park hosts, artificial humans engineered to gratify the wildest desires of their guests. Each day Dolores awakens to a simple, charming life; she has a chance encounter with a man named Teddy, a man she loves who has been gone for an unknown period of time; she is fervent with relief and raw happiness, something simple and pure, characteristic of a time passed. However, by the time the sun has set, Dolores will have seen him shot and killed, along with her mother and father, by a human gunslinger clad in black, , She screams and weeps, unable to retaliate, in a nature that is too human for comfort – until finally, she awakens the next morning just as the last: her hair neatly spread against the sheets and a peaceful optimism in her eyes.

As the introductory episode continues, we’re introduced to the wise minds and ambiguous motives behind the park’s development and management . Here a central conflict that serves to raise more questions than answers creates a well crafted plot that immerses the viewer into Westworld without the typical rusty exposition that characterizes most pilot episodes: while management (as well as Westworld’s creators) seek to make money, they begin to fear an experience that is too human in nature. “Westworld works because it is not real,” one of the staff remarks. The park functions because the hosts are just human enough, sufficient for the guests to sin while still subconsciously aware of the absence of reality. On the other hand, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), continuously implement updates to the core code of the hosts that allows for subtle facial expressions and memory storage unique to human behavior. They view it as a chance to create something beautiful, and never stop to doubt if they should. It is a familiar theme reminiscent to the creation of prehistoric dinosaurs in Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park.

This conflict continues through the episode as management persistently attempts to gain control over the rights to the hosts and their code, insisting that the hosts are too human for safety and are an imminent, unnecessary threat to paying guests. They believe the guests can obtain an equally satisfying experience without continuously updating the hosts with increasingly lifelike deviations from their standard, programmatic storyline. Their opinions on the matter solidify when hosts containing the recent software update begin to target guests in cruel and unusual ways.

Meanwhile, the human gunslinger responsible for the nightly death of Dolores’ parents remains a mystery. He cannot be harmed by any of the hosts, as it is part of the machinery built into the weapons within the park. In a nod to the original film, the weaponry in Westworld will “kill” hosts, but fail to fire at a human. Although the initial shock arrives when the gunslinger first shoots Teddy, it is even more thought-provoking to consider Teddy firing back. In a world where robots are programmed never harm a living thing, surely a violent act of self-defense is unthinkable. Yet, the viewer feels a subconscious sense of justification when the insolence of guests or the malfunctions of the host put the visitors’ lives in danger. The frightening mishaps in the park that the guests experience seem deserved, like a righteous action of negative karma imparted onto them for their abhorrent treatment of a pure world.

Other subtle issues lie with the minor human thought processes exhibited by the hosts. The malfunction in Dolores’ father is triggered by the sight of a discarded photo of a woman standing in a bright, urban city. He cannot contemplate the meaning of the setting, but somehow understands that his world is not telling him the truth about life beyond the grass plains and small towns. When Dolores is asked by management about her will to harm a living thing, she states, “Of course not,” and, at the time at least, even a fly crawling along her skin elicits no response. These statements are all deemed uncertain, however, when she awakens the following day and stands outside, only to casually swat a fly that lands at the base of her neck.

Saturated with subtle themes, Westworld is off to a concrete start that fully immerses the audience in a western fantasy plagued by human reality we struggle as a society to acknowledge. With nine episodes remaining in the first season, a clever setup has left plenty of room for violence, mystery, and the exposure of basic human nature.