Monday, October 3, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - The Lines Between Reality and Fantasy Start to Blur for Everyone in 'The Original'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.01 "The Original"

As a day of fantasy plays out in Westworld - a park where guests pay top dollar to share adventures with android "hosts" - programmer Bernard Love alerts park founder Dr. Robert Ford about incidents of aberrant behavior cropping up in some recently re-coded hosts. A rancher's daughter encounters a gunslinger in the street - but their predictable narrative is upended by the appearance of a ruthless man and a host's unscripted encounter with an artifact of the outside world.

HBO needs Westworld to be a hit. There was so much buzz heading into this premiere. But the show itself has had a long road to get to this point. It's been a long and arduous production process. Those behind-the-scenes troubles could indicate some problems with the overall narrative of the series. That's troubling to think about heading into this premiere. But again, HBO needs Westworld to work. It needs to prove that it can do more in the drama realm than Game of Thrones. Yes, it also has The Leftovers and The Night Of. But Game of Thrones is really the network's only big drama hit. Westworld needs to make a splash to prove all the naysayers wrong about HBO being in a slump right now. This premiere is a dazzling and entertaining achievement. Yes, it does have its problems. But those are an inherent part of the establishment of the series. The repetition needs to occur in order to establish the rules and limits of this world. This is a huge premise to sell. It could be difficult for many viewers to latch onto. It could also be off putting to some who see this as yet another prestige cable drama that uses rape as an inciting action for story. But this premiere establishes a mood and tone that are quite enthralling to watch play out over the extended running time.

The story opens with top programmer Bernard sitting android host Dolores down to have a conversation about her life in Westworld. He asks her if she has ever questioned the nature of her reality or become bothered by the repetition in her life. This show intends to explain human consciousness in a refreshing and new way. Dolores sees repetition as a part of normal human existence. To an extent, that is true. Of course, the repetition of Dolores' life is so much different than anything in humanity. She is in a world where the guests pay top dollar to live in a wild west setting with the hosts. The guests know the truth about the hosts but the hosts only see the newcomers as a welcome and different addition to their world. Spending a day in Westworld costs a lot of money. The people who shell out that kind of cash are then able to do whatever they want in the locale. The hosts follow a routine. They have storylines that are intricately composed. But at any given point in time, a guest can interrupt those plans and add their own spin on the story which everyone else then has to adjust to. These actions can at times be violent and horrifying. That adds to the appeal of the experience of Westworld. The guests can kill and rape without any consequences. But of course, that opens up a whole new discussion.

Whether or not the hosts can actually feel or remember the pain they experience, the audience does. Dolores shares an epic and familiar love story with a gunslinger named Teddy. She's the daughter of a rancher who paints pictures of her beautiful surroundings while he is a rogue just returned to town to win the heart of his true love. Each day opens with the same routine. Dolores wakes up and shares pleasantries with her father. In town, she has her big reunion with Teddy. This happens three times in the premiere. And yet, each time is different. It follows the same pattern and structure. But it's also clear just how adaptable this world has to be to the guests. In the beginning, the story plays with uncertainty and mystery over who is a host and who is a guest. Teddy feels like a human coming to town on the train just like everyone else. But instead, he's revealed to be a host as well who can die in epic and tragic fashion over and over again. And then, his chance meeting with Dolores can be stopped just when a guest wants him to show his buddies around town. This shows how flexible and open to improvisation the hosts need to be. But it's also particularly brutal when Teddy and Dolores' father are killed and she is raped by a man who wants her to fight. Those are some harsh themes to hit right away in this premiere. The show doesn't shy away from them either. It wants the audience to question the morality of these actions. These are androids whose memories will be cleared every single day. But they still look like humans. Plus, their codes are getting better and better with each passing day. So it becomes a question of how much of these actions do the hosts actually feel? That's very important for the structure of this premiere.

It becomes clear early on that there are some glitches in the new update. The folks behind-the-scenes are just as important as the hosts who entertain the guests. Bernard and the park's founder, Dr. Ford, are obsessed with making the hosts as close to humanity as possible. Dr. Ford may have bigger ambitions than it initially appears. He's the source behind the new glitch simply because he put in a new piece of code. But it's clear these people are afraid of creating sentient beings who will rise up against them. It's not surprising that a story about artificial intelligence revolves around the machines forming a collective consciousness with the potential to destroy humanity. It's a hallmark of this particular genre. And yet, some of the most chilling and effective moments of this premiere come when the various hosts start malfunctioning. All it takes is seeing a picture from a guest for Dolores' father to start questioning his reality. It's the one thing the hosts are not suppose to do. But it's clear something is going on that should cause concern for everyone involved. The programmers may not learn the scope of this problem until it's too late. The creative team behind the show hopefully won't make the same mistake though. This is an intriguing premiere that uses repetition in order to build the world and the rules. But repetition and familiarity can't be the tools to drive story for a whole season.

All of this makes it so engaging once it's revealed that Dolores is the oldest host in the park. She's been around longer than anyone else. So, if there's going to be a rising of the machines, it will more than likely start with her. The premiere opens with the chilling sight of a lifeless Dolores with a fly wandering around her face. It's a recurring theme throughout the hour. The hosts do not sense the fly and thus do not swat it away. They instead are sticking to their stories and working to make an enriching experience for the guests. Dolores isn't pulled out of rotation just because her father starts questioning his reality. She is still able to play her part. She's in town during the big robbery of the local pub. She watches Teddy die yet again from a bullet to the chest. The world is changing around her and she is still working flawlessly. That's how it appears to the programmers. Head of security Stubbs is more worried about an uprising than anyone else. He's the one who conducts the final interview with Dolores to get as much information as possible as to what went wrong with her father. In the end though, she's able to fit back into her story. She continues to play her part even though someone new has now stepped in as her father. She's still a part of this world. But then, the premiere closes on a fly landing on her neck. She then kills it. That shows that she'll continue to be important throughout this season which is such an incredible and ominous final tease for this opening hour.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Original" was written by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy and directed by Jonathan Nolan.
  • The Man in Black doesn't really work at all. Ed Harris is a phenomenal actor but that character just feels so out of place. It's a big reveal that he's actually a guest. But he's trapped in a weird subplot where he's searching for a hidden game within the park. Plus, he's represents the show's most violent tendencies which it doesn't handle so well here.
  • Beyond the Man in Black, the guests really aren't important at all. The story of the premiere largely focuses on the hosts and the programmers. It's an experience that goes hand in hand. The guests largely just get in the way of what's suppose to happen.
  • Dr. Ford understands that mistakes are how the human race moves forward. They need to be made in order to evolve. He has the same mentality with the hosts. Plus, he's not too worried about the flaw. Yes, it's troubling when Dolores' father slips back into a former character. But it's an issue with an easy solution of putting him out of commission.
  • Sizemore is the writer of this universe. He's heavily invested in watching the stories play out as he has envisioned them. Perhaps one day we'll be able to hear the epic monologue he wrote after Hector robs the bar. 
  • Theresa is the representative of the company that owns Westworld. She wants to be informed immediately whenever a glitch appears. She has a keen eye on this program. Plus, her company may have bigger dreams for the hosts than simply being entertainment for rich and entitled people.
  • This is such a terrific cast. However, Evan Rachel Wood has the most difficult character to play. And yet, she nails absolutely everything she does here. It's a phenomenal performance that only gets better and better as the premiere goes along.
  • Plus, there are a few actors who don't get much to do here but hopefully will get more promising material later on. Again, this is a show that stars people like Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden and Anthony Hopkins!