Westworld: Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Original”

Ethical conflicts between creator and created are just one aspect of Westworld's brilliant and epically ambitious first episode.

Perhaps a sign of the times as much as any recent popular culture artifact, HBO’s Westworld comes online around a hotbed election season and dichotomous civil revolt in the autumn of 2016. Westworld is a copy of a copy, a televisual adaptation of a cinematic adaptation of a literary meditation on the foundational themes intersecting science fiction and horror. Series showrunners’ Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy rely upon time-tested tensions between technological progress and sociological adaptation.

The drama itself has been in incubation for years (Beta-testing?), presumably until the “perfect” serialized formula emerged in alongside frenzied buzz-worthiness and zeitgeistiness. As with the first impressions experienced by its privileged visitors, this timely text appears to be worth the wait.

Westworld achieves consciousness at the opportune epoch, with its parable steeped in synthetic fantasy as reality, revolutionary artificial intelligence, and hyper-paranoia toward the postmodern surveillance state; a narrative convergence repackaged as cynical futurist capitalism. Contrasts between androids dreaming of consciousness and a fresh start — embodying the American Dream in revisionist frontier form — reversing oppositional qualities emerge between the android “hosts” and the robotic ambivalence communicated by the humans that control their actions.

Philosophical Visual Culture and Ideological World-building

The opening credits stress the futurism and science fiction of Westworld, lest audiences fear its immersion into the now-unpopular American Western film genre. Imagery includes human-scale 3D printing of bone marrow and muscle tissue, black hole-shaped suctions into a Western landscape, and numerous ocular overlaps to overtly communicate the visual rhetoric the series will lean on. Do the recurring retinas belong to the tourist park visitors? The creators? The androids? The televisual audience? It’s an open signifier for the iris to devour.

Lead genetic scientist Bernard Lowe’s (Jeffrey Wright) bravado baritone haunts the diegetic darkness. “Bring her back online.” A few lights come up, highlighting a nude female, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Dolores is as concealed as she’s revealed, enough that the audience understands the vulnerability of raw exposure without the excess gratuitous nudity that would otherwise distract narrative focus.

The female form sits up straight, yet limps motionless. The physical body is stone cold, gesturing like a ventriloquist dummy set against the wall. He continues, “Can you hear me?” We hear her startled response, the body still motionless in suspended animation. “Yes, I’m sorry I’m not feeling quite myself.” The male voice retorts coldly, “You can lose the accent. Do you know where you are?” As the camera cuts to a close up of her well-lit face, we hear her thoughts in response. “I’m in a dream”.

The audience can assume context at this point that the male voice is a controller or maker, a parental scientist or insider. His voice soothes her robotic alienation. “That’s right, Delores, you’re in a dream. Would you like to wake up from this dream?” A fly lands on Dolores’s face. It crawls across her forehead, her eyes open, head tilted down. Lifeless. The fly makes no impression. The body, after all, can’t feel. To again stress the significance of vision, the fly then crawls across her iris. No movement, no feeling, no human response.

Bernard: Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?

Dolores: No

Bernard: Tell us what you think of your world.

Dolores: Some people choose to see the ugliness of this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

Dolores: To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose.

This interchange clearly establishes the premise of HBO’s brave new drama Westworld, a serialized adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel and film of the same name. The tone set is one meant to convey existential philosophy, a prototypical convention of the thinking person’s science fiction.

Each camera shot glides slowly, haunting each take. Industrial atmosphere behind Dolores’s limp silhouette contrasts the dirty beauty of the outdoor Western landscape when she’s “awake”. The juxtaposition between the two settings is ironic, since the West signifies proximity to wilderness and natural beauty, while the darkly lit laboratories communicate mechanical isolation and techno capital.

Westworld Expansion

Dolores’s continued dialogue with Bernard overlays a formal introduction to Westworld. A young optimist Teddy Flood (James Marsden) rides into town on a train. The sun beats down on his face as the hope of the New World awaits him. Yet not every passenger shares the same idealist intent. Another couple banters to each other. The female companion responds, “Oh wow, it’s incredible”, just as her (possible) husband cynically reminds her, “It better be for what we’re paying”. In a single exchange, the audience gains context. This is the tourist destination of the present-future … in the past. Yet it’s not without cost, which underscores a sub-commentary that only the privileged class will gain access to this imperfect Eden.

The optimist Teddy takes a stroll up to the saloon counter on cue. He shoots a whiskey and takes it all in. A brothel madam (Thandie Newton) approaches, but Teddy shoots straight in a polite decline. His chivalrous intent is for another. Like clockwork, outside and across the dusty street, Dolores appears. He breaks for her and the two share a look. There’s a hint of déjà vu to their encounter; they clearly know each other, but aren’t close, share a history but a shallow one. The insinuation is Ted’s a park patron, a returnee gone smitten for the farmer’s daughter, albeit an android (but hey, who’s passing judgment?). The two share a sunset on their long horseback ride back to her country home; however, the romantic engagement is cut short when shots fire from afar and they return to find her daddy gunned down by bandits.

During this dark turn, Bernard’s Morpheus-pitched soliloquy voiceover returns: What if I told you that you were wrong, that there were no chance encounters? That you, and everyone you know, were built to gratify the desires of the people who pay to visit your world?

Bernard’s words are juxtaposed against Dolores’s broken heart at the site of her murdered father. The lead bandit, a Man in Black (Ed Harris) slaps her around and brags about his many visits to torture and murder (and rape) their family. Enter the hero, Teddy. The gunslingers draw on each other, and Teddy hits him right in the chest. The Man in Black stares him off, smiling. He verbalizes a written rule of the park: “newcomers” can’t be harmed by (android) hosts. The Man in Black then draws and shoots Ted dead where he stands. He then drags Dolores off to the barn where he will have his way with her, their reflected image visible through Ted’s dilating eye.

In effect, this 15-minute introductory prelude teases audience one utopic premise (along with faux hero), only to peal back the ugly reality created by the privileged few. The old man in black’s braggadocios sexual assault demonstrates a misogynist self-empowerment fantasy as a likely wealthy subscriber to this augmented reality. Upon second viewing, the scene plays all too eerily in light of recent political scandals involving certain presidential candidates and their self-confessed unhinged aggression toward women and entitlement toward their genitalia.

Repetition and the Surveillance State

The scene cuts to the next morning, a restart in the proverbial Groundhog Day fashion. As the same scenes repeat in a quick cut once again, the Western mise-en-scene pulls back to eventually reveal a benevolent laboratory of shadowy figures in suits and lab coats observing this world’s behavior, not unlike the gods of Olympus in Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans. Several pan-and-scan shots expand upon the scientific labs where each of the Westworld host androids are created. Two technicians (one of them Bernard) fondle over an updated model. They marvel at her uniqueness qualities, including “reveries” or “gestures tied to memories” … “a subconscious”.

From the onset, its clear Bernard’s many interludes provide context and exposition to expand upon the world of the series for audiences. Fortunately, actor Jeffrey Wright’s distinct elocutionary delivery and voice control hold a rich aesthetic affect that sells this role well. It’s notable that his pointed monotone delivery also stresses the inhuman qualities in the mad scientist horror tradition, yet Bernard is but a hired hand (albeit a brilliant one).

The true android and park creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) lurks deep beneath the cold damp metroplex. Notably, the scientists, techs, and militant security officers wade by an underground warehouse full of nude retired androids. The androids stand motionless. staring forward with no movement. Most are dirty, communicating their “retirement”. In stark contrast from previous HBO series like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, the nude bodies comprise all shapes and sizes and genders (at least the rejected ones). There’s no discrimination, only the visual markers of exploitation and dehumanization (or whatever derivative would apply to artificial lives).

Intertextual Amalgamations

Ford sits drinking in solemn with an old gunslinger still kept to his rustic Western duds. The two shoot whiskey like a couple of has beens. One of them, to be certain, is. Ford offers an interesting amalgamation of possible inspirations. On one hand, as a theme park entrepreneur and geneticist, he’s clearly cut from the stock conventions of Michael Crichton’s most well-known works, including Jurassic Park, Westworld, and Congo.

On the other hand, the overly ambitious nature of the park brings to mind the history of Walt Disney and the alleged hubris of his cryogenically frozen body. Ford dresses like a Victorian Victor Frankenstein and yet his (we can assume) American-esque capitalist spirit and ruthless business acumen summon the spectre of Henry Ford and the epoch of the automobile upon social, political, technological and industrial history.

Like clockwork (right?), it’s only a matter of time before a few minor glitches start to plague the android hosts. As the techies argue over percentages, it’s estimated that the glitches, while in theory minor, may infect up to 10% of the unnatural inhabitants. Meanwhile, Dolores’s father unearths a contemporary photo of a young girl standing in Time Square. The photograph haunts him to his engineered core. He can’t shake its implications, and is further troubled by his inability to make sense of this anachronistic artifact. This dissociation combines with the “reverences” glitches to create an inadvertent ripple effect.

Any consequences are supposedly nipped in the bud by a sort of park security Seal Team Six who perform shadow operations after hours, but we all know better. A high-priced serialized drama requires a necessary combination of teleological MacGuffin and narrative action to extend its own lifespan. After all, as Bernard would say, the text lives to satisfy a certain level of gratification and fantasy for those that inhabit its world. Guilty as charged. This is why in the closing shot of the pilot, we see the ripple effect take shape in the smallest possible way, as an innocent fly once again crawls across Dolores’s face, only to be swatted to death (literally) for crossing her.

Cerebral Crises

The next day, Dolores’s daddy loses his mind reflecting on the postmodern postcard he found in the dirt. He mutters to her, “I had a question, a question you’re not supposed to ask … Would you like to know the question?” In his madness, he confesses, “Hell is empty, and its devils are all here.” Daddy’s mental breakdown causes Dolores to race into town just as “Wanted” bandito Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into Westworld’s hub on horseback. His posse wreaks havoc upon the townspeople (including a hard to miss black sheriff’s deputy in an orange vest).

The graphic violence of the action sequence is heavily stylized in spaghetti western fashion. The score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi remixes classic sound with a light-hearted, almost John Williams-ian whimsy. The scene stands out as doing different kinds of Western work than that of either the darker scenes featuring the Man in Black, or the softer romanticized moments with Dolores and Teddy. Yet the scene can’t help but resolve in graphic violence, with a steaming six-shooter unloaded by a well-paying patron. The man chuckles at his own narrative resolution, having blown away the outlaw in cold blood.

It’s clear that director Nolan wants to establish Westworld as a genre-mixing sandbox with which the fantasies realized by its creators (in and out of narrative context) operate on both intertextual and extratextual levels. Such a gesture ups the ante in terms of what this text aspires to do, and how self-aware it is of the fandom-heavy footsteps it follows behind (as the would-be successor upon Game of Thrones‘ conclusion). Nolan and Joy, however, seem up to the challenge, with the production cabal of J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof lurking above like the chief security officer (Sidse Babett Knudesen) and next-in-line techie tool (Simon Quarterman) hanging out on the observation deck. As science fiction series constructed around artificial intelligence gaining self-awareness goes, this is about as meta as it gets. As the Man in Black tells his hostage after slitting his throat (but before scalping him alive), “There’s a deeper level to this game. You’re gonna show me how to get there.”

Intelligent Design

I would give this occasionally stoic but ambitiously epic pilot a 9 out of 10. However, the penultimate laboratory scene featuring Dolores’s father Peter “meet[ing] his maker”, reverence a digital recall of a former host life (yes, we’re counting reverence as a verb), and then undergo a subsequent lobotomy. The ethical conflict between creator and creation showcases the virtues and vices Westworld aspires to toggle between, and sews the seeds for the fall to come. To quote Robert Ford’s passing judgment, I eagerly anticipation observing “our old work coming back to haunt us”.

RATING 10 / 10