Before you saddle up, there’s a snake in your boot and spoilers in this recap.
Welcome to Westworld! Where the whiskey’s warm, the bullets are hot, and you might malfunction if a fly lands on your cheek.
This was a hell of an intriguing introduction to the ho-hum everyday workings of an insanely technologically advanced theme park populated by milk-batter clone slave things. “The Original” wasn’t so much a plot-heavy cudgel to the forehead as it was a stroll through the dead bodies on the high plains, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
Let’s start, as the show does, with the functional mechanics of the world that the sweet-as-cherry-pie Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) sees out her homestead window every morning. The show doesn’t want us confusing her for a human for even a second, shooing away any mystery or surprise that factoid might offer in exchange for a poetically creepy introduction to her charming smile in Westworld and her dead robot stare in real life. If you go back and rewatch it, her story throughout the episode feels far less like a robot waking up to new information, and far more like the old model we discover her to be playing the long-game.
She fights back a genuine emotional response when a young child points out that she isn’t real. She sacrifices her “father” when she sees him growing awareness (“breaching” as the scientists say) so that she isn’t found out. She lies right to her masters.
She isn’t Norma Jean. She’s Norman Bates. Never has slapping a fly resonated so loudly.
Behind the scenes, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is tinkering on the programming, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is keeping a firm grip on operations, Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) monitors security with a Muldoon-like hatred for nonsense, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) pretends to be a good writer, and head honcho Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins!!) acts wise and world weary. We learn how to build a horse and a human, and discover that Dr.
Lecter Ford is pushing beyond the stiff boundaries of robotics to find the nuance of humanity in the soft stroke of a prostitute’s lip.
That’s not to be confused with the stroke the Sheriff has later on, alerting the build team to the fact that the good doctor’s update wasn’t successfully integrated. Anyone with an iPhone can sympathize. You have to wonder how many of the robot Hosts don’t get updated because someone forgot to plug them in overnight. Granted, my iPhone has never left a man’s blood mixing with milk from a broken bottle on a saloon floor before.
Sure, Westworld has got glitches, but who doesn’t? Even funhouse mirrors crack sometimes. Even roller coasters sometimes kill their passengers. No one in the company seems all that worried about it even though they’ve got an army of malfunctioning flesh lined up in the neglected cold storage unit. Could winter be coming?
After being passively confronted with the error, Ford proves himself not to be a mad scientist. He isn’t maniacally rushing toward some perceived perfection. He’s curious, accepts responsibility and recognizes error as a necessary step in an evolutionary process that he contends has ended for mankind.
If nothing is all that messy up top, it gives wealthy visitors playing cowboy even more incentive to get dirty.
Nothing illustrates the pitch black nihilism of the first episode like Teddy Flood (James Marsden), a chivalrous, empty husk of a being, listening as a group of rowdy visitors casually suggest that they can murder him if they get bored with him. People come to this place to have fun and sin in ways they can’t back home without the law or their conscience weighing on them. It’s a theme park powered by disposable humanity, a concept brought into sharper relief in the age of video games. On any given day you can choose to kick around the town or join a side quest to hunt down a bandit hiding in the hills.
Teddy–with his cliche swagger and hollow romantic bravery–seems like the furthest from sentience, but that’s the trick of Westworld, where an offhand look makes you question what’s going on inside the servo-loaded mind of these manufactured humanoids.
Which is why it’s especially fitting that the scientists choose to solve their problem with a recall. All the pretty-eyed beings of Westworld may as well be faulty Toyotas with exploding airbags, taken back behind the scenes after a stagey attack from wanted mustache-twirler Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), who never gets to deliver his probably-terrible monologue because a doughy visitor finally gets his money’s worth by using a bullet to become a hero.
It’s one of the most intentionally subdued action sequences in all of prestige television–a chance to show off some stunt work and heighten tension that’s delivered as the cold, clinical, appliance shut down that it is. The thrill is meant for visitors to Westworld, the park, while visitors to Westworld, the show, like us, get to see the existential undercarriage.
As the run-of-the-mill mass murder all plays out, Dolores’ father Peter (Louis Herthum) is having an android panic attack, puzzling over a photograph left behind by a modern visitor, and gaining access to his old programming. He’s our first glimpse into a dark, yet unsurprising, truth about this world: as Hosts ride through the uncanny valley, they can come out the other side with something that looks like self-awareness.
Which leads us ultimately to the big question mark of the episode. Ed Harris–making an ironic departure from acting as God to The Truman Show–plays The Man in Black, a figure who first appears to be an experienced howdy-do-dat reveling in the sadistic delights of the theme park. He murders Teddy after a surreal gun “fight” and drags Dolores off to have his way with her (which probably doesn’t mean what we assumed it to mean), then kidnaps a poker dealer in order to conduct some experiments on him to see what makes him tick.
The Man in Black is searching for answers, and he may have gotten one with the circuit board scalp he cuts away, but it’s still unclear whether he’s Slugworth trying to steal the recipe for a Gobstopper or if he–like his Yul Brynner costuming suggests–is another Westworld robot gone rogue. If he’s the former, he’s incredibly well-funded. If he’s the latter, why haven’t Ford, Bernard or Theresa noticed him yet?
SOME STRAY THOUGHTS:
- Ford is really not into corporate communication. He adds elements to an update that Bernard has to guess at, and he fools around in the cold storage horror show without informing security he’ll be down there. What’s this guy like at the company Christmas party?
- Not casting Sam Elliott as the first-gen, whiskey-swillin’ salt has to have been the smartest, hardest decision this production had to make.
- Do the guests not get pulled out of the fantasy when the pianola plays “Black Hole Sun”? Are we so far in the future that they think Soundgarden is from 1892? That and the “Paint it Black” bandit attack prove this show is willing to mess around with music.
- How terrible is Sizemore (who I had to call Yelling British Guy until they said his name)? That dude is either prime to do something noble within the next few episodes or hump his way over to Xerxes to betray the Spartans.
- Also, is Dolores’ saying “We’ve only just begun” to Teddy even more proof that Sizemore is such a hack writer that he has to crib from Carpenters songs? The answer is yes.
- Programming stops the Hosts from harming humans, but what’s to stop gun-toting visitors from hurting each other?
Did you visit Westworld tonight? Giddyup to comments below and share your thoughts.