Disclaimer: This review contains plot details / spoilers
Up until this point, Game of Thrones has been the only series I’ve watched (and reviewed) in real time as it unfolds on a week-to-week basis. Starting next week, I am adding to the list the brand new Westworld, which in fact has taken over GoT‘s HBO time-slot for the fall season. To catch up, I watched the first two episodes back-to-back last night. Here are some thoughts on these two excellent opening episodes, titled The Original and Chestnut respectively:
I Also Want One
In Westworld, Westworld is a western-themed park where humans can go and interact with artificial intelligence bots who are so incredibly real that they are practically human. These bots, called ‘hosts’, live vivid lives within the park, interacting with each other and the humans (newcomers) according to programmed storylines. A newcomer can join any of these storylines by interacting with a host – he can sign up for a treasure hunt against bandits, explore the wild west on horseback or strike up conversation with a pretty stranger. Humans being humans, most people seem to use the park to act out fantasies involving sex and/or violence. As one character says, “Every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.” Sounds pretty awesome.
The younger brother’s got it too. With all the great work he has done on his brother’s films, there has never been any doubt about Jonathan Nolan’s writing credentials. With The Original, he proves to be a damn good director as well. The opening episode is sleek and surehanded, and makes you wonder why Nolan Jr. doesn’t get behind the camera more often. Note: If you haven’t yet watched Westworld, make sure you are well-rested when you do. I watched the two episodes late at night after a long day, and the characteristically dense Nolan writing was sometimes too much for my tired brain to cope with.
Um, in case you thought GoT had too much nudity and violence against women – A female character is assaulted, beaten and raped within the first 15 minutes of Episode 1, and within 30 minutes, there are bare breasts all over the screen. Seriously, has HBO taken a pledge or something?
Machine > Man
It’s the earliest of days in the show’s run, but so far the AI ‘host’ characters in Westworld appear more sympathetic than the human ones. There’s definitely a suggestion that the humans have treated the hosts with callousness. “You’re in a prison of your own sins,” Peter Abernathy tells robot designed Robert Ford in an eerie scene. If a war were to break out in Episode 3, I’d probably side with the robots at this point. All the human characters appear cold-blooded if not outright nasty, with the exception of William, played by Jimmi Simpson. He is the most likeable human on the show so far – refusing to even virtually cheat on his (wife?), helping elderly hosts in the park and generally having a kind, gentle air about him. Characters like that survive very long on high-profile HBO dramas, right? I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.
Coming out of the first two episodes, I have many questions about Westworld’s mysterious characters. Most obviously, what does the Man in Black want? Surely the park authorities can see what he is up to, how come he is allowed such a free run? We know that Dolores is the oldest host, is there a deeper secret to her longevity? Ford’s intellectual refinement seems completely at odds with the crudeness of his park’s attractions – what drives this man? What is the nature of Bernard and Theresa’s relationship, and why is the subject of children a sensitive one for him? HBO has assembled a hell of a cast to play this fascinating bunch of characters. Ed Harris is at his steely best.Evan Rachel Wood switches between sweetness and pain with finesse. Thandie Newton is riveting, especially in Chestnut. Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins. There really are no weak links in the cast.
A Pop Cultural Feast
An intriguing aspect of Westworld is that within the show, a team of writers exists to create the storylines and dialogue for the AI bots in the theme park. It makes sense that these writers would be well-acquainted with the arts of the past, and this device cleverly paves the way for the show to use a rush of cultural references. When a character quotes Shakespeare or Arthur Conan Doyle, its easy to imagine that this was programmed in by a literary nerd on the Narrative team. The beautiful sets on the show may call to mind the westerns of John Ford or Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classics, but maybe we are meant to think that someone within the show designed them this way as an intentional cinematic homage. The music gets in on the act as well – an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones’s Paint it Black weirdly scores a shootout scene, but why not have a modern song in a futuristic show featuring a historically-themed park? Episode 1 even ends with a Johnny Cash song, which I read as a cheeky reference to the ‘Man in Black’. All this may be overly meta, but I can’t get enough of it.
The Next Game of Thrones?
Westworld has been in development for a while, and has had its fair share of financial issues and delays. However, now that its here, many people seem to be asking whether its the next Game of Thrones. The generous budgets, plus the fact that HBO handed the series the same prime timeslot that GoT holds in the summer is an indication of the network’s big ambitions for the show. With names like JJ Abrams, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on board, Westworld definitely has the creative arsenal to become a landmark series. I don’t see it becoming the global phenomenon that Thrones is, because (a) Things like that happen once or twice in a lifetime (b) Westworld seems to aspire to a narrative and philosophical complexity that doesn’t lend itself easily to mass hysteria. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong. After all, we do seem to love it when the Nolans mess with our minds.
Overall Rating: 4 / 5
Watch the promo of Westworld Season 1, Episode 3 ‘The Stray‘ here: