Westworld – S1E1 – “The Original” | Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Rodrigo Santoro, Simon Quarterman, Luke Hemsworth
A theme park is only as good as its attractions and Westworld offers ones unlike any ever seen, allowing its guests to live out their fantasies, good or bad. A stagecoach deposits guests (called Newcomers) in Sweetwater, an Old West town with all the fixings: a saloon, brothel, sheriff’s office, homesteads, prairies, and canyons. Its main draw are the extremely lifelike robots (Hosts) designed to give the Newcomers a fully immersive experience. Their programming determines their roles and they play out the same scripts and scenarios each day before they are wiped at night to start afresh the next day.
Our first experience in Sweetwater is through the eyes of two of the Hosts: Delores (Wood) and Teddy (Marsden). Every morning Delores exchanges pleasantries with her father, the ex-sheriff, rides into town, encounters Teddy, paints in a field, and returns home to find her parents slaughtered by bandits. Teddy arrives on the stagecoach each day, giving the Newcomers their first look at the automatons before they even arrive at the park. They’re both programmed to be in love, but more than that, to believe they are destined for one another.
Sweetwater is dusty and gritty, but the complex where the park is managed is anything but. Behind the scenes it’s all rooms with glass walls, giving everyone a clear view of the robots (human and animal) as they’re created, reprogrammed, and tested.
As the series begins, the head of programming, Bernard Lowe (Wright) notes the park’s owner and creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Hopkins) has snuck in a new code in the robots’ latest update. It allows them to briefly access previous codes (personalities, scripts, etc.) and then perform a gesture associated with it. For instance, accessing code in which a Host kissed someone might cause it to caress its bottom lip. Essentially, Ford has given them memories.
They begin to fear the new update may have something more sinister when the Host sheriff malfunctions while leading a couple on a quest to track bandits in the canyons, and another goes off-script shooting other Hosts and pouring milk everywhere. To pull all of the Hosts that received the latest update (200) would cause a massive disruption in the narratives they’re currently fulfilling for the Newcomers, thus ruining their experience. The decision is made to deploy a heist scenario weeks ahead of schedule, upping the Host body count to include all of the updated models (including Dolores and Teddy) so they can be assessed and either put in cold storage or placed back into the park.
It’s through the evaluations that we get a deeper understanding of the park’s process. The Hosts are asked questions designed to ascertain how aware they are of their surroundings and what it means. When asked by Lowe what Dolores thinks of her life, her world, she responds as a hopeful young woman who sees the good in everyone and believes anything is possible. She’s happy to share her beloved town with the Newcomers, hoping they see it as she does. Even when Lowe proposes that it’s all fiction and that she exists solely to please the Newcomers and their fantasies, Dolores rejects that idea and sees only the best in Sweetwater. In case you have any question as to whether or not the executives and creators view the Hosts as anything more than machinery, the Hosts go through these processes completely nude.
The malfunctions and how to deal with them also allow us to learn about the programmers and what their motivations might be going forward. Scriptwriter Lee Sizemore (Quarterman) believes the park works because the guests know the Hosts aren’t real. They feel better about raping, robbing, and killing them because they believe it doesn’t matter. He’s opposed to Lowe’s efforts to make the Hosts increasingly more real, and even suggests rolling them back to older, less realistic models.
Theresa Cullen (Knudsen), whose executive role remains unclear, worries that the glitches could become more serious; while Lowe insists that as long as their core code (which prohibits the Hosts from hurting another living thing; they won’t even shoo away a fly crawling on their eyeballs) remains intact, all will be fine.
Of course, he’s wrong.
Dolores’ father, Mr. Abernathy, finds a photo buried in the fields of their property; it’s a woman in Times Square. Unable to process what he sees, he breaks down. During his evaluation, he accesses old code causing him to tell Ford, “You’re in a prison of your own sins.” He is quickly wiped and placed into cold storage and replaced by a different model. The next morning, Dolores greets her new father without so much as a stutter in her dialogue.
The park holds another danger in the form of The Man in Black (Harris), who has been coming to the park for 30 years. “The Original” sees him killing several Hosts, including Teddy, raping Dolores, and then kidnapping, torturing, and scalping another Host, Kissy, for information. What he seeks, we don’t know.
There’s a lot to explore with this series. No one comes off as particularly “good” or “right.” Those who run the park may not take issue with how the Hosts are treated, but they’re fully aware they’re providing a space for people to be their worst selves. One could argue that allowing them a place to act out their most depraved fantasies is therapeutic, and that it may stop them from acting out “in real life.” But the point could also be made that these experiences may eventually encourage the behavior away from the park. And what does it say about people that these kinds of fantasies exist? Pretending you’re helping rid a town of evil bandits is one thing, but rape and murder are another.
And, of course, we have the Hosts. Are they becoming sentient? But if not, is allowing them to access old personalities and experiences not the same thing? If so, what could Dolores – the park’s first and oldest Host – have in store for her creators and tormentors? We know Harris’ character has been visiting for 30 years so she has to be at least that old. That’s a lot of interactions with humans; plenty of “memories” to access. She passed her evaluation, and was placed back into her current narrative, but the way she kills a fly on her neck with quick precision implies we may not be able to trust the results of those evaluations.
There’s a lot to love here. The acting, as you’d expect given the players involved, is top-notch. There’s something sweet and vulnerable, yet terrifying in Woods’ portrayal of Dolores. The two main stages are so unique you definitely feel like you’re watching both a western and a science fiction movie, yet they also fit together perfectly. And the premiere raises more than enough questions to ensure you’ll be coming back each week.
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