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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Westworld examines the ghost in the machines

Illustration for article titled iWestworld/i examines the ghost in the machines
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Most of the time, we’re rooting for the robots. Oh, there are exceptions: your Terminators, your Brainiacs, your Eves of Destruction. But putting aside the obviously homicidal, most stories featuring pre-fabricated humans encourage us to have at least a little sympathy for the machine. In the original Westworld, Michael Crichton’s daffy, grim, surprisingly endearing 1973 thriller, we were rooting for the guests—men and women who paid good money to indulge their role-playing fantasies in a park populated by supposedly automatons designed to gratify their every whim. As always with Crichton, there was some critique of man’s hubris (the scientists in charge of the park die when the automatic door for the control room seals them into an airless room), but by the time Richard Benjamin is running away from a seemingly unstoppable Yul Brenner (“Draw! Draw! Draw!”) it’s clear where one’s loyalties were supposed to lie.

And yet even then, there’s some pathos for the ’bots. The machines in the original movie aren’t really allowed a perspective on events. Unlike the television series reboot, there’s no effort to suggest any of them have internal lives. That’s what makes them so weirdly compelling. It’s impossible to watch something mimicking sentient life without wondering if the imitation is hiding more than it lets on. By the time the inhabitants of the park started turning on their masters, it was possible to imagine it as a kind of revolution, even though there was little in the actual text of the film to suggest this was the case. In a vacuum of meaning, we provide our own, and we root for the robots because deep down, it’s easier to sympathize with them than to acknowledge our similarity to the people who exploit them.


“The Original” takes this idea and runs with it, pivoting off its source material’s premise (a fantasy park where rich folks can spend some time living in the wild wild west, gambling, drinking, screwing prostitutes, and gunning down bandits) and using it as a starting point for some melancholic ruminations on the nature of consciousness. Much like the Battlestar Galactica remake, this Westworld starts with something that was pretty absurd on the face of it and then takes it as seriously as you possibly could. There’s no campiness here, no satire, and precious little humor. Instead, we have mopey humans manipulating starry-eyed robots into following storylines that trap them in various sorts of hells. One woman, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), has her father and mother murdered by bandits, only to be raped herself by a park guest. Then her memories are erased, and the cycle begins anew. This is how it’s supposed to work.

All of this could’ve easily been too po-faced to endure, a tedious slog through yet another indictment of humanity’s inhumanity toward, well, things it tells itself aren’t actually human. And yet the episode works, and works beautifully, in part because it never lets the horrors it depicts completely undercut a certain sense of wonder. That wonder is almost inexplicable. It comes most from Dolores (Wood, who has the most difficult job of the main cast, is terrific), as she greets each new day with a sense of hope; we know that the new day for her is going to almost certainly be just like the old day, and that it’s doubtful it’ll have much in it worth being hopeful for. And yet that enthusiasm is enough to make us care about her, even as her true role in the narrative becomes clear. She is, we learn late in the hour, the oldest robot in the park. And given everything that’s happened, if there’s going to be a revolution, it’s going to start with her.

There’s also some wonder on the human side of things. Not from the guests—unlike the movie, the guests here are largely inconsequential and oafish, apart from a terrifying turn from Ed Harris. It’s behind the scenes where things get interesting: Jeffrey Wright, God’s perfect nerd, as Bernard Lowe, the team’s head programmer, and a man so fascinated by the surface presentation of humanity that he interrupts an argument to comment on a co-worker’s facial tics; and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, the man who started the park and who now seems more than a little interested in the idea of making the machines the next stage of human evolution—or even a new form of life unto themselves. There’s the usual corporate intrigue going on, but the scenes between Lowe and Ford balance the inherent misanthropy of the premise (we build copies of ourselves largely so we can be terrible to them without moral consequence) against a perpetual astonishment at the possibilities of creation.

This is a Dark Show, of course. There’s plenty of murder in the pilot, albeit of the easily reversible kind. The most unsettling moments come from malfunctioning machines, like when Dolores’s “father” finds a photograph from the outside world and has a nervous breakdown trying to process what it might mean. But even that’s more about foreshadowing than anything immediate. The greatest impression “The Original” leaves you with is one of possibility—the suggestion that something tremendous might be just about to happen. The whole thing builds to the sole permanent death in the entire hour: Dolores slapping a fly against her neck. It’s a perfect summation of everything that’s preceded it. It also raises the bar for upcoming episodes so high that I’m not sure how the show will manage to hold itself together.


If there’s an element that doesn’t quite work here, it’s Harris as The Gunslinger, a nasty man in black who’s tearing his way through the park for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Harris is great, clearly relishing the chance to be an absolute bastard, and the part is exciting enough that it’s easy to go along with it, but looking backward, it’s hard to see exactly how he fits in with everything else. The main arc here is Ford slowly pushing his creations toward sentience. We’re encouraged to root for that, even as we recognize that sentient machines are probably not going to be friendly ones, considering what they’ve been through. In the middle of that, the Gunslinger seems like a holdover from another concept. He’s a riff on Yul Brenner’s character in the original, and it’s clever seeing the scary, unstoppable force turned into a human this time around, but beyond that, his form of villainy doesn’t entirely fit.

We’ll see, though. I haven’t watched any episodes past the first, and while I’m nervous as to where this goes, “The Original” is a terrific way to start. There are all sorts of possibilities here, and actors who don’t get much to do (Thandie Newton, hello) but who’ll presumably be more important as events unfold. And it’s impressive to see how, with just some minor tweaking, the show manages to remake Westworld into something distinctively new. It’s uncertain if this new form is sustainable (the original premise, “a malfunction turns an amusement park murderous,” isn’t something you can keep going for more than a season or two), but I’m eager to find out. And I am, of course, rooting for the robots; what makes things interesting is that I suspect the writers are too.


Stray observations

  • “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

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