“These violent delights have violent ends.”
HBO has generally been a solid channel for quality programming, so when the news came that they were remaking Michael Crichton’s original theme park disaster movie Westworld into a TV series, the news was welcome. The original Westworld had strong concepts but lacked the maturity and technical advancement to pull it off correctly, it was exactly the type of film that was meant to be remade and with A.I. becoming closer and closer to reality, the timing of the series – as well as some help from an unbelievable cast and backing from J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan – ensured it to be a sure-fire hit. And you know what, it damn well was.
The opening episode of Westworld sets the stage for what’s to come, the titular park is an adult amusement venue filled with enough sex and violence to allow anyone to live out their wildest, old-west dreams whilst safe in the knowledge that the park’s android inhabitants – known as Hosts – are programmed to be unable to fight back. One such Host is Dolores Abernathy, a farmer’s daughter and painter who runs a love story with reformed soldier Teddy but is often left to the mercy of the guests, most notably the sadistic Man In Black. Dolores is our lead character both in terms of story and themes, it’s her storyline that takes the most time and hers that encompasses the most of what Westworld has to offer. After her father Peter suffers a malfunction that blends his past lives with his present, Dolores also goes through the same awakenings, her past memories unlocked and causing havoc in her present. Trying to make sense of it all, she comes across William and Logan, a pair of guests on a bounty hunt, while Logan wants nothing to do with her, William offers to protect Dolores as they travel deeper into Westworld’s criminal elements, eventually coming across word of a mythical maze and the treasures at its centre.
On the surface, Dolores storyline is the most straightforward, a young woman on the run, comes across some helpful strangers and goes so far out of her plotting – the stories that each Host run on a daily basis – that her self-conscious is able to reboot itself and reformat her towards an entirely new person. Of course things aren’t that simple and towards the tail-end of the season Dolores becomes a figurehead for how Westworld actually runs itself, using bluffs and trickery to hide from the audience whilst at the same time completely embracing the unreliable combination of memory and reality. Evan Rachel Wood easily comes out as one of the show’s MVP – rivalled only by Thandie Newton – with her turn as Dolores, even before she develops consciousness the show puts her into a horrifying situation with The Man In Black – Ed Harris having a lot of fun paying a more complex villain that what first appears – and suggests that that is a daily occurrence for her. However as the show goes on and she spends more time with William and Logan she starts to rewrite her own narrative, and it is a joy to behold. Out of her two partners, William gets the biggest arc, Logan is fun in that asshole kind of way, clearing revelling in the sex and violence while William – his brother-in-law – is struggling to see things the same way until Dolores comes into his life. For those only use to seeing Jimmi Simpson as the weird, loner characters in Always Sunny or House Of Cards, watching him grow from timid, to romantic lead, to all out bad-ass makes for one of Westworld’s most intriguing storylines.
If Dolores is the MVP on the field, then Thandie Newton’s Mauve is the show’s star player behind the scenes. Initially a brothel Madame having to deal with bandits and drunkards ruining her place and her girls, Mauve is awoken by Dolores using the same phrase her father did. From there Mauve starts to notice inconsistencies about her reality and begins to take matters into her own hands to understand it, starting by meeting her makers.
Mauve is second only to Dolores in terms of storyline importance and while Dolores showcases the Western portion of the show, Mauve takes things to a more sci-fi level and is all the better for it. It definitely helps shape the show by having a conscious Host tackle things on a more technical, but at the same time almost existential level, Mauve is essentially waking up in the afterlife to bully the gods into improving her resurrection. Newton owns these portions with a very brave, very ‘no bullshit’ approach to her character, she’s more on her own than Dolores, only helps occasionally by gunslinger Hector, but it works for her, she carries the most complex portion of the show so keeping the emotional focus on her through her own memories of her past life with a daughter keeps the show from feeling over burdened. Where her story goes by season’s end might leave a lot of people confused but it keeps a wide door open for what’s to follow.
Further behind the curtain is the man pulling the strings, Robert Ford, director of Westworld and one of its creators along with his partner Arnold who died in the park 35 years earlier trying to unlock the potential for full consciousness. Now working with his assistant Bernard, Ford is looking to bring an expensive and controversial new narrative to Westworld, one that has the financial backers worried and looking to see if they can’t replace a seemingly senile old man.
Talk about your villain, Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford gives the veteran actor a chance to replay things to a Hannibalistic level and reminds us what made us scared of him some 25 years ago. Able to go from comforting to cold to intelligent to insulting without skipping a beat and never fully revealing what his plans are. In a continuation of the Western and sci-fi elements, Ford’s storyline takes on elements of a thriller, especially once Bernard becomes a big part, allowing Jeffrey Wright to carry the subtle weight of a man who’s trying to understand his boss and his friend and where they’re going wrong. Like Ford, Bernard’s intentions aren’t fully clear but it does appear that they are on separate sides of the argument of whether or not the Hosts need, or if they already have, consciousness, ford treats them as robotic designs while Bernard sees the humanity in them, recognising Arnold’s work still playing a part in the Hosts development. What’s great is that while Ford is clearly set up to be the villain of the show, his relationship with Bernard is never antagonistic, there’s a respect and friendship there that only enhances their relationship once Ford tells Bernard certain truths.
While there are other plots throughout the series it’s these three that form the narrative of the first season, taking three distinctive genres and blending them together to form a piece of sci-fi brilliance. And it’s definitely a sci-fi first, not just because of the robots but the themes and questions brought up throughout the course of the series. Artificial intelligence is nothing new but Westworld doesn’t ask if the Hosts have consciousness, rather what that consciousness means to them and how they react to their awakening. It’s a complex question and by the season’s end there’s still not a definitive answer for a variety of spoiler related reasons we won’t touch upon here, suffice to say where Dolores and Mauve go aren’t where you’d expect but both, Dolores especially, keep within the confines of what the show sets for itself.
If anything my one complaint about the show is that it’s too open with its trickery too early, by the second episode a lot of people were beginning to theorise that the show wasn’t being 100% honest with them and a popular fan theory began to emerge, particularly about the true identity of The Man In Black. It was a strong theory and the more episodes went by the more it seemed likely, but at the same time possibly knowing the twist way ahead of time did make some of the midseason episodes drag a little. Conversely of course, actually understanding what the twist meant allowed the final third of the series to better shape itself and the concept of memory and reality blending together, when it all comes together the effect doesn’t feel cheated but rather that you’ve paid enough attention to understand where all the pieces go.
And this is all just on a philosophical level; on an entertainment scale the show delvers less often but enough to remind you that this is a HBO show. Hector’s town massacre set to a piano tuned Paint It Black in the pilot sets the stage in an explosive manner. The Man In Black crossing paths with Hector gives the show its first jailbreak sequence, hopefully not the last. Dolores imaging a different story for herself to ignore her programming and gun down soldiers is one of the series highlights. Even later on in the show once we start to only see the gruesome after-effects of violence it’s the nature of who’s committing the violence that makes it hit hard.
After its first season there’s a lot to love about Westworld but still a lot of potential left over for future seasons. The ace-up-the-sleeve here was spotted pretty early but eagle-eyed fans but I can’t judge the show too harshly for that, and even then the ever evolving storylines, the complicated themes and the stellar acting – with particular praise to Woods, Newton, Hopkins and Wright – make this intelligent, adult and unique show worth the time to watch and to think about. Going forward there’s going to be a lot of theories popping up over what the season’s end means, what is the overall plan behind Ford’s narrative, who is pulling Mauve’s strings, where does Dolores go from here?
And what exactly is Samurai World?
First Season Rating – 4.5/5 Hairpieces.