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Westworld - The Original - Review: "Beautiful and mystifying"



When a series is in development so long, from creative minds like JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, and airing on HBO, there is understandably going to be a lot of expectation surrounding it upon release. Enter Westworld. The series is fraught with numerous behind-the-scenes troubles, even shutting down production earlier this year after first being developed in 2013; it was ordered to series almost two full years ago. It’s been a long time coming and not necessarily a journey that inspires much confidence, despite the names involved.

Still, it’s here now, and the premiere is a fascinating hour-plus of television. The concept - a futuristic theme park populated by artificial beings where visitors are able to whatever they want - isn’t necessarily the most straightforward one, certainly not in the way that Westworld is framing it. It takes time to get into the swing of things, and there’s still a lot that the show is hiding from us, I imagine. But the introduction to the park and the characters and the story was pretty damn good, particularly the rather long opening scene.

Clocking in at just under 15 minutes, the first scene charts a day for “Host” Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) as her occasional lover Teddy (James Marsden) returns to town (*), with the pair returning to her home to find her parents murdered, before the mysterious Man in Black (Harris) comes to kill Teddy and rape Dolores. There’s a lot to unpack there, particularly related to the identities of both men. Man in Black is a “newcomer”, or a “Guest”; Teddy is a “Host” - the voiceover’s assertion that “Hosts” can’t hurt the “Guests” but it works the other way around, combined with Man in Black’s claim that he “didn't pay all this money because I want it easy” show both.

It’s immensely and immediately compelling, so much so that I had barely realised it was one long scene until way after the fact. It’s a wonderful way to open the series, simultaneously beautiful and mystifying, setting the tone for everything to come after it.

Because as terrific as the episode looks - and it does look terrific; many of the visuals are utterly and breathtakingly stunning - it isn’t always the most coherent and, at times, what’s happening is unendingly perplexing. Watching it a second time helped considerably, but the very nature of the series’ narrative means that ultimately, the whole thing is a complete mindf-ck. And while that’s okay, because Nolan almost certainly has the mythology figured out - supposedly, that’s why they took the production hiatus - attempting to understand it all based on the opening hour is almost impossible, particularly given how much we’re not being told.

Frankly, I’m content with not knowing the full picture, despite the numerous questions I have, particularly relating to the mechanics of how the park works in terms of "Hosts". With Dolores and Teddy able to remember one another but not the events of the previous encounter, my assumption is that they’re both being programmed to know each other each time their memories are wiped. (The memory thing was stated outright, hence why Teddy doesn’t remember the group of guys that stop him on the second time around, why Dolores doesn’t know Man in Black but he knows her etc.) What’s curious, however, is the sheriff’s earlier request for Teddy to help track down Hector in the mountains; later, he asks a "Guest" - presumably the point is to get the visitors involved, which makes seeking out Teddy’s help a mistake. Clearly, there’s a reason for that, one that I’m sure will be explained in due course.

Still, the logistics aside, the very concept of the series and the themes that the premiere indicates Westworld will be exploring intrigues me to no end. Discovering the picture dropped by a “Guest” opened the eyes of Peter (Louis Herthum), Dolores’ father, to asking “the question you’re not supposed to ask”. Presumably, it’s not exactly Stubbs’ (Luke Hemsworth) question - “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” - but is almost undoubtedly a variation upon it. At one point, narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) argues that the park "works because the "Guests" know that the "Hosts" aren't real." Were the "Hosts" to find out themselves that they weren’t real, the resulting fallout would be complete chaos. That they can control Peter doesn’t remove the looming threat of a mass revolt.

Indeed, Dr. Ford’s (Hopkins) latest update to the “Hosts” is far from perfect, the team needing to remove those who have received the update from circulation for testing to ensure they have no malfunctions. His suggestion that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) must indulge him the odd mistake, given how far they’ve come, is flawed at best when considering the ramifications of a major issue.

Perhaps more concerning, however, is whatever mission the Man in Black is on. Clearly, he’s extremely rich having been coming to Westworld for decades, but his ambition goes far beyond enjoying the prostitutes and shooting people. No, he’s there now for the “deeper level”, whatever that is. My initial assumption was that he’d be a “Host”, one that was very quickly proven wrong, but as a “Guest”, he poses a considerable threat to the world itself.

Worth noting, too, that Harris is fantastic here; menacing and intimidating but never conveyed as a flat-out villain, he’s able to make his presence felt every time he takes the screen. Marsden is impressive, while Hopkins is unsurprisingly excellent in his very limited screentime. The real standout, however, is Wood, her performance as Dolores magnificent and captivating, never ceasing to impress. Her need to play multiple sides of the same character - scared and upset in the wake of Teddy and her father’s death (on both occasions she lost one or both of them), her ‘ordinary’ life demeanour and her within the dream - is well utilised and Wood never lets down the series in any of them.

That the series resorts to frequent uses of sexual violence - the end of the opening scene has Man in Black drag Dolores away for that assumed purpose, while one of Hector’s (Rodrigo Santoro) men appears to prepare himself and a woman in the bar during their assault - is unfortunate and frustrating (not everything on HBO has to include rape, you know), though perhaps an attempted indictment of human’s animalistic desires. As is alluded to during the episode, Westworld allows people to enact their deepest and darkest desires, whatever they may be.

Prior to the premiere, Nolan commented on how if you went to a place like Westworld, “would you discover things about yourself that you didn’t want to know?” Discovering that, given the opportunity, you would be open to and capable of committing rape seems like something you wouldn’t want to know. The look at how “rich assholes” spend their time in a no-holds-barred fantasy land is an open door to the atrocities of the sick-minded, which is why Hector’s man doing it, as one of the “Hosts”, makes it seem gratuitous; Man in Black at least is a “Guest” (*) and the series’ inclusion of that provokes questions over basic human decency.

(*) It’s assumed that Man in Black rapes Dolores, but later in the episode, he insinuates to the card dealer that he’s not especially interested in “getting [his] rocks off”. A line like that implies a more gratuitous undertone, which is baffling.

No, neither should be seen as good in any way. But if Westworld wants to be a powerful drama that deals with these themes, then fine. It just needs to understand why it’s handling it and alter its course appropriately. Currently, that isn’t the case.

By the end of the premiere, my comprehension of where Westworld is going and how its future episodes will play out is limited. I do know one thing for sure, though: I absolutely want to be a part of that journey.

Notes:
I already love Sizemore and his extremely colourful language.
The fly is the key to knowing who is a “Host” and who is a “Guest”, though the fact that Dolores can hit the fly is intriguing, to say the least.
Between "I reckon she's still warm enough” and "I didn't pay all this money because I want it easy. I want you to fight,” some of the sexual stuff was pretty grim.
The “Host” that Ford was speaking to when we first meet him is able to put himself into the body bag, which means that he can also take himself out. That’ll come back to haunt everyone in that facility.
The robbery/assault on the bar was utterly glorious in its insanity.
Peter’s speech to Ford was bone-chilling, and a sure sign of things to come.
"This isn't a minor improvisation. This is a f-cking sh-tstorm."
"Dry whiskey." "What about it?" "Well, it ain't doing any good sittin' in that bottle."

What did everyone think of the premiere? Hit the comments with your thoughts!

About the Author - Bradley Adams
18 year old based in England, currently Senior Staff at SpoilerTV. Most of his posts are news/spoiler based, though he is currently the reviewer of Person of Interest, co-host on the SpoilerTV Podcast. Created and is in charge of the yearly Favourite Episode Competition and currently runs the Favourite Series Competition. A big TV fan, his range of shows are almost exclusively dramas, while some of his all-time favourite shows include 24, LOST, Breaking Bad and Friends. Some of his current favourites include Person of Interest, Banshee, Arrow, The Flash, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul and many more. He also runs an Arrow fans site, ArrowFansUK, and aside from TV, is a keen cricketer. Get in touch with him via the links below or via email bradley@spoilertv.com
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