Westworld: 101 “The Original” Review
Reviewed by Alex Smith.
(A brief disclaimer. Firstly, I have never seen the original Westworld movie upon which this series is based. As a result, I won’t be looking at the show as an adaptation; I’ll just be seeing how it stands on its own two legs.
Secondly, this review is intended to be read after watching the episode. That means there will most likely be major spoilers, and also means I won’t be spending much time recapping the events of the episode.)
Westworld is, by all accounts, HBO’s attempt to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Game of Thrones. With their epic fantasy giant drawing to a close, they’ve put together here another high-budget genre piece to try and recapture that elusive, and uniquely successful, television audience: the sheer numbers of the ‘mainstream’ combined with the obsession and devotion of the ‘cult’. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, the ‘genre’ piece as mass television, arguably kickstarted by the revival and widespread success of Doctor Who in 2005; the past ten years have seen science fiction and fantasy move to the forefront of popular television. And yet, it’s hard to argue that the formula is a sure success – many genre series have tried and failed to truly captivate a broader audience, from Primeval to last year’s Jekyll and Hyde remake. So, to get to the heart of it: does Westworld have what it takes to be the next Game of Thrones? The short answer is yes. For the long answer, read on.
The logical place to begin is at the beginning, and Westworld‘s premier episode “The Original” starts strong. The jarring title credits, juxtaposing western and sci-fi imagery to great effect, give way to a distinctly unsettling opening sequence starring one Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). The ‘fly on the eye’ image, later blunted by re-use over the course of the episode, is nonetheless effective in its initial appearance here. Whereas Dolores’ opening narration acts as an introduction to the narrative of Westworld, this image is perhaps more important. It’s a thematic introduction, in several respects, setting the tone and the style for the rest of the episode in a single shot; it evokes a deep, uncertain sense of wrongness that becomes the story’s through-line, building to a crescendo in the final moments as Dolores slaps at the fly on her neck. The slow- burning tension created by this opening lingers on in every scene, making events as innocuous as the young boy feeding the horse by the river feel uneasy. It’s a smart, efficient stylistic choice.
Unfortunately, this has some negative repercussions. By introducing the audience to the ‘androids gone wrong’ story thread right off the bat, the elements of the episode that are pure Western are made to feel rather vanilla by comparison. The extended saloon robbery conducted by bandit Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) is visually impressive, and the dialogue flows nicely, but without invoking the science fiction side of the narrative at any point, it simply feels like the episode treading water while it waits for something more important to happen. This is alleviated somewhat when one of the park’s guests, or ‘Newcomers’, puts a bullet in Hector, but overall it’s a sequence that doesn’t seem to contribute to much other than spectacle and the episode’s body count. A much more interesting gunslinger comes in the form of the mysterious man in black (Ed Harris), a veteran guest who seems to be hunting for more than entertainment at the park. After appearing as a principle antagonist in the strong opening act – mercifully replacing the pantomime milk-spitting bandits – he fades to the story’s sidelines, but his quest for some unspecified secret is no less intriguing for it. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of Harris as the weeks progress.
Outside of the theme park’s very own frontier town, things are a little less intriguing. A lot of what transpired in the mysterious operating facility – the ‘real’ world – seemed to veer a little too heavily into generic science fiction for my tastes. The ideas we seem to be playing with here – the dangers of artificial intelligence principal amongst them – have been played out a thousand times in a dozen different mediums. When we’re up close with the androids themselves, examining the details of this specific scenario, this isn’t so much of a problem; when we pan back to the human beings, discussing blandly and vaguely the dangers of making the machines seem ‘too real’, things get a little “been there, done that”. Whilst the clichés of the western genre are made interesting by their being interwoven with science fiction, the sci-fi has no such luxury to fall back on; it needs to be engaging on its own terms, and it doesn’t always succeed in doing that. However, don’t write off the real world scenes entirely – Anthony Hopkins, playing Westworld’s creator, salvages every scene he’s in with a quiet melancholy, most notably elevating the faux-tense basement scene with the lovely line “they don’t make anything like they used to.”
There are still plenty of questions that Westworld needs to answer – the question of how exactly people are transported from the park to reality and back is never answered, and leaves some details of the plot feeling unclear – but it’s early days yet, and the show still has plenty of time to establish its premise before the action kicks into high gear. The slow boil tension of the narrative in “The Original” works to the advantage of the series here. What’s more important is that less definable trait, the ‘feel’ of the episode; and already, Westworld feels like a success. It’s slick, well-polished, well-performed, and coheres well visually and thematically. It has all of the ingredients to make a huge genre hit: we’ll have to wait and see if it knows how to use them.