There’s something poetic in a series about a park full of robots glitching beyond the control of their creators should suffer itself from so many glitches in the long stretch from production to broadcast. The hiccups of Westworld have been well-documented on this site, and others, now finally, we can see for ourselves if the ambitious remake of the Michael Crichton novel and film of the same name lives up to the hype. The initial prognosis is promising, but the first hour and eight minutes of Westworld throws a lot at you, not just the robots, but also the various interests pulling their strings from atop the puppet master control rooms of Monument Valley.
Expectations were high if course. Not only is this series stacked with prime acting talent like Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Rodrigo Santoro, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris, but it’s also got Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams behind it all. The last time those two put their heads together it was on Person of Interest, which grew from a standard issue CBS procedural to one of the most prescient sci-fi series of our time. In these hands, molding Westworld into something modern, complex and satisfying should have been kid play, but unlike the early frustrating days of POI, this show has put mythology and mystery-building on the front burner versus character and structure, and that can be frustrating.
Also frustrating is that Nolan still seems to be playing in the realm of the broadcast mindset. In writing and directing the pilot he establishes act breaks, and while that might be read as an artistic touch as we see simple country girl disguised robot Delores (Wood) go from one slightly different same day to the next, it really does more to suggest that Nolan might be finding it difficult to break free of the typical TV restraints. Of course, it didn’t take long for Nolan to get a handle on HBO‘s less restrictive standards for nudity, swearing, and violence, but that’s just par for the course.
The difference that Westworld will have to make is in creating compelling drama, and while the show has set that up on numerous levels, it barely took the time to play with it. Surprisingly, some of the more interesting developments are happening in the labs and offices outside the park, as Westworld creator Ford (Hopkins) and his trusted right-hand Bernard (Wright) keep pushing the line between what’s human and the what the human mimicking robots, called Hosts, are capable of approximating. But as observed by Cullen (Knudsen), the corporate arm of the company, those two are so busy chasing perfection that they’re missing the bigger picture and potential applications for their technology beyond theme park attractions.
Meanwhile, in the park, the mysterious Man in Black (Harris) is clearly playing to his own agenda. I’m not sure if Harris’ character is supposed to be the analog to Yul Brynner‘s Gunslinger in the original movie, but that’s the way it feels. If you look at Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, one of the few westerns he ever did, there’s a certain austerity he has that’s far from something you get a sense of in the usual movie cowboy; in other words, he kind of felt out of place. There’s something to that in Harris’ performance as well, a hint of confusion as an audience member: is he a robot or a human? If he’s a robot, why is he always talking about past trips to the park and why don’t the bullets work on him? If he’s a human, why is he dissecting the robots and collecting their scalps?
If Harris is a robot character with some level of self-awareness, it would make an interesting parallel to Hopkin’s Ford as the creator clearly has some understanding, or perhaps basic understanding, that his tinkering is causing strange evolution in his characters. How long till we find out that Ford is ill, or dying, and his ghosting of the machines is some last grasp to allow his creations to continue the evolution beyond his lifetime? For the Man In Black, if he is a robot, perhaps he too is trying to understand what he’s becoming. A climactic confrontation between creator and creation was already teased in the pilot, but it seems that the Man in Black is more likely to do the confronting than Delores’ now-boxed father Peter Abernathy.
Speaking of the Abernathys the hour turned on the subtle work of Wood as Delores, who for much of the hour is an innocent lamb of the park leading an idyllic existence on her father’s ranch where she runs errands, paints by the river, and flirts with the handsome out of towner Teddy (James Marsden), that is until her family is killed, and she is raped or some other calamity befalls her until the next day when she starts everything all over again. The title of the episode, we learn, refers to Delores, and how she was the first inhabitant of Westworld, which makes you wonder how much of her existence is a functional forgetfulness and how much of it is denial. The act of swatting a fly has rarely been so concerning a portend.
Seeing Delores nail a fly rather than let it land was a simple and effective way to tip that something has changed, but what of the rest of Westworld’s first season? What kind of changes might we expect considering its difficult development? It did feel like there was a shift in the storytelling between the two halves of the hour, while the first half-hour had a languid pace, the second half suddenly had momentum. It also had humour. When Hector Escaton (Santoro) and his men raid the town, there were at least two laugh out loud moments, and Nolan didn’t fetishize the violence quite as much as he did in the earlier scenes. I also don’t what to think of Ramin Djawadi doing Henry Mancini-like covers of popular songs like “Paint it Black” and “Black Hole Sun”, that may be a touch of whimsy that comes too suddenly given the series mostly dour tone.
Process will be key as Westworld moves forward now, because while the pilot lays out a vast and interesting world with thousands of moving part, it’s what you do with those parts that will separate the proverbial rubber from the road. The pilot isn’t everything, and while Westworld’s wasn’t perfect, it was gorgeously shot and featured a great expansive cast. POI fans know that it took a while for that show to find its sea legs too, so it’s possible that in the DNA of the show is the next great drama we’re all hoping for. What will that look like? It depends on how Nolan and Co. handle the coming robot revolution, is it going to be all about the bloodbath, or will something more nuanced come from the glitching? In other words, “Do they have a plan?” as another show about robot revolution once teased.