Bold, fascinating, and startlingly immersive, the opening episode of Westworld - HBO’s new great hope - is quite possibly the finest pilot since Game of Thrones. In the space of just over an hour we’re introduced to a world that mixes human morality with the good old Wild West, and leaves us wondering how we’d behave in a world without consequences.
It’s been more than 40 years since Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld - a movie set in a theme park of the future where the rich indulge their every whim through robot ‘Hosts’ who help them enact exciting Wild West adventures. Now, HBO has picked up this genuinely fascinating concept in the hopes that the series will attract the kind of blockbuster audience that has made Thrones one of the most successful shows on TV.
Created by wife and husband team, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, Westworld has real pedigree across both its production team and cast. Star Trek and Star Wars director JJ Abrams is on board as producer, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, and Evan Rachel Wood play key roles, and the pilot is written and directed by Nolan himself.
And what a pilot it is; Nolan opens with a shot of Evan Rachel Wood, naked and strangely detached, answering questions from a disembodied male voice. It’s not long before it’s revealed that she’s inhuman as a fly runs across her eyeball. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” She’s asked, and as she answers guilelessly, we’re launched into Westworld.
Soon we are following an archetypal handsome cowboy, played by James Marsden, as he gets off a train and spots Wood’s character Dolores. “I told you I’d be back,” he tells her, sweeping her off her feet. The two return to her farm where Marsden’s Teddy Flood cannot prevent a bandit killing Dolores’s parents. And then Nolan brilliantly twists the familiar, as Ed Harris’s ugly, black-hatted (bad guy 101 - keep an eye on those hats) arrives on the scene.
Nolan shatters preconception after preconception as Marsden confidently shoots at this new threat and then becomes horrified when nothing happens. Harris’s gunslinger - all in black and utterly unstoppable... just like a certain other gunslinger of 43 years before - calmly murders Teddy and then, in a scene that is already causing controversy, drags Dolores into the barn to rape her. The rape is not on screen, but its inclusion will rightly remain divisive; as creator Joy explained: “Violence, specifically sexual violence, have sadly been a fact of human history since the beginning of time. We take it very seriously and it’s not about the fetishisation of those acts. Rather, [it's about] exploring the crime - hopefully with dignity and depth.”
The main question remains, is The Man in Black guest or Host? The hints right now point towards the former - the bullets from other Hosts don’t hit him as a voice states “you can’t hurt the newcomers,” he exhibits human-like psychopathic tendencies, he appears to have sexual urges, he clearly remembers doing this kind of thing time and time again “for 30 years”. Of course, making the gunslinger human would be another unexpected twist given the iconic nature of Yul Brynner’s character from the original movie, but for now we just don’t know.
It’s this sequence that establishes much of what is astounding about Westworld. In the space of a couple of minutes we discover the big reveal, that Teddy is not a guest but a Host, that the white hats don’t always win the fights and, of course, we get a nod to the original unstoppable gunslinger. It’s raw, uncomfortable television that’s hard to look away from, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful.
At this point, I’m not even 15 minutes into the first episode of Westworld and it’s already establishing some impressive groundwork. The scene cuts from the reflection of the barn door closing in Teddy’s dead eye, to Delores waking up back in her bed as if nothing has happened. These ‘Groundhog Day’ moments, the resetting of the narrative loops, run throughout the pilot; the human guests interrupt or slightly change the familiar moments, but the Hosts always reset eventually.
When we finally get to peek behind the curtain of this theme park it’s no less captivating. People in clinical white plastic suits work on robo-horses and naked Hosts alike. Much like Game of Thrones, there’s a voyeurism throughout Westworld, but unlike Thrones, the nudity doesn’t feel titillating. It’s clinical - the Hosts are referred to as ‘livestock’ and are treated as such.
Dr Bernard Lowe - played by the ever-brilliant Jeffrey Wright - is concerned about the latest Host update, which is causing the robots to express shockingly accurate human responses. He goes to see Dr Ford - Anthony Hopkins’ enigmatic leader - in a sub-basement stocked with creepily turned off Hosts. He’s chatting to an old and obviously earlier Host, which moves and behaves much more like a robot. Portraying mystery is always a tough trick to carry off, but Hopkins is outstanding and his motivations will be a major factor over the next few episodes.
It’s revealed that the update might be causing cliches in the Hosts and we see a perfect example of this involving Delores’s ‘father’ Peter Abernathy. He finds a photo of a woman in front of a modern city - something which has obviously been left by a past guest - and this sparks a major meltdown in him. Delores insists it “doesn’t look like anything to me,” but he can’t let it go.
He’s eventually inspected by Ford and Lowe and gives a chilling speech from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “I shall have such revenges on you both - the things I will do what they are yet I know not but they will be the terrors of the Earth.” It’s worth pausing to reflect on an astonishing performance here by Louis Herthum - his Abernathy is utterly magnetic as his character is pulled apart by the programmers, and I couldn’t pull my eyes away. Abernathy is ultimately sent to be decommissioned but Delores - who we find out is one of the oldest Hosts in the park - is given the all clear.
We also learn, in fairly grotesque fashion (if you’re ever looking to hide a treasure map - this is definitely a unique place to put it), that the Gunslinger is on a deliberate but mysterious mission, digging further into the park and seeking ‘something else’. Clearly, there’s more going on in Westworld than just malfunctioning Hosts, but I’m not sure what scalping robots has to do with it right now.
In a chilling final shot, Delores breaks her programming to not kill a living thing and slaps a fly that lands on her neck, saying: “I know things will work out the way they’re meant to.” And that’s where the season premiere ends, leaving us desperate for more.
Westworld airs on HBO on Sundays at 9pm in the US, and on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 9pm in the UK. You can also catch up via Sky On demand or via NOWTV.