Westworld Recap: S1E1 “The Original”


Westworld, the latest drama from HBO, premieres with a complicated, fascinating episode that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

Wow, that’s a lot to process. After the credits, which combine sleek, surreal images of a robotic pen drawing three-dimensional shapes (a horse, an iris shown in extreme close-up) with ominous piano music, Westworld plunges the audience straight into its mind-bending universe.

Before seeing anything, we hear. “Bring her back online,” a male voice says. The voice’s calm tone and the pitch-black screen infuse the command with God-like authority, like a digital-age version of “Let there be light.” Then, a switch flips, and there is light – a dim, sickly glow that illuminates the contours of a naked woman, sitting with her legs bent in at an awkward angle. Shadows fill the vast, empty space around her, emphasizing her vulnerability. As the fluorescent overhead lights slowly flicker on, the camera cuts to a close-up of the woman’s face, revealing blood stains on her cheek. The unseen man asks the woman questions (“Do you know where you are?”), which she answers in a similarly emotionless voiceover (“I’m in a dream”).

If you’re struggling to get your bearings, you’re out of luck. The camera cuts again, to a totally different place. The woman now lies on a bed, the sunlit white sheets a jarring contrast from the darkness of the previous scene. It soon becomes apparent that this is the Old West: the woman’s simple, cornflower-blue dress; the rugged desert landscapes; the steam-powered train carrying several so-called newcomers, including Teddy Flood (James Marsden, clean-cut and charming in a black cowboy hat); the rudimentary town in which they arrive, its dusty streets trampled by horses and carriages. Although the scenery is stunning and the town meticulously detailed, there is something off about this world. It looks a little too clean, too perfect, too reminiscent of sets from other TV shows and movies.

Image via HBO

As it turns out, the world is, in fact, a set. It’s a futuristic theme park called Westworld where guests mingle with hyper-realistic androids and enact elaborate adventures, freely indulging their basest whims and desires. Mostly, these desires seem to involve murder, with some rape mixed in for good measure. (For what it’s worth, despite the hubbub surrounding the show, the violence is bloody yet sporadic, and the one instance of sexual assault so far occurs off-screen.) During its remaining runtime, “The Original” outlines the park’s rules (e.g. visitors can hurt the “hosts”, but not vice versa) and introduces the key players.

Westworld’s cast is as expansive as its milieu. First, there are the androids: the aforementioned woman, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood); her ex-lawman father, Peter (Louis Herthum); the saloon madam, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton); a fugitive wanted for murder, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro); and, in a bit of a twist, Teddy. They are joined by an assortment of guests, most notably Ed Harris’s enigmatic, sadistic Man in Black, who believes there’s “a deeper level” to Westworld. And behind the scenes are the park employees: the brilliant creative director, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins); the matter-of-fact operations leader, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who’s responsible for maintaining order; the head of programming and creator of the artificial intelligence, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright, whose voice is the one heard at the beginning of the episode); his protégé, Elise Hughes (Shannon Woodward); the narrative director, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), who writes the adventures; and the head of security, Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth).

Image via HBO

In essence, “The Original” is an hour of exposition, yet it never feels like that. The actors breathe life and personality into characters about whom we know little; they’re uniformly well-cast, though Wood, Wright, and Knudsen are the standouts. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, turns philosophical musings into compelling, natural-sounding conversations, hinting at the tension festering beneath the Westworld staff’s professionalism. As a director, Nolan exhibits too much confidence to show off; aside from the opening, he transitions smoothly between various plotlines, guiding viewers through the labyrinthine narrative, and he finds striking visuals (a woman on the other side of a window, a reflection of horror in a dying man’s eye, a room of inert androids) without losing sight of the big picture.

Particularly entrancing is the score, composed by Game of Thrones maestro Ramin Djawadi. It interweaves the spare soundtrack of an old-school Western (a tinkling piano, a strumming guitar) with the lush soundtrack of a religious epic (swelling strings), alternately romantic, mournful, and foreboding. With the characters kept at an intentional remove, music serves as the episode’s most potent source of emotion, immersing viewers in a heightened, warped reality. At one point, a shootout erupts to an orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” and it somehow works. Yes, it’s distracting, but in a good way.

After all, Westworld is, among many, many other things, a meta narrative about the nature and meaning of human experience. It’s hard not to notice the similarity between the theme park, with its excess and savagery, and the kind of graphic, morally ambiguous dramas on which HBO built its brand. When Theresa tells Lee, “And here, I thought you were only good for writing depraved little fantasies,” you imagine she’s talking in an oblique way to the writers of, say, Game of Thrones.

Image via HBO

But critiques of art as a vehicle for depraved fantasies extend beyond cable TV. Psychoanalytical film theorists such as Laura Mulvey have long contended that the screen and camera offer (male) spectators an illusion of agency, enabling them to vicariously play out desires that society has repressed. “Illusion” is the optimum word. In reality, filmmakers control what happens onscreen; the trick is to hide the strings well enough that, while the theater lights are down, the audience forgets they are being pulled. Likewise, Westworld convinces guests that they have total freedom in the park, but in reality, their adventures are merely predetermined storylines scripted by the park staff.

By revealing the strings, Westworld disrupts this process. It constantly reminds us that the world onscreen is artificial, whether through music cues, the use of familiar genre tropes (from science-fiction to Western to even romance), or the repetition of lines and motifs (Dolores’s book-ending monologue, the fly). You know you’re dreaming, and you don’t want to wake up, not yet. There’s a chance that the show could eventually devolve into a hollow intellectual exercise or an incomprehensible tangle of riddles, as postmodern fiction often does. But for now, it’s mesmerizing.

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Stray observations:

  • Nolan and Joy apparently have five or six seasons planned out, which is a promising sign.
  • Dolores is the “original” android referred to by the episode title.
  • There are plenty of people of color in the main cast and among the extras, which is a pleasant surprise, if one that emphasizes the lack of diversity in TV overall.
  • After a pair of guests kills Hector, ending the shootout, they burst into laughter, which is at least as disturbing as the death itself.
  • There are definite echoes of Memento and Inception, the former of which Nolan wrote and the latter of which was written and directed by his brother, Christopher.
  • The milk that the rogue android named Walter (Timothy Lee DePriest) carries around is no doubt some kind of symbol – biblical, perhaps?
  • What is the “deeper level” that the Man in Black wants to find?