There’s this moment in the premiere of HBO’s Westworld, the network’s latest drama offering and one of its most expensive since Game Of Thrones, when two characters come across a robbery in progress. You’ve watched this scene play out in hundreds of Westerns; the white hat kills the black hats, saving his beloved and ridding the town of a pair of scourges. Only, in Westworld’s retelling, the “hero” and the love interest each meet grisly ends, and the villain gets away with it because the metaphysics of Westworld’s universe are such that he can’t be harmed.
That villain is known as the Gunslinger, and he’s played by Ed Harris, in his first major TV show role. He’s a tourist (probably) who has been going to an android-populated immersive theme park known as Westworld for nigh 30 years. Westworld offers its guests the chance to play out hundreds of different lifelike Old West scenarios in a consequence-free environment. Most go there to either fuck or kill. It’s essentially an open world video game that you can enter into and choose your own adventure from there. The show’s narrative arc kicks off when a botched update from the theme park’s bored creator (Anthony Hopkins) imbues a handful of androids with glimmers of sentience. As you’ve deduced by now, mayhem ensues.
The humanoid androids in Westworld have gone down into the uncanny valley and come all the way back out again. Not only do they appear to be able to move off a predefined number of narrative tracks, they appear to be able to think and feel with some nuance. Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores, the main humanoid character in the show, and she spends part of a “normal” day painting out next to a river. In what is surely the show’s most brutal scene, the Gunslinger drags her into a barn to rape her. This ugliness is at the heart of Westworld, the theme park, where humans commit all manner of atrocities against their android counterparts without consequence or worry, and it brings up some of the thorniest thematic material dealt with on Westworld, the show.
Wood has said that there’s a point to the sexual violence—that it’s not gratuitous—and that the show will be “flipping it on its head.” For what its worth, the show does seem self-consciously preoccupied with gore and sex. After all, a certain hard-R sensibility is part of what made Game of Thrones such a cultural force. Westworld pushes it even further than Thrones; faces explode right in front of the camera; characters who will likely prove central to the plot of the show are killed multiple times over in the premiere; every android outside of the simulation is always completely nude, and a good number exist inside the simulation merely to help guests get off. HBO wants Westworld to be its flagship drama after Thrones, and it certainly shares an aesthetic sensibility.
But judging by the premiere, the show’s palate of harsh violence seems to be in service to its larger ambitions, which stands in contrast to the times Thrones used theirs to titillate. It’s too early to tell where this is going of course, but Westworld is already prodding at philosophical questions about what makes a human a human. Once the androids start to acquire flickers of sentience, they don’t become terminators or anything. The logic of the show dictates that they’re disposable, and the delicate web of looping narrative arcs means that everyone gets multiple bites at every apple. It’s disconcerting to see characters shredded to bits over and over, but it allows the show to chart time rather easily. The closed-loop that is Westworld is a convenient narrative shortcut that allows for a near-infinite set of scenarios to play out; the world’s not expansive, it’s dense.
It’s helpful to think of Westworld, the theme park, through the rubric of a video game. Its players interact with characters, and can follow any number of side quests. When they stray off the path, their meanderings are accommodated because the universe exists for them and them alone. The characters that populate Westworld are only there to serve, and as they start to awaken and question the nature of their reality, the distortion it will inevitably create looks like it will lead to entertaining TV.
Who’d create such a game, and what happened to push it into chaos? Where precisely is the margin between reality and artifice? The show will get there, probably, and there are plenty of mysteries for the show to solve, but through one week, Westworld looks like a compelling, good TV show. That’s a minor success and a bit of a surprise, given that it looked like a white elephant less than a year ago. Game of Thrones is an impossible act to follow, and the worst sin its successor could commit would be to try to jam pack as much into each episode in an effort to ape Thrones’ maximalism. Westworld doesn’t sprawl the same way Thrones does, and its ambitions are philosophical rather than narrative. It’s challenging because of the questions it asks, which, on its face doesn’t sound nearly as compelling to watch. That the premiere presented the ugly side of human nature and posed daunting questions about it while managing to entertain was impressive.