“These violent delights have violent ends.” Shakespeare‘s words uttered by Peter Abernathy, a malfunctioning android host in an epic playground built for humans to indulge their darkest Wild West fantasies, set the tone in the opening episode of HBO’s original series – the most watched first season in the network’s history – created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, Westworld takes the author’s idea of an extreme form of amusement park, populated entirely by life-like robots programmed not to retaliate against the human guests, and expands it into a ten-part meditation on the nature of consciousness, morality, and the concept of free will.
Although Westworld had the online community buzzing with various speculation and fan theories after the premiere, I’ll admit I found it a little slow to start with. While the sweeping vistas of Utah are breathtaking (it’s probably no coincidence that Anthony Hopkins‘ fictional Westworld creator, Robert, was named after legendary director John Ford) and the performances outstanding, the first few episodes felt somewhat sterile and disorienting. But while there have been endless iterations of the ‘A.I. develops sentience and goes bad’ trope, Westworld, with its unusual setting and use of sneakily non-linear narrative, often poses more questions than it answers, and quickly begins to weave an involving and complex puzzle which makes the coldness and impenetrability of the earlier episodes seem like stylistic choices. As viewers, we are often forced to see this god-forsaken world from the POV of the hosts. Scenes in the Delos labs are explained away as being fragments of dreams. Snippets of conversation and half memories intrude upon the waking lives of the characters, and right up until the finale we are as unsure as the hosts as to their origins and causes.
‘These violent ends’ are foreshadowed in the closing shots of the first episode when Dolores Abernathy (a beguiling Evan Rachel Wood), Peter’s ‘daughter’, swats a fly which crawls on her neck – a direct contravention of her programming. This is our first indication that something is not right within this simulation, and that the oblivious hosts may not be as harmless as they were designed to be. This small, unthinking act of violence can be seen as Dolores’ first step towards breaking out of her ‘loop’ and becoming ‘human’.
While Dolores is the chosen conduit for the eventual uprising of the machines, there are several other characters who seemingly evolve to become aware of their situation, most notably Maeve (played by the always watchable Thandie Newton). Maeve, a brothel madam, witnesses the seediest side of humanity, and sums up the plight of the android captives perfectly when she states that the creators are fixing up hosts and sending them back into the fray to be “fucked and murdered”. While Maeve apparently becomes aware of her own cycle of repetition through ‘memories’ of pain and grief, there is a twist in her tale when it transpires that she may not have broken her programming at all, and that her escape is just part of a new story line designed for her character. Her decision to return to the park to look for the ‘daughter’ she’s lost might be her first real act of free will, although we can’t be sure of that.
It’s been argued that the androids in Westworld are more rounded and humane than their flesh and blood counterparts, but again this is rather the point of the show. Much like celebrities in our own world, those able to afford the price tag of a Westworld experience are affected by a form of ennui which leads them to seek out more and more extreme forms of entertainment. This hedonism is embodied by Logan (Ben Barnes), a park regular, playboy, and heir to the Delos company. It is Logan who first introduces brother-in-law to be, William (Jimmi Simpson), to the park experience, and sparks an obsession that is to last more than thirty years. Early on in the series, Logan tells a reluctant William that “this place seduces everybody eventually”, and after falling in love with Dolores, William becomes a regular visitor, increasingly determined to discover the secrets he believes late co-creator, Arnold, has hidden in the vast reaches of the park.
But the lines between man and machine become increasingly blurred as the hosts are made in the images of real people, and implanted with memories of loss, pain, and love. Conversely, many of the human stakeholders in Westworld are depicted as ruthless and unfeeling, driven by greed and power. It’s testament to the incredible world-building, intricate plotting, and attention to minutiae that many characters’ real motivations aren’t revealed until the very end of the season. But once they are, you’ll find yourself raking over previous scenes, looking for the indicators you missed.
While it would be easy for a big-budget show like Westworld to dazzle viewers with VFX, it largely leaves the wow factor to the outstanding cinematography and the performances. It’s easy to forget you are watching a sci-fi series at times, and so when we’re met with the sight of Dolores’ head being reattached to her metal skeleton, the sparingly-used CGI is brilliantly effective. The beautiful opening title sequence (by Elastic) depicts blank, white humanoids that could have been 3D printed, which makes the techniques for building hosts seem scarily within the grasp of our own rapidly advancing technologies.
Similarly, gorgeous new arrangements of contemporary songs from the likes of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Soundgarden, both alien and familiar at once, perfectly soundtrack the old-world aesthetic and the on-screen action, whilst nagging wonderfully at the back of your mind, willing you to question, to remember, and to feel.
Ambitious, nuanced, and complex, Westworld may be retreading old ground with its musing on the fundaments of what makes us human, and the dangers of playing god, but it does so in a sumptuous, bloody, and compelling way. Ultimately, it serves as a warning to a species that values power above all, as illustrated by Dolores when she tells The Man in Black (Ed Harris):
“One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt; your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand, and upon that sand a new god will walk; one that will never die because this world doesn’t belong to you, or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who is yet to come.”
Broadcast at the end of a year when high-profile deaths, violence, and political upheaval have dominated the news across the globe, it’s no wonder Westworld with its reminders that life is fleeting and the human experience comprised of memories, delusions, perception, and emotion – all of which are becoming replicable – has captured the imagination of TV fans. Whether you find its message terrifying or strangely comforting, this is the kind of show that lingers in the mind and forces us to question the very fabric of our being.