Review: Did the ‘Westworld’ premiere live up to expectations?

Senior Television Writer
10.02.16 130 Comments

HBO

I offered my general review of HBO's Westworld earlier this week, and now I have specific thoughts on the series premiere coming up just as soon as there's an unscripted sneeze…

“Seems you're not the man you thought you were.” -The Man in Black

“The Original” runs close to 75 minutes, and needs nearly every minute of that running time to properly introduce its sprawling cast of characters(*), explain how the park works – and the ways in which it's beginning to not work – and begin laying out the underlying themes of the world that interest Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The repetitive nature of the lives of the robotic “hosts” – basically, a Groundhog Day told from the point of view of one of the Punxsutawney residents who are oblivious to the time loop – is important to the story Nolan and Joy are telling, and require additional time to properly establish here at the beginning, but it makes the premiere something of a slog, and a deliberately disorienting one.

(*) Though even there, not every significant character appears in this episode, and some of the people who seem prominent here (the tourists other than the Man in Black, particularly) don't appear again in the later episodes.

We open not knowing exactly where or when we are, with a scene between Bernard the robotics chief and Dolores, the sweet young woman who in time will be revealed to be the park's oldest host, that seems to be taking place much later in the story (after Dolores' “father” begins glitching). From there, we dive into life inside the park, where it's only sometimes clear who's a host and who's a guest. We know going in that Dolores is a host, and most of the train passengers (who are discussing golf in contemporary terms) are guests, but the show does some misdirection with Teddy, the chipper gunslinger played by James Marsden, and even to an extent with Ed Harris as the Man in Black. (If you know the original movie at all – and haven't paid much attention to the marketing or advance discussion of the series – you might assume the Man is a robot.)

The only thing that's entirely clear at first is how beautiful the park's terrain is, and even that's quickly spoiled when Dolores and Teddy come upon the violent scene on her family's ranch, during which Teddy is killed and she gets raped as part of the Man's twisted video game fantasies(*).

(*) I was talking about the show with NPR's Barrie Hardymon earlier in the week, and she came up with the perfect phrase to describe the current state of a lot of cable and streaming drama, suggesting they're suffering from “over-pillaging.” All I know is that by the time I got to the end of the episode, I was ready to never see the Man in Black again, and I am a huge Ed Harris fan. Though I'm sure some level of comeuppance is due him eventually, there's a smugness to his omnipotent slaughter and torture of the hosts that I am not looking forward to sitting through until then.

After the player piano cues us in to how the hosts go through the same events over and over, we get some extended time with the staff, including Bernard, his assistant Elsie, the park's co-founder Dr. Ford, screenwriter Sizemore, the frustrated Theresa, and security chief Stubbs. We get a vague sense of most of them – Bernard and Elsie are curious, Theresa and Stubbs are constantly worried the robots could run amok, Sizemore just wants his scripts performed properly, and Ford has an agenda none of the others can read – and not a lot more before the story has to journey back into the park to show how each loop is both the same and different, depending on the whims of the guests. When Teddy gets distracted by a return visitor (whose friends are all like miniature versions of the Man in Black, even prepared to use Teddy for target practice if they grow bored), for instance, he's not there to pick up the can that Dolores drops, while a park newcomer frustrates Sizemore by shooting the homicidal bandit Hector while he's in the middle of delivering a big monologue after massacring most of the town while an orchestral version of “Paint It Black” plays.

Following some more torture by the Man in Black, who's looking for some kind of hidden level to the park/game, we're back with Dolores, whose father has begun glitching after getting a look at a guest's abandoned modern photograph. He's one of several malfunctioning robots, and though all seems to be back to normal near the end as Dolores goes through the same old loop with a new robot as her dad, all is not right even with her: the episode's opening scene features her ignoring a fly crawling across her eyeball, and it's a recurring motif that the hosts don't even notice the presence of insects on or around their bodies, but when a fly lands on Dolores' neck at the end, she knows to swat it away kill it, despite her programming to the contrary.

It's a lot to get through, and not always done gracefully. (A critic friend – who ultimately liked the show more than me – said they needed three tries just to finish the pilot.) But it looks amazing, and Evan Rachel Wood is riveting from the first frame. It's not The Next HBO Classic right out of the box, but I'm hopeful Nolan and Joy can identify the series' own glitches more quickly and effectively than Bernard and his team are doing with the park.

Finally, I'm not sure yet whether Westworld will be a weekly subject for me. As you can tell from what I've written so far, I'm ambivalent about the show at this stage, and might want to wait til we get past the four episodes I've already seen, assuming the show begins evolving notably at that stage. Or I might discover near the end of this week that I have a lot of things to say about episode 2. Wait and see, but in the meantime, discuss your feelings on this introduction to the show and its characters.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
 

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