Each week, Brian Grubb and Keith Phipps will attempt to unpack the latest episode of the HBO series Westworld, a show about an amusement park populated by lifelike robots that’s also about… other stuff.
First things first
Keith: I don’t want this discussion to get too beyond the scope of the show itself right off the bat, but it’s probably worth mentioning that there’s a lot riding on Westworld’s success. It’s an expensive, risky venture for HBO and one that’s had its share of delays, including a full shutdown of production while executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy worked on scripts. Though it was supposed to debut in 2015, it didn’t.
But here it is, and it’s arriving at a time when HBO needs another event series. The end is in sight for Game of Thrones. Vinyl came and went. So maybe an adaptation of a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton will do the trick? Something with robots and cowboys overseen by the aforementioned Nolan and Joy with help from J.J. Abrams and his longtime associate Bryan Burk? That makes sense, right?
Will it work? Time will tell, but we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think it was worth talking about. Brian, what were your first impressions?
Brian: Well, I think the big takeaway here is that HBO very much wants this to become what we in the industry refer to as “a big thing.” It checks off a bunch of boxes. It’s got the high-end production value of other HBO projects (Boardwalk Empire and its $20 million pilot), it’s got a Western angle that led them to critical success before (Deadwood), and it’s loaded with the sex and violence that we’ve seen in their most notable hits (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, etc.). And then it’s got a sci-fi/robots/AI theme running through it, too, combining scary futuristic threats with the non-human revolt aspect of a Walking Dead. It’s like the network ripped a little piece off of a bunch of shows and threw the whole thing in a blender.
The question is… will it work? Because throwing a bunch of delicious things in a blender can result in a strawberry-banana-vanilla smoothie or a cup of pizza-marshmallow-lemonade slop.
Keith: Immediate answer: I loved this pilot. It’s sharp and stylish and intriguing. It raised a lot of compelling questions both via its plot and its themes, and it introduced a lot of characters I want to see more of. (Except maybe Lee, the whiny writer guy.) Plus Nolan directed the hell out of this episode. The longview answer: We’ll see where it goes! (I liked the Vinyl pilot, too, but knew I was in trouble when I hit episode two.) How about you?
Brian: I’m definitely in for more episodes. I felt that way immediately after watching the pilot because I want to see where this is going and how it gets there, but I really feel that way now, after it fully dawned on me that James Marsden’s character is named Teddy Flood. Teddy Flood! I’m not sure who at the theme park is in charge of naming robots, but they deserve a raise for that one.
Keith: Even if you didn’t know any behind-the-scenes information about Westworld, the titles set it up to be a big deal series. Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi provides the music, and while the theme song doesn’t yet seem like the sort of song that lodges itself in the brain, neither did Game of Thrones’ at first. It sets a somber, unsettling tone matched by imagery that will be key to the show, or at least this pilot episode: Machines etch fine detail into artificial bone and sinew. Robots have sex. An eye reflects a scene from the American West, specifically Monument Valley, a spot that’s become synonymous with the Western thanks to the films of John Ford and others. A player piano roll. And finally the creation of an artificial person suspended on a wheel and striking a pose reminiscent of DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Watching this again after watching this pilot, it plays like a neat preview of what’s to come, one that sets the proper tone for what follows, too. Were those impressions, too?
Brian: I think they might have been my impressions if I hadn’t been so distracted by the unfinished screener copy HBO sent out using the filler phrase “Name Surname” throughout the whole thing in place of the actors’ real names. After the first few, I started chuckling. By the time it got to the end, after like 10 to 15 different times “Name Surname” flashed onto the screen, I was giggling like a nut. Especially at the very end when it fired up “Name Surname,” “Different Name,” “Name Surname” in rapid succession. This has nothing to do with anything and is extremely inside baseball, but I loved it so much.
Keith: I know! I really loved Different Name’s work on the script!