Review: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ a technical marvel but a narrative muddle

Late in the second episode of HBO's Westworld, set in a theme park where visitors act out Wild West fantasies with the help of lifelike robots, the park's visionary co-founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) dresses down Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), a screenwriter who has planned a new storyline for the guests that leans heavily on blood and guts to dazzle them.

The guests, an irritated Ford explains, don't return for the graphic violence, or any of the other obvious things the park's creative team shows them. Instead, he insists, “They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before – something they've fallen in love with. They're not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They're here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

In that moment, Ford is articulating not only his belief in the allure of the park, but of HBO in general. Other channels can and have presented their own gritty mob dramas, but The Sopranos resonated for the psychology at least as much as the whacking. Game of Thrones is an enormous hit not only for its dragons and ice monsters, but for the fully-realized heroes and villains who get to interact with them.

With GoT nearing its end, HBO's hope is that the expensive, long-delayed Westworld will strike a similar chord with its audience, marrying spectacle with complex characters and themes. But based on the first four episodes (the series debuts Sunday at 9 with a 75-minute pilot), HBO may have to hope that Dr. Ford is wrong when it comes to their own viewers. While technically impressive and thematically audacious, with an impressive cast that also includes Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, and Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen, among many others, Westworld is a muddle: stunning to look at, but overloaded with incident, characters, and themes the show doesn't quite know what to do with. It's a show that, at this stage, Sizemore would probably enjoy a lot more than Ford would – and even then, he might complain about the sluggish pacing.

Adapted by Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, this Westworld tries to turn the conceit of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie on its head. In that one, the guests were being threatened by the robots (embodied by Yul Brynner wearing his all-black wardrobe from The Magnificent Seven), where here the focus is on how the humans (most notably Harris as a similarly black-clad gunslinger) blithely treat the unwitting robots as toys, or video game characters, hurting them over and over again because that right seemingly comes with the price of the ticket. In both versions, the robots are glitching, but here it manifests as some of them – notably sweet rancher's daughter Dolores (Wood) and jaded madam Maeve (Newton) – beginning to remember past encounters with guests, including the many times they'd been killed, raped, or otherwise assaulted for someone else's amusement.

“The hosts are not real; they're not conscious,” argues Ford, who functions more or less as the theme park's god. But from our more omniscient point of view, it seems like he might be mistaken on that score.

Unlike Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, which trod similar terrain but needed half a season to recognize that its premise was fundamentally disgusting, Westworld's sympathies are instantly with the mind-wiped robots, who live a kind of Groundhog Day waking nightmare, having the same conversations, and enduring the same traumas, day after day, varied only by whether they cross the path of a despicable guest like the Man in Black, who views the place as a video game he's trying to win; or someone nicer like William (Jimmi Simpson), who opts to wear a white hat, literally and metaphorically, when given the choice upon arrival. Despite the assurances of Ford, his top programmer Bernard (Wright) or Bernard's deputy Elsie (Shannon Woodward) that the robots feel no real pain, and have no real memories, from all the traumas they endure (the park staffers sometimes refer to the robots as “livestock”), the series time and again treats each bit of human-on-robot violence as an act of wanton cruelty from men (and occasionally women) giving into their baser instincts in the one place on Earth where they can.

But if Nolan and Joy are on the side of the robots, the design they've given them, and the show, makes it hard to lean too much on them as protagonists at this stage of the story. Dolores, Maeve, and some of the other malfunctioning “hosts” get flickers of the past, or of the true nature of their present, but for the most part they're stuck performing the same scenes from the same scripts again and again and again, every bit the puppets that Ford and Bernard have built them to be. As it is, their suffering grows increasingly monotonous and difficult to sit through over the course of these first four episodes, which on the one hand is the point of the exercise, and on the other suggests a show that's taking a little too much pleasure in the Man in Black's adventures as unstoppable killer and torturer of robots. (Harris, as always, commits fully to the role, but I was already exhausted by the character before the pilot was finished.)

As a result, more of the emphasis has to be placed on the park staff, and it's there that the show particularly struggles. Many of the most accomplished actors in the cast work on that end of things, but most of them are given very little to play(*), and in some ways are more one-dimensional than the robots: Ford is mainly inscrutable, Bernard curious and detached, Theresa (Knudsen) impatient, etc. Westworld would be far from the first story about artificial intelligence to give the man-made characters more depth and nuance than the humans, but it's easier for a 2001 or a Blade Runner to do it in a self-contained film than a sprawling show that keeps going and going and going, even as it, by design, keeps hitting the same beats over and over.

(*) Screeners for critics had an unfinished main title sequence, where instead of the names of the actors and producers, the credits kept listing “Name Surname” (or, on one occasion, “Different Name”). This seemed oddly fitting for a show where the robot characters are designed to be interchangeable, and where the human characters are often so bland they barely even need names.

Still, Westworld looks amazing, particularly whenever the plot moves out of the park's main town setting(*) and into the stunning desert vistas (shot mainly in Utah) surrounding it. The action is always well-staged – the visceral thrills of the shootouts can work at cross purposes to the series' themes, but they also provide a sense of what the guests enjoy about this very expensive vacation – and many of the performances excellent.

(*) Those scenes were shot at Melody Ranch, which is the same location Deadwood once used. My biggest hope for Westworld is that it becomes so successful, HBO decides to embed those Deadwood reunion movies inside a later season. I imagine Swearengen would have some colorful things to say upon realizing he's a robot.

In particular, Evan Rachel Wood works every miracle required of her. Dolores is frequently brought into Bernard's lab so he can try to figure out what she does and doesn't know about her reality, which means she's often switching back and forth, at great speed, between the sweet and innocent pioneer girl who's so beguiling to the likes of William or Teddy (James Marsden), and the blunter version who can answer Bernard's questions. Those shifts in affect are a magic trick as impressive as anything Ford and Bernard have built for this place. More importantly, Wood gives Dolores the illusion of independence and agency, even though her actions are dictated almost entirely by her programming and the whims of the guests. Assuming the story's headed to a place where Dolores' self-awareness arrives in more than just the occasional burst, Wood is more than up to the challenge of providing the show the kind of emotional hook it doesn't quite have yet.

All the backstage conversations between Ford, Bernard, Sizmore, and the rest of the staff begin to take on a meta tone, as if the staffers are discussing the difficulties of making the TV show Westworld – which had to shut down production for a while, which Nolan and Joy have said was as much to arc out the rest of the series as the rest of season 1 – at the same time they are the difficulties of keeping the guests happy and the robots in line. And the series' creative team seems to be struggling just as much as the park staff in understanding how their creation functions and how best to deploy their many resources. It's a show, and a park, where the people making it can do virtually anything they want, but where they might be best served trying to do much less than that.

But this isn't my first rodeo with a Jonathan Nolan show (from J.J. Abrams' production company, at that) featuring a great sci-fi concept that it isn't properly deploying at first. HBO very badly needs Westworld to be a success and provide a foundation for the Thrones-less future, so I imagine they'll give Nolan more time, and a lot more creative freedom than he had with CBS and Person of Interest, to get it right. The raw material's there; the show just needs more time in the lab to hopefully get it right.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at