‘Westworld’ Roundup: Let’s Talk About The HBO Series’ Violent, Fascinating Premiere

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.

The Credits

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!

Beginnings and Endings

Brian: Chekhov’s fly!

The implication here — if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly — is that everything that happened with Dolores’ dad (the first dad, the one who melted down and started giving terrifying monologues about doom and such) and whatever else is happening with Anthony Hopkins’ “reveries” algorithm (I will learn his character’s name, I promise), fried the part of her circuitry that prevents her from harming a living thing. And that she’s starting the process of learning, rather than wiping her slate clean every morning. And that this learning, and the thing in the voiceover about being “built to gratify the desires of the people who pay to visit your world,” will lead to some sort of realization and internal conflict that will result in trouble, caused by her or other hosts that go through this process.

That seems… bad. Maybe not bad. It seems ominous. Which I suppose is the point.

The thing that interests me is how this all plays out. The original Westworld was a movie, and a plot like that seems much easier to tie up in two hours. Robots turn bad, humans get scared, humans kill robots and/or escape. (Replace “robots” with “dinosaurs” and this is all basically Jurassic Park. Crichton has a niche.) Stretching it into a series — one that, again, HBO hopes will run many seasons — means they need to figure out how to pace that out without tangling it all into a knot. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Where did you come down on the bookends of the pilot?

Keith: The end had me ready for more, for sure. But, you’re right, the series is going to have to move a lot slower than the film in terms of getting to the killing and the robots and the screening. My suspicion is this is going to be just one front on which the show develops. We’ve also got the corporation’s unspoken agenda and whatever it is Ed Harris’ Man in Black is looking for. (More on that below.) I also spent much of the episode thinking, “I know that fly is a direct reference to something, but I’m not sure what.” Then it hit me:

Ed Harris: Robot Abuser

Keith: Playing a character known only as “The Man in Black,” Ed Harris has one of the series’ most memorable roles. We see several Hosts land on the receiving end of his sadistic impulses over the course of the pilot, including Dolores, whom he rapes and kills in a brutal early scene (and, it’s strongly implied, not for the first time).

When I got to the rape scene, it felt like a “Here we go again” moment. And it’s stirred more than a little criticism already. Maureen Ryan’s review in Variety expresses exhaustion with yet another series trotting out sexual violence as a plot device, while also noting that it doubles as commentary, writing, “Westworld feeds into these tropes while signaling its concern about them, but that concern rings hollow the more its bloody and repetitive scenarios play out.” She’s dead on in many ways and currently The Man in Black isn’t my favorite part of the show (though I love Harris). But I like the show so much that I want to give it a benefit of the doubt. Elsewhere it’s doing some really intriguing things in the way it explores our relationship with violent entertainment. One of my favorite moments in the pilot came when the staff members rushed in after the big gunfight and turned on the klieg lights, making it look like a movie set. I think Westworld is attempting to say something sharp with the way it depicts violence, the tourists who show up for it, and the point where it stops being entertaining both for the show’s Newcomers and those watching at home. Does it get there? And how did you feel about the Man in Black?

Brian: I was all over the map on the Man in Black. On one hand, I love him. He’s just so incredibly evil. Like he’s just pure, uncut menace right now. That’s almost refreshing when you compare it to the rest of the prestige dramas out there, where the good guys are kinda bad and the bad guys are kinda good. I will be very upset if we find out later that he’s only doing this so he can, like, find a cure for a rare disease that is killing a family member or something. Just let him be relentlessly, hilariously evil. Ed Harris was born for this.

(Also: Every indication we’ve gotten so far seems to say that he’s a guest in the park, not a host. This would mean that he also exists in the real world. What I’m getting at here is that it’s a lot of fun to picture him as an assistant manager at a car dealership, putting in the paperwork for his two weeks of PTO so he can go to Westworld and kill some robots.)

On the other hand, yeah. I could have done without the heavily implied sexual assault, especially if the point of it all was just to convince us he’s evil. He’s Ed Harris, dressed in black from head to toe, and he’s out there shooting her loved ones and loving it. I think I got it. The whole thing just seemed a little tone deaf to me. I’m not saying a show should never go there, but going there in the first episode in a way that screams “shock value” felt a little icky. That’s all.

The Bigger Picture

Brian: The biggest question for me coming out of the pilot was what, exactly, is going on with the corporation that oversees the park? I think that’s going to be where the series lives or dies, and I hope it works, because I love a good “powerful female executive smokes cigarettes and tells some overeager young hotshot that he doesn’t see the big picture” scene. If Westworld just ends up being robots and humans murdering each other in the Wild West while Theresa stands on a balcony and dresses down subordinates, I’d probably be okay with it. I mean, I’d prefer if it turns into a deep, intoxicating mystery that raises important questions about humanity and becomes a cultural phenomenon that everyone discusses the following Monday in breathless fits. That would be better, definitely. We could use a show like that. And since Westworld has a chance to be that, the murder and cigarettes version would be a bit of a creative letdown. But I’d watch.

Keith: I love Sidse Babett Knudsen’s performance as Theresa. (And I just now put it together that she’s one of the stars of the excellent Duke of Burgundy, the most beautiful, saddest homage to ‘70s softcore erotica you’ll ever see.) In fact, there’s a lot of praise to go around here: James Marsden is someone I’ve really come to enjoy over the years and Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic as Dolores.

But we’re getting sidetracked: I think you’re right that the series will live or die based on its ability to keep viewers intrigued by a deepening mystery. And that’s tough to pull off. I’m hoping the impulses of Nolan and Joy (who’s Nolan’s wife and whose writing credits include Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice) can play off the experience of Abrams and Burk.

Brian: And only Teddy Flood can save us!

Keith: So then: Here we are at the beginning of an ambitious series filled with all the sex and violence premium cable fans crave, a sprawling cast of characters (some of whom we haven’t even met yet), and a head-full of ideas it wants to squeeze into a twisty storyline about artificial intelligence and the nature of reality. I’m in.