The moment I finished watching the pilot episode of Westworld, my hands moved mouse to an open post and my fingers lit upon the keyboard. I knew I had to share my thoughts on our first look at this new world. I really want to avoid spoilers, but If I could summarize what I saw, then, without letting anything out of the bag while still letting you see the shape of the bag’s contents, it would be this: Westworld is an excellent example of what a Science Fiction show can be, both because of the intellectual heights it alludes to and the careful balance it treads. This balance falls between two extremes. The writers tease at punishing turns for sympathetic characters without truly delivering on them, and they never give the audience all of what we (I) want. Instead they pass out portions that leave us hungry for the next reveal, complete with contentious hints pointing to where that story might lead.
I imagine that the writers, creators, crew, and actors of HBO’s Westworld share some qualities with the creative masterminds that run their fictitious park. Not least among these are their fine attention to detail; every gesture, set piece and tempo coming together to manufacture the story they wish to tell. So deeply fine is this fabric of details that seemingly insignificant frames hold decisions designed to move forward the audience’s understanding of the setting, characters, and plot. And I would guess that some moments would see a split of meanings projected by individual audience members, not because the implications are too vague, but because these moments offer multiple yet equally valid interpretations.
The minds behind Westworld might also be as cruel as their fictional counterparts, not because they pen violence freely, but because they use this violence against the conceits of the setting. Every bit of pain makes a point that may move the victim’s story forward, instead of yielding it entirely. The creators show that they can expertly draw forth familiarity and affection for their characters and just as expertly brutalize them, without taking that character’s narrative possibilities off the table. We pity the artificial “Livestock” when their human demiurges smite them, but as these character’s are reset, these horrors become clues that give the characters a chance to grow and become enlightened to their situation. All the while allowing the audience tiny yet satisfying morsels of truth about the setting. Yes, Westworld is violent, but you won’t feel punished when your favorite character is shot through the head; they have their role to play again.
In fact, the repetition creates graspable structure that is more helpful than annoying. At first the idea that we would be treated to a series of preset Groundhog’s-day-like events seemed tedious to me. But my assumptions were challenged swiftly as repeating vignettes went off-course, the plot playing out in the interaction between the choices made by the Park designers and the guests, and the emerging awareness dawning in the artificial hosts. And not just one host, but a pattern equally grand in implications as the machinations of the creators as they attempt to isolate and eradicate this glitch. The repetition of moments becomes a part of the setting, narrative objects characters can touch, through which the story can cast an outline that hints at what’s really going on. Theories will abound.
Despite this comparison, the creators of the show Westworld are much more generous to us than the creators of the park Westworld are to their children, The writers treat us to poetic juxtapositions, Shakespeare quotes, and references to modern gaming culture, all masterfully arranged. The latter, their allusions to the behavior of players of virtual games, are very thoughtful and thought provoking, especially given the ethical ramifications of mixing wish-fulfillment based entertainment with blossoming artificial intelligence. The first episode has many points of juxtaposition between the earnest artificial hosts and the hedonistic guests. Also revealed; dark allusions to gaming zeal in game exploration as well as the callous and often altruistic characterization of the park’s wardens.
In the end, the first episode of Westworld is a masterwork and quintessentially science fiction story. No emotional punches are pulled, few narrative possibilities are untouched by the illusive reveal of the plot. Themes of questionable reality, the uncanny valley, sentience, dehumanization, human nature, and conspiracy are rife throughout the pilot, and well presented. The Beginning of Westworld challenges audiences, but never punishes them. Further updates to this narrative are awaited with great anticipation.