On the series premiere of ‘Westworld,’ technology is a sympathetic, fickle thing

Westworld.jpg
Disclaimer: The following recap discusses major spoilers contained in the pilot of Westworld. Read at your own risk.


There is a moment, two actually, that occurs about midway into Westworld’s first episode that, from my understanding, could be a big indicator as to what this series will not only be about, but who the show will basically be begging you to root for. The context is that a recent update to many of the “hosts,” the androids that cater to the titular theme park’s guests, have left them glitchy and unresponsive. It would be more practical to roll all of them back and check each one to make sure that no further problems occur in the near future, but of course, the people working high up in the chain of command in the control center don’t want to have to deal with all that trouble, so they come up with a quick plan to cover their asses for the time being.

You see, in this modern interpretation of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi classic, the hosts don’t just give into the guests’ near every whim – the people working behind the scenes at Westworld have nearly everything planned down to the grain. Nearly every host has embedded into their code a part they must and can play into one of the park’s many storylines. One of the big storylines that a group of bandits hiding out in the park’s mountains holds the town in a tight siege while trying to rob the saloon. It’s not a particularly large group – it’s about maybe five at most, but damn do they have a good aim, and damn do they have most of the law enforcement hosts pinned down and shot up. But just when it seems like they’re make off with their pay, boom! A pair of guests, specifically the husband of the couple, shoots them dead at point blank range. The show makes it clear that this is not only these guests’ first time at an experience like Westworld, but also that the husband is in a position where he gets to succeed at playing the big man, the hero, for the first time as well (also in this world – the guests are free to do whatever they want to the hosts, but the hosts can’t lay a finger on any of the guests). And while the audience hears his cheers of success, the camera lingers on the dying hosts that are bleeding their robotic guts off, capturing their expressions of agony.

In a way, you can’t help but feel bad for them. The show, at this point, has also made it clear that each host plays out each day nearly the same, directed to do different, tiny tasks that play out the park’s many storylines, all in the name of entertainment. They can end the day scant-free, or with several bullet holes and blood coming out of their guts. Whatever it is, this will be the only “life” they’ll know until perhaps the park closes down, and these bandits probably met this familiar, grisly fate for the billionth time by now.

This then gives way to the show’s second big moment. Earlier, the father of one of the key characters (Delores) was tending to his stable of horses when he happens across a photo left behind by one of the park’s previous guests. The guest is in Times Square, a place unknown to both Delores and her father, and while Delores programming is strong enough to make her disregard the picture, Delores’ dad can’t help but not only mull over the photo and the location, but also question his entire existence as an android. It glitches his programming so bad that, by the end of the cycle he found the photo during and the start of the succeeding one, he’s still mulling over the photo. When the bandit siege from earlier, which Delores was a witness to trying to get the town doctor to examine her father, kills enough hosts for the control room to finally deactivate and examine each one, in comes Dr. Ford, the park’s creative director, to do some questioning, and that’s when the claws come out. Delores father, or, as we find out, the android programmed to play the role of Delores father, has no idea as to what Ford and the park’s staff are doing, but whatever it is, he warns them that they better stop, or they’ll be waking into a lions den, and they will not want to see what will happen when they all wake. But of course, since A.I. can either be misinterpreted or controlled, the staff present deduce that this is just another case of A.I. acting up, and chuck him off to cold storage, and get another, fresh android to fill in the tiny void.

Of the recent entertainment that has come in and looked at human relationships with A.I., perhaps the one that seems the most apt to compare with Westworld is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, which looked at the big question of, “What if we kept the robot, but tried to make it as human as possible?” And not just in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of dreams, thoughts, and desires, to name a few? It’s, after all, present in the form Dr. Ford; during the episode, the staff keeps making a note that apart from the manual features that come with each update, Ford keeps slipping in a few features of his own in order to give them a more “human” touch. And while they do make each host react more naturally to guests’ demands, it also leaves the potential for their directive to be tampered with. At another point, after a child in a family of guests catches on and tells Delores that she’s not real, an expression of hurt can be seen starting to form by the scene’s end, despite Delores initially brushing it off as a weird comment. Is this where and when the androids’ code begins to crack? And will their creators have enough sense to not light firecrackers and obliviously wonder will happen should they get too close?

And with all this talk of sympathy for the android and messing with unpredictable forces, there’s one point I haven’t gotten to discuss that, quite frankly, I also did not know where to place among the discussion, and that is Ed Harris’ Gunslinger character. Early in the episode, he commits an unspeakable act against Delores. By the start of the immediately succeeding cycle, he has something of a sweet and kind, albeit quick, encounter with her before departing, and he is later seen brutally interrogating another host, demanding to know how to get into Westworld’s inner sanctum, before unscalping the host and finding some sort of labyrinth tattooed underneath. Before the host’s torture, I believed his Gunslinger character was probably just going to ravage most hosts for the hell of it, but now, seeing as he is so keen to see what makes the park tick, something tells me he might want to bring the whole park down. Who knows really? It’s the first episode; anything can happen over the course of the next nine.

There’s a lot to unpack from the premiere of this new sci-fi drama, and even I don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface of it. These are probably (probably) the biggest plot threads the show will cover, and this doesn’t even touch base on the Jurassic Park-esque drama happening in Westworld’s control room. In all, the series already feels like its unloading 99% of its cylinders and dropping big question after big question, while only giving the audience some scraps to go on. And while that can lend itself to some beautiful, albeit heated, discussions at the table, it definitely may leave some more frustrated than intrigued, which may or may not fly when a show is trying to be this grand.

Grade:
B+

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