John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld: Season One

Westworld: Season One

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The titular amusement park from Westworld caters to its visitors not with rides, but with a subtle sort of wish-fulfillment. Once inside, the high-paying guests are free to do whatever they want; they aren’t limited by the western genre’s binary view of good and evil. That’s because the park’s denizens, or “hosts,” are nothing more than intricately manufactured robots. In this startling sci-fi allegory, the humans have absolute freedom because the hosts, who believe themselves to be human, have none.

Unsurprisingly, many of the guests—regardless of whether they wear white or black hats—choose to indulge their most violent and debauched selves; in fact, the park actively encourages it, with every lawman and prostitute essentially hawking their questlines in the town square like carnival barkers. These scenarios ensure that Westworld is filled with enough “guns and tits and mindless shit”—as Logan (Ben Barnes), a louche returning customer, puts it—to ensure that we stick around through the slower, more intimate drama.

Beneath that bloody surface is a cerebral drama intent on questioning such base desires. In short, when a person can do anything, their choices swiftly show the sort of person they really are. For proof, one need look no further than the HBO drama’s co-creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan, who, not limited to the 90-minute runtime of Michael Crichton’s 1973 thriller, quickly steps outside genre labels to wonder whether humanity itself might not simply be an exceptionally complicated bit of code.

To that end, Westworld focuses on two central narratives. One is told from the perspective of those mirrors to humanity: the hosts. The pilot episode lays out some typical routines at the park, as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest and most innocent of the hosts, and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the brothel’s synthetic madam, interact with visitors, leaving audiences to guess which characters, like Dolores’s potential love interests, Teddy (James Marsden) and William (Jimmi Simpson), are human.

Things grow more complicated after Dolores’s father, Peter (Louis Herthum), malfunctions. Where once Dolores would have remained heartbreakingly unaware that a new host had replaced her decommissioned father, or her inability to harm another creature would have forced her to unflinchingly allow a fly to crawl over her iris, she now retains some memories from her previous “lives” at the park, and with that, more control of her own narrative.

Westworld’s other major plotline follows the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a nameless and longtime patron of the park who restlessly attempts to go off-book. After finding a maze inked on the inside of one robot’s scalp, he abducts the condemned Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) and begins searching for the deeper, more dangerous, and thereby more real level to Westworld that he’s convinced has been buried in the AI’s deep code by Westworld’s forgotten co-founder. That puts him in direct opposition to the park’s credited creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who uses his clout to begin construction on a mysterious and expensive new undertaking, one that suggests a deeper, potentially darker direction for the park.

Westworld is never stronger than when it focuses on these threads, disrupting—like the best innovations—common conventions to pave the road for the unexpected and new. Left to her own pre-programmed devices, Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) is just one more stereotypical prostitute throwing off hoary anecdotes about her most well-endowed clients; she’s interesting only when placed in proximity to the increasingly erratic Maeve. The same can be said for many of the humans relegated to the labs beneath Westworld. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) harbors a fascinating fetish for Dolores, but can’t really act on it while surrounded by fellow programmers, and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of operations, is stuck delivering dry, risk-assessment exposition. Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward), the show’s cynical, sardonic Ian Malcolm-like character, is largely stuck interacting with blank slates as she reprograms AI behaviors. These characters might be human, but they’re not yet nearly as engaging as the robots.

The disruptors are what save Westworld from being too ponderous and slow, forcing the narrative to shake itself loose from its otherwise archetypal roots. There’s a lack of originality to the way in which bandits Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) go about massacring the nonhuman inhabitants of Westworld’s central town, Sweetwater. But that’s the point: The massacre is an old chestnut for Westworld, written by the loathsome Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), and its limitations reflect his own failures of imagination. When Lee accelerates the schedule of the raid in order to mask the temporary removal of 200 glitchy hosts, the series seems to be having some metatextual fun: It’s a literal deus ex machina.

By contrast, strong aesthetic choices are evident throughout the show, like the frequent cutaways from the vibrant orange mesas and beautiful, spacious vistas of the park to the tightly claustrophobic and sterile grays of the laboratories buried beneath it. Heaven above, hell below, or as Ford puts it, “You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil.” These visuals shockingly peel back the prettified surface lives of the hosts to reveal the blank and emotionless canvases beneath, creatures that nakedly sit with a sort of Edenic innocence as their diagnostic technicians have them cycle through accents and emotions. This, incidentally, is only a mere fourth wall away from a director’s commands to a cast, and dissonant moments like these reveal Westworld for what it is: Not some far-flung future entertainment, but a prescient commentary on our present.

HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.
Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Shannon Woodward, Clifton Collins Jr., Simon Quarterman, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes, Luke Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rodrigo Santoro, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Angela Sarafyan, Louis Herthum