The West is wilder and weirder than ever on HBO this season.
Westworld had been titillating audiences for months with its curious teaser clips that featured a vast, dusty landscape full of old-timey Western characters, intercut with images of those same characters, sitting naked and motionless in the cold light of sterile glass boxes. What kind of freaky fantasy is this?
Answer: It's Westworld, an immersive theme park populated by lifelike robot hosts who exist to serve the needs of their world's mysterious "newcomers" — the guests who arrive each day ready to sling guns, ride horses, and engage in generalized debauchery that often includes murdering the park's full-time citizens. Why not? It's not like they're human, even if they do bleed like it.
Westworld made its series premiere on HBO on Sunday, October 2, introducing a cast of characters both human and android, a plot that's like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as rewritten by Philip K. Dick, and no small amount of totally unnecessary nudity (it is HBO, after all). Here's what happened in the first episode of the sleek new prestige drama this week.
Behind the scenes at Westworld are a brilliant team: Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) heads operations, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) oversees programming, and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is the eccentric creative director who can't stop tweaking the park's robot hosts to make them just a little more authentic. In the first episode, we saw the source of the tension between them: The hosts of Westworld have their memories wiped at the end of their narrative loops, but Ford's latest envelope-pushing update introduced something called "reveries," allowing them to access archived memories of old experiences. The reveries gave the hosts the very human ability to improvise; however, it also made them unpredictable, resulting in random meltdowns and a few disturbing acts of robot-on-robot violence. Of course, the hosts wouldn't hurt a fly — or any other living thing, because their core programming won't allow it — but the update was wreaking havoc in the park and had to be undone, an arduous process that required taking hundreds of robots out of commission and interviewing them one by one to see whose code had been corrupted. The head of security, Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) seemed confident that they'd caught all the problem hosts … but did they?
Every morning, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) wakes up, greets her dear old dad (Louis Herthum), and rides her horse into town to run errands. She's a host in Westworld — which means that depending on who she meets, she might have a perfectly pleasant day … or she might end up being dragged into a shed to be raped by the newcomer who just murdered her entire family for fun. In the series' first episode, Dolores lived through her one-day loop multiple times, demonstrating how Westworld's intersecting storylines can bump up against each other, sometimes with tragic results. One day, Dolores was reunited with an old friend she'd been longing to see; one day, she enjoyed an afternoon of solitary painting by a creek, albeit with a strange interruption by a small newcomer who whispered, "You're one of them. You aren't real." But despite Dolores' determination to see the good and beauty in her world, ugly things intruded — including the terrifying breakdown of her father, one of the robots whose programming was corrupted by Ford's update. And though Dolores herself seemed unaffected by the "reveries," we learned that she's the oldest host in the park … which means that she's got more history than most lurking in her archived code.
The Man in Black
Another problem in the park came in the form of an unhinged guest: the mysterious black-clad Gunslinger (Ed Harris), who had clearly been to Westworld before. After so many visits, the Gunslinger was bored of engaging with the hosts in the usual ways; even raping and killing them was old hat. But rather than dealing with his ennui like a normal person and finding somewhere else to go (we hear the Bahamas are beautiful this time of year!), the Gunslinger set out on a mission to essentially hack Westworld for a deeper experience, digging below the existing narratives and worming his way into the dark underbelly of the park. How does he plan to do that? He didn't say, but we're guessing that it's not gonna be pretty. Last we saw him, the Gunslinger was riding into the sunset with a robot's scalp in his hand.
A Ghost in the Machine
And finally, remember that core code that makes Westworld safe for its human guests? The hosts are bound by a base program that forbids them from doing harm (or being untruthful about it). But give a robot the ability to remember its history and adapt accordingly, just like a person, and you create an existential problem: Even the most morally pure among us will still lie, or even kill, for the sake of our own survival. And in the penultimate scene of Westworld's first episode, we heard Dolores earnestly profess that she would never hurt a living thing. But in the final moments, it turned out that she'd learned to lie — and to hurt. So far, Dolores' new skill has resulted only in the death of an unfortunate fly. But will it end there?
Westworld airs on HBO Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.
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