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HBO's 'Westworld' Is Not Great, But It Probably Will Be

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 30, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 30, 2016 |

Though future episodes are often made available to me, I do not typically watch ahead, because I want to be able to experience a television series in the same maddening, frustrating ways that our readers do. If an episode falls off the cliff, I don’t want to know that it redeems itself in the next episode, because most viewers won’t know that, either.

All of which is to say, I haven’t watched Westworld beyond the pilot episode, so I haven’t seen the episodes where the new HBO series presumably gets better. But there’s strong DNA here, and after watching a chilly, disorienting, and somewhat flat episode, I remain as confident that Westworld will be as great a drama as most people who haven’t yet seen the first episode believe.

Part of the disorienting nature of the pilot comes in trying to nail down the premise, especially for those unfamiliar with the original Michael Crichton movie. The first scene sees a bloody and beaten Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) — naked, sitting on a chair in a futuristic room — telling the voice of Jeffrey Wright that she’s in a dream and that she has never questioned the nature of her reality. The series then cuts to Dolores’ “reality,” which is actually a theme park set in the Old West, where Dolores is a synthetic robot, one of many hosts who play roles for “guests,” who pay a lot of money to live out their own make-your-own adventures.

The rub, however, is that the guests all want to live out the same kind of adventures that invariably involve murdering and raping. There’s hundreds of different kinds of stories to follow in Westworld, but given an opportunity to live a life with no consequences, humans always choose sex and violence, or a combination of the two. Dolores meets Teddy Flood (James Marsden) — basically an Old-West hero trope — but the two run into trouble when The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills Dolores and her father and the theme-park adventure ends in mayhem.

The theme-park story repeats itself a few times within the episode with varying outcomes. There is some initial confusion surrounding who are the “hosts” and who are the “guests,” but viewers will have clarity on that issue by episode’s end.

In between the theme park sequences, we witness the behind-the-scenes machinations of the theme park, which involves Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) working out bugs in the synthetics. Typically, the synthetics run through their storylines in the theme park, then they have their minds wiped, and then reenter the theme park and start the day from scratch.

However, in an effort to make the synthetics even more lifelike, Dr. Ford gives them an upgrade, which has the effect of leaving residual memories in their system. They start remembering all of their past experiences in the park — murders, rapes, the deaths of loved ones — and those memories lead to a glitch known as a consciousness. Anyone who has ever seen Ex Machina or Blade Runner or a hundred different iterations of this same idea knows that robots who develop self awareness are never a good thing.

Meanwhile, Harris’ The Man in Black continues his killing spree within Westworld, playing “the game” with only one idea in mind: To get into the hidden level and beat the game.

The pilot has an enormous amount of territory to cover in the first hour, so it’s extra heavy on table setting. In an effort to unspool an unwieldy premise, the characters are also shortchanged. The result is an episode that’s not very good in and of itself, but that promises to be better. It’s like a cake before it’s popped into the oven: Not yet edible, but potentially very delicious. It still may need a few more ingredients, too, so Westworld may not start cooking until three or four episodes in.

Under the Netflix World Order, however, the wait can be frustrating, and here we have to put our trust in HBO and husband and wife creators Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan, as well as an outstanding cast that also includes Thandie Newton, Shannon Woodward, and the third Hemsworth brother (Luke) that no one talks about. There’s definitely something here — it’s rich in theme and poses a lot of interesting questions about the nature of humanity — but it’s going to take some time to unpack. My advice: Wait a month and binge the first few episodes.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.