“Do you even know where you are?”
Warning: Spoilers below through Season 1 Episode 1
Westworld premiered on HBO this past weekend, after what seemed a number of nebulous delays. I’d been anxiously anticipating it since it was originally announced because I’m a fan of both westerns and video games. And western-based video games. I’m a fan of HBO. I’m a fan of science fiction. I’m a fan of high concept premises. I’m a fan of quality acting. I’m a fan of great casting. I’m a die-hard for bold, intelligent writing, and I really, really miss Game of Thrones.
So Westworld gave me something to look forward to. Something to kind of hope for.
And then I heard everything you heard: that it was delayed or in reshoots or whatever. That they couldn’t really crack the nut. That it wasn’t going to be what we — and they — hoped it would be.
I didn’t see the original movie or read the book. There’s a book, right? I don’t really care that it’s Michael Crichton. I used to read all the Michael Crichton books and then I read Congo and I was like, “I’m all set with this.”
Westworld to me, is a standalone entity. To me it’s more Bad Robot and HBO and Ed Harris and Sir Anthony than it is Michael Crichton. That’s how I came into it. It’s not some movie from the 70s. It’s going to reboot the very concept of the Western. And gaming. And virtual reality. And it’s going to do it on HBO, which is like dipping it in gold.
I wasn’t going to judge Westworld for any reason other than the show itself. I don’t care about the why, frankly.
Let’s just experience the what.
We open with a silhouetted shot of what looks like a sun in front of a sinewy white horizon. Haunting music plays as we’re treated to a set of modern, 3D printed images. A human tendon. Skeleton hands on a piano. The barrel of a revolver. Two human forms — blank faces and skeletons, really — during sex. A woman with half a face astride a bronco, her hair flowing westward in an unseen wind.
They look like those diagrams from anatomy class of yesteryear: skinless human skeletons with tendons, unable to hide their leering grins. But these manufactured forms, so white and pristine, are they human, or are they something else?
And the fact that they’re made so carefully, strung together with what looks like spider thread, does that somehow make them less than? If you’re not born, if you’re just crafted — do you even exist at all?
We see the scroll of a player piano, an image we’ll revisit along the way. Something that plays to a specified set of notes, absent of human touch. These are key images to begin with. We end with the submersion of this ‘completed’ Vitruvian man into a milky ocean of plastic whiteness. Complete whiteness. A liquid tabula rasa.
It recalls those childhood, pop-psychology games where people would ask you questions and your answer would indicate your feelings about something else:
“You are in a completely empty, white room. How do you feel?”
Your answer would indicate your feelings about death. The Vitruvian, inanimate face sinks into pure, unbroken whiteness. Calm and terrifying. Still as death as the Westworld logo flashes. It’s a good title sequence, with that artsy, damning feel you got from the first season of True Detective, before you saw the second season of True Detective.
A man’s voice in pre-lap over a screen of black:
Bring her back online.
Online. A computer word. A tech word. A line of fluorescent lights flicker on, more like a 1950’s warehouse than an ultra-high tech research facility. The silhouette of a woman’s naked body. This is the her. This is the her coming back online.
We’re in that era. We’re on the cusp of some vast technological changes. Virtual reality not only exists for the first time in any real way, but it looms above us, ready to swallow us whole. The generation that grew up with the futuristic The Matrix braces as the Ready, Player One world takes shape around us. Driverless cars. 3D printers. Ubiquitous connectivity. Augmented Reality Games have us catching creatures that live in a magical dreamworld around us that we never knew existed. If they’re there, what else is there? What else is around us that we don’t know is around us? The lines between reality and technology begin to blur. We know all this. We feel all this in our bones as Westworld begins.
Bring her back online.
We meet Dolores. We have yet to see any color in this world. It’s all a sterile grayscale. Dolores is sitting in the dimmest of lights. It’s barely on, like her. She’s having a ‘dream.’ Who is talking to her?
She is terrified.
The voice assures her there is nothing to fear.
Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
The Turing Test. That’s where we begin. Bot, do you know thyself? Of course, the bot that ultimately passes this test and understands humanity will merely claim to not know thyself, but that’s probably a step away. Dolores’ face shows no sign of movement or awareness. She is a thing. She is an it. A fly walks on her face, and then her eyeball.
She doesn’t shoo it away. She is an it.
“No.” Says Dolores.
And we finally have color. We are above Dolores as she awakes. She is beautiful, lying on her pillow as the first light of dawn touches her face.
Some people only choose to see the ugliness of this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty.
Dolores heads out to the porch where her daddy is rocking casually in a chair. It’s sunup. It’s lovely. A real western morning, the way we all know it’s supposed to be, from Sergio Leone on down to every last newborn babe that ever took a breath. A morning in the west. We all know what that’s supposed to feel like. A perfect breeze moves her hair. We can almost smell it.
To believe, there is an order to our days. A purpose…
Aerial shots now. Red rocks. It looks like Sidona without the pesky addition of aliens and vortices. The player piano tape again. Dolores is asked what she thinks of the ‘guests?’
You mean the newcomers?
And now we’re on the handsome face of James Marsden as he awakes in a train. Ahhh a newcomer.
He looks around, taking it all in. A man in cowboy regalia is talking about how the first time he played, he came with the family and went fishing. The second time, he came by himself and “went straight evil.’
Best two weeks of my life, he says.
And now, those of us who are gamers think of the thousand times we’ve set up a game. We stare at the screen at the choice in front of us: Jedi or Sith. I mean, I’m a Jedi in real life, so why not try Sith? I’m interested in how it would feel to be evil…
Dark elves. Orcs builds. Renegade Commander Shepard. Paying hookers in Grand Theft Auto and then fucking them and killing them and taking your money back. Shooting cops. Ganking lesser players in PVP. Griefing. Camping the LZ. Dark Jedi. Dark wizards. Evil Mages. You name it: some people have it in their bones, and not just the shitheads of GamerGate.
Play straight evil. The best two weeks of your life.
But our handsome cowboy — who we come to find is named Teddy — is none of that. He exudes a good-guy vibe. When the train reaches the town, Teddy disembarks with a sense of joy and purpose. Dolores’ voice-over continues.
At one point or another, we were all new to this world. The newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are: a place to be free. To stake out their dreams. A place with unlimited possibilities.”
“Oh god!” says a Newcomer, seeing the town for the first time. “It’s incredible.”
Yes. Yes it is. This thing we call existence. This thing that we experience that most certainly is just natural and not at all scripted and doctored for us. Because our existence, unlike Dolores’ existence, is a place to be free, a place with unlimited possibilities. Because we’re not just rats in a maze. We are the creators.
“It better be, for what we’re paying.” Says another Newcomer.
Ah, okay. So there’s an important plot point. This is an amusement park and you pay to enter it. It’s just like any video game, except the interface is actually you. It’s not just visual, it’s experiential. A human being goes there. Got it.
Teddy steps off the train. He’s been here before, it seems. Maybe he’s a repeat customer. My god that dust looks real. Those horses look real. The clank of the smith’s hammer sounds real.
When he’s bumped by another cowboy, Teddy instinctively puts his hand on his revolver, and then backs away with a wave. No harm meant, stranger. Moving on. Teddy’s relaxed and cool, but I’m a little freaked out.
Would I have drawn on that stranger? What kind of insult is a shoulder bump in the West? What does it say about the man who doesn’t protect his honor? Where are the lines? What are the rules of engagement? Is this place historically accurate or a sterilized Disney version of the wild west? Is this west….wild?
Before we have too much time to dwell on that, Teddy gets his first mission.
A deputy is standing in a half circle with some other deputies by a Wanted sign. As Teddy nears, the voice of the deputy gets louder. “Murderous son of a bitch named Hector Escaton gunned down the Marshall! He’s holed up in the mountains! You there!”
This, right here, is why esteemed commander Dustin Rowles didn’t dig on this episode as much as I did. Because, despite mine and TK’s (and everyone else’s) best efforts: he’s not a gamer.
Because this moment had me smiling from ear to ear. This is what it’s like when you start a game, and god I love it. Truly. I’ve been gaming for four decades. My first games go back to playing Wizardry in text prompts on my Apple IIe. I played games on my Texas Instruments TI99-4a and my Commodore 64. I had an original Atari and Intellivision and every iteration of the Sega console and Playstation all the way to the current day. So it’s with great excitement that people like me become immersed in the new world of a video game. We want to be carried off. We can’t wait to be swept away. That, specifically, is what we’re paying for. Make me someone else for a time. Make me a hero. And that’s a HUGE part of why a game works. Do you believe the world? Do you want to be in that world, whether it’s a Halo or a Forest Moon or a Russian Consulate or the Eversong Woods.
And when you enter these worlds, they’ve ALL BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.
You are the chosen one. That’s why it’s awesome. You alone can right a wrong. You can’t be killed in the first god-mode encounter because then this whole thing wouldn’t make sense. And when you take control of your character after the initial video that sets the whole thing up, (here’s an example of an opening cut-scene that I enjoyed for a recent game) you arrive to that world a messiah. A chosen one.
Will Teddy accept the first quest? The first mission? Will he go find that mangy dog, Hector Escaton?
Teddy moves on to the saloon. Ahhh the saloon. A good place to start as any. “A good saloon is my favorite place in the world.” Says Kevin Kline’s character,’Paden’, to Linda Hunt’s character, ‘Stella’ in Silverado. “What’s wrong with us?” She smiles.
Nothing. Saloons are awesome. And Thandi Newton’s soul-mashing hotness is in this one.
Teddy has some hard cowboy talk with the surly barkeep and is immediately propositioned by a bot. We can tell she’s a bot. God she has an amazing face, this bot. This construct, played by the lovely Angela Sarafyn. What a face.
She says there’s barely a rind on him, and thus, she’ll give him a deal. Teddy says he’d rather not pay for it, and Thandi Newton, the madame of this particular upstairs brothel, informs him that he’s always paying for it, but most times the costs are hidden.
I like her already.
Teddy smiles and looks past her where a vision of a lovely maiden pulls focus across the dusty street. It’s Dolores, coming out of a dry goods shop.
Teddy heads out.
As he does, we hear the voice of Jeffrey Wright. How do we know? Because it’s Jeffrey Wright. An actor so sublime and important and powerful that it would take a world as dumb as ours not to fully appreciate him. He is a revelation.
He continues with the voice over, questioning Dolores. Probing her bot mind for anomalies. He asks her about repetition. She deflects with an innocence that only an innocent mind can have. She’s not Orwell’s ‘Snowball,’ from Animal Farm, she’s ‘Boxer.’ She’s a good soldier. She believes in the world and her place in it. And she says something that I think we’ll look back on in the series for a long time to come:
“All lives have routine. Mine’s no different. Still, I never cease to wonder at the thought that any day, the course of my whole life could change with just one chance encounter.”
She drops a can and Teddy picks it up for her… a chance encounter.
Or that’s what Jonathan Nolan would have you believe. But I would suggest that this isn’t the chance encounter that will — or more likely, has — changed her life. But we’ll get to that.
We then become aware that Dolores and Teddy are a thing of some kind, and that Teddy “came back.” A guest who fell in love, perhaps? A visitor from the outside world who fell in love with a bot, perhaps.
What is the outside world, anyway? When does this take place? We don’t know. We’ll come to see technology that is a quantum leap ahead of our own in many different ways, but much is intentionally withheld. They want us wondering about it, blogging about it, guessing. That’s good.
So Teddy follows Dolores home and we see that she’s not a shrinking violet. She’s got some spunk to her. A tough lady of the west, she doesn’t wait for Teddy to fetch his horse, but instead, canters off with a smirk.
We like her already.
Then, once Teddy catches up to her, amidst some lovely cinematography from Paul Cameron and music from Ramin Djawadi, they come across a huge herd of cattle. Teddy opines about how she gets them to all go in the same direction and she laughs and reminds herself that he dresses like a cowboy, but that’s where the west ends in him. She gestures to the point of the spear:
“That’s the Judas Steer. The rest will follow wherever you make him go.”
Huh. I never heard that term before, and I was on a cattle drive in Montana last year. The Judas steer. A daunting title. A 30 pieces of silver kind of title. But more surprising is that they’d slow the story way way way down to have Teddy and Dolores hop off their horses in the middle of nowhere to just talk about a steer.
The writers must have thought the image of one steer leading an ocean of others must be important.
They have a little bit of sweet talking on the range there, where Dolores says that everyone has a path and his path leads back to her. If you know anything about video games, there’s something called “bot pathing” which is the literal programmed path a NPC (non-player character) is configured to follow. Not an accidental choice of words.
Moving on. Teddy and Dolores get back on their horses and by the time they make it to daddy’s house, guess what? The damndest thing happens: another quest materializes.
The herd is out of their corral at daddy’s place. Dolores knows her old man would never let them roam this close to night, and then — in the ranch house perched placidly atop a nearby hill, a gunshot booms.
We’re 10 minutes in. Time for the A plot, folks.
Up at the house, a bad guy stands over Dol’s daddy, wondering if he has anything but milk in the house. Maybe something he could rape? He is truly disgusting, a man of evil, evidenced by how easily he murders daddy in cold blood and then does a stomach-turning tongue-lapping of milk, then spits it on daddy’s corpse. It’s revolting.
Is something being built with the color white here? A connection to evil? Not sure yet.
Teddy rolls up and before the baddies have a chance to commence on some horrific necrophilia, Teddy shoots them with his rifle.
Guh. So it is the wild west. As in relatively lawless out of town, and peopled with some obscene villains. Okay. We get it. Yuck. (But for the purposes of amping up the stakes…good!)
Blood mixes with milk as Teddy saves the day, ridding this world — whatever this world is — of some heinous blackguards.
And now we meet the Man in Black. Ahhhhhh. Does black signify good in this upside-down murdering rapescape? Is The Man in Black the black of Harry Dresden and The Gunfighter and Jason Bourne, or is he just the most evil one of all?
He talks to Dolores like he knows her, but she doesn’t recognize him. Did he kill her daddy? We saw that he didn’t but she doesn’t know that. Dolores tries to pull daddy’s gun but he clubs it out of her hand before she can pull the trigger. He’s irritated.
He says he’s been coming here for 30 years. (THIRTY years!) And she never remembers him. Then he comments with a chuckle that “they” gave her more pluck. Huh. So he’s a Newcomer, a guest, who is addicted to this world? Thirty years? Try to think what you’ve done for thirty years. You’d have to really love it. But the Man in Black is salty. He backhands Dolores. He’s annoyed that she doesn’t remember him. They’re old friends, he says. Old friends.
He touches her face. It feels sexual. We tighten.
But the day is saved as the good guy, Teddy, walks out of the house where he killed them other two baddies (I’m absorbing the dialect here). “Get yer hands off her.” He says to the Man in Black.
The Man in Black just sighs. He knows that voice. “Oh, Teddy.” He says.
So what happens when two actual humans fight in Westworld? What happens when two guests, two Newcomers want the same bot or gold mine or horse? What happens when two humans want the same anything?
“Did they teach you to sit or beg, Teddy?” says the Man in Black. He uses a lot of dog terminology. No idea why. Teddy doesn’t seem to recognize him at all. The Man in Black offers Teddy the first shot and slowly pantomimes going for his gun…slowly…slowly…
Teddy pulls his weapon and shoots the Man in Black.
It does nothing. The Man in Black laughs.
Teddy shoots again with the same result. Nada.
The Man in Black just looks at Dolores and Teddy and smiles. He loves their shock. He loves their horror and seeing them trying to grasp the reality of what’s happening. He loves their fear.
The Man in Black monologues. He doesn’t know why “they” paired some of the bots off. Seems cruel, he says. Then he realized that winning means nothing unless there’s a loser, and Teddy, specifically is there to be the loser.
That’s why he’s there.
Teddy falls to his knees and the Man in Black pats him on the shoulder. “Seems you’re not the man you thought you were.”
No. No, indeed he isn’t.
Because Teddy was set up to win this thing. The first ten minutes of this show were shot to specifically follow one of our own, a Newcomer through Westworld. This dude was our Ned Stark! And then, as it turns out…this dude was our Ned Stark.
The Man in Black, more out of annoyance and trying to simplify the situation than anything, kills Teddy. The way you might swat away a pesky fly. Zero effort. Zero emotional capital expended.
Teddy is dead.
Teddy the bot. Teddy the thing. Teddy the it, who I’m guessing may have actually been programmed as a dog in an earlier version of Westworld.
This whole time, we’d been pinning our hopes on a bot.
In his absence, and in the very reflection of his dead eye, the Man in Black drags Dolores by the hair into the barn to have his way with her. It’s vile. My whole body tightened at the violence and baseness of it, and at my own powerlessness to stop it. Especially in this day and age, and especially after all the notoriety Game of Thrones generated for using rape as a plot device.
You’d think they’d know better.
And, actually, I do.
Time will tell, but I think the ‘chance encounter’ that changed Dolores was thirty years before, with the Man in Black. Later in the episode, we find out that Dolores is the oldest bot in the park and we see that there’s far more to her than meets the eye.
In fact, in the closing shot of the pilot, we see her kill a fly, and we have the sense that so much more is going on here. I don’t know if the Man in Black dragged Dolores into that barn and raped her. I just don’t know. But I know I felt helpless and she looked helpless and that’s just what Jonathan Nolan wants you to feel.
More than any other show in recent memory, Westworld knows its own secrets and likes to hold them over your head and play upon your preconceived notions of character and structure and plot. It’s Lost if Lost knew what it was when it began.
We don’t know if the Man in Black is Jack or John Locke. And is this his stronghold?
We don’t know if the Man in Black is a ‘Newcomer’ or a rogue bot. We don’t know who the Judas Steer is. We don’t know who the players are yet, and maybe I’m giving the show too much credit, but it feels to me like they actually do know, and the deeper we allow ourselves to enter the theme park of Westworld the more smoke monsters we’re likely to find.
And next week, I’ll try to make it through the whole episode with my recap, but I better stop now before we get into novella length. Bless your soul if you made it this far, and let’s heat up the comments section with chatter.
That’s your first quest, if you choose to accept it.
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