The first in this episodic series, The Original aired October 2, 2016. The episode takes place at a remote park, guests pay to share wild west adventures with android hosts; a programmer warns the park founder about the behavior of some recently re-coded hosts; in the Westworld town of Sweetwater, a rancher’s daughter encounters a gunslinger.
Ready, player one?
Switch off awareness of your surroundings and focus your attention exclusively on this EW recap. We’re booting up our Analysis Mode of HBO’s Westworld, and there is a lot of data to process. Titled “The Original,” the first episode is the most dense packing of characters, story lines, and mysteries that I’ve seen on TV since the Game of Thrones pilot five years ago. There are no dragons, sure, but there is a Dolores — and I suspect she’s going to wreak more havoc on this show than Drogon in Westeros.
A warning sign in the premiere of Westworld—HBO’s new world-building mind-bender about a Wild West theme park where guests pay to enact their violent fantasies on a posse of unsuspecting robot hosts—came when a grizzled cyborg daddy, realizing the horrors of the setup, tips off his daughter, with the show’s characteristically subtle touch, by grabbing her shoulders and snarling, wide-eyed, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”
It wasn’t surprising that the robot had noticed that something was rotten in Westworld; that much seemed apparent from the episode’s opening shot, where a fly crawls across the daughter robot’s accommodating eyeball. I was intrigued, however, that in his rebellious distress, daddy robot would quote Shakespeare. His warning line comes from The Tempest, when the spirit Ariel reports the success of the stormy shipwreck his master Prospero has ordered up.
Ariel gleefully recounts that Prospero’s enemies on board were so convinced by the illusion that they jumped into the sea, shouting about the relative population of devils in hell. Ah, I thought, we are in the Realm of Allegory: the scheming wizard-scientists who design Westworld are playing Prospero, stage-managing an imaginary realm to control the fate of its recalcitrant inhabitants.
Guts & Glory
Dolores (Wood, who has the most difficult job of the main cast, is terrific), as she greets each new day with a sense of hope; we know that the new day for her is going to almost certainly be just like the old day, and that it’s doubtful it’ll have much in it worth being hopeful for. And yet that enthusiasm is enough to make us care about her, even as her true role in the narrative becomes clear. She is, we learn late in the hour, the oldest robot in the park. And given everything that’s happened, if there’s going to be a revolution, it’s going to start with her.
Inside the episode
There’s also some wonder on the human side of things. Not from the guests—unlike the movie, the guests here are largely inconsequential and oafish, apart from a terrifying turn from Ed Harris. It’s behind the scenes where things get interesting: Jeffrey Wright, God’s perfect nerd, as Bernard Lowe, the team’s head programmer, and a man so fascinated by the surface presentation of humanity that he interrupts an argument to comment on a co-worker’s facial tics.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Dr. Robert Ford, the man who started the park and who now seems more than a little interested in the idea of making the machines the next stage of human evolution—or even a new form of life unto themselves. There’s the usual corporate intrigue going on, but the scenes between Lowe and Ford balance the inherent misanthropy of the premise (we build copies of ourselves largely so we can be terrible to them without moral consequence) against a perpetual astonishment at the possibilities of creation.
Dark and Deep
This is a Dark Show, of course. There’s plenty of murder in the pilot, albeit of the easily reversible kind. The most unsettling moments come from malfunctioning machines, like when Dolores’s “father” finds a photograph from the outside world and has a nervous breakdown trying to process what it might mean. But even that’s more about foreshadowing than anything immediate. The greatest impression “The Original” leaves you with is one of possibility—the suggestion that something tremendous might be just about to happen. The whole thing builds to the sole permanent death in the entire hour: Dolores slapping a fly against her neck. It’s a perfect summation of everything that’s preceded it. It also raises the bar for upcoming episodes so high that I’m not sure how the show will manage to hold itself together.