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HBO’s newest prestige drama, Westworld, has a lot going for it: a spectacularly talented cast, a great team of producers behind it (including Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams), and some of the most beautiful cinematography on television. But there is one major hurdle the show is going to have to overcome if it hopes to reach the creative heights of landmark HBO dramas in the past: shows about robots almost never work in the long run.
When the central conflict of a series rests on whether or not robots will achieve free will and evolve (or, more often, rebel) against their creators, there is an internal clock within the show that is ticking toward zero even before the show premieres. We, as an audience, know that the robots will gain sentience at some point (as the final moments of “The Original” hinted, that moment might be coming sooner rather than later for Dolores). It won’t be a shock. We know it will happen. We have also been conditioned to expect the robots to turn on their creators. Now, this element of the plot comes with some variance, and we don’t yet know how the coming sentience of the robots of Westworld will impact the lives of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), but we do know they will eventually have to face their sentient creations and come to terms with how the robots have been treated over the years.
And that is my central issue with Westworld. Sure, Ed Harris’s character is a wrinkle in the proceedings (we don’t yet know why he so desperately wants to get to a deeper level within the confines of the park, although it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess he has some vendetta against Dr. Ford or Lowe), but we already know the general way in which the show’s overall arc will unfold. There will be continual glitches in the hosts. Eventually, a host will harm a guest. And there will, eventually, be a need for the creators to discuss what has occurred with their sentient creations. The problem is baked into the premise of the show itself. How do we, as the audience, move past the fact that we already know the general plot of the series from the outset?
The key, as was clear within “The Original,” is for the series to make us care about the show’s characters so much that we ignore the fact that we know what is coming. One of the failures of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (a series that presented a similar conceit, only with actual humans whose minds were wiped and who had signed up to serve a term as mindless robots) was that the audience didn’t have enough invested in the characters to really care about what was happening to them. Westworld has already done great work in setting up Dolores as someone the audience can root for. A great deal of that comes from Evan Rachel Wood’s excellent work in crafting a sympathetic, yet vibrant, character with the little she has to work with in terms of dialogue. I certainly want her to realize what is happening and rebel against the yoke of the systems she is operating within.
However, outside of Dolores, none of the rest of the show’s central characters resonate. The humans are all different archetypal characters (Ford is the creator who can’t understand that something is going wrong with his creation, Lowe is the brilliant scientist who has a dark past- in this case, it appears to be the death or loss of his son, and Cullen is the emotionless, no nonsense career woman) with little fleshing them out beyond their individual role within the narrative. The other hosts are bland and lack much definition. Although considering the actors being used, one assumes the layers to these characters will emerge as the series continues, but it is troubling that after an hour and fifteen minutes the only character that stuck with me was Dolores.
It is nearly impossible to tell whether or not a show will be excellent after only watching its pilot. And there were enough moments within “The Original” to make me intrigued enough to return next week. With a cast and creative team as strong as this one, I can’t help but hope the show builds its characters in a meaningful manner and gives us something to look forward to besides the inevitable showdown between creation and creator.
— Could we finally have a moratorium on having a villain brutally rape a female character for no other reason than to show the audience how awful he is? Because I’m more than ready to have that trope be dead and buried. We definitely didn’t need to see that happen to understand that Ed Harris was playing a bad guy. And we also didn’t need it to understand that the humans treat the robots as simply things and not people. That was conveyed clearly in a myriad of interactions throughout the course of the episode. The excellent TV critic Mo Ryan wrote a great piece about why this wasn’t necessary for Westworld.
— Those desert vistas were absolutely stunning, weren’t they? Just gorgeous.
— Logistics question: Since the hosts reset at the end of every day, do the guests get to act out a new story every day? Is there any way to keep a host in a longer arc than 24 hours? Hosts can stay for weeks at a time, so one would think there would be a way to interact with a host for a longer period than a single day.
— A bit of housekeeping: I know that the series is loosely based on a film with the same name. I haven’t seen the film, nor do I plan to. While some characters overlap with those from the film, the series is meant to be a separate entity from the film and I will treat it as such.