Welcome to Westworld, HBO’s big-budget drama about an Old West–themed resort that lavishly caters to the sometimes dark desires of its clientele. It’s an appropriate setting: With an alleged $100 million price tag, Westworld is itself a very expensive Western fantasy world whose most visceral thrills revolve around the same potent brew of sex and violence that helped make Game of Thrones such a controversial hit.
Of course, Westworld isn’t just selling escapism. If this first episode is any indicator, the series will offer a self-aware critique of escapism itself. “The Original” sets the tone by presenting a different kind of cerebral fantasy: We’re invited to peer behind the curtain of the violent entertainment we enjoy — often on HBO — giving us opportunity to feel like we understand it for what it is, even as we enjoy it.
Set at an unspecified time in the future, Westworld is a futuristic amusement park that is something of a playground for the wealthy. This is no ordinary Old West reenactment, though. What makes Westworld special is its population — not actors, but android “hosts” who are painstakingly programmed to provide “over 100 interconnected narratives” to the guests who visit.
This is a world where guests (or players, if you prefer) aren’t forced down a particular path. Instead, they can go where they want and choose their own story line. It’s what the video-game industry would call an open-world game, much like the Grand Theft Auto series (or Red Dead Redemption, if you want to stick with the Western theme). What often makes games like these controversial is the same thing that makes them so appealing: Not only can you go wherever you want, you can do whatever you want — to anyone.
In the less family-friendly areas of Westworld, that means not just visiting brothels or killing bad guys in shoot-outs, but beating, torturing, and even raping any host unfortunate enough to show their face. Every guest in Westworld is essentially in “God mode” — they can never be harmed, and the only limits to their behavior are the limits of their fantasies. In such an environment, the hosts serve a crucial purpose: Along with a rich narrative, they provide moral cover for everyone’s darkest impulses. You can do anything you want to them with impunity, because they aren’t real.
The first person we meet in Westworld isn’t a person at all, but rather a host named Dolores Abernathy (Rachel Evan Wood). Dolores is the archetypal good girl whom guests can save from bandits or attack alongside the bandits, depending on their preference. Arguably, it doesn’t matter. No matter what happens to Dolores over the course of a “narrative loop,” her memory gets reset, so she can return just as fresh-faced and naïve for the next group of guests. It’s a little bit Dollhouse, a little bit Groundhog Day, and a little bit Jurassic Park.
That’s because strange things have started happening to the hosts after a recent software update; mostly small glitches at first, though they quickly grow more troubling and more violent. We’re assured over and over again that this isn’t a serious problem; a host could never hurt a human being as it is their most cardinal, Asimovian rule. (Also, the park “hasn’t had a critical failure in over 30 years.”) The episode’s insistence on this issue is the surest sign that hosts will definitely hurt people, and things will absolutely get out of control. I don’t know exactly what the Westworld equivalent is to a T-Rex snarling beneath a banner that says “WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH,” but I can tell you that it’s coming. “These violent delights have violent ends,” one host intones ominously, after being programmed with just a little too much Shakespeare.
The John Hammond of this particular story is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the creator of Westworld. After three decades of playing dungeon master, Ford has grown just a bit weary of Westworld’s self-indulgent merry-go-round, and perhaps a bit too interested in a host’s potential to evolve beyond its programming. It’s his newly added code that’s been causing problems with the hosts, by adding gestures called “reveries” that can be evoked by specific experiences, and may be giving them access to traumatic memories that should have been wiped. This is relevant, again, because the hosts are subjected to near-constant trauma. For them to remember would mean that these acts have consequences — the antithesis of fantasy.
Not everyone is happy about Ford’s tweaks to the code, and not just because they cause what appear to be existential strokes. The updates continually strive to make the androids seem more nuanced and realistic to guests — “It’s the tiny things that makes them seem real,” says programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) — but the park’s narrative designer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) has started to question whether that’s really the best or most gratifying thing for guests.
“Ford and Bernard keep making those things more lifelike,” Sizemore says. “But does anyone truly want that? Do you want to think that your husband is really fucking that beautiful girl or that you really just shot someone? This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real.”
It’s an interesting question, particularly as video games and virtual reality increasingly offer experiences that look or feel more “real” than ever. One of the biggest question marks about VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or the upcoming PlayStation VR isn’t whether virtual reality is as immersive or intense as we’d imagined; it is. The question is whether that’s what people want from their recreation — if erasing the lines between fantasy and reality makes the fantasy more satisfying, or less. After all, why must the endpoint for fantasy be as close as possible to reality? If you’re truly looking for escapism, at a certain point, does realism defeat the purpose?
“The Original” also implies that a deeper game is taking place beneath the surface hedonism of Westworld, a narrative with stakes visible only to the nebulous “management” and the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris), who visits the park to terrorize hosts, killing and raping them at will. He suggests that he’s been doing this for 30 years, which makes him seem less like a truly terrifying villain and more like a nerd who spends all his time playing violent video games. Despite the fact that the Man in Black looks and acts like a black-hearted evildoer, is he really any different or less pathetic than some 15-year-old kid beating a virtual sex worker to death in Grand Theft Auto just because he can? Is he actually a bad guy, or just some sad man who spends his time hiding in an imaginary world where he pretends to be a bad guy?
At its best, the meta-textual layer of unreality in Westworld can shift how you think about the scenes that play out in the park, and perhaps how you think about entertainment that relies on sex and violence to gratify its audience. Here, the passionate romances, bloody shoot-outs, and tearful deaths are actively framed not just as fantasy but as artifice; they deliberately draw our attention to their seams, to the hands moving behind the scenes to script and sculpt each moment, even as they compel us to respond with genuine emotion.
When the glitches grow more serious and some of the hosts have to be removed to fix their faulty code, Sizemore decides to paper over the narrative holes this creates by shoehorning an unnecessarily bloody shoot-out into the middle of the story, which of course means there’s also one in the middle of the episode. It’s violent, absurd, and exciting. The guests will love it, Sizemore assures us. They do. Millions of viewers at home will enjoy it, too.
That’s what makes Westworld so interesting, at least at the outset. It’s a critique of brutal, manipulative entertainment that is itself brutal, sometimes manipulative, and, yes, entertaining.