Westworld recap: episode one – a rootin’ tootin’ welcome to a sordid sci-fi fantasy

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HBO have thrown money at their latest fantasy show, set in a Wild West theme park run by robot cowboys. And if I were a no-good gambling man, Id say we were in for a thrill ride. Saddle up

Spoiler alert: this blog is published after Westworld airs on HBO in the US on Sunday night. Do not read unless you have watched episode one, which airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday at 9pm.

Customers are invited to take part in a drama that seems real, assured that they will be protected from any consequence. Against a backdrop that takes the breath away, a cast of actors play out a storyline that provokes base and powerful emotions. Its a fantasy, a fiction, but beneath the glossy exterior, a bigger riskier game is taking place. Yes, after all the money HBO have spent, Westworld had better be a hit!

Here we are then at the start of the most anticipated drama of the autumn. Inspired by the Michael Crichton novel and movie, developed by Jonathan brother of Christopher but equally talented in his own right Nolan, starring everyone from Hannibal Lecter to Birgitte Nyborg, there is no doubting the scale of Westworlds ambition. Heck, its even got its own slow animated credits sequence, just like Game of Thrones.

I will be your recapper for this darned tootin thrill ride and I look forward to your company. Ill be sharing my observations on what takes place and the odd bit of criticism as to whether its working or not. I hope you will do the same.

Its not easy facing up when your whole world is black

The
The gunslinger cant be hurt Ed Harris plays a cadaverous sadist. Photograph: AP

As you might expect, this weeks pilot episode is largely a scene setter. In the opening sequence we meet Dolores Albernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy Flood (James Marsden). We are invited to assume they will be our hero and heroine. They meet in a small, dusty frontier town. They ride into the canyon together and talk a lot of spiritual stuff about everyone having a trail to follow. We understand: its fate, its destiny, theyre just like us.

Then things take a turn. The couple arrive at Doloress ranch to find her dear old pa being shot up by a posse of bad guys with a fetish for milk. Teddy does his hero bit and takes them down with a trusty six-shooter. Suddenly, out of nowhere comes a gunslinger (Ed Harris). He challenges Teddy and invites him to shoot. Teddy does so, but to no avail. The gunslinger cant be hurt. He can hurt Teddy though, and shoots him dead right there. This wasnt what was supposed to happen.

In the original 1973 film, Westworld, Yul Brynner played the gunslinger. A renowned Western star, Chris Adams in the Magnificent Seven, Brynners own image was cleverly subverted by director Crichton. Brynner may have looked like the cowboy that everybody knew, but he was actually an android and the moment Brynner was revealed to be made not of flesh and blood but chips and bolts provided one of the defining images of 1970s sci-fi (and there was a lot of competition).

The basic premise in this TV series remains the same. Westworld is a near-future theme park where rich humans pay up to live out Wild West fantasies (and other, more sordid desires) in the company of a cast of robots or hosts. Yet while Harris is styled to look like Brynner did, albeit with extra cadaverous features, hes not a robot any more. As far as we understand it, the gunslinger is a human. Humans cant be killed in Westworld. He speaks about having visited Westworld for 30 years and while he seems to use the park as a place to act out his sadistic urges, he is also following a different trail, one that leads to an as-yet-unknown destination (and is marked out on a map, tattooed on a poor androids scalp).

Maybe then Ill fade away and not have to face the facts

Dare
Dare to dream? Anthony Hopkins as Dr Ford, the creator of Westworld. Photograph: HBO

If I were a no-good gambling man, Id be inclined to say that the destination is Westworld HQ, where the androids and the trails (ie the robots pre-programmed plotlines) are devised. Its there that we meet the heavyweight stars of the drama. Anthony Hopkins plays Ford, the creator of Westworld who may be a little too in love with his robotic creations and has started to program them to dream. Jeffrey Wright (who played a similar role in Duncan Joness Source Code) is Bernard Lowe, the man charged with making sure Fords creations do the job they are supposed to and nothing more. Then theres Sidse Babett Knudsens Theresa Cullen, the operations leader who is basically a corporate badass who dont take no mess and is slightly concerned at the prospect of a legion of sentient androids. Theres also a brash, sweary Brit Lee Sizemore (played by Simon Quarterman) whose job is to write the scripts and remind us that Malcolm Tucker existed.

Android
Android awakening inside Westworld HQ, where the robots are on the verge of becoming sentient. Photograph: John P Johnson/HBO

In the middle of the episode, Sizemore and Cullen have a West Wingish exchange which addresses the bigger picture beyond the park. Whatever Ford has created (and whatever the demons that drive him) it has value above and beyond a theme park.

The corporations interests in this place go way beyond some rich assholes who want to play cowboy, Sizemore says.

Its worth one thing to the customers, another to the shareholders and another thing altogether to management, says Cullen.

Quite what those interests are will, no doubt, be part of the longer running threads in this show. As will the tensions within the corporation. More immediately though we can surely expect some kind of android awakening, whether caused by Fords revery-inducing update or something else. When Doloress pa is decommissioned for spouting prophetic verse I am a host mechanical and dirty and I shall have such revenges on you both he is left in a warehouse full of creatures like him. Almost an armys worth, Id say.

Notes from the prairie

If
If you cut her, does she not bleed Evan Rachel Wood as android host Dolores. Photograph: HBO

I like the look of Hector Escaton, the host with the most, aka Westworlds android bad boy. He and his blond sharpshooting sidekick, Armistice, are just too cool to be incidental characters.

I also like the barrel organ and how its punched hole musical notation could be seen as primitive computer code, or even mimicking a decoded piece of DNA.

What I dont like are the customers. Largely there for sex and violence, were yet to see anyone with redeeming features. Ok, maybe the little kid, but even he says poor Dolores isnt real (if you cut her, does she not bleed?)

Anachronism monitor

The decline of Doloress pa is presaged by the moment he finds a colour photograph lying on the ground in his ranch. Its of a woman in a modern metropolis (presumably New York City). Cannot. Compute.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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