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‘Westworld: Episode 1 - The Original’ - TV Review

Like the canyons and mesas that form its beautiful, if artificial, backdrop, Westworld is full of echoes.  One can see and hear many, many other texts resonate through this one, including, but not limited to, Battlestar Galactica, Quentin Tarantino films (most notably Kill Bill and Django Unchained),  The Hunger Games, Terminator, and any number of “killer robot” films, including the original Westworld.  (Tangentially, was Michael Crichton beaten up at a Six Flags or something? Between this and Jurassic Park (also echoed), we get it - theme parks are evil. I’m still keeping my season pass to Universal Studios!)  References to other texts, to history, and to our world abound (not like in Stranger Things, in which virtually every reference is for nostalgic purposes, but rather to give us a world we think we know, but don’t really). Yet for all these echoes, what results on screen is a highly intelligent and original (if a little slow), unfolding narrative with great promise.   Part of the pleasure is playing spot-the-allusion (especially the music - the player piano rendition of “Black Hole Sun” is worth the watch alone!), but much of it comes from learning about this world and then seeing everything we think we knew (both from assumptions while watching and from presumptions based on earlier texts that do similar things) reversed or erased.

Two major interlinked plots emerge from this pilot: The robots have begun to malfunction and rebel once Dolores Abernathy (Rachel Evan Wood) and her father discover a photograph from the outside world, and The Man in Black (Ed Harris) seeks “a deeper game.”  The two plots are linked almost immediately when The Man in Black enters Dolores’ storyline, gunning down Teddy Flood (James Marsden) and dragging her off (presumably to rape her), telling them he has done this many times before, they just don’t remember.  He subsequently meets them again and declines to shoot and rape as he has “other business.”

Storylines figure prominently in the story.  When Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the main programmer, proposes pulling over one hundred possibly defective units from the park, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) explodes: “We sell complete immersion in a hundred interconnected narratives - a relentless f--king experience!” Pull one robot, not a problem, pull a hundred and the stories fall apart, because that is what Westworld is - the ultimate immersion narrative.  You are part of a story, a “relentless” one that allows you to indulge your worst instincts without consequence - the ultimate theme park experience for the wealthy elite.  People spend money to play act in this world safely.  The guns only hurt or kill hosts - guests cannot be injured.  There is a real-world echo here of first-world tourists playing at going to third-world tourist spots, the people whose lives form the backdrops of their photographs, but whose lives do not matter to them.  Westworld is the ultimate first-world tourist experience. 

When Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) shoots up the town, he is killed by a goofy “Newcomer,” the name the scientists who run the park have the “hosts” call the “guests.”  The newcomer then wants his picture taken with the “bodies” of the people he has shot.  The hosts “were built to gratify the people who come to your world,” either by serving as fodder for gunplay or as sexual partners without consequences.  As Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) reminds Sizemore, the guests are just there to “shoot and f--k,” they are “rich a--holes who want to play cowboy.”

Tangentially, Hector Escaton is another one of those meaningful names.  “Hector” is the champion who defended Troy but was defeated by Achilles, who dragged his dead body around the city ten times.  “Eschaton” refers to the end of time, the last things.  He is a bandit, but he is named after a hero whose corpse is abused and a coming end of the world.   

Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), Dolores’ father, plays the victim, gunned down by those who would steal his money and violate his wife and daughter. That is, until he finds a photograph of a young woman from the real world, engendering a crisis in his programming.  He begins to quote Shakespeare: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” (The Tempest, 1.2.215-216).  Later, he tells Lowe and Ford, “I will have such revenges on you both. I will do such things…they shall be the terror of the earth” (a truncation of King Lear 2.4.276-279).  When Dolores is asked what he whispered in her ear, she responds, “These violent delights to violent ends,” (a slight variation on Romeo and Juliet’s “these violent delights have violent ends,” (2.6.9), which could have easily continued into the next lines: “And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume,”(2.6.10-11)).  The audience then learns the unit that is currently “Peter Abernathy” used to be “The Professor,” a character in “The Dinner Party,” another fantasy adventure, in which he would quote Shakespeare and was revealed to be the leader of an evil cult. See? There’s a reason he was quoting Shakespeare at random - just a glitch in his programming and poor erasure of previous memories.

But the quotes are not random, and memory figures prominently in the show.  Quoting Shakespeare is a means by which we might pretend our work is weightier, more clever and intellectual than it is, but credit where credit is due, the lines Westworld employs are actually very relevant (and might be very revelatory) to the narrative.  The Tempest quotation is from a report by Ariel, the magical servant in Prospero’s employ, telling of the fear of the men in the ship Prospero had Ariel pretend to sink, so he might bring his enemies to justice.  In other words, the old man who created a world on a magical island has a servant creature create realistic fantasies for those who arrive on the island.  Sound familiar?  Vengeance lurks in the background of The Tempest, as it does in Lear, another play about a wronged old man who is betrayed by those he thought he could trust most - his own children, and when he realizes the reality of his world, threatens them with terrible vengeance.  Sound familiar?  The lines from Romeo and Juliet come from Friar Lawrence, assuring Romeo that “violent delights,” referring to both the pleasure of being a young man in a society where violence is the answer to everything and the sudden joys of mad crushing on Juliet will come to a sudden end.  The next few lines remind us that the passions that burn brightest also burn fastest, and often burn up when complete, an appropriate conception of a world where most of the guests come to “shoot and f--k.”

Shakespeare also seems appropriate with the emergence of Anthony Hopkins, playing Dr. Robert Ford, a character named after the man who killed Jesse James in April 1882 (and known to film buffs through the 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).  No such character name exists in the original; in “The Original,” however, we learn that the park was designed and built by a man who killed one of the last legends of the West.  Hopkins is also the one who pulls the pilot into focus, and it finally begins to pick up steam when he arrives on the scene.  Robert Ford, the creator and genius behind the park and its robots, lives underground (Indeed, we see every other character on the surface at least once, but not him.) and is most at home with his creations.  We first meet him having a drink and reminiscing with an old cowboy, who then climbs back into his bodybag and zips it closed.  All of Ford’s friends are dead or not real, even the ones he has invented for himself.

Reminiscing is important, as it also introduces one of the other major themes of the series: memory.  Lowe first discovers that Ford has implanted “reveries” into some of the units - remembrances of past moments and behaviors. They are allowed to remember and repeat behavior.  (“A whore with hidden depths? Every man’s dream.”)  In theory, he does so to make the robots more lifelike.  The reality is it begins to cause a glitch in the programming.  A group of newcomers stop Teddy from going to Dolores as he does every day, because they remember him from “last time.”  The problems will start when Teddy remembers them from “last time.”  You can only abuse someone (as The Man in Black does to Dolores) if they don’t remember you as a past abuser.  The Man in Black himself points out that neither Dolores nor Teddy remember him, even though he has done this many times over the past thirty years.  Memory itself becomes a tool by which the robots will no longer accept being victims of violence or bodies to be “f--ked or shot.”

Yet this Westworld does not seem to be about the rise of the machines, or artificial life gaining sentience, nor about how robots show us the potential for intelligence beyond humanity, so much as about how humans are the inhuman ones.  The people in Westworld have no empathy or sympathy for them being programmed to gratify them.  In a passing line, Ford reveals that all diseases have been cured and humanity is on its way to ending even death. Immortality has almost been reached, and the best thing we can do with our money and time is to fight and f--k robots.  “This is as good as we’re going to get,” Ford tells Lowe (and isn’t that another suggestive character name?), and he does not mean it ironically or humorously.  As a species, we’ve peaked. 

Ford discusses natural selection with Lowe when Lowe gently tries to tell Ford he made a mistake.  “Self-delusion is a gift of natural selection as well,” is the reply.  The newcomers pay a lot for a great experience, but in the end what they experience demonstrates both their shallowness and the darkness lurking in the human soul.  The series shows us a world devoid of real meaning, of real experiences.  People pay to feel things, to kill, to rape, to take, so they can feel something, but this is as good as they are.  At heart, given the idea that the newcomers pay to “shoot and f--k,” the people who come to Westworld demonstrate that they would kill, rape, and torture if they could get away with it.  In this theme park, they can. 

By sheer coincidence, a few hours before I watched Westworld, I was in conversation with a group of writers.  One was arguing that wish-fulfillment shows like Fantasy Island are lies, because they only show positive desires.  Just once, he wished, the television program should feature a character who wants to shoot up his workplace, or violently assault her ex, or something else dark and twisted, because in truth that is human nature.  Westworld shows a world in which people are given the opportunity to fulfill those dark desires.  This Westworld is closer to Hostel than to the original, but “The Original” has set up a very interesting world in which there are large ideas lurking under the fantasy setting.  There are many echoes, but they collectively create a new sound and a new world - one worth exploring, even if we are guided by our darker instincts.


Kevin Wetmore, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor

Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University.  His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.  For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.

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