O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall - I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep;
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!
-King Lear, Act II, Scene IV. William Shakespeare.
What does cruelty do to us in the absence of consequence? If each day we are indulged in killing, tormenting, and raping people incapable of resisting us in any way other than to help us live out our vilest fantasies, what dark urges will be born, or else revealed, within us? Westworld, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s pre-Jurassic Park hubris parable of the same name, offers a dismal picture as its answer. Callousness. Brutality. Inhumanity. Boredom. The very first thing we see is a battered woman, high on the list of delights on offer in the hell we’ll spend an hour touring.
The titular Westworld is a playground for the wealthy and powerful, a place where financiers and politicians can buy full immersion in a hyper-realistic recreation of the American frontier. Saloon doors swing, dust blows in the streets, and earnest young women offer shy smiles to gallant strangers. The park’s inhabitants, or hosts, are artificially intelligent constructs designed to function as the supporting characters in stories starring the visitors, or newcomers. Hosts are prevented from harming newcomers, or indeed any living things at all, even the flies which crawl over their skin and eyes in a few of the episode’s most memorable shots. The men and women who run it inhabit a warren-like complex at its center, a place where walking, talking beings are spun from slimy gossamer and filled with stories, gestures, and behaviors by the jaded and mercurial Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his understudy, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). Beneath the complex yawns a dripping, stinking catacomb packed with decommissioned “livestock,” hosts who’ve developed disqualifying errors over the years. They stand nude and silent, unblinking, in the gloom.
“The Original” begins, after an unsettling voice-over conversation between Bernard and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), as a bog-standard Western, albeit one viewed through the lens of our knowledge of the park’s nature. Teddy (James Marsden) is a handsome rogue we’re meant to take for a newcomer, a man playing the White Hat role we hear discussed on his train ride into town. He courts Dolores after retrieving a can of peaches she drops in the street and the two ride off into the gathering dusk, returning to her family farm. They arrive to find Dolores’s parents murdered by bandits, of whom Teddy makes short work. A grim beginning for a fledgling romance, but still within the scope of heroic narrative. That’s when the Man in Black (Ed Harris) arrives to taunt Teddy into a duel, even offering him the first shot. It’s when Teddy’s bullets fail to harm the Man, played by Harris with a coarse, rangy menace, that the hideous twist becomes apparent. Teddy is a host, the Man a visitor. The Man shoots the confused and horrified Teddy and drags Dolores toward a nearby barn. Is this his dozenth time raping her? His fiftieth?
The scene is a horrific one, but it’s the exchange between Teddy and the Man, the words more than the violence, that chills the blood. “I used to wonder why they paired some of you off,” says the Man as Teddy and Dolores grapple with fear and confusion. “It seemed cruel. Then I realized, winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses.” This man, this newcomer for whom the park was designed, has become bored with the humdrum routine of inflicting savagery on others. It’s the web of connections he can pluck with that savagery which interests him. He wants to know that the hurt is felt; that the agony is real. It’s a sentiment present in reverse and expressed with a grotesque lack of self-awareness by Westworld‘s narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) when he expresses his discomfort with the park’s increasing realism. Shouldn’t the illusion, he asks, remain penetrable? Shouldn’t the hosts stay well shy of believably human? To make the facade too convincing is to bring the atrocities committed by the park’s guests uncomfortably close to what it truly is. Better to retreat into playtime fantasies, sacrificing humanity in the name of excusing barbarous excess.
The cast is, from Woods’ nuanced, emotionally restrained Dolores to Wright’s utterly believable detached and obsessive Bernard, a series of delights. Character actor Louis Herthrum, that perennial scruffy frontiersman/criminal scum, does riveting work worth a separate shout-out as Peter Abernathy, a host whose exposure to a tiny sliver of the outside world drives him mad by flooding his mind with the memories of his past “roles” within the larger fiction of Westworld. (The hosts recovering past memories of themselves and awakening to a demented consciousness is courtesy of Dr. Ford’s new “reveries,” an update designed to create a kind of subconscious for the hosts in order to enrich their personalities). Abernathy’s fragmented mind and ineffectual rage recall the king he quotes, Shakespeare’s Lear, and center the pilot’s themes of memory, violence, and culpability. The stressful and insular lives led by park management and R&D clash perfectly with the restless, uneasy adventurism of the hosts and newcomers, and the ways in which the two groups bleed into and influence one another makes for fascinating viewing. Bernard’s distractible fixation on Theresa Cullen’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen) eyebrow muscle is captivating; he’s so intrigued by the possibility of reproducing it that he ignores the present and obvious emotion which is its origin. Form has, somewhere in his long hours spent fabricating fuckable, killable, thinking, weeping mannequins, become function’s twin to him.
That the episode manages to maintain a sense of crackling anticipation and forward momentum while retreading several of the same scenes two or even three times is a credit to Joy’s and Nolan’s script, which leaves no opportunity unexploited. Repetition is mined for detail as richly as deviation, and sudden interruptions to events we know are scripted play as that much more disturbing. Particularly ghoulish is the sequence in which a dashing robber and his crew pull off an elegantly choreographed saloon heist only to be gunned down by a schlubby newcomer who giggles like some sort of obscene child over the twitching bodies of his victims. Engrossing, too, is the Man in Black’s forcible attempt to disrupt the park’s loop and access the secrets beneath it, a quest for a deeper and more profound evil that seems like something Blood Meridian‘s Judge Holden might cook up in his spare time.
There’s so much more to talk about. Ramin Djwadi’s intriguing rework of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black,” which I’m not quite sold on, the nauseating spectacle of the rogue bandit host pouring milk on his victims through a hole in his belly, the absolute treat that is Anthony Hopkins as burned-out genius Dr. Ford, the slow horror of the sequence in which programmer Elsie (Shannon Hughes) kisses a comatose host, and a hundred other hypnotic sights and experiences populate “The Original,” one of the strongest and most daringly confrontational pilots I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s the rare show which understands that murder and rape are tools of entertainment second, tools of horror, and thus of self-reflection, first. There’s no escaping the moral abomination of creating life just to violate it.
“These violent delights,” Dolores murmurs at the episode’s close, “have violent ends.”