We decrypt HBO's ultra-complex stunning new thriller -- including THAT scene
Ready, player one? Switch off awareness of your surroundings and focus your attention exclusively on this EW recap. We’re booting up our Analysis Mode of HBO’s Westworld, and there is a lot of data to process. Titled “The Original,” the first episode is the most dense packing of characters, story lines, and mysteries that I’ve seen on TV since the Game of Thrones pilot five years ago. There are no dragons, sure, but there is a Dolores — and I suspect she’s going to wreak more havoc on this show than Drogon in Westeros.
We’re going to break down this episode and do our best to figure out what the hell is going on — or, at least, what we’re supposed to think is going on. One thing we know for sure is that Westworld has some major twists coming this season. Dolores is asked, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” and we should question the reality we’re seeing, too.
After a stunning opening credits sequence showing the 3D printing of this new world, we open with a naked woman in a chair in a cold metallic room. It’s a striking graphic image that hooks you, and 100 percent HBO-y. This is Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), our plucky immortal heroine. Dolores is this Wild West theme park’s veteran Disney princess; a rancher’s daughter forever waking up with the morning sun, all hopeful, awaiting the return of her cowboy prince. She doesn’t sing an “I Want” song, but might as well.
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What follows is perhaps a typical day in Dolores’ life. She greets her father, rides into the filmic Western town of Sweetwater, reunites with her absent love Teddy Flood (James Marsden), and then returns home to an outlaw gang killing her family. That’s Dolores’ story “loop.” As we’ll see, her loop can be sidetracked an endless number of ways by the park guests, or even by other hosts when their ever-shifting story lines intersect with hers. We also learn this hour that she’s the oldest host in the park even though she looks like the youngest (I wonder if, as the park’s “original,” if her name is a play on the company that owns Westworld — the “Delos” corporation).
A train of guests arrive into town. The cost of visiting Westworld is $40,000 a day. But since we don’t know what future year this story is set that could be the price of, like, a taco. We also don’t yet know where our story is taking place. Westworld was shot in Utah. But it’s probably a safe bet that, Dolores, we’re not in Utah anymore.
The train is stocked with guests and hosts. One human says the first time he visited Westworld he was with his family and had G-rated fun, but for his second trip he went “straight evil,” and it was the best two weeks of his life. This tells us a lot about the guests and the park in a couple economical lines.
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We follow one visitor, the handsome Teddy. We assume he’s human, and this is the first trick that Westworld plays on us (the first we know of, at least). He visits Sweetwater’s saloon and brothel run by Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton, who doesn’t have much to do in the pilot but is pretty crucial starting next week). One of her employees, Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan), praises Teddy’s cleanliness, purring that there’s “not much rind” on him, like he’s a sexy lemon. But Teddy is designed as Dolores’ counterpart, so he’s disinterested. Teddy is a Good Guy, a believer in True Love. His virtue means that he’s a perpetual victim in this park, just like Dolores — more target practice for bloodthirsty guests and robo-villains alike.
Teddy sees Dolores, and they reunite. If you watch the premiere a second time (I recommend it), you realize this moment is actually the big giveaway that Teddy is a host, not what happens later. Since Dolores’ memory is re-set after every adventure, she doesn’t recall guests when they re-visit the park. Dolores recognizing Teddy means he’s written into her permanent Story.
They go for a horseback ride across some gorgeous scenery, and we take a moment to silently thank HBO for spending gobs of money. Once back at the Abernathy ranch, however, the Horror begins.