Westworld premiere recap: Season 1, Episode 1
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.
The outlaw host Hector and his gang kill Dolores’ parents. Teddy kills the outlaws. Then a guest arrives, the Man in Black (Ed Harris). He’s a twist on Yul Brynner’s gunslinger terminator from the first film. Instead of a robot, the Man in Black is a ultra-wealthy human guest at his favorite vacation destination; a man who prefers assault and murder to beaches and margaritas. He reveals he’s been coming to Westworld since it first opened and torments Teddy and Dolores with his invulnerability. He greets a confused Dolores like an old friend, just as a Disneyland regular might say howdy to Snow White (except also precisely not like that).
A couple words on the guns: Weapons in Westworld can sense whether a target is a host or a human and fire different projectiles for each. The showrunners told me the ones fired at humans are supposed to still sting a bit — a bit like paintball — but the Man in Black is a tough veteran and doesn’t even react. Teddy tries to shoot the MiB in the face and realizes he can’t pull the trigger — human headshots are forbidden. A stunned Teddy realizes he’s facing some kind of god and drops to his knees, almost a parody of worship.
Then the MiB turns his attention to Dolores and drags her by her hair off the barn, caveman style, to have his way with her.
This scene … I don’t think I’ve ever known a scene to provoke such a wide spectrum of reactions. Some seemed to outright despise Westworld for this moment, decrying it as another example of Hollywood’s overactive use of rape and pay cable’s fetishization of sexual assault. At the other end of the spectrum, there were two editors (a man and a woman) in recent weeks who texted me after watching the pilot screener literally asking, “Where was the rape scene?” (It’s not shown, after all, but strongly implied). So for some viewers, the sequence was such an enormous affront, it’s practically all they remember from the pilot. While others somehow didn’t even realize it happened.
If you strongly feel the scene is unnecessary and offensive, and there’s no reason for any show to have content like this, then perhaps skip to the next page. You and I are hopefully starting a long recapper-and-reader relationship, and I frankly don’t want to lose you over a difference of opinion about a single scene in the first episode. But if you’re open to some debate on this, let me take a swing at making a case for why this scene isn’t like typical TV violence.
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There are at least three levels of meaning in this scene (Westworld is big on multiple layers — just as the tech facility has literal levels upon levels going deep into the earth).
On the first level, the scene supports the show’s plot. Watching the Westworld pilot and decrying this attack is like watching the first episode in a slave rebellion drama and objecting to how the slaves are treated. You need to show cruel abuse to establish the stakes of the story and the plight of the protagonists. And Westworld is looking like it’s very much going to be a slave rebellion drama, it’s just not advertised that way upfront.
Well then, one might fairly ask: Why does this need to be a man-on-woman rape scene? Why not something else?
The writers could have crafted some other horror, sure. But if they’re going to have a young female host protagonist who’s in a theme park where humans fulfill their darkest desires and they want to dramatize how she’s abused over and over again, this sort of violence is the type she’s going to encounter. Shying away from that depiction arguably does a disservice to the character and the world being depicted.
Now hold on, because here’s a second level, one that’s unique to Westworld. Dolores is a robot. So how do you get viewers to quickly emotionally sympathize with android heroes? Honorable lovestruck Teddy is murdered. That’s one way. Another is to provoke the strongest possible empathy response by picking an act of violence so horrible that — if you have empathy — you will probably feel upset. The showrunners want to put us through a reverse Voight-Kampff Test. We’re challenged here because we’re continually reminded the hosts are not human. So the scene effectively raises the question: “Is this really a crime? If Dolores thinks and feels — yet is also a mechanical creation — is this still wrong?” That question is hugely important to this show and is going to be challenged in all sorts of ways in the episodes to come.
Finally, there’s a third level, one that EW’s Jeff Jensen touched on in his review: Westworld is partly a critique of storytelling. The show’s most obnoxious character is the park’s vulgar hack-y writer. The stories he designs in the park — traditional tales of sex and violence — are a mirror held up to our own entertainment values. Next week has a scene where his violent taste is slammed by another character. The show all but asks: Is our traditional storytelling machine broken? Can it be fixed? In other words, if the complaint is HBO’s Westworld is entertaining viewers with a rape scene and that such scenes are an overused trope that reflects the worst of humanity … well, that’s the exact same point that Westworld is making.
After this rough sequence, Westworld pulls way back to the control room. We see that even the town’s horses are robotic, and watch the staff testing various archetypes — the brothel girl, the gunslinger. We see a Hunger Games-like massive interactive map of the town. The main command room has submerged trenches of workers, like an orchestra in a theater, or the command bridge of a Star Destroyer. One of the nice ironies of Westworld is the human characters live in a cold, subterranean, sterile robotic environment while their android creations dwell in a sun-soaked town teaming with sweaty humanity. Then we’re introduced to our story’s big wrinkle, the new element that’s going to change everything…
We meet two members of the Westworld staff — lead programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and his underling Elsie Huges (Shannon Woodward). They’re noticing a new class of gestures made by the hosts dubbed Reveries. They’re tied to the host’s hidden memories and park founder Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has slipped them into the latest update.
Here’s a simple way to think about the Reveries and how the hosts’ memories are constructed (as showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy explain in greater detail in an interview at the end of this recap): Imagine the hosts are like a document you’re writing on your computer. As you make changes, every so often the document is saved to the latest version. But all the old versions of the document are still on your hard drive — you don’t see them, and they can be tough to access, but they exist. Westworld’s hosts are built the same way. They only see their current version, but there are earlier “drafts” that still exist — in the case of Dolores, potentially up to 30 years of drafts. Dr. Ford added Reveries to the latest update to bring out realistic new gestures that are somehow influenced by the hosts’ earlier experiences that they don’t consciously even realize exist. So their current programming is dipping, just ever so slightly, into levels they don’t know are there. Does that, sort of, make sense?
Bernard exits, and Elsie has a moment alone with Clementine. She kisses the brothel host when nobody’s looking — the Delos company equivalent of stealing some office supplies.
Suddenly there’s an urgent issue down in “cold storage.” Westworld’s tightly wound operations leader Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is concerned. Security chief Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth — yup, brother of Chris and Liam) takes a team to check it out. He’s reminded there hasn’t been a “critical failure” with the bots in 30 years. Fans of the 1973 Westworld movie are probably wondering here if the robot uprising from the film happened in this show’s universe too — the showrunners say it did not, but clearly something went wrong a long time ago. Stubbs isn’t taking any chances and wants to be armed. “Kids all rebel eventually,” he says. Apparently, Stubbs is the only character on Westworld who knows exactly what kind of story he’s in.
They go down to Level 83. The Westworld facility is built like a massive skyscraper that goes down into the ground instead of up. So there’s far more to the park below the surface than above it (like Disneyland again). We don’t know much about this area, but what we see is intriguing. There’s an old Delos globe, escalators, water breaking through. Clearly this level had some grand use many years ago and has now fallen into ruin. It’s used for storage of decommissioned hosts.
The “dead” hosts stand at attention, naked row upon naked row. It’s tough to imagine they wouldn’t store them in a way that’s less exposed to the environment. But it’s visually effective and totally creepy even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re like an undead army, one that I assume, is going to come to life at some point in this series. The dramatic rule of Chekhov’s Gun is that if the first chapter of a book includes a gun, then that gun must be used at some point. The cold storage hosts are like hundreds, maybe thousands, of Chekhovian Guns.
We meet Dr. Ford chatting with an Old Bill, who looks like an animatronic from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride (a ride that’s interesting in the context of the Westworld debate — Pirates has long been criticized for its depiction of rapey marauders and is a real-world example of a theme park using robot-ish figures to tell a certain kind of story, one that’s been altered over the years as sensibilities changed). Old Bill makes a cryptic reference to the “lady with the white shoes” and we put that line into our burgeoning Westworld Mysteries file. Dr. Ford orders him to put himself away and in perhaps the pilot’s most unsettling image, Bill zips himself up into a body bag.
Later, Cullen and the park’s writer, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), chat on a scenic terrace. Sizemore makes an interesting argument that we wouldn’t expect from him — that perhaps they should stop upgrading the hosts, maybe enough is enough, that the hosts are becoming too real. He’s also seemingly angling to replace the aging Ford as the park’s lead creative (“the guy is gonna chase his demons right over the cliff”).
Most intriguingly, Sizemore suspects the Delos corporation has some sort of secret plan for their android technology beyond entertaining vacation guests. “The corporation’s real interest in this place goes way beyond gratifying rich assholes who want to play cowboy,” he says. Cullen admits there is a plan and puts Sizemore to the test, asking him what he thinks it is. He confesses he’s clueless and she’s contemptuous — her writer can’t figure out the plot. She even corrects his grammar for added humiliation. (I don’t know what Delos’ secret plan is, but I have a suspicion. Here’s a link to what I’m thinking at this early point; potential spoiler.)
Elsewhere, Ford and Bernard also have a forward-thinking chat while the good doctor watches a skeletal new host being 3-D printed (I wonder if Dr. Ford, like Jurassic Park’s Dr. Hammond, always watches the “birth” of his new attractions). Ford points out that human evolution is driven by natural selection and genetic mistakes that become the new normal — like this latest “mistake” that he’s made in the hosts’ update code. Since humanity in this show has managed to cure all disease, they’ve halted Darwinian progression and the human race will no longer evolve — at least, not in the traditional way. Which means, “we’re done [as a species], this is as good as we’re going to get.” This conversation sets the stage for the idea that hosts will replace humans because they’re, well, better, and can keep evolving whereas humans have become stuck due to their reliance on technology.
Back in the park, the MiB captures a Native American host and scalps him. It seems the inside of his scalp reveals the map of a maze. The MiB reveals there’s a “secret level” (more levels!) to Westworld that he’s questing to access. He’s a sociopathic gamer hunting for the park’s ultimate Easter Egg. But what is this Egg, exactly, and what’s the prize he’s searching for? It’s not just going to be a high score on a leader board. That in order to get this map he has to scalp a Native American is one more bit of weirdness that flies right past us.
Meanwhile, several bots get buggy:
— The sheriff has a malfunction in front of some guests.
— One of the outlaws has a breakdown of a very different kind. He goes on a psychotic rampage in the saloon, spilling milk and shooting host after host. He also says something very odd: “Not gonna die this time, Arnold.” Hold on. Who is Arnold? We haven’t met an Arnold. Also, “not gonna die this time”? The hosts are not supposed to remember that they’ve died before.
— Dolores’ father has a breakdown triggered by a photo that’s unearthed on the ranch. The picture shows a modern-day city. He’s transfixed by this snapshot of an impossible future. Dolores, true to her programming, doesn’t see anything when she looks at it. It’s just like when the young guest tells her “you’re not real.” She just gives a peculiar look and then goes about her business. The hosts are seemingly programmed to ignore reality-disrupting information. But Dolores’ father is somehow seeing the photo for what it really is and that’s causing a meltdown. It’s rather clever that these host malfunctions resemble a human having a stroke rather than a robot going on the fritz — it’s more unsettling and somehow disturbingly relatable. Her father whispers something to her. She rushes into town looking for a doctor.
All of these “glitches” alarm the Westworld staff, particularly Cullen. But Bernard finds reassurance in the pattern — all the malfunctioning bots are ones that received the latest upgrade, the upgrade with the Reveries. Therefore, the new code is to blame, right? All they need to do is round up the upgraded bots and roll back their programming to their previous version and the problem will be fixed.
Sizemore flips out. Pulling 200 of the park’s 2,000 hosts in for maintenance will cause all sorts of problems with his ongoing story lines. So he has to script a solution that will remove a bunch of hosts while not disrupting the guest experience. It’s like when a network cuts a TV show’s budget and the writers have to kill off characters to save money. That’s why Sizemore orchestrates this big saloon shoot-out.
The sequence is engagingly staged to an orchestral version of “Paint It Black” (and yes, that was “Black Hole Sun” you heard on the player piano earlier). Hector and his capable right-hand woman Armistice (Ingrid Berdal) take out bot after bot. Sizemore was very proud of a climactic speech that Hector was supposed to give after his slaughter and is bummed when a guest shoots him out just before he’s about to launch into it. Of course the guest wants to get an old timey selfie with the corpse.
The shoot-out kills poor Teddy, once again. Dolores is tearfully at his side when the tech-team clean-up crew arrives. Elsie gives her a verbal command “…may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber,” that shuts her down.
We transition backstage as the bots get interviewed in Analysis Mode. This creepy broken doll state is to Westworld programmers like going into DOS is to PC users — going under the glossy consumer presentation and talking directly to the workmanlike code that drives the machine. A virtual subconscious, if you will.
It’s also a brilliant recurring device because it almost entirely sheds a decades-old and deeply boring trope of movies and TV shows about computer tech. Westworld is a show full of programmers … but nobody is typing on keyboards! There are no close-up shots of text written on screens. With apologies to Mr. Robot, reading lines of code isn’t interesting. Programming in Westworld is largely done with verbal commands. So shots of frantic typing and computer screen text has been replaced by psycho-analytical interviews and naked actors — that’s a narrative upgrade. (I do wish Westworld would also get rid of the sci-fi trope that lights turning on make electrical noises as if they’re 1970s florescent bulbs, but you can’t have anything).
Bernard, Ford, and Cullen interview Dolores’ father, Peter. He’s panicking, saying he has to protect his daughter from the Westworld programmers. “We’re miles beyond a glitch here,” Bernard says. Abernathy says he wants to meet his maker. “Well, you’re in luck,” Ford says glibly and we smile — there’s the Oscar-winning Hopkins we know and love. That’s when Abernathy alarmingly grabs his creator and goes way off script: “By most mechanical and dirty hand … I shall have such revenges on you both, the things I will do, what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth … Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Ford notes there’s a logical explanation for this speech. A previous version of Abernathy was a professor from a horror story that quoted Shakespeare. So that explains where he got that dialogue (he’s remixing lines from Henry IV, The Tempest and King Lear). But still, Ford seems to be glossing over the fact that those words seemed far from chosen at random and instead sound very much like a freaky call to arms against his human masters.
Abernathy and the deranged milk bandit are marched down to Level 83’s dark hell of cold storage. Abernathy looks teary eyed. How much does he understand? Before he’s entombed in the darkness, Bernard whispers something to him. But what? Is Bernard enabling these glitches, somehow?
Back upstairs, Stubbs interviews Dolores, asking her those haunting questions from the show’s opening, trying to get a sense if her programming has been corrupted by her father. Has she ever lied to them? No. Would she ever hurt a living thing? No. She reveals what her father whispered: “These violent delights have violent ends.” (The way the flashback is edited, it looks like her father actually said more than this, but the showrunners say that the “violent delights” phrase is what’s key here.)
The words don’t mean anything to Stubbs and don’t mean anything to us — just like the photo didn’t mean anything to Dolores. But the words might mean something very important to our heroine. As we’ve seen, the Westworld team embeds programming in verbal commands … so is this phrase launching new program?
Suddenly it’s morning again in the Old West. Teddy wakes again on the train. Notice how he faintly touches his upper chest — that’s where he was shot during the saloon massacre. Does he remember that? Dolores wakes, too. She looks rather different. She chats with her replacement father, seemingly unaware of that anything unusual has happened.
Remember, in the show’s opening scene, we saw a fly crawl across Dolores’ unblinking eye? In another scene, Bernard noted that a host literally “couldn’t hurt a fly” while their core code is intact. Midway through the episode, a fly likewise crawled undisturbed across Teddy’s face. Now here’s another fly. Without hesitating, Dolores smacks it — killing a living thing; a robot smacking a “bug.” Her core code is no longer intact. Something has awoken.
Next week’s episode is, if anything, even better than the pilot, which did an enormous amount of heavy lifting to establish this world. We’ll meet two guests who will be major characters this season (stand-ins for the protagonists of the Westworld feature film). If there’s a criticism to be made of the first hour, it’s that it feels a bit repetitive — upon repeated viewing, you realize how each repetition of events tells you new information and advances the story. As we move beyond the first two weeks, this repetition will slip away as things… change.
Until next week, here are just some of the burning questions raised by this first hour:
–Where and when are we, exactly?
–What’s the world like outside of this park box we’re in?
–What was the malfunction 30 years ago?
–Who is Arnold?
–What’s causing, exactly, the “glitch”?
–Is the glitch really accidental, or is Ford advancing the hosts’ consciousness on purpose?
–How much does Dolores know at this point?
–What did Bernard whisper to Dolores? And what did he whisper to her father before putting him into storage?
–What is the meaning behind the “violent delights” phrase?
–What’s the corporation’s secret plan for Westworld?
–What is the Man in Black’s actual mission here, where is he going?
–Is anybody else that we assume is a human actually a robot? Or vice versa?