Westworld Review – Pilot
Television pilot episodes seem like they’re very stressful to write. Creators need to get viewers invested in the characters, make sure the rules of the world are understood, and raise enough questions to keep people tuning in to watch. It strikes me as a big balancing act—or maybe juggling is a better analogy, because the pilot of “Westworld” is one of those episodes where, while not dropping all the balls, there are some misses in the efforts get the viewer invested while maintaining a sense of intrigue.
The overarching concept behind “Westworld” is that it’s a theme park populated with android “hosts.” They are there to serve human guests, who come to the park for what is a glorified, and very expensive, LARPing session. Everyone is in costume and in character, and it doesn’t appear that guests are allowed any modern amenities, presumably to deepen immersion into the setting.
The drama begins when some of the hosts begin to start glitching after an update is pushed to some of the androids. They begin deviating from the scripted dialogue and patterned loops of behavior they’ve been programmed to follow, which is a point of concern for the park management. Obviously, the “rise of the machines” is not a new concept within the world of science fiction, but it’s always kind of fun to see what new twists on the trope will be played with, “Westworld” being no exception.
The show shifts its focus between the hosts and the operations center, where the actual humans keep tabs on everything happening inside the park. It was in the jumps between the hosts and the management where I found the plotting a bit uneven. We’re introduced to the humans, but we don’t learn much about them; those characters felt like afterthoughts amidst the real action—whatever is going on in the park with the hosts.
There are also some inconsistencies. There are several scenes involving a character (who appears to be the head of security) expressing concern over the hosts endangering the guests, but there’s never enough of a near miss in terms of a guest being in danger where I felt it was plausible; in fact, in a subplot involving a guest known as “The Man in Black,” a host fires a gun at him with no effect. The “gunfight” with The Man in Black made it clear that the hosts have very little actual power over the visitors—so where’s the danger the security chief is so worried about?
Also, and this might be viewed as nitpicky, but I’m not clear on how guns work in “Westworld.” Are there actual projectiles being fired, or is it just blanks and the hosts are programmed to have a bodily reaction when shot?
Getting back to my earlier point, the weakest links in the episode are the humans controlling the park plot wise. The writers spend a lot of time getting us invested in Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is wonderful), who is the oldest host in the park of the hosts, but other characters got so little focus/screen time I don’t even remember their names. The only other character I could recall without looking them up was the creator of Westworld, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins.
I found Ford a bit too creepy to ignore when he was onscreen—in fact, I’m willing to put money on a plot point that he’ll be revealed as an android at some point. When we’re introduced to him, he’s sitting in a partially flooded sub-basement, talking to an older model of host. (I’m guessing an eerie sub-basement will be a terrifying set piece for androids killing humans when a revolution eventually comes around.) The basement appears to be a dumping ground for broken hosts; it’s essentially the Island of Misfit Toys, but for androids—all of whom are naked, except for the one Ford is talking to.
Which is a great segway into my other big issue with “Westworld”: it suffers from the same gratuitous nudity and sexual violence which, for some reason, is mandatory box–check for an HBO program. Now, on the nudity front, to be fair, there are plenty of nude male hosts shown, but the emphasis is different. The men are shot clinically, if that makes sense; they’re sitting down with any not–PG–13 body parts covered. Whenever women appear nude there’s a more a suggestive tone; in one shot, a female host poses seductively while wearing only a corset. Even in the creepy sub-basement reveal of what seems to be hundreds of naked hosts there were definitely more naked women than men. There’s nothing wrong with nudity in and of itself, but the presentation here definitely favors a heterosexual male gaze, as there is nary a penis in sight which might ruin it.
Sexual violence is represented on the show, though not in such a fashion where I think it’s the critique and exploration of the subject the writer’s intend. There was an article written in July where one of the “Westworld” executive producers, Lisa Joy, talked about sexual violence on the show in terms of “exploring the crime, establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth.” Based on the pilot, I’m not seeing how that will come into play. The hosts have their memories wiped every night, so androids who experience sexual violence can’t process what’s happened to them, can’t recover from it because they didn’t know it happened. The androids have no idea they are not human, the world they inhabit is real, they are real and experience the same range of emotions humans do. I believe Joy when she says she doesn’t want to fetishize sexual violence, but, based on the pilot, I am not optimistic that an actual and worthwhile narrative about rape will occur.
Overall, despite my extended critique, I did like the pilot. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I did. And it’s because I liked it, because I want to love the show, that I am being harsh. It’s too early for me to declare doom and gloom, but aside from my major issue with the treatment of women, I think the concept is very interesting. There’s a lot of potential story threads to tug on, exploring artificial intelligence, humanity, control, and what happens when those elements come into conflict. It’s also a beautiful show in terms of the visuals and locations; HBO money buys a lot of pretty scenery. However, without some additional character development on the human front, I’ll be rooting for the androids when the revolution comes.