‘Westworld’ Pilot Recap: “We’re Miles Beyond a Glitch Here”

Adapted from the 1973 sci-fi thriller written and directed by the late Michael Crichton, ‘Westworld’ is the biggest and most ambitious high-concept event series HBO has launched since ‘Game of Thrones’. The pilot episode leaves me with a lot of questions, not all of which I’m certain the series will be able to answer satisfactorily.

The original ‘Westworld’ was written specifically for the screen by Crichton, not based on a novel. The new version was adapted by Jonathan Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy Nolan. Jonathan Nolan has written or co-written many of the films his brother Christopher directed, and additionally created CBS’ recently-concluded ‘Person of Interest’, which shared a similar preoccupation with A.I. run amok that will be the dominant theme here.

As a precursor to his later ‘Jurassic Park’, Crichton’s ‘Westworld’ boiled down to a fairly simple premise: the scientifically-created attractions at a high-end theme park go out of control and attack the park’s visitors. In both cases, Crichton sold his concepts with a gloss of speculative but just-on-the-edge-of-plausible science, which mostly served as window dressing for basic stalk-and-attack horror thriller plots. (Don’t get me wrong, I love both ‘Westworld’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.) In order to expand ‘Westworld’ to an ongoing series, the Nolans would like to dive deeper into the themes.

The pilot episode starts with an elaborate misdirect. In a laboratory setting, a girl who’s clearly an android is woken up and interrogated by her programmers, who probe her with questions such as, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” We get the hint that something must have gone wrong. The girl is named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). In flashback, we see her again in a Western setting. She wakes up on a farm, talks to her father, and rides into town, where a handsome stranger named Teddy (James Marsden) has just arrived by train. Through a series of clues, we can gather that the setting is a fully-immersive recreation of the Old West, where wealthy “guests” pay a lot of money to interact with extremely-convincing synthetic “hosts” that will indulge their Wild West fantasies and play out various classic Western storylines.

This does not appear to be Teddy’s first visit to Westworld. He and Dolores have some history. He rides with her back to the farm, only to find that her parents have been murdered by bandits. Teddy gets to play hero and triumpantly gun down all the outlaws, until he encounters The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who refuses to play along. Even as Teddy shoots him multiple times, the Man in Black doesn’t flinch. He then shoots and kills the dumbfounded Teddy and absconds with Dolores.

Just as we think we’ve figured out that Harris is playing the Yul Brynner character from the old movie – a robot who went nuts and killed the theme park visitors – the rug is pulled out from under us and we learn that Teddy was in fact a robot too. The next morning, the day repeats. Dolores wakes up on the farm, talks to her father, and rides into town where she meets Teddy again.

Behind the scenes in the control center of the park, scientists and technicians build, repair and program countless more robots. Even the horses in the park are synthetic. (A gunfight scenario may result in horses getting shot, and you wouldn’t want to do that with real animals.) We’re introduced to lead programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), his assistant Elsie (Shannon Woodward from ‘Raising Hope’), and the genius who created all the robots, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Ford added new code to a recent software update to make the robots behave even more realistically human, and a bug in the code may have resulted in some so-called “unscripted activities.” Park administrator Theresa Cullen debates whether to recall the 200 or so robots that received the software, but the park’s “Narrative Director” Lee argues that doing so would throw all the scripted storylines into chaos. Bernard assures Theresa that the robots’ core programming is still intact and that they’re totally unable to harm any guests.

However, when an outlaw character goes off-book and scares some of the guests, Theresa decides to order the recall. In order to accommodate this, she instructs Lee to move up a scheduled saloon robbery storyline that would end with a big gunfight and numerous character deaths (thus providing a natural excuse for the removal of many robots).

Meanwhile, Dolores’ father finds a photo that a guest left behind of a woman in a modern metropolitan city. He becomes obsessed with the photo and can’t reconcile what it is. He shows it to Dolores, who says it doesn’t look like anything to her. The father then starts glitching and exhibits symptoms similar to a human having a stroke. Dolores frantically races into town to find a doctor. She gets there just as a gang of outlaws, led by chief bandit Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), arrive in town and cause a big scene.

During the ensuing gunfight, Teddy is shot while trying to save Dolores. Lee is very proud of a grandly villainous speech he’s given Hector to deliver at the conclusion of the scene, but it’s ruined when a guest plays hero and guns Hector down first. The guest is thrilled, but Lee is heartbroken.

Park staff then clean up the bodies and bring the ‘bots back to the lab. Most of them check out OK, aside from Dolores’ father. Dr. Ford interrogates him to determine what why he’s not working properly. From what he can tell, pieces of its older programming from former character roles it has played have bled into its current code. Ford has no explanation for this. The robot is deactivated and put into cold storage. The next morning, Dolores wakes up on the farm again and talks to her father, now played by a different robot.

We learn then that Dolores is in fact the very first robot built for Westworld. She’s been remodeled and had so many parts replaced that there’s little of her original left, but she’s technically the oldest robot in the park.

The episode ends with the Man in Black again. He’s been acting strangely the whole time. He kidnaps and tortures a minor character to get “answers.” The man doesn’t seem to have any answers to give, but the Man in Black doesn’t have traditional questions. He kills and scalps the man, discovering a Westworld logo and imprinted pattern on the underside of the scalp.

Episode Verdict

‘Westworld’ is obviously a prestige production for HBO. The premiere episode is very slick and glossy and has a great cast. (I didn’t even mention Thandie Newton as a brothel madam.) The drama and storylines are also intriguing, but I’m left with a lot of questions about the premise. For example:

  • Would an Old West theme park really be such a popular attraction? It’s suggested in one scene that this is a resort for wealthy patrons. In another scene, we’re told that the park currently has 1,400 guests. At the time Michael Crichton made the original ‘Westworld’ movie, the setting made sense because Western movies were still very popular with audiences. However, the genre fell out of favor a long time ago. Today, even the star-studded ‘Magnificent Seven’ remake is underperforming box office expectations. I’d imagine that some sort of superhero or fantasy setting would sell a lot more theme park tickets… but then I suppose the show couldn’t be called ‘Westworld’.
  • The twist that Teddy was a robot all along suggests that the robots play out storylines even when there are no guests around to see them or participate. What would be the point of that?
  • Are the guns really armed with live ammo? It sure seems that way, based on the amount of damage the robots take. Even if the robots’ programming supposedly prevents them from harming visitors, would you really want 1,400 armed guests running around with loaded weapons, in a setting where they can’t tell the difference between the robots and other humans?
  • The park’s controllers can immediately tell when other robots go off-script, yet the Man in Black walks around repeatedly breaking the fantasy without anyone noticing. After his initial introduction at Dolores’ farm, both Dolores and Teddy were repaired and put back in place for the next day, so obviously the events of that scene were known. How are the Man in Black’s activities a secret?
  • The episode timeline makes no sense to me. Dolores and Teddy repeat the same day over and over. That’s logical from the perspective of wanting to put the robots and their characters back in service. However, this doesn’t seem to happen to anyone else. Guests in the park may stay multiple days or even weeks, and they don’t repeat the same storylines every day. When park manager Theresa reschedules the bandit raid on the town, she says that it’s being moved up a full week, which suggests that character storylines play out over much longer periods of time than what happens to Dolores and Teddy. I seriously doubt that every episode of the show will revolve around this one day’s narrative being repeated with variations over and over again, ‘Groundhog Day’-like. Can this contradiction be resolved?

Grade: B+

14 comments

  1. cardpetree

    “Are the guns really armed with live ammo?”

    This link will answer that question.

    https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/11-rules-of-westworld-hbos-killer-robot-theme-park-series/

    When I read your recap, it sounds like you think the “Man in Black” is also a character or a robot. I assumed the “Man in Black” was an actual human guest. He said something about coming back to the park for 30 years straight. But even if he is a human guest, I do wonder how they are not able to track what he is doing, that doesn’t seem to make sense. I would also think they’d be able to see when one of the hosts are killed so I was questioning how they didn’t react to him killing or scalping that minor character.

    I was fascinated by the first episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking forward to Episode 2.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I assumed he was a robot because he took clear bullet hits when Teddy shot him. The article you link gives an explanation for that, but that isn’t explained in the episode at all.

      • cardpetree

        He didn’t bleed like the rest of the hosts did when they were shot. There are some theories on the interwebs that he’s a host that became self aware a long time ago.

      • Dennis Heller

        The fact that he isn’t hurt proves he’s human because hosts can die but guests can’t. That being said, I think he’s a robot that became self-aware.

  2. Bolo

    ‘Red Dead Redemption’ was a huge hit as a videogame, so yes, even people who don’t watch western films do want to play cowboys.

    If you’re going to have a simulation where real people participate, it has to be pretty grounded. If you tried to adapt the simulation theme park premise to a sci-fi superhero world, you would then have to invent technology that gives the participants superpowers, or at least a convincing illusion of having superpowers. That would just open a whole can of worms.

  3. Charles M

    This is set in the future? Maybe there’s a big western rivival in the future. Also, this isn’t the only park is it? Aren’t there supposed to be different eras?

    It’s meant to be similar to a sandbox/open world game. Where you walk around a simulation of a world. Point is the people can pick and choose different plots to enter at any time or just run into characters doing stuff like when that family ran into Dolores.

    I thought the twist was Ed Harrris was real?

  4. cardpetree

    “I thought the twist was Ed Harrris was real?”

    That could be considered a twist but I’m not sure that the show has verified whether Harris is a human or a host to be honest. The fact that he didn’t bleed when he was shot, led me to believe that he was human. I think the main twist in that scene was that Teddy was a host. As I was watching, I was thinking that he was a human that fell in love with one of the hosts and kept coming back to see her. I was obviously incorrect in my assumption.

  5. Dan Stanley

    “The twist that Teddy was a robot all along suggests that the robots play out storylines even when there are no guests around to see them or participate. What would be the point of that?”
    – I think the point is because the whole world is one big machine with multiple plot lines interacting with each other at various points. Depending on the guest and their interest, they could jump in and out between narratives as they choose. Hard to do that if you don’t run the stories because no guest is in it at the moment.

    “Are the guns really armed with live ammo? It sure seems that way, based on the amount of damage the robots take. Even if the robots’ programming supposedly prevents them from harming visitors, would you really want 1,400 armed guests running around with loaded weapons, in a setting where they can’t tell the difference between the robots and other humans?”
    – They can’t be filled with live, normal ammo, because we are told it is “impossible” for a guest to be hurt, not improbable. I’m guessing its probably a “smart” ammo that is programmed.

    The park’s controllers can immediately tell when other robots go off-script, yet the Man in Black walks around repeatedly breaking the fantasy without anyone noticing. After his initial introduction at Delores’ farm, both Delores and Teddy were repaired and put back in place for the next day, so obviously the events of that scene were known. How are the Man in Black’s activities a secret?
    – I could be wrong, but it seemed clear that the Man in Black was a guest, not a host. And I don’t think his activities are a secret. After all, the whole point of Westworld is to live out your wildest dreams with no real consequences. Because he is a guest, they would not probably react to his odd actions. If he really is a host, then clearly something is way off, but I’m guessing he is a guest (the biggest reason is his statement about coming to the park for 30-years and because he didn’t get hurt by the shots).

  6. Ryan

    Loved the episode. Most likely in for the whole season….though I think we will save a few eps up on the DVR before continuing. The show seems like something I’d need to watch back to back….waiting a week, I might forget what’s going on.

    Side note…I thought it was clear that Ed Harris is a human….maybe I’m wrong.
    The only real twists was that Evan is the oldest robot, and that she killed a fly (after the show made a big deal about her never harming a life).

  7. Thomas

    No mention of the fly Delores killed in the end of the ep. No mention of modern music converted into western music. It seems clear to me the man in black is human. This review is a fail.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I try to be thorough in these recaps, but I can’t capture every single detail in the episode.

      I think it’s still ambiguous whether Ed Harris is human or a rogue robot. When I watched the episode, the fact that he didn’t flinch when he was shot with bullets made he assume he was a robot. The so-called “simunitions” have not actually been explained in the show yet, only in an interview with the producers that I didn’t read until after writing the recap.

  8. cardpetree

    FWIW, I enjoyed your recap.

    “I think it’s still ambiguous whether Ed Harris is human or a rogue robot. When I watched the episode, the fact that he didn’t flinch when he was shot with bullets”

    The fact that he didn’t flinch when he was shot would be evidence that he’s human. The robots all react like they’ve actually been shot when they get shot.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      In the first episode, it wasn’t explained that the bullets aren’t real. If he were a rogue robot, he could violate his programming and ignore being shot.

      The second episode makes it a little clearer that he’s a guest.

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