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(Warning: Some spoilers ahead)
While many saw the sci-fi thriller Westworld, the namesake of the 1973 film directed by Michael Crichton, as the heir-apparent of Game of Thrones, the series has set itself apart as a juggernaut in its own right within the span of four episodes.
Set in a sprawling, painstaking recreation of the Wild West, Westworld is a theme park populated entirely by highly advanced androids “built to gratify the desires of the people who come to visit”. Within minutes, we see a beautiful world that can lead you to adventure, a family experience, or as most guests seem to prefer it, a Grand Theft Auto-esque experience with god mode enabled.
“We designed every inch of it. Every blade of grass. … In here, we were gods, and you were merely our guests”, as Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), creator of the park and androids, tells Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the operations leader. But despite the vast, picturesque world where even the rattlesnakes are created, it is the people occupying it who truly bring it to life. A talented team including J J Abrams and Jonathan Nolan (who already proved his chops at handling AI-based stories on Person of Interest) take a no holds barred approach when it comes to portraying the ugliness which often accompanies guests as they shed the many inhibitions they are bound by in society.
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy – the oldest host in the park – is without a doubt one of the highlights of the show as she journeys from unwitting android towards the slow realisation that all is not as it seems, and the world isn’t the bright, happy place she is programmed to believe it is. Sharing many similarities with Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which in many ways is close to the ethos of the show, Dolores progresses with help from Ford’s protege Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). Struggling with the recent death of his son, Bernard sees glimpses of him in Dolores, and secretly tries to nudge her on towards self-awareness. Where she once couldn’t harm a fly (literally), she soon learns to fight back against rapists, motivated by vague recollections of The Man in Black (Ed Harris).
Maeve (Thandie Newton) the sharp, witty madame of the brothel in Westworld undergoes an external journey to discover the truth, in contrast with Dolores’ more internal journey. Entangled somehow in Ford’s new storyline that brings in religion are the clues that prompt Maeve to eventually cut her unblemished skin, only to find a bullet from a previous shooting that had been left in by the theme park staff. As she is about to be shot once again, she comes to the realisation that nothing they do truly matters.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the show is the questions it raises about sentience, consciousness and humanity, using Westworld as a microcosm. In a manner worthy of Black Mirror, we find ourselves wondering if this is the pinnacle of gaming, or augmented reality – Whether giving into our primal selves is who we truly are, or just a facet of ourselves that we keep in control for the most part. At what point do we stop considering AIs to be less-than-intelligent?
“The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things…They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be,” Ford says, revealing a rather romanticised view of the park, despite his view of his creations nothing more than tools.
It is in some of the park’s newest visitors – Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson) – that we see a bipolar representation of what ford says. Logan, a frequent visitor of the park, is quite happy to bed women, drink, and indulge in the occasional hand-stabbing. William, on the other hand, is a reluctant first-timer who seems to be embarking on that journey of self-discovery, holding true to who he is despite the carte blanche given to him.
Having a vast world at its disposal results in Westworld taking the slow-burn approach to plot and character development, taking small but significant steps with each episode. Anthony Hopkins thrives in this pace as he slowly reveals more and more of the enigmatic, god-complex bearing Ford, including a truly chilling scene in “The Dissonance Theory” where he converses with a steadily more unsettled Cullen. While many are frustrated at the seeming opacity of the show, the actors and script are enough to counteract this, at least so far. Episode 5, as the halfway point of the season, is the perfect time to make a significant plot move. The mysterious Arnold, who is connected to everything from the cognisance of the androids to the Man in Black, to Ford and even the storylines of the park, needs to be featured more prominently, and soon.
Despite teetering on the brink of being too slow for a 10-episode season, Westworld has so far established itself as a dominant newcomer to the scene. How they handle the slow climb to true consciousness for the androids will no doubt be the deciding point on whether the series remains that way.
Westworld airs every Tuesday on Star World Premiere HD.