Saddle up! But beware potential spoilers in this review, which will discuss elements of the episode.
Welcome to Westworld! Please try to behave yourselves. Or, like the guests that frequent the pleasure park, do what you like. With Game Of Thrones eyeing its endgame, HBO is naturally looking (as is Sky) for something that could be the next big, zeitgeisty audience draw. Is Westworld that hit? We'll find out as the first season wends its way through the story inspired by Michael Crichton's 1973 techno-thriller about AI at a luxury theme park becoming self-aware and turning on the guests. The show comes from JJ Abrams, Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, so there is some proven talent behind the scenes. Now we find out if that translates to a compelling show...
Eschewing the more usual overall introduction to this world (though having seen episode 2, there is some of that to follow), we focus instead on the main AI character, brought to charismatic, humble life by Evan Rachel Wood. Dolores doesn't seem like the most complicated character, with her down-home wisdom and cheery outlook on life, but as we learn by episode's end, nothing in the park is quite what it seems, and Dolores is actually one of the oldest of the "hosts," as the high-tech AI here are known. It makes sense to put Dolores front and centre – not only does Wood have the chops to carry the bigger drama (see her seamlessly switching between her character and emotionless machine in the "dream" sequences where she's brought in for questioning and maintenance, which is also a tribute to good co-writing and direction from Nolan), but this young, artificial woman is a relatable heroine in the face of what will no doubt become complicated stuff.
James Marsden's Teddy serves another purpose in the show, in that – spoiler alert – we soon learn that the handsome young gunslinger (who comically doesn't know much about being a cowboy) who seems to be a visitor (or "newcomer" to use the hosts' parlance) is actually an AI himself and part of the narrative in the park. It's a chance to Marsden to be a typically romantic hero with a tragic twist that offers more depth than the usual. We just hope he doesn't turn into the AI cowboy equivalent of South Park's Kenny and die every episode. Or at least let Dolores exclaim, "Oh my god, you killed Teddy! You bastard!" once in a while.
The Man In Black
If there's one person who will be on the receiving end of that claim, it's Ed Harris' Man In Black, a human revealed to be a veteran guest who is looking to peel away the surface narrative of Westworld and explore deeper. Harris brings typically gruff style to the role, which is meant to evoke Yul Brynner's iconic gunman from the movie, albeit with a twist. You do have to wonder what the authorities overseeing the park make of Mr. Black's (his name has yet to be revealed) big plan, but given how you're allowed to do pretty much anything in this world, perhaps they don't care. Yet...
Quite a coup to score Anthony Hopkins for a TV series, and he's giving it his best twinkly-eyed-with-a-dark-undertone push here. Dr. Robert Ford is a sort of Walt Disney-meets-Frankenstein fellow, and you can see why Nolan and Joy wanted him to take on the role. It's fun to see him chatting with an ancient AI and, later his riveting scene with Louis Herthum's Peter Abernathy (AKA Dolores' dad, at least until he starts to show serious signs of glitching.) Watching two good actors square off is a treat.
Westworld effectively blends the Western tropes with sci-fi and the Delos facility is a fascinating, somewhat chilly and vaguely terrifying place where AI are "born" via a goopy, milky process. Witness the horses being built stage by stage and the sheer inhumanity with which people like chief storyteller Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) treats the hosts. That's contrasted with the conflicted morality of Bernard Lowe (an excellent Jeffrey Wright), who worries about his charges even as he reprograms them to get rid of signs of trouble.
It's a good start for the show, even if it feels as times as though you're being thrown in at the deep end. Still, the cast is several feet deep with impressive performers already (including Thandie Newton as a host madam, Sidse Babett Knudsen as efficient facility manager Theresa Cullen and Rodrigo Santoro, playing violent bandit Hector Escaton) and the world itself is a thing of designed beauty. Shooting in landscapes once used by John Ford makes the Western scenes authentic, whilst the Delos facility looks like an Apple store from your nightmares. It's beautifully designed and clearly has had some money lavished on it. There are worrying elements — it's quick on the trigger finger when it comes to narrative tropes such as violence against women and casual nudity, but it remains to be seen how the show tackles those themes going forward. There's a worry it'll become so narratively and philosophically complex as to disappear up its own theorem, but we're on board to find out where Nolan, Joy and the rest of their team are about to lead us.
Westworld airs on HBO in the US on Sunday nights and Tuesdays on Sky Atlantic in the UK