HBO’s new series Westworld is a head-scratching mix of genres: It’s at once a period piece Western, a futuristic sci-fi parable, and a philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. On the surface, it’s a shoot-em-up story with copious amounts of blood and tits and fancy laboratories; beneath it, it’s a subversive and whip-smart labyrinth of a narrative.
It unspools delightfully, building story in a similar (but slightly faster) manner as Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go. As an audience member, you will initially be confused about what’s going on, who is who, and what kind of show this is. But you’re in luck, we’re here to help as your non-creepy robotic hosts. Here is a spoiler-free rundown on the premise and the first episode, “The Original.”
The show uses the 1973 film it’s based on as it’s jumping off-point. The wealthy can pay an exorbitant amount of money to experience a game of adult “Cowboys and Indians” that transcends any kind of roleplay or VR scenario. For all intents and purposes they are in the dust-covered, lawless frontier. They can do anything they want — including rape or murder — because the “people” surrounding them are robots. Now, in the film, “Western world” is one of three worlds — the other two being Medieval world and Roman World — that make up a larger resort called Delos. For any movie viewers looking for easter eggs in the show, keep your eyes peeled in the scenes when we cut to the laboratory. There might just be a Delos reference in there, and in the second episode, Ben Barnes plays a character clearly made in the blueprint of James Brolin’s in the film.
But if you haven’t seen the film, it’s not a necessity. The movie focuses on the humans while the robots are rather one-dimensional; the show is more interested in exploring the robots’ level of consciousness and personhood. This means that the distinction between robot (or “host” as they are called in this world) and human (or “guest”) is often deliberately ambiguous to the viewer.
The first episode focuses on Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood in what is already one of the best performances of her career. Because she’s a host, it might seem odd that she has conversations with her equally robotic father when no park “guests” are around to see them — but that’s because the robots are programmed with “storylines” to seem as real as possible. It’s so real that they seem just as emotional as any human with their relationship running just as deep.
There is a fair amount of the standard shoot-em-up fare you’d expect to see in a Wild West cable show, but don’t be fooled. Smart, sly, and self-aware, Westworld is far from being just blood and tits.
For the literary-minded or movie buffs, cultural references abound, including Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, The Twilight Zone, Groundhog Day, and Memento. Considering the fact that Westworld showrunner Jonathan Nolan wrote the short story on which Memento is based, that last one in particular is not a surprise.
You will like Westworld if you like The Leftovers, though its philosophy and setting are slightly more for the masses. Westworld is HBO’s second weirdest, most audacious, and philosophical show. You will like it if you liked the dust and dialogue of True Detective’s first season or if you like immersive worlds with large casts like Game of Thrones or Rome. If you are a sci-fi fan of any kind, it’s not to be missed. It is sci-fi for adults, like Ex Machina or The Lobster, but it has its cake and eats it too in its balance of action with the cerebral.
In short, Westworld will certainly be “The Next Big Thing” for very good reason. Don’t underestimate it if parts of the first episode are confusing or seem coarse — it’s a wickedly clever Matryoshka doll of a show that shows all signs of something glimmering at its center. But also yes you’re not crazy; the milk thing is fucking weird. You’ll see what we mean.
Westworld premieres on HBO Sunday, October 2.