There are a million things to say about HBO’s thematically rich new series Westworld, and that’s pretty much the point. Developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, the show intends to be the network’s next water cooler phenomenon. But whereas Game of Thrones tries to emphasize the faux-medieval machinations of its ensemble cast, Westworld imbues Wild West action with philosophical musings. It exists at the intersection of horror, technology, and existentialism. And thanks to a dope soundtrack, it also exists in a nebulous place in time, somewhere (somewhen?) postmodern but also aged, like Wild Wild West but good.
Aside from composer Ramin Djawadi’s haunting opening theme, Westworld is poised to hammer out some killer diegetic and non-diegetic riffs. And we’re poised to obsess over them. Each week we’ll add the latest awesome songs to this list, until we’ve creating a ranking a season’s worth of old-timey takes on a modern standard.
The ‘Westworld’ Soundtrack Power Rankings
6. Episode 3: Scott Joplin - “Peacherine Rag”
There were no sneakily anachronistic songs in Episode 3, just a few simple songs on the piano that wouldn’t be out of place if Westworld actually took place in the old west. A song like Scott Joplin’s ‘Peacherine Rag” isn’t important for “why” the show’s creators used it. Instead it’s all in how they used it.
Previously in the episode we’d heard Joplin’s “Weeping Willow Rag” play on the piano in the Mariposa Saloon, meaning Joplin’s tunes must be a host favorite, but no special attention was paid to it. The song simply wafted through the scene when Teddy and the unnamed female bounty hunter (Bojana Novakovic) tied their bounty to a post outside and saddled up to the bar for a drink and a little bit more. But later, we see the specific close-up that the show continues to use of the player piano starting up, this time with Joplin’s “Peacherine Rag,” followed by Dolores being accosted by the mustachioed bandit and a guest.
Does this indicate a time loop jump, or is the song title simply referring to Dolores?
5. Episode 3: Claude Debussy - “Reverie
You’re crazy for this one, Westworld creators. When Ford and Bernard enter the former’s opulent office we see that he has a personal old timey piano player in the form of what we assume is an obsolete robot. And what does said bot begin to clink on the keys while the pair of A.I. obsessives mull over their android consciousness problems? He plays a bit of “Reverie” by Claude Debussy, referencing the new behaviors Ford implanted in the hosts in the new program update.
4. Episode 1: Johnny Cash — “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)”
The real Man in Black is a little less sadistic than the show’s Man in Black (who is already memorably portrayed by actor Ed Harris) but the baritone country crooner is just as mysterious. It seems the only way to close out such a weighty and philosophical premiere episode was to give it the gravitas it deserved by letting the Johnny Cash tracks roll.
The traditional gospel song, hauntingly covered by Cash, features lyrics that are an ingenious bit of metaphor given the show’s robotic guest’s propensity for never dying. Resurrection is going to be a big theme on Westworld, but instead of the spiritual kind of revival Cash is singing about, it’ll be more of a mechanical rebirth for the robotic “hosts” in each episode.
3. Episode 2: Radiohead — “No Surprises”
There weren’t as many anachronistic surprises on the soundtrack to Westworld this week, but one song on the player piano was all the show needed to put the hosts’ robotic fears into perspective.
As we’ve learned in the premiere, the hosts re-live each day in a kind of fateful Groundhog Day loop without any memories of their previous actions. There shouldn’t be any monotony in the repetition and their shouldn’t be any emotion, yet that’s exactly what’s happening to the hosts because of the “reveries” Dr. Robert Ford’s added to their software update. In Maeve’s case, the madame character played by Thandie Newton, she gives the guests the same spiel about coming to the New World to live her own way. As the piano plays Radiohead’s “No Surprises” she’s overcome by an abstract reverie of men being brutally killed during some kind of raid and her client walks off and. Needless to say it kind of kills the mood, forcing Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) to bring her in for reparative diagnostics.
She dreams again, and we infer it’s from her old life with a daughter on a farm, which was apparently cut short by a raiding party. One of the killers, unsurprisingly, turns into the Man in Black, which means either this guy gives every host the heebie jeebies, or he’s also connected to Maeve somehow.
Perhaps having the piano play another Radiohead hit, “Paranoid Android,” would have been a bit too on the nose even for Westworld, but “No Surprises” is still appropriate. After upping her sexual aggression on the same New World story to no avail, the lab techs decide to decommission Maeve. The song’s lyrics, particularly the end chorus, seems to connect to the hosts’ struggle with fear, sadness, and true emotion. They want no alarms, they might have no surprises, but they most definitely want to be let out of here
2. Episode 1: Soundgarden — “Black Hole Sun”
Nobody asked for a wonky player piano saloon version of “Black Hole Sun” but Westworld surely gave it to us. In another cleverly embedded detail within the show, the player piano in the dusty Westworld saloon run by Madame Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her band of prosthetic prostitutes lurches to life with a simple version of the 1994 track off the famed alt-rock band Soundgarden’s album Superunknown.
It’s a great example of how anachronism is being worked into the show and can suggest how the artificially created world filled with artificially created beings are all just a little off-kilter without you or the parks’ “guests” even knowing it. Be sure to keep an ear open in the future for more recognizable tunes emanating from the player piano, which also features prominently in the show’s opening credit sequence.
1. Episode 1: The Rolling Stones — “Paint It, Black”
The climax of the premiere episode also featured its most controversial song choice. On one hand, it’s an impossibly overwrought decision to play a lush, exaggerated orchestral version of “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones over the scene when actor Rodrigo Santoro’s leather-clad robotic outlaw Hector Escaton and his posse blast their way through the sleepy town as a way to make up for the park’s string of inconvenient robotic glitches. On the other hand, it fits perfectly with the pitch-black outlook that the show’s human characters have for their automata brethren. Dolores, Teddy, and even Hector are all just pawns in their artificially intelligent game.
Curiously, the actual lyrics to the song could be taken to refer to the Man in Black and his controversial and sadistic treatment of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in the premiere episode:
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
We’ll have to wait and see just how dark his behavior gets, but considering the Man in Black ended the premiere by scalping an unsuspecting host, it’s safe to say things are about to get pretty fucking black.
Photos via GIPHY, Facebook / WestworldHBO