Westworld, Episodes 1-3, Season 1

7.3 Overall Score
Writing: 4/10
Production: 9/10
Performances: 8/10

It looks beautiful.

It makes no sense, but you're supposed to feel really bad about yourself.

Episodes 1-3, Season 1
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris

The first three episodes of HBO’s Westworld are such a narrative and conceptual mess as to make one wonder why they made a fourth. The show blunders around in the well-worn science fiction question of, “When does a machine become human?” This is a stupid question made all the more tedious by repetition. It doesn’t become human. It becomes a super smart machine that should be accorded voting rights and citizenship. But Westworld, like most science fiction on this played-out theme, tells us that a machine becomes human shortly after you decide you want to fuck it. First the AIs get to be hookers, then the AIs get angry.

Westworld is a wild west theme park staffed with fully functional, anatomically correct androids. Human visitors, or “newcomers”, to the park arrive in period costumes and live out their Western fantasies. If you want to wear a white hat to save the blushing farm girl from the gang of blackhat rapists, just say so. If you want to be the blackhat rapist who brutalizes the farm girl, you can do that, too. Want to rope some steers? Here’s your fake horse. Want to spend the day under an energetic pile of corseted replicant prostitutes? Right this way.

The android staff, called hosts, can be reprogrammed at the whim of the park’s operators, to service whatever narratives are underway. A host might be the sheriff one day, the mayor the day after that, and the leader of a band of pioneers in need of rescuing the day after that; their memory wiped, their personality replaced. They can engage in convincing conversation related to their roles, but if you start asking them what they think of string theory or Dodge versus Toyota, you won’t get any results.

While dangling the vital question of whether or not the hosts are conscious in front of the viewer, Westworld takes until the third episode to state definitively that they aren’t. They don’t remember yesterday, or their previous roles. They just do and say things appropriate to their roles, with limited ability to improvise. They are designed to be incapable of hurting a newcomer, and in thirty years of operations at the park, they haven’t hurt even one. The hosts are extremely clever appliances.

Nevertheless, the pervading theme of Westworld is shame. It is shameful to have sex with a host, even when the host has been designed for that purpose and seems to really enjoy it, while actually having no more experience than your vacuum cleaner might. It is shameful to gun down hosts that are nothing more than elaborate theatrical stage-dressing that are put in place to be gunned down, even if your blazing pistols are causing zero pain to anyone. Westworld, like so much of our culture’s fictions, is admonishing pornography. It shows you exquisite gunfights! Threesomes! Rape and pillage! Then it shakes its finger in your face because you liked it.

Of course, the hosts begin to edge toward sentience. But it is clear that the operators of the park did not design them to be sentient, do not believe they are sentient, and, in spite of thirty years of the park operating without a host showing the slightest glimmer of individuality, the park’s operators are vigilant against any hint that they might.

So, fine. If the hosts become sentient, you should stop hurting them for sport. But no one has found a sentient host yet.

One of the symptoms of edging toward sentience is that the hosts begin to remember their previous roles, like flashbacks to previous lives. But here Westworld fails again. The hosts always remember violent and traumatizing events from their earlier roles. But why would they? Hosts don’t suffer trauma; they don’t have emotions. So why would they be any more likely to remember being scalped by Indians than they would a pleasant ride into town?
Ed Harris is the closest thing to a plot to appear in the first three episodes. His character, the Man in Black, is a newcomer who has been coming to Westworld for thirty years for the murderer/rapist trip. Now, he’s going around inside the park trying to find “the maze”, some higher level of game, or programmer access, that will allow him to live there forever.

He tries to accomplish this by torturing hosts. Why would hosts have the information about the inner workings of the park? Why would “torturing” hosts, who have no emotions or feelings, produce any results at all, beyond what’s scripted by the park’s operators? How is it possible for him to go around torturing hosts in an attempt to become God, or whatever, without the park’s operators’ knowing? If I went around Disney whacking every Tigger and Kylo Ren I met with a bat and demanding the keys to the kingdom, they’d figure me out pretty quick.

And why do I care about long sequences of The Man in Black facing down hosts, as if this were a Western? I know he’s going to win, and I know the hosts aren’t actually going to die, so there is zero tension there.

The first three episodes of Westworld are good looking and full of tits, which you’re supposed to feel ashamed of viewing. The rest is plodding plot and inchoate concept. And if this is fifty years in the future, why isn’t the whole damn thing in VR?



Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through Amazon.com. He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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