Westworld 1.01, Series Premiere: “The Original” Episode Review

(Credit: John P. Johnson, courtesy of HBO)

The opening music and visuals stamp a creepy feel in Westworld. An ambient tune flows over images of a white gluey substance being sinuously crafted into humanoid and equine forms, finishing with a modern take on Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man

The first scene closes in on one of these finished forms—robots—named Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), sitting stock-still, deadpan, and naked in a high-tech factory. She is being brought back online, and a voice asks if she has ever questioned her reality. “No,” she responds as a fly slinks across the lens of her eye. She doesn’t so much as twitch—though I did—as the voice asks what she thinks of her world.

We see her awakening in bed in the American Old West. She says hello to her father, who is enjoying a morning pipe, and then rides into town. She seems happy and content even when he warns her about an outlaw up in the mountains—a placid sprayed on joy seems irremovable. The voice asks her what she thinks of the guests that arrive in town, and she is more than happy with the newcomers, especially one named Teddy (James Marsden), a handsome cowboy. “You came back,” she beams to Teddy. 

We get a bit more reveal each time we see the scene of Dolores and her father playing out because their lives exist in an amusement park where “hosts” provide pleasure to as many as 1400 “guests” on any given day who either want to be a gunslinger or ride in a posse hunting bad guys—one African American couple with their young son seem to be taking the Underground Railroad. When the child says to Dolores, “You’re one of them, aren’t you? You’re not real,” we see true befuddlement written across her face. Hosts like Dolores have no inkling that they are machines.

One thing is for certain, it is difficult to distinguish humans from machines in this debut episode, and I was genuinely slipped up by one reveal as I’m guessing you will be. The budget for season one of Westworld was reported at an astounding $58 million, and it would seem the money was well spent on the CGI. One scene has the camera panning back from a model landscape of the park rising back into the lab where techs are working on life-size robotic animals and people. I had a nanosecond thought that we’re expected to believe these are miniature-sized beings—silly—it’s more like an amphitheater where the gods are able to zoom into any region of this made-up world and watch their biddings play out. 

(Credit: John P. Johnson, courtesy of HBO)
Head of programming Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) begins to observe a new class of gestures that’s been uploaded to the hosts, but who did it? That answer comes when we meet “God,” Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who is having a drink with one of his first creations, Tenderloin (Jeff Daniel Phillips). A macabre little scene where the robot puts himself back on the “shelf” and zips himself inside a body bag. 

Ford admits to the new gestures that he calls reveries, which are tied to specific memories—tiny nuances that make them real to the guests. But it would seem that these reveries are causing an outbreak of glitchy behavior all over the park. Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), operations leader, wants to pull the updates because of the malfunctions, but the employee in charge of storylines, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), declares that removing that many hosts across a number of active storylines would seriously wreak havoc, which is why we’re witnessing the current shift in how the routine story is playing out.  

Throughout “The Original,” Ed Harris—dressed all in black, who I’m assuming at this point is a robot—is seemingly operating off the grid. None of the humans mentions him, and he looks to be the one sentient wandering about the other machines killing them without ramification, but what he is up to remains puzzling. At one point, he is shot at repeatedly and doesn’t fall—machine then, right? If he’s the update of the Yul Brynner Gunslinger character from the original, than he’s a smooth-as-black-velvet upgrade. 

It is mentioned in this remake that the park has been operating for thirty years without an incident, so why all the mechanical failures now? Is it more than just the reveries? Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), Dolores’s distressed father, warns her, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

One of the most memorable scenes of the episode occurs when Peter is brought online to question his erratic behavior:

Ford: “What is your itinerary?” 
Peter (with a plastered smirk): “To meet my maker.” 
Ford: “Ah, you’re in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?” 
Peter (quoting Shakespeare’s Henry IV): “By most mechanical and dirty hand.” 

A chilling, satisfying exchange. Soon after, Peter is put in cold storage and a different host is placed in the role of Dolores’s father.

The writers of this new Westword have done a commendable job of making the hosts more human than the selfish guests and the park’s scheming creators. Other than Dr. Ford and Bernard, all the “gods” come across as conniving, career driven, and soulless. Also, the end reveal of who’s the oldest robot having been continually rebuilt and advanced was another surprise. 

But so many other questions remain: what is the Man in Black’s objectives? Why is he interested in Dolores specifically, and why doesn’t she seem to know who he is? Theresa Cullen mentioned there is something else in play in upper management … what could it be? As a fan of actors Thandie Newton (who plays a madam at the saloon) and Ed Harris, I’m looking forward to learning more of what their characters are all about.

(Credit: John P. Johnson, courtesy of HBO)

Stylistically, Westworld triumphs—especially in an intended hyperbole shootout culled from many different Westerns while an orchestral rendition of The Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” punctuates the bloodbath. If, at times, it seems like some of these scenes are overtly familiar, maybe just a little too familiar, there’s just enough ripe freshness on this old Michael Crichton story to make us want to see where it’s all headed. 

Watch J.J. Abrams and other producers discuss life without limits in the world of Westworld!


David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.


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