Awesome TV: “The Original”

WTF is “The Original”?

Westworld is a new HBO series loosely based on a 1973 film of the same name. The central idea is that there’s a theme park inhabited by highly advanced and lifelike robots, where guests can live out their fantasies of the wild west. The robots don’t know they’re robots, and they’re programmed to ignore anything the guests do or say that’s incongruous with the setting. They’re also programmed not to harm the guests, even though there are no rules that stop the guests from harming them.

“The Original” is the premiere episode of Westworld, which runs slightly longer than the normal 60 minutes, and introduces us to the situation, most of the characters, and what looks like it’s going to be the central conflict – namely, the robots’ need to escape their unknown enslavement in Westworld.

The episode focuses on the park’s oldest robot, Delores, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Delores is designed to be a gentle, loving woman who sees the good in the world even in its darkest times – a philosophy that’s harshly juxtaposed with the way one of the park’s regular guests repeatedly tortures and rapes her for his own entertainment. Humanity’s immediate choice to pervert and destroy something beautiful serves as context for a plot-driven story in which two of the park’s senior programmers – played by Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins – try to determine why the robots are suddenly malfunctioning in creepy ways.

In the end, it’s suggested that Hopkins’ character has either intentionally or accidentally created sentient life forms and that they’re about to wake up from the nightmare they live in and start fighting back.

Why is that awesome?

Before “The Original” aired on TV, advance press was focussed on whether Westworld is too violent, or represents another example of HBO using rape as a shock tactic without any commentary on what it means. I’ll have to wait for the rest of the season to air before I can judge how effective its use of violence is overall, but “The Original” left me fascinated, moved, disturbed, and challenged in the best of ways.

The acting is absolutely outstanding, especially for a first episode. Several of the actors playing robots have to perform both the robot’s personality and the way the robot behaves in diagnostic mode – sometimes managing an eerie transition between the two states in once scene. As the first signs of self-awareness appear, Louis Herthum has to pull triple duty by adding a personality that fully understands the horror of the situation and slips closer to and farther from the surface as the scene goes on. Watching him sit naked under the cold diagnostic lights and cycle through different attitudes and expressions is one of the highlights of the episode.

The sequence that introduces us to Westworld is a tightly-written emotional rollercoaster in which we hear a voiceover of Wright’s programmer interviewing Delores, and testing her for self-awareness by asking her how she feels about the guests – known to her as “newcomers.” The action purposely misleads us into believing that one of the newcomers has a crush on her – that they have a chaste and genuine romance; a kind of schoolboy fantasy of gentle and vulnerable love – before revealing the horrible truth. We learn in the worst, most shocking way that a subset of the guests to Westworld come there to act out their darkest, most sadistic impulses with impunity. Innocence is harshly destroyed by cruelty, and it’s all the more gutting because “The Original” began by carefully reminding us of our better selves.

There’s a sense of horror when Delores is attacked but, more than that, there’s a sense of disappointment. Hopkins’ character tried to build something beautiful – something that could be enjoyed in a pure, pro-social way; something that could be loved; something the guests could be quietly enchanted by – and, almost immediately, it was ruined by unfeeling monsters who want to tear his creations apart for their own gratification – people who can’t resist destroying something vulnerable – people who want to play the game on god mode and cut through all their enemies without taking any damage. We’ve all met those people. We’ve all watched them try to ruin anything that’s not as miserable as they are and – if we’re honest – many of us have also felt the urge to bully anyone who seems too pure and wholesome. “The Original” dives right into that tension and becomes a super dark TV show that’s interested in why these super dark TV shows are so popular. Why we are unwilling to accept something nice.

It’s hard to avoid a comparison to Dollhouse, the short-lived series about a futuristic brothel where humans become playthings for the wealthy and then have their memories wiped (and it’s possible that Dollhouse also took its inspiration from the Westworld film). The problem with Dollhouse was that it wanted to have things both ways – it was strongest as an evolving story arc about the horror of enslaving human beings, but it also wanted to be an episodic adventure show about which wacky personality the characters would download every week. That put it in the awkward position of criticizing the central premise of the show while also kind of revelling in it.

There’s no sign yet that Westworld’s revelling in the idea of its theme park – “The Original” is pure critique.

I went into this episode expecting it to be dull and annoying – I don’t like westerns, and I’m wary of any show that starts with scenes of rape – and ended up feeling more excited than I’ve been in years. I want to find out where this series goes. I want it to be beautiful and creepy and disturbing and empowering and challenging; I want to be impressed by the acting and the special effects and the way the writers and directors are able to manage packing complex, layered information into each and every scene; I want it to say something meaningful about the way we see the world, and how we interact with entertainment, and what it means to be a person – that’s what I was promised by the very first episode, and it’s a tall order to fill but, oh my god, is it exciting.

I would not have predicted this from watching the early commercials, but the show I’m most looking forward to each week is now a western about robots that’s like Dollhouse.

Image: Westworld; HBO | October 10, 2016