If Then: A Review of Westworld

Note: Although the second episode of Westworld has been released early, this review will only cover the pilot.

The Turing Test has been a staple of both science and science fiction for more then sixty years. Its weaknesses and strengths poured over and parodied. But, at its core its pretty simple. Can a computer trick a human into believing that its human? The first episode of Westworld forces us into the judges’ chair as we follow Teddy (James Marsden) as he seemingly enters the theme park of Westworld. We watch as he turns down a sidequest, and the advances of a saloon sex worker, before (re-meeting) Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) , the firey daughter of a rancher. Things go pear shaped however, with the intervention of the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) (no, no that one, or that one) who kills Teddy, revealing him to be an android.

Powered a very good performance by Marsden and a luminal one by Rachel Wood we are drawn into their love story, rooting for them. We’ve failed the test. From them on our sympathies are firmly with the Androids over the humans.

Westworld, created by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan and based of the 1973 film of the same name directed by Michael Crichton, is interested in questions of humanity, personhood, free will and freedom. Those themes are pretty well worn scifi themes and ideas, (called “grab-bag” by one of the more negative reviews) But they manage to keep them fresh by focusing on the human creators of the park and dealing with their inhumanity towards their creations. There’s Bernard Lowe (Jeffery Wright) and Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who seem to be somewhat queasy with what they are doing to the androids but who still agree to the “rollback” of the software update that allows more humanity in the robots. Contrast this with Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Lee Seizemore (Simon Quartermain) who view the mechanical people as simply a means to an end.

Westworld arrives at an interesting time for HBO. The Network’s mega hit Game of Thrones only has two more seasons left in the quiver and attempts to replace it (True Detective, Vinyl) have gone bust. The other networks sense blood in the water, HBO needs something that will bring the eyeballs. That means going to the well of blood and boobs, and all the controversies that entails. Westworld tries to have its cake and eat it too, critiquing the tendency while portraying it on screen. How well it succeeds is in the eye of the beholder.

For me the show succeeds in this critique mainly through its sketch of the “Man in Black” a brooding 30 year veteran of Westworld who is willing to kill, rape and scalp to find a deeper level to the game. He presents as a badass gunslinger, oozing cool masculinity a la the ideal of Heisenberg. Instead of pulling this off The Man in Black is instead sad and pathetic. He’s spent decades playing the same game over and over while committing atrocities against women and anyone who gets in his way. At the end of the day however he is a coward, he only does those things because he knows that his opponents can’t hurt him. In contrast to Dolores or Teddy who live with what (they think) is the constant fear of death. In other words, The Man in Black is the spirit of Gamergate made form.

((Originally Published on 10/8/16)