The pilot neatly sets up the show’s conflicts and introduces a bunch of characters who live in two separate worlds (the Wild West theme park Westworld, populated with robots who recreate the park’s setting, and the behind-the-scenes humans who keep the park running). Plus, it tells a more or less self-contained tale of the park workers dealing with a glitch in the system by finding a way to clear the park of malfunctioning robots without alarming customers or causing them to call for returns.
It’s also full of moments that are really, really cool and fun to puzzle over. Here are the 22 I was most impressed by.
1) Dolores lets a fly crawl across her eye
This is the opening shot of the pilot, and it’s a nice way for the show to drop a gauntlet for where it’s going. Dolores, one of Westworld’s robotic "Hosts," sits, still, as a fly crawls across her open eye. The Hosts are programmed not to harm living things — not even tiny insects.
It’s both a signal that Dolores is not quite human, and a neat image you just know the pilot will circle back to in the end (and it does!).
2) Everything about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance is dynamite
Dolores is the kind of dream role actors kill for. In various scenes where she’s brought in for tune-ups, Evan Rachel Wood gets to go from weeping terror, to completely non-emotional affect, to full monotone (even sans her Wild West accent) in a matter of seconds.
Wood has always been an actor capable of tremendous performances — as many TV fans have known since her role as a young teenager on ABC’s family drama Once and Again, which ran from 1999 to 2002 — but she hasn’t always been well-served by those who work with her. Westworld very much knows what it has in this performer, and it’s fun to watch her stretch her acting muscles.
3) Good guy Teddy is a Host himself
The opening sequence of Westworld posits James Marsden’s Teddy as the series’ hero. He seems like one of the human Guests, who come to Westworld to hang out with and/or abuse the robot Hosts. And when he arrives in town and becomes immediately smitten with Dolores, you think you know where this is going — especially when her family is attacked by a villainous Man in Black. Teddy will save the day, and all will be well.
If you’re familiar with Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie of the same name, where a robotic gunslinger dressed all in black (played by Yul Brynner) was the chief villain. But the Westworld pilot reverses this dynamic. Here, the Man in Black (now played by Ed Harris) is a human, and Teddy is also a Host, unable to stop the gunslinger as he drags Dolores off.
You can wonder whether starting yet another HBO pilot with implied sexual violence is really needed in 2016 (and many have), but the Teddy twist in and of itself is terrifically executed.
4) The first reveal of Westworld is nifty
The camera pulls back and back and back, until we’re looking at a computer projection of the theme park, running behind the scenes. It’s a neat way to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s fantasy.
5) Jeffrey Wright, forever and ever and ever
Jeffrey Wright is one of my favorite actors. That he’s here to play the chief technician who inspects the Hosts when they seem to be on the fritz indicates that he’ll probably be one of my favorite parts of the show going forward (even if he’s a little underused here).
6) The notion of "reveries" introduces ideas about consciousness
Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the head guy in charge at Westworld, has made a big upgrade to the Hosts as the series begins. They typically wipe their memories at the end of a story arc, like the computerized beings they are, but he’s given them a way to tap into those erased memories as almost half-remembered dreams, the better to create delicate, human-like gestures he calls "reveries."
Now, if you’ve ever seen a sci-fi show, you’ll know the reveries are going to be more trouble than they’re worth. But they introduce a big idea at the center of Westworld: Where does consciousness begin? What causes it to form? Is memory, in and of itself, the cornerstone of self-awareness? Those are the directions the series is headed in.
7) The freezer is super creepy
It wouldn’t be a J.J. Abrams-produced series without a few creepy visuals, and the gigantic freezer where broke-down Hosts are stashed away, naked and freezing, is a great one.
8) A Host breaks down
Even the actors playing Hosts who are insignificant to the overall plot are quite good, as in the scene where one of the Hosts breaks down, sagging in mid-sentence, corner of his mouth drooping, and it’s like you can see the life leave his eyes.
9) We get insight into how the park runs as Dolores’s routine shifts
When Dolores is not intercepted by Teddy (he’s waylaid by a couple of Guests who want him to be their guide), she instead moves through a very different routine, which culminates in her painting some horses on a riverbank.
There’s a lot of information the Westworld pilot has to convey, but one of the biggest things it needs to explain is how the park works. Just from watching Dolores shift her priorities, we get a sense of the giant flow chart of "if-then" statements that is life in Westworld. Hosts start out on one routine, then seamlessly switch to others as Guests affect what happens in the park. It’s fascinating to watch in action.
10) Dolores’s dad finds a very strange photo
What better way to cause an existential crisis in a robot who believes he lives in the Wild West than to have him find a photograph of a woman in modern clothing standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge? It opens something in his brain that he can’t quite shut down.
11) Where the heck is Westworld?
When a couple of characters take a break on the "surface" of the enormous complex that houses Westworld (and its behind-the-scenes facilities), they appear to be in some sort of vast, empty future Utah. So far as I can tell, there are no other structures to be seen, which seems surprising given Westworld’s relative popularity.
For as interested as I am in all of the mysteries of Westworld itself, I also want to know more about the future society that houses it.
12) Sidse Babett Knudsen is the best
If you’re wondering why the woman playing Theresa carries herself with such gravitas, it’s because she’s the tremendous Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen.
Knudsen is barely known in the States, but played the (fictional) first female prime minister of Denmark in the terrific political series Borgen, as well as a woman in a dom/sub relationship in The Duke of Burgundy. As with Wright, simply having her around is a good sign.
13) Westworld’s player pianos play Soundgarden’s "Black Hole Sun"
The old-timey instruments in Westworld play some very well-known hits, if you listen closely. "Black Hole Sun" pops up around the episode’s midpoint, and one of the climactic action sequences is scored with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ "Paint It Black."
14) Milk pours out of holes shot into a robot’s stomach
The Hosts are supposed to collapse when they’re shot, either by Guests or other Hosts. Obviously, they’re not dead, and they’ll be recycled once a new day in Westworld begins. But when they’re shot, they "play dead," effectively.
One of the biggest signs that something has gone wrong with the reveries is what happens when one Host seems unable to get with the program. After he gets shot, he doesn’t collapse and takes a big gulp of milk, and it spills out of the holes shot into his stomach. Weird and gross.
15) "Hell is empty and all the devils are here"
That’s what Dolores’s father tells her when she’s warned to run far, far away. It’s a quote from Shakespeare (The Tempest, specifically), but it also applies perfectly to the conditions the Hosts live in in Westworld.
16) Thandie Newton just starts killing folks
Even in the pilot, Westworld is a touch overstuffed. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve, a Wild West madam and Host who doesn’t seem to have too much to do — until a bunch of villainous Hosts invade her saloon and she starts blowing them to pieces. It’s enough to justify the character’s existence for now.
17) The Westworld staff rounds up the malfunctioning Hosts
Westworld the movie was about people trying to survive in a theme park full of killer robots. Thus, you might be expecting the same to happen in Westworld the TV show. But so far, at least, it hasn’t. The Hosts still can’t hurt the Guests, the staff still remains nominally in control, and everything is hunky dory.
But the way the reveries cause the Hosts to glitch out gives the pilot its spine, and the concerns about how to repair so many Hosts in one go without creating a massive demand for refunds drive the Westworld staff’s storyline for the episode.
Their elegant solution — bring pretty much everybody to town for an epic shootout that will entertain the Guests but also allow the staff to pull the Hosts backstage for repair — is both clever and a fun sequence.
18) Dolores’s dad is "miles beyond a glitch"
That’s what Ford says when Dolores’s dad starts quoting literature seemingly at random. It’s an eerie promise of something darker to come, something revealed just a few lines later when he says…
19) The "glitch" is actually a memory of an old persona
Papa Dolores is revisiting a character he played in a long-abandoned horror-themed scenario, a character named "The Professor." Somehow, the reveries have allowed him to tap into his distant past — and suggested that the Hosts’ memories run deeper than even Ford suspected.
20) Dolores is the "original" of the pilot’s title
Rather than simply being called "Pilot," the Westworld pilot is called "The Original." And if you took note of that, you might spend most of the episode wondering why that is.
The answer comes near the end: Not only is Dolores a favorite of staff and Guests alike, but she’s also the oldest Host in continual operation within Westworld. Though she’s played by a woman in her 20s, Dolores is dozens of years old. (We don’t know how long Westworld has been operational, but it’s been long enough for various Hosts to spend years in assorted personae.)
That explains why so many moments of slowly dawning self-awareness are centered on Dolores: If anybody is going to realize the truth of her existence, it’s the oldest Host in the part.
21) The Man in Black finds a maze on a Host’s scalp
Late in the episode, we learn there’s a curious symbol — that looks like a maze — on the underside of the scalp the Man in Black cut off a Host he cornered earlier in the episode. Of all the Lost-ish moments in the pilot, this is by far the most reminiscent of that series. (It also made me roll my eyes a little bit, sad to say. I’ve had it up to here with weird symbol treasure quests.)
22) Dolores kills the fly crawling on her
You knew this revisit of the opening shot of the pilot was coming. And then, in the last shot of the episode, it did, as Dolores smacks the fly to oblivion. First, killing bugs. Next, the world?
Westworld hopes you’ll find that tease intriguing enough to follow it for years to come. I don’t know about "years," but I’m in for a little while at least.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s chat about it in comments. I’ll stop by to answer your questions at noon Eastern.
We’ll talk for 90 minutes. And why don’t you answer my question as well: If you could adapt any sci-fi story — it could be a novel, or short story, or game, or whatever — into a film or TV show, which one would you like to see adapted?
I’ll drop my answer down in comments, and look forward to hearing from you.