HBO took an enormous risk on its latest epic, and rumors of behind-the-scenes troubles threatened to spell a costly flop. Production delays and leaked details about the background actors’ controversial nudity contract dominated much of the early chatter, but after Sunday night’s premiere, Westworld will have few, if any, detractors. Co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy deliver a spellbinding, science fiction masterpiece adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, though the series draws on everything from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Paradise Lost. Suffice to say it’s no mere robot schlock.
The premise? In the vague near-future, wealthy patrons pay $40,000 a day to act out their fantasies, choosing the role of “white hat” or “black hat” in an artificial wild West where bullets can’t hurt the paying guests. The narrative alternates between the in-park experience and the sterile observation deck of the nameless corporation responsible for maintaining the robot hosts and their world. When Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest host in the park, begins to demonstrate memory of the traumas inflicted on her, a programmer played by Jeffrey Wright takes a special interest in her existence and the mysterious history of the park.
There are so many ways to interpret this new drama, whether a commentary on the moral erosion enabled by extreme wealth or on the base purposes (i.e., rape and murder) for which humanity would first employ technology that approaches artificial intelligence. Most interestingly, the show provides a not-so-subtle dig at the exploitative abuse of the creative process inherent in the entertainment industry. As a metaphor for Hollywood, Westworld makes perhaps the most compelling interpretation: to satisfy the wants of predominately vile spectators, sympathetic yet sub-human actors are trapped in an endless storyline loop until replaced or recast by a maniacal auteur driven by corporate interests to deliver ever-increasing thrills. Not since Carnivale has a series unfolded with such a superb and novelistic examination of good and evil, and no show in recent memory has explored so many themes simultaneously.
With so many concepts at work, the cast is necessarily phenomenal. Anthony Hopkins offers his most quietly menacing role since Silence of the Lambs. As Delores, a host whose emotions are precisely measured to obey the commands of her operators, Evan Rachel Wood assuredly will be a shoo-in during the next awards cycle. Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, and James Marsden each bring such perfect quality to their roles that it risks redundancy to wax glowingly about them all. All the cast is in top form.
If a single regret must be offered, it’s that this reviewer will have to wait until October 30th for fresh material, having burned through all advance screeners with the kind of fervor very few shows can inspire. Westworld is the best new show, and on Sunday you’ll see why.