HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Premiere: What Worked (and What Didn’t)
HBO’s Westworld has spent the better part of its promo cycle trying to convince us that it’s the heir apparent to Game of Thrones. It certainly has the pedigree, based off of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name. It also has the creative talent, boasting Jonathan Nolan (brother to Christopher and co-writer for The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy Nolan (Burn Notice, Pushing Daisies). But did it deliver on its massive promise following its October 2 premiere? Well, yes and no. There were elements that worked beautifully, and there were some that didn’t quite land as well. Here’s the rundown as we saw it.
There’s a reason that there’s only a small handful of truly great sci-fi/fantasy shows out there right now. It’s a genre that’s incredibly tough to make work over a full season of TV storytelling, requiring a commitment to a cohesive narrative, a powerful base concept, an upper-echelon writing team, and a long-term image for the encompassing arc. It’s those factors that made modern contemporaries like Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Firefly as compelling as they were, and it’s rare to see a series nowadays check off all those boxes.
For all intents and purposes, Westworld manages to fit that mold. The concept is strong, based off of an original idea from the same guy who gave us Jurassic Park. The narrative is in the hands of capable storytellers. Existing on HBO, it has far more creative freedom than something on one of the major networks. If the premiere made one thing clear, it’s that potentiality is the name of the game for this series.
There’s a whole lot to love in terms of where the show might go from here, and if it can manage to deliver on that initial promise, there’s no reason it can’t succeed Game of Thrones on HBO.
At times, it was tough to see the greater vision for Westworld past the lengthy hour-plus pilot. Shows like Lost have suffered through this before, watching as a strong concept and a host of intriguing secrets dissolved into confusion and a shoddy late-game narrative. We know the titular theme park of the series is fated to devolve into a Jurassic Park-esque nightmare where the attractions turn on their creators. That alone would make for a cool story throughout the season. But we’re also seeing an odd tease at a deeper, stranger concept.
Ed Harris plays a mysterious guest of the park who seems obsessed with drilling a level deeper into the theme park. When we first meet him, he’s raping Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Dolores, while her android boyfriend played by James Marsden can only look on helplessly. The next day, Harris’s character kidnaps a patron of the local saloon, brings him to a remote cliff, and then peels off his scalp with a knife (thankfully, they don’t show said scalping). Under the scalp, we see a strange, maze-like design, teasing at a Lost-esque level of intrigue lurking beneath the surface. Any show predicated on keeping unguessable secrets from its viewers puts itself in a precarious position, and Westworld is treading dangerously close to that territory early on.
The question on everyone’s mind right now is simple: Is Westworld worth watching? In terms of sheer scope and ambition, we’re interested to see how things unfold, especially as a cadre of talented directors get a chance to enter the fold. The list for this season is a veritable all-star team of sci-fi talent, featuring Jonny Campbell (the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode of Doctor Who), Neil Marshall (the “Blackwater” episode of Game of Thrones), Fred Toye (Person of Interest), and Michelle Maclaren (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead).
It would be an unprecedented failure of epic proportions to see that many talented sci-fi minds fail to make Westworld worth watching, at least early on. Season 1 is also set to run just 10 episodes, a format that ultimately helps keep the story cohesive and simple. It’ll all depend on whether the HBO series can deliver on its initial potential. For now, we’ll be watching closely until it gives us a reason not to.
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