Say what you like about last week’s series premiere of HBO’s “Westworld,” but leave Michael Crichton out of it. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s expansive, expensive reimagining had little to do, in its first chapter, with the compact 1973 film by the science fiction writer, which followed closely two touristing pals — one hesitant and sensitive, the other James Brolin — exploring a faux old-west town, and what happens to them (spoiler: bad things) when the human-like robots that populate it start misbehaving.
Episode one of the new “Westworld” was entirely about the puppetmasters pulling the strings and the puppets pulling back. (James Marsden did an admirable job selling the Teddy fake-out, but the jig was up as soon as Ed Harris’ Man in Black arrived at Chez Delores.) Episode two, “Chestnut,” is not quite an homage to Crichton, but at least a hat-tip — and a clear sign that a third faction, the moneyed guests who visit Westworld — will play a significant role in the drama to unfold.
We open with a brief and seemingly perfunctory bit with Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores. “Westworld” is every bit an ensemble, and its greatest strength in these early installments is without question the cast, which is a murderers’ row top to bottom. But Wood appears to be first among equals. That much was clear from the odd emphasis on her character in an episode that really had nothing to do with said character. She’s great, so no complaints here, but it feels a little Ned Stark-y. And we know how that turned out.
Post-Dolores prologue we get to the meat of “Chestnut” — William and Logan, played by Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes, and clearly inspired by Brolin and Richard Benjamin’s protagonists from the movie. William (Simpson) is a sensitive Westworld newb constantly fending off feeling overwhelmed, and constantly fending off the sexual advances of very attractive robots. Logan (Barnes) is his swaggering a-hole buddy, eager to show William the ropes and accept those sexual advances. The scenes of their arrival on a tricked-out Disney World monorail and subsequent wading into the open waters of the park are the closest things to the movie we’ve seen yet. (What, no Roman World?)
Simpson is a standout. When the monorail pulls up, William says a welcome goodbye to Logan (clearly designed, unlike Brolin’s character in the original, to be an irritant), and a welcome hello to a sexy “host” meant to guide him on his first Westworld baby steps. “Westworld” sure likes its sexual tension, and here it’s at its most palpable and creepy. The “just a little fear of clowns” joke feels a little out of place, but bonus points for being on-trend. Points off for the wall of white hats and wall of black hats — too on-the-nose.
Then to the back office. Shannon Woodward’s smarmy tech-support person Elsie (most of these names are coming from IMDB, by the way; “Westworld” is weirdly unconcerned with names) is one of the few off-key characters. But here comes Jeffrey Wright! Elsie and Bernard engage in some Geordi La Forge-worthy techno babble that serves mainly to remind us how awesome Wright is. Because “Westworld” likes to telegraph its punches, we get a warning from Elsie: “Whatever Abernathy had can be contagious.”
Cut, of course, to Delores, who was “infected” when Abernathy whispered in her ear last week. When Thandie Newton’s Maeve talks some smack at her, Delores puts the “Westworld” version of a voodoo curse on her. “These violent delights have violent ends,” she says. And just like that Maeve is all bloody flashbacks and ineffective prostituting.
The subsequent attention paid to Maeve is great. Newton, like most of the other actors, is fantastic. Her later interactions with Marsden are seemingly inconsequential, but hint at what could end up being one of the great pleasures of this show — watching the characters intersect at odd angles.
Hey, Ed Harris. There’s a lot to dislike about this character, who so far feels way too stock. Also, why is a long-time visitor who has become jaded with the park’s surface elements so stoked to engage in meaningless gunfights that can’t harm him? But at least the Man in Black drives action. “Westworld” in its first two episodes feels more like a setting than a story. That will no doubt change by the end of the season, and when it does, it’s a safe bet that the Man in Black will be driving that change.
Also, “The maze is not for you,” is one of this episode’s best moments. “Westworld” has yet to define itself, but one of the most interesting things it does is shift the hosts from unaware to self-aware and back in ways that are jarring, but natural to the story. And that kid is creepy.
Anthony Hopkins is creepy, too. Nobody does paycheck work like Sir Anthony. On one hand, his eccentric big boss is everything you expect a latter-day Hopkins character to be. On the other, it is still fantastically entertaining to watch. He and Wright in scene together early in the episode are alone worth the cost of keeping your HBO subscription active while waiting for “Game of Thrones” to return. Later, when he shuts Simon Quarterman’s head story guy— let’s call him the SVP of original content — down with a simple “no,” it is everything that it should be.
(Quarterman, by the way, milks gold out of “Wasn’t there anything you like about it?”)
Hopkins’ scenes with robot boy are less effective, and feel like time wasters. Wright’s Bernard, meanwhile, is treading on dangerous after-hours ground both with Dolores and Theresa. The final exchange between Ford and Bernard obviously hints at bigger things to come, as does Dolores digging up that gun.
But it’s Maeve waking up mid-surgery that is the biggest moment of the episode, one that reveals something key about Westworld — the place, not the show. It is big, big enough that a robot can wake up in the middle of repair, threaten people, run to another building naked and bleeding and be quietly recaptured without anyone noticing. This is the sort of poorly functioning workplace in which bad things can and no doubt will happen.
And they’ll happen to people like William. This being HBO, the worldview of “Westworld” is steeped in nihilism, cursing, blood and sex. How William’s storyline proceeds will be the best indicator of whether it stays in that lane, already well worn by “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones.” If William keeps being shocked and bewildered by things like people having their hands stabbed to tables with steak knives, there is hope for those who want to see this story expand to include a broad and occasionally optimistic view of humanity. But if he turns black hat, be ready for the path to get dark and stay dark.