HBO’s Westworld‘s Stunning Premiere Draws Largest Audience in 3 Years
From the very opening title sequence, you could sense you were embarking on something exciting. We've been looking forward to HBO's Westworld ever since we first heard Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan were taking on J.J. Abrams' long gestating passion project, and this past Sunday's premiere didn't disappointment. Viewers now have a legitimate reason to be excited that the network has hit upon its next great drama, and HBO itself must feel good about the premiere's ratings. Multiple sources confirm Westworld drew a very impressive 3.3 million viewers to its first two airings, making it the largest audience to a series premiere since 2014's True Detective. The show blew away the numbers that last year's Vinyl got, which was 764,000 viewers before being canceled after a single season. Only Game of Thrones opened to a larger audience—4.2 million—back in 2011.
So what about the premiere? Let's start by taking a look at the aforementioned title sequence, always a thrill for HBO fans because the network spares no expense in drawing viewers in from the opening seconds.
This incredible sequence showing the 3D-printing of man and beast is a perfect way to plunge into a series that will look at the divide between the real and the designed, and what determines what makes a thing alive.
The reviews are in, and they're more or less stellar. The Onion's AV Club, Entertainmwent Weekly, SlashFilm, Vanity Fair and many others found the show exhilirating. The Nolans (Jonathan and Lisa Joy are married) have taken the premise from Crichton's 1973 film—the theme park where "hosts" (robots) appease the whims of paying human customers—and completely turned it around. In Crichton's Westworld, you rooted for the humans, here, there is little doubt from the opening shots whose side you're meant to be on.
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) anchors the premiere, and she is the reason for its title, "The Original." She's the young, pretty, apple cheeked frontier woman whose story (which repeats several times within the 75 minutes) connects us to the larger horrors going on around the park. When she runs into the handsome Teddy (James Marsden) in town, you could be excused for assuming he was a paying customer returning because he's fallen for her. We're disabused of that notion very early on, when Teddy and Dolores come back to the home she shares with her parents to find a couple of murderous "hosts" standing over their dead bodies. Teddy kills them, but things only get darker from here—a man in black (Ed Harris) arrives to humiliate Teddy and, from the vantage of Teddy's fading consciousness, drag Dolores to the nearby barn to rape her.
Episode 1: Ed Harris, James Marsden. photo: John P. Johnson/HBO
Rosa. photo: courtesy of HBO
This is not easy viewing, and knowing Dolores is a robot and the man in black a paying guest makes it no easier. The park is run by a massive team of artists (those who make and program the robots, including the prime mover, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins at his creepy, quiet best) and his right-hand man Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a team of security agents on hand if things get out of control, operations leaders, people in control of the sprawling narratives that paying guests engage in and so on. The operation is Jurassic World-level complicated, and thereore complications are likely to arrive.
What brings them about in "The Original" seems to be a recent software update, which could be looked at as a iPhone joke considering the update causes all sorts of glitches and problems. A few hosts start acting irregularly, from the town's sheriff to one of the murderous outlaws (they only harm other hosts and help kick up the action so paying guests can watch with horrified glee, or, get involved), who goes on a killing spree that's too baroque, even for the standards of people who run a park where life-like robots can be raped and murdered with impunity. The wonder of the premiere is, even with all this ghastly business going on, it never feels bogged down in gunplay, murder, or mayhem. Each morning begins afresh with Dolores, waking in her bed, greets the day with optimism and wonder.
There are lovely little narrative decisions being made throughout the robust premiere. The hints that the hosts are, if not becoming self aware outright, starting to crack under the strain of their ever advanced software and the park's inhabitants ways, are played beautifully. Take the mometn when Dolores' father, Peter (Louis Herthum) finds a photograph in the dirt. The shot is of a young woman in Times Square, and it absolutely tortures him. Where is this place? What is this? When he shows it to Dolores, she brushes it off because it simply doesn't compute. "That's nothing at all," she tells him, but clearly he's not convinced. When he's eventually hauled in front of Dr. Ford and Bernard for inspection, it's clear something's deeply wrong with Peter. And here, when you assume he's going to become violent and attempt to kill his master (which it seems like he does), the explanation for his behavior is much more creative; in this particular robot's existence, he's been many people, including the sheriff, a teacher and a cannibal, of all things. The software update has sent him reeling through his past lives. They decommission him.
The picture that changed everything. Episode 1: Louis Herthum, Evan Rachel Wood. photo: John P. Johnson/HBO
While we've barely touched upon all the aspects of "The Original," the gist is simple—the show is compelling. The cast is fantastic throughout. The details, down to the littlest things, are beautifully handled. Throughout the premiere we see flies crawling on the robots, who never even twitch. They are programmed to never harm a living thing. This is why, at the premiere's closign moments, we're given such a jolt by something that would otherwise be so insignficant; Dolores wakes up as she always does, greets the day with optimism and wonder, says hi to her daddy (who is now a completely different person, but of course she's been programmed to see him as her father), and takes in the view from her porch…and then she swats a fly on her neck, killing it.