HBO

Every episode of Westworld begins with some variation on the same image: it’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), an innocent maiden of the prairie, the idealized image of a woman in need of rescuing from a thousand Westerns past. Sometimes, she’s in her remote cottage, biding her time with her father and waiting to be swept up in an adventure. Other times, she’s slumped in a metal chair in an underground lab, being prodded with questions and responding in a subdued monotone. Dolores is a robot, dubbed a “host,” one of thousands who populate a colossal theme park in which high rollers can act out their movie-star fantasies. Her existence is based on reflecting back a kind of stylized realism at them, to make them feel like real heroes or villains.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s new show, a remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi thriller, digs into the question of Dolores’s existence from both sides. It’s trying to grapple with the casual violence on display, reckoning with the thrill audiences seem to get watching cowboys blow each other to bits and rescue (or attack) the women around them.  But it’s also asking the classic science-fiction question about consciousness and morality: At what point does Dolores become real, someone you can’t just poke at in a metal chair? Is it from the very moment of her creation, or is it at the beginning of the show’s pilot episode—when she starts to remember the horrors people keep visiting on her?

Westworld begins like many a prestige HBO drama. It’s slow and somewhat ponderous, throwing dozens of open-ended questions into the air and setting several mysterious plots in motion. Nor does it lack the baser hallmarks of the genre—violence, nudity, and snarled lines about heaven and hell or God and judgment, which sound far more profound than they actually are. But Nolan and Joy are taking cover behind Westworld’s self-knowing critique of the whole thing. Any gory shootout will quickly cut to a sterile control room, where technicians tut at how formulaic it all is. Men in HAZMAT suits quickly clear any room of blood and gore; cowboys and prostitutes alike are scrubbed down, rebooted, and sent back into Westworld to entertain a new wave of paying customers.

Still, the meta-textual cleverness of the whole affair takes a little while to settle into, partly because the early storylines feel so routine. But therein lies the rub. Along with Dolores, there’s Teddy (James Marsden), a heroic-seeming gunslinger looking for adventure. There’s Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten madam running her saloon with an iron fist. And there’s a mysterious cowboy (Ed Harris), clad in black and seemingly impervious to bullets, blazing through the whole affair in search of something deeper, like an experienced player trying to find the secret ending of a video game. The show lets on that some of these characters are “hosts,” artificial actors, but with others, it holds back, delighting in the difficulty of trying to tell the difference. It’s only when the hosts get recalled to the lab they were born in that you can tell for sure—but at that point, there are much deeper moral questions being asked.

Dolores experiences a strange side effect from what the park’s creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) calls a “reverie,” programmed gestures she makes that are tied to specific memories, designed to make her appear more lifelike. This has somehow begun to conjure her whole nightmarish history—memories of death, of her father’s brutalization, of a lifelong desire to escape—in confusing fragments, a virus that is spreading amongst many of the park’s artificial actors. Nolan and Joy seek to dramatize the very concept of consciousness and self-awareness; there’s pathos every time Dolores twitches to “life” in the hands of her creators, and Wood (who is terrific) adds a new layer of confusion to her performance.

Westworld is a slow start, and a slightly frustrating one; after four episodes, it feels like it’s just begun to probe deeper into its own high concept. The sequences inside the control room are fascinating, but the dialogue is often circular, swerving away from simple exposition into loftier ethical discussions. Hopkins’s Ford (curiously named after a strange figure in Western lore, the man who shot Jesse James) seems lost in the clouds, trapped somewhere between high-minded innovation and creepy malevolence. The show is clearly building to some larger twist with both him and Harris’s mysterious hero, but in the early episodes, both clearly enjoy sinking their teeth into their archetypal roles.

Jeffrey Wright, Shannon Woodward, and the great Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) round out the cast of conflicted technicians, each doing wonderful work. But in the four episodes provided to critics, the park is the main source of action, much of it confusingly horrifying, a patchwork of imagery that’s slowly being knitted into grander philosophical directions. Still, Westworld is thrillingly threading a tight needle: It’s resolutely aware of its formula while simultaneously trying to puzzle out the dark impulses behind it. If that’s the future of the HBO drama, it’s an exciting one.

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