Right off the bat I should tell you that the questions I have about the Westworld premiere might not be the same as the ones you have. HBO's latest big-budget series is a philosopher's dream, exploring free will, human nature, artificial intelligence and much, much more.
Because it does that, some of the more traditional details are glossed over. We're not told where things take place or even when it takes place. It could be the future, it could be an alternate history. We have no idea. What's important are the higher-thinking questions that bleed into life instead of the story-specific details. But that doesn't lessen the effect of the excellent premiere. In fact, it enhances it.
[Spoilers for the premiere of Westworld follow. Read at your own risk.]
1. Can robots fall in love?
The story of Teddy (James Marsden) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) makes up most of the beginning of the pilot and throws the episode deep into classic Western stereotypes. A handsome stranger from out of town comes to see the beautiful rancher's daughter, and they ride on horseback through picturesque landscapes (Utah, nature's perpetual Kodak moment), exchanging witty banter and some saliva. It's practically hokey and certainly generic, but hits those classic points from old-time movies that filled seats in the old days and still resonates today because of its romanticism.
But they're robots. And the hokey-ness — on a second viewing — is intentional and the result of a script written by a programmer. Dolores and Teddy are literally following someone else's idea of love in the Old West, one no doubt taken from old Howard Hawks movies, and are unable to take themselves off that track without outside interference. They repeat this script in every instance because they have no other choice.
How does their story, uninterrupted, play out? Will they get married and have a robo-brood? What happens if one of them develops sentience and understands their situation? Will they still fall in love, as it's ingrained in them? Can they understand they are mere action figures in some rich person's vacation, or will their love supersede their new found consciousness? "There's a path for everyone, and my path is bound with yours," Dolores tells a "dying" Teddy. But will it really be once she knows what's going on? How deeply imprinted is that "love" in her? If she does understand the reality of it all and still loves Teddy, I'll be over here collecting the fragments of my exploded skull.
Many shows tackle the idea of free will versus fate without a definitive answer because it's an unanswerable question for human beings. Sorry to break it to you, but we'll never know if we're all on a predetermined path or if we can forge our own directions — that's one of life's greatest mysteries. But from Dolores and Teddy's perspective, there is absolute fate in play here because they are literally NPCs in this sandbox game, and as the robots glitch out and develop a sense of free will, we'll get creator Jonathan Nolan's perspective on the dilemma.
2. Will we see these stories within Westworld play out?
Personally, I want to know what happens between Dolores and Teddy if an Outsider never saw them. And those milk-obsessed bandits. And the charming rogue Hector Escaton and his bad-ass partner with the eagle-eye and trigger finger. Clearly there are predefined stories that they're involved in. What is Westworld's narrative director Lee Sizemore's (Simon Quarterman) artistic vision of these Westworld hosts without human interference? Westworld could almost function as a series on its own without the science-fiction aspects ... but what would that look like? I want to know!
We'll probably never find out, but instead examine the various paths all these characters could take with minor nudges to their natural (well, pre-programmed) orbits. We could even apply these Sliding Doors moments to our own lives. Perhaps when all is said and done, we'll see what Lee had in mind for an undisturbed Westworld. Maybe we'll even finally hear Hector's speech.
3. How would we act if we knew there were no consequences?
Westworld is definitely about robots and their uprising, but it's also equally about human nature. The humans who visit Westworld are there to live out their fantasies with no repercussions, and part of being human is harboring an evil streak. We're naturally selfish as a mechanism for survival. Many philosophers will tell you that the only reason we aren't absolutely barbaric is because of rules and social stigma, but if that was all removed, would we behave like we do today? Probably not.
One of the earlier visitors says that on one of his visits he "went straight-up evil, had the best two weeks of my life." And while some first-time Outsiders play things mostly cautiously, veterans aren't afraid to go deep into role playing. I'd like to think that role-playing involves being a good person, but no one in Westworld went there to be the white-hat sheriff. Most "wanted to shoot or f*** something," as Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) notes. What would you do in their place?
4. What is beyond the "game"?
Speaking of acting without consequences, Ed Harris' Man in Black has been to Westworld so many times that he knows there is something beyond the everyday simulations. His horrific torture of a local is just the beginning of his quest to find out what's really going on. The local's scalp had a map on it — or was it a symbol? Where does it lead? And what is he really up to?
Because Westworld doesn't give us any details of what's going on, where things take place or when they take place, there's a huge curtain ready to be lifted by the Man in Black. Could he actually be a good guy looking to uncover the truth behind Westworld?
5. Is Dolores pre-programmed to be blocked from the truth?
Dolores' voiceover is one of the first episode's most stirring features, with her positive outlook blocking out all the ugliness in the world. And when her father Peter (Louis Herthum) discovers a photo from an Outsider showing the real world, Dolores can't say anything but "Doesn't look like anything to me," as though it's a preprogrammed response, twice, with the same inflection and cadence. Then she goes about her business as if nothing happened. That can't be coincidence. Why was it so important for Dolores — the park's oldest "host" — to not understand what she was seeing, while her father was deeply affected by seeing the same photograph? Obviously she's special, but how?
6. What is up with the lower-level holding room for robots who don't work properly?
That sub-basement level of broken robots is nothing but bad, bad news for the humans above. Yikes. This ain't like my drawer full of old iPods and iPhones.
7. How lifelike is too lifelike when it comes to androids?
There's a debate in robotics about how "real" robots should be made to appear, and it's something Lee's character brings up. He notes that visitors don't want to shoot or have sex with something that's "too real" because deep down, we can't bring ourselves to commit questionable acts against something that seems like an equal. But something that is just fake enough allows us to play out our deepest fantasies.
On the other side, Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Robert Ford wants to push realism as far as he can to make his androids indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood humans. His update adds the idea of permanent memories that allows the hosts to develop new behaviors based on their past experiences, even if it isn't accessible by their single-instance consciousness. That adds an insane amount of realism to them, and is responsible for the problems in the premiere.
There's a difference in our thinking when we know we're dealing with something artificial. When that line gets blurred and things seem too real, we cease to act naturally. And in the case of Westworld, when things get too real, things go wrong. Where should the line between artificial and real be drawn, and has Westworld already gone too far?
8. Why does the player piano and some of the music redo classic and familiar music?
Yes, that was Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" on the player piano. Yes, that was The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" during Hector's big shootout. Why? Because it's awesome, that's why.
Westworld airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.