HBO has certainly never been afraid to take big, bold risks when it comes to pushing the bounds of what we see on television. From sprawling crime dramas like “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” to massive epics like “Rome” and “Game of Thrones,” they have given us some of the greatest shows ever produced over the last 20 years or so, but they’re not content to let it rest there. For their next daring venture, they have delved not only into the realm of drama once more, but also science-fiction, taking inspiration from a classic Michael Crichton film from 1973 to give us a new and updated take on “Westworld.” As expected, its massive scale befits the audacious story it seeks to tell, but is this a sci-fi tale with something to say, or is it all just merely dressing for a hollow adventure?
Taking place in the not-too-distant future, a park known as Westworld has been created for people to live out their fantasies in a western setting and interact with artificial beings known as hosts. The show follows multiple storylines, including a mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) trying to get at the heart of the park, a technician named Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) trying to solve the problem of a malfunction infecting some of the hosts, Westworld’s co-founder (Anthony Hopkins) creating the park’s next big narrative, host Maeve (Thandie Newton) discovering that her world is not what she thought it was, and host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and a visitor by the name of William (Jimmi Simpson) going off on their own adventure. For some it’s a journey of self-discovery, while for others it’s about getting to the heart of a burning mystery, all entangled in a place where dreams can come true, but also where everything is not quite what it seems.
“Westworld” is one of those shows that you could easily classify as a “slow burner.” In fact, it’s so much so that, during the original broadcast of the program, I actually gave up on it after three episodes, feeling that the show really wasn’t getting anywhere (and that three hours was more than enough time devoted to it in hopes of it doing so). However, after hearing several good things about the rest of the season, I gave it a second try and binge-watched all ten episodes together, and I’m actually pretty glad I did for the various narratives do actually get moving eventually, turning the show into a twisted amalgamation of several fascinating characters trying to fulfill their desires.
As far as the narratives go, they mostly work very well, particularly when it comes to the show’s mystery-based elements. It becomes rather compelling to watch as the Man in Black tries to find what he calls “The Maze,” and the extreme lengths he’ll go to accomplish his mission, while at the same time, the over-arching mystery of the malfunctioning hosts and Dr. Ford’s new narrative provide a slightly more subtle, less philosophical plot to follow. That being said, some of the other plot strands could have used a little work, including Dolores and William’s little adventure, which feels as though it leaves them meandering a little too much at certain points until it comes to its grand conclusion. There’s also the curiously-plotted narrative that has Maeve somehow convincing a pair of workers at the park to help her, which works fine overall, but it certainly does make the events seem like they’re happening really easily. Suffice it to say that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to the various storylines, that is, when they finally start to develop.
Something else that HBO has been quite excellent at over the last couple of decades is bringing together some of the very best casts on television, including the four shows mentioned prior, and “Westworld” is no exception. The stellar cast includes Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, and James Marsden, all of whom inhabit their roles perfectly, bringing just the right touches to their characters to make this bizarre blend of drama and sci-fi believable. It comes as no surprise that five of its whopping 22 Emmy nominations were for acting, including the first four individuals on the list above, and one for the cast as a whole.
That are several other aspects of the show that deserve recognition, including the remarkable production design (the western town, the pristine labs, the welcoming centers, etc.) and Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score, which takes familiar tunes and brilliantly fits them to the time period (see “The Key to the Chords” featurette for more on this). All of these elements come together to deliver a rather unique show that goes a little deeper than you might expect from such a premise, and while it may have a couple of drawbacks, it ends up being worth the time investment to see something this well-made played out by such an exquisite cast. Hopefully the showrunners will learn from the little missteps and deliver something even more stunning with season two.
“Westworld: Season One” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The image is beautifully sharp and clear throughout all ten episodes, perfectly preserving the show’s incredible production design, natural settings, and special effects. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally top-notch, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and Ramin Djawadi’s marvelous score in outstanding quality. Overall, there’s not a single complaint to be had in either area, leaving you with the best experience possible.
About the Series (2 Minutes): A brief featurette that acts as an introduction to the series.
An Invitation to the Set (2 Minutes): Another short featurette that superficially touches on what the series is about.
The Big Moment (4 Minutes): Cast and crew discuss Teddy’s first encounter with the Man in Black and the malfunction of one of the hosts.
Welcome to Westworld (8 Minutes): An excellent featurette that has the cast and crew discussing the show’s characters and themes.
Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of Westworld (11 Minutes): EPs Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy reminisce about the first week of making the show.
Imagining the Main Title (14 Minutes): A featurette that explores the show’s bizarre and haunting opening title sequence.
Reality of A.I.: Westworld (5 Minutes): A featurette in which cast and crew discuss the show’s hosts and artificial intelligence.
The Big Moment (5 Minutes): Cast and crew explore important scenes including Maeve’s search for answers, the surprise saboteur, and a shocking death.
Gag Reel (2 Minutes): An easily-skippable collection of outtakes.
The Big Moment (6 Minutes): Cast and crew discuss the character of Bernard and Dr. Ford’s new narrative.
The Key to the Chords (8 Minutes): A featurette that explores the player piano seen throughout the show.
Crafting the Narrative (29 Minutes): A fascinating featurette in which EPs Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy provide commentary on pivotal scenes in the season’s final episode.
“Westworld: Season One” may take a few episodes before the plotlines start to develop, but when they do, you’re treated to a fascinating blend of drama and science-fiction, featuring a fantastic cast, incredible production design, and a marvelous score. The show does have a few drawbacks, aside from taking a little while to get a move on, but overall it plays very well as a series of mysteries and as a journey of self-discovery for the characters involved in them, making for a show that is well-worth the time invested.