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Westworld’s pilot is full of sadism, violence, and hope

It may be the sci-fi equivalent of Game of Thrones

Westworld principal photography HBO

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the pilot episode of Westworld.

Westworld is a show about fantasies in every regard. Within the first 10 minutes of the pilot episode, those fantasies range from the most pleasant of dreams to the most sadistic and vile of yearnings. Westworld is, above all else, about the moral ambiguity that fantasies and dreamscapes provide for us, and beyond the darkest violent and sexual scenarios, the glimmer of hope we carry.

Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie of the same name, Westworld takes place in a Wild West-themed amusement park, where visitors can travel and explore, interacting with the lifelike AI machines that roam the world. At the end of each day, the robots have their memories wiped by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who created the AI years ago. The idea is that because their memories are wiped every single night, the AI can start the next day on a new slate.

It’s an idea that opens up the most basic human question when it comes to being able to yield unlimited power without the fear of consequence: if you could kill someone and get away with it, would you? How about rape? What if you could torture someone within an inch of their life and never have to worry about dealing with the repercussions that those acts have in the real world? The moral ambiguity and personal ethical guideline that each visitor is faced with is the most interesting aspect of the show, and luckily for us, is where the series seems to be headed.

If you could kill someone and get away with it, would you?

Westworld, because of that reason, isn’t an easy watch. There’s a moment early on in the pilot that sees Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) gets beaten by The Man in Black (Ed Harris) after she’s forced to watch the love of her life, Teddy Flood (James Marsden), be killed just moments after her father’s brutal slaying. Like other HBO series, the violence can be stomach-churning, but unlike other shows on the network, it’s absolutely necessary. There’s a reason the show takes place in the Wild West, where outlaws rule supreme and saloons are full of questionable activities: Westworld is a series about our desire to indulge in the darkest of fantasies, and most of those fantasies revolve around unspeakable acts of violence or various sexual encounters.

Within the actual theme park, there’s a lack of respect that most of the visitors and AI machines seem to abide by. There’s no longer a need to act humanely when the clock resets at the end of the night and everything is bright, shiny and new again in the morning. Without a strict system of right and wrong in place, every man and woman is seemingly looking out for themselves. It’s hard to judge what an entire season of television will look like based on the pilot, but if I had to make an assumption of what people should expect over the course of the next nine episodes this season, it would be more questioning about what’s right and wrong when a judicial system is taken out of the equation.

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While most of the pilot focuses on the negative nature of this fantastical theme park, there’s an underlining theme that’s so overwhelmingly positive, it seems to burst through in even the darkest of moments: hope. There’s a never ending optimism that exists within the main characters that despite everything pointing to the opposite, tomorrow is going to be a better day. It’s absolutely vital that this optimism and hope exists, too. A large part of Dr. Ford’s work is making the AI as human-like as possible, including programming a certain level of hope inside of them, and humanity can not exist without a balance of good and evil. There needs to be a level of hope and optimism that runs through the park in order for the sadistic nature of what happens every day to be seen as despicable as it is.

All of which leads to another of the subthemes that appears quite often in the pilot. There’s a constant comparison being subtly made betwen the emotional and psychological nature of human beings and the world of technology and robotics that everyone lives in. It’s fascinating to watch the AI learn about complex emotions and what it means to have moral choices presented to you while watching actual human beings, who are at their very worst, wander around the park.

The most impressive thing about Westworld is its incredibly smart writing. Westworld doesn’t back down from chasing the philosophical questions that it wants to address and uses a heightened sense of violence and sexual content to explore the darkest fantasies that we may have about how we operate. It’s the moral ambiguity that each character is faced with that reminds us how humans are different than animals, or in this case, machines. Using robots to illustrate the power of optimism and hope against the backdrop of monstrous humans is just another example of the writing team finding new ways to brilliantly explore the deep psyche of our minds.

Westworld is one of the most exciting new series on television this fall, and it’s most certainly one of the smartest. We still don’t know how Westworld will look like as an entire season, but it’s evident that HBO may have another fascinating, philosophical and politically driven series that fans of Game of Thrones may be able to get caught up in.

Westworld airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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