HBO’s “Westworld” Examines Artificial Intelligence and the Final Frontier

The series showcases both ends of the human psyche, from brutality to conscience, and is beautifully complex as a result.

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The series showcases both ends of the human psyche, from brutality to conscience, and is beautifully complex as a result.

HBO’s “Westworld” Examines Artificial Intelligence and the Final Frontier

The Wild “Westworld”

The series showcases both ends of the human psyche, from brutality to conscience, and is beautifully complex as a result.

By Ashley Wertz, University of Pittsburgh


There are some combinations in life that don’t seem to go together, but are actually the tastiest things out there.

Salted caramel, maple bacon, pineapple on pizza and science fiction westerns. Wait, one of these things is not like the other.

On October 2, HBO launched yet another successful television series, “Westworld,” a genre mash up that doesn’t sound like it should be as great as it is. Written and produced by Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, the series is in good hands. I mean, Jonathan is the little brother of director Christopher Nolan after all (you know, the guy that directed “Interstellar” and the latest Batman movies. No biggie.). The show is also based off of a Michael Crichton movie of the same name. And anyone who created “Jurassic Park” is somebody that I trust.

What’s It About?

The title sounds self-explanatory, right? Surely it’s about the Wild West. Well, you’re half correct. Though not explicitly stated, “Westworld” takes place some time in the future.

HBO’s “Westworld” Examines Artificial Intelligence and the Final Frontier
Image via HBO

The story revolves around the theme park “Westworld,” a hyper-realistic and hyper-expensive roleplaying experience that allows guests to interact with the final frontier without any real consequences. Shooting somebody in the head and attending the local brothel are all a part of the fun. But how do these rich people literally get away with murder? I’m glad you asked, because this is where it gets interesting.

“Westworld” is home to hundreds of robots, called “hosts,” that perform to specifications encoded by the head honchos back at headquarters. Each host has a set of preprogrammed phrases and actions that intertwine with different plots or scenarios throughout the park, kind of like an action figure, but they’re so life-like they are mistaken for actual human beings.

Of course, the morality of the whole operation comes into question. If it looks like a human, acts like a human and makes you believe it’s a human, then what makes humans and hosts so different? To make the experience as authentic as possible, the hosts are even made out of flesh and blood and are constantly sent back to the shop for repairs. And I’m not talking scratches and bruises.

“Westworld” is definitely not the first production to use artificial intelligence as a theme. Movies like “Ex Machina” and “I, Robot” also bring up the question, “do robots have feelings?” The hosts in Westworld are wiped clean of their memories every day, so they won’t remember and beat the shit out the last person who killed them. And yet the higher-ups in the company adamantly refuse the idea that their creations can “feel” as a human does or be aware of their situation.

But Spoiler Alert: Some of the hosts start to remember the shitty things the park guests have done and become especially self-aware. As you can guess, this newfound sentience is what stirs up the most conflict.

Why You Should Watch It

For one, the show is an HBO original. The network has created quite a few favorites, such as “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood.” What makes these shows so interesting is HBO’s tendency to take risks. I’m definitely not saying that adding gratuitous sex scenes and beheadings are the keys to a great series, but making audiences think and get involved in the story is essential. “Westworld” plays with the idea of morality and artificial intelligence, but also morality through the lens of just plain human interaction. Are people innately drawn to committing atrocities? How much does capitalism suck? These are just a few questions that the show addresses.

But in order to keep the plot exciting, the show can’t only rely on the stunning scenery of Utah and Arizona’s twisting rock formations, or interesting set designs. And a plot isn’t too exciting without characters. Fortunately, “Westworld” has a strong cast to give said characters life, including the always-impressive Anthony Hopkins.

Hopkins plays one of the park’s original creators. He was around when the hosts weren’t quite as life-like as they are now, so he knows a secret or two. What makes Hopkins’ performance so great is his subtlety. His character is not exactly on a Hannibal Lecter level of creepy, but I can see points where he might have drawn some inspiration, as he slyly threatens anyone who stands in the way of his park reaching its full potential.

But he’s not alone. The remainder of the cast boasts some other great talents, though not as well known. For me, the greatest part of the cast is its diversity. There’s a lot of representation, especially for women. Evan Rachel Wood plays the show’s main protagonist, Dolores Abernathy, a host that has been in Westworld for longer than most. Wood’s acting is phenomenal, especially when it comes to being a robot.

It can’t be easy to hyperventilate one second and be completely blank-faced the next when asked for a statistics report.

It’s refreshing to see a female character take the lead role, especially in a sci-fi show (a genre notorious for its belittlement or straight-up banishment of women). Dolores is, at first, the damsel in distress, but only because she was programmed to be. Within the first episode, you can see that she knows something is not right with her world.

Dolores is not the only character to make an impression on audiences. My favorite character is actually another host, Maeve Millay, played by Thandie Newton. Maeve’s role in Westworld is the local brothel madam at Mariposa Saloon. Like Dolores, she becomes less content with the life she’s been automated to lead and more concerned with how to break the cycle. Not only is she an absolute badass, she’s also smarter than anyone who has ever programmed her.

Whether intentional or not, the hosts in “Westworld” are often more likeable than the humans. The guests are often seen taking advantage of the hosts in abhorrent ways, regardless of how human-like they seem. In fact, the more human the hosts are, the more guests seem to enjoy knocking them down a peg. Hosts experience (or appear to experience) emotions like fear and betrayal, as well as love. Once again, HBO has crafted a series that shocks and entertains with plot twists and thought-provoking questions about what being human really means.

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