Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Westworld.”
“Westworld” premiered October 2 with a bloody and action-packed episode, but the biggest surprise to viewers was revealed in the first 15 minutes.
Teddy Flood — a dashing and chivalrous cowboy played by James Marsden — is a robotic “host.” The opening scenes, however, set viewers up to expect him to be human, with close up shots of Teddy arriving to the town of Sweetwater in Westworld while Dolores (a definite robot host) describes her feelings about the “guests” in the park.
The “Westworld” teaser trailers left the human/robot status of Teddy and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) ambiguous, which made their showdown even more tense and shocking. Not only was the violent murder of Dolores’ parents gruesome to watch, but the realisation that Teddy could not save Dolores from further sexual abuse was a smart, heartbreaking surprise.
Leading the audience to believe Teddy is human was a brilliant move from showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. This kicks the series off with a huge question: Should humans empathise with robots?
If you cannot tell the difference between humans and robots (on the outside), then why should we feel differently about the way they are treated?
When watching Dolores scream and beg the Man in Black not to hurt Teddy before watching him die and then being dragged off (presumably to be raped), did you feel empathy for her? Disgust? Horror?
Empathy with the plight of robots designed for human entertainment will become the central tenant of the series. Dr. Ford’s “reveries” are already beginning to trigger a sense of memory within the robots, as seen with the milk-drinking murderer robot who terrified two guests after starting a killing spree based on a “grudge” he held.
Nolan and Joy are positing a complex question when it comes to building realistic artificial intelligence and deciding what moral responsibility humans would have to their creations, especially if those creations can remember what is done to them. Does the desire to murder and rape really become ok when you’re not doing it to another human, but instead a hyper-realistic simulation of a human?
Teddy’s reveal forces the audience to immediately ask themselves this question. If we are unable to discern host from human, how would we behave within the Westworld theme park? Would we become murderers or rapists for a day?
The set up of the Man in Black as a human villain is also an interesting choice on Nolan and Joy’s behalf. In the original 1973 “Westworld” movie the villain is a gun slinging cowboy robot dressed in all black who malfunctions and begins murdering the human guests.
The HBO show cleverly inverts this character. Instead of an unnamed robot murdering humans with no clear motivation, Nolan and Joy have given us an unnamed human with a mysterious mission that involves abusing and killing robots systematically.
The pilot episode has only told us that the Man in Black is looking for some kind of “deeper level” to Westworld. We know he’s been coming to the park since its opening, giving him a familiarity with all the hosts.
Instead of humans, “Westworld” is setting up the hosts to be the protagonists of the series, allowing audiences to easily empathise with their situation as well as understand more about the cause of their potential future malfunctions. Teddy Flood’s introduction sets the stage for this is a masterful way, and we can’t wait to see what other surprises “Westworld” has in store.
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