What Is ‘Westworld’ About? A Short Explainer

HBO’s latest attempt to own your Sunday nights is part sci-fi, part Western

Last Updated: April 13, 2018 @ 2:51 PM

It’s not your fault if you’re totally confused by the advertising for “Westworld,” which premieres on HBO Sunday.

The billboards for the series, an update of a 1973 film starring Yul Brenner, feature a metallic-looking female figure reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” — the name of that image of a man in perfect proportion within a circle — with Western mountains as a backdrop. Which tells you… nothing.

At least, it tells you nothing about the plot of the show. It actually tells you a lot about the ideas behind it. I’ve seen the first four episodes, and I think the show is a lot more interesting for the ideas it explores than for the story it tells, at least so far.

JUST GIVE ME THE SHORT VERSION. WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?
The best imaginable explanation for what “Westworld” is about may come in a single line at the end of the trailer for the 1973 film, in which a recorded voice announces, “We know you’ll enjoy your stay in ‘Westworld,’ the ultimate resort, where nothing, nothing can possibly go wrong … go wrong … go wrong …”

WHY IS IT CALLED ‘WESTWORLD’?
“Westworld” is the name of a Western theme park populated by robots who play all kinds of Western archetypes — bandits, saloon keepers, lawmen, prostitutes. Think of it as “Jurassic Park” with robot cowboys instead of dinosaurs.

Humans pay to visit this world, and act out their gunslinger fantasies — and sexual fantasies. And all kinds of other fantasies. They can do whatever they want to the robots — insult them, have sex with them, kill them. The robots can’t hurt them back.

SO IT’S GREAT FOR HUMANS, NOT SO GREAT FOR ROBOTS
Exactly. The robots, being robots, aren’t supposed to care. But conflicts arise when the robots do what robots always do in these stories: Seem to become sentient. Feel. Remember.

UH-OH.
Yeah. As you may have guessed, there’s a real sense of menace about what might happen if the robots ever broke the first of Isaac Asimov‘s “Three Laws of Robotics”: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

ISAAC WHO?
Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to like sci-fi to like “Westworld.”

WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE WESTERNS? 
That’s OK too. Because the show is really about what makes humans human. Hence the da Vinci allusion in the posters. Vitruvian Man is supposed to be perfect, physically.

But like so many humans, beautiful and otherwise, the robots seem not quite right, mentally. There are glitches in their programming. They’re complex and complicated and don’t do what we want them to do. Sound like anyone you know?

SOUNDS LIKE EVERYONE I KNOW.
Right?

WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE A ‘WEST’ WORLD? WHY COULDN’T IT BE ROMAN WORLD OR MEDIEVAL WORLD?
Great point — they’re robots, so their creators could put them in any kind of setting. In fact, in the 1973 film, there were worlds called, you guessed it, Roman World and Medieval World. But HBO already had a show called “Rome” and a show called “Game of Thrones.”

BUT HBO ALSO HAD A WESTERN CALLED ‘DEADWOOD’
I’m not in charge, amigo. I’m just saying it’s possible that in later episodes of “Westworld” you might visit other kinds of worlds. I don’t know.

WHO DOES ANTHONY HOPKINS PLAY?
Great question, because he’s maybe the best part of the show. He and Jeffrey Wright (also excellent) work for the company that builds and maintains the robots, and I’ll leave it at that so as not to spoil the mystery. But suffice it to say, there’s a corporate drama going on behind the scenes of the theme park. The excellent cast also includes Evan Rachel WoodThandie Newton, and world’s handsomest man James Marsden.

SHOULD I WATCH?
I like it, but I love things that mash up genres. And the scenery is gorgeous.

WHEN IS ‘WESTWORLD’ ON?
Thanks for asking with that particular phrasing — it brings in a lot of search traffic from people who Google “When is ‘Westworld’ on?” “Westworld” premieres this Sunday, Oct. 2, at 10/9c. Nothing can possibly go wrong … go wrong … go wrong.