Westworld and Pilots

by Damian Robb

Chances are good you’ve now seen the first episode of Westworld and, most likely, the rest of the episodes that are out so far, thanks to whatever reputable streaming service you use or less reputable torrenting provider. Either way, this post will be focusing just on the pilot episode. If for some reason you haven’t seen the pilot, be it that you’re holding off for the whole series, don’t own any screened devices, or are waiting for the VHS copy (that’s going to be a long wait), then you might want to make a graceful exit as this post will contain spoilers. 

Firstly, that had to be one of the strongest pilot episodes of any television show I’ve ever seen. Bit of a call I know, given the high quality of television we currently get to enjoy - Game of Thrones and Fargo both had exceptionally immersive pilots - but give me a chance to explain myself.

A pilot episode has to do a lot. They can often be the worst episode of a season because they’re not just setting up a world - whether it is a futuristic cowboy themed amusement park/video game, Westeros, or Minnesota - they’re also introducing us to every other element that makes up that show. The cast of characters, the rules of that world, themes, visual motifs, style and tone...oh, and let’s not forget storylines. It’s a ton of information to try to get across in a naturalistic way and the fact that the audience is coming in with no prior knowledge means that by their nature pilots are usually overly explanatory and involve a lot of exposition. 

Show don't tell gang. Show don't tell.

Show don't tell gang. Show don't tell.

Here’s where Westworld excelled, namely in avoiding exposition and trusting its audience. Yes, it did have some exposition, but what it gave was minimal, often in context, and frequently visual. It’s HBO so they’ve got the money to show not tell their world and they did so stunningly; both inside and outside of Westworld. The quick shots down in the labs of them ‘making’ a horse told us a lot more than if they'd had a character try to explain the process. 

Back to the trust. The creators of this show could have started out this pilot in Westworld with us, the audience, none the wiser that the Wild West we were seeing was nothing more than a carnival ride on steroids and saved that reveal as a surprise twist. That would have been fun, but what they did was even better. They went deeper. They threw us head first into this world and into the story and trusted us to fill in the blanks as we went, with only the briefest moments of exposition when necessary. Game of Thrones couldn’t even pull this off as well, although their clever use of sexposition was an excellent workaround. 

Westworld also avoided the need to set up every single world rule. For example you may have also found yourself asking while the credits rolled ‘How do they stop the Guests from hurting each other?’ Again, this comes down to trust. Trust that the audience aren’t children and that they have patience to wait for these answers rather than deliver them up all at once in a hackneyed and telling fashion. 

Trust me, I'm a mutant and led the X-Men for a bit before dying like a dickhead.

Trust me, I'm a mutant and led the X-Men for a bit before dying like a dickhead.

All these clever choices helped make this pilot feel less like a pilot, while still fulfilling the needs of a first episode. What are these needs? Promises. Ultimately, that’s all pilots are. Promises of what audiences can expect for the rest of the series; and Westworld made a lot of promises. It promised twists when they first set up Teddy as a Guest then revealed him to be a Host. It promised compelling themes of moral ambiguity and human nature when they had a Guest speak of spending one week in Westworld with his wife and kids and another week going “full evil” - leaving us to ask ourselves ‘What would I do in Westworld?’ It promised thematic visuals with recurring shots of a player piano, a clear symbol of how the Guests see the Hosts. It promised juxtaposition between the rustic beauty of Westworld and the stark futuristic bleakness of the institute. It promised violence. It promised mystery. And it promised an android revolt with the slapping of a fly.

The question now stands can Westworld fulfil these promises? If the series turns out to be as strong as the pilot then I’m entitled to believe it can. We’ll just have to keep watching to find out.

Posted on October 28, 2016 .