“You know why this beats the real world?” Ed Harris asks a man he’s about to shoot. “The real world is chaos. It’s an accident. But in here, every detail adds up to something.” Playing a marauding visitor to a futuristic theme park, Harris perfectly summarizes the appeal of Westworld, a tourist attraction for wealthy folks who want to role-play the days of Wild Bill Hickok. Harris isn’t gunning down a man, really—he’s killing one of the AI “hosts” created for his pleasure. And Westworld, the new HBO series set at the park, is as beautifully built as its subject matter. Its carefully chosen details add up to a pulp spectacular that’s more thoughtful than any other of this fall’s new dramas.
Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is Westworld’s behind-the-scenes master of ceremonies, crafting “narratives” for his hundreds of synthetic pioneers. Visitors pay tens of thousands of dollars a day to watch—or interact with, whether kissing or killing—the machines, which Hopkins has impregnated with verbal and physical tics so inconspicuous that we don’t notice until the same scenarios are reenacted with new guests. Westworld entices clients with a surreal change of scenery, but keeps them coming back with a populace that’s beautifully “human.” As Ford puts it: “The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details.”
After each guest leaves, the hosts’ memories are wiped clean by programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright, brilliantly conveying the moral ambiguity of the situation). It’s this detail that creates a problem when sweet-natured robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) begin to recall traumas from the past that ought to have been deleted. Harris’ “Man in Black,” who’s been visiting the park for 30 years, feels certain he’s close to cracking its code, but there’s a chance his once docile hosts may just rise up and rebel before he gets there.
Unlike Game of Thrones—the obvious point of comparison as a lavish HBO fantasy, and a series whose success the network surely wants to repeat—Westworld isn’t based on a widely known property with a rich mythology. Its first season wrings 10 episodes from a cult 1973 sci-fi flick written and directed by Michael Crichton, which didn’t crack the 90-minute mark. Show creators Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan freely and confidently build out a narrative that considers, from its first moments, the meaning of human consciousness. Is a mind created by humans really a mind? Can it be mistreated?
It’s the finesse with which the show handles these heavy questions that will keep me coming back, but it’s also worth noting that the garish spectacle is rendered expertly. A show depicting the creation of synthetic humans rises or falls on the quality of its bots, and to watch Dolores undergo programming is to see Wood’s virtuosity at work. She shifts between affects and accents as Lowe grills her, but never loses some fundamental sweetness. Whether it’s her coding or an inexplicable soul within her machinery is the mystery Westworld fearlessly sets out to explore.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. E.T. on HBO
This appears in the October 10, 2016 issue of TIME.