“Hell is empty and all the devils are here!”
*WARNING* *SPOILERS AHEAD*
What did we learn from the pilot episode of Westworld? First off, we learned that HBO knows how to produce consistently high quality shows. Like almost everyone else this weekend, I spent my afternoons (and nights) binge watching Luke Cage on Netflix, minus the two hours the streaming service was crashed by the nerd onslaught. Luke Cage was good. It was fun. I was perfectly happy with Luke Cage. And, then… And then, there was Westworld. The series’ opener, “The Original,” reminded me again of the magical age of television we live in. It seems an exceptional production hits the coaxial every week. Luke Cage was good. Great, if you account for its extraordinary finale. Westworld, by comparison, was a masterful piece of filmmaking from top to bottom: cinematography, screenwriting, acting, score, special effects, and on, and on. What the weeks ahead will show, who knows, but it was one hell of a start.
As I mentioned in my earlier article, Westworld‘s premise revolves around a futuristic adult amusement park populated by animatronic human replicas, known as hosts. The robots interact with real human guests (referred to as newcomers) and fulfill their every wish, no matter how dark those wishes may be. The setting, the Disneyland Mainstreet of Westworld, is as important as any character. The vacationers are supposed to feel free to do anything in this memetic paradise (in this case, the nineteenth-century American west, a period of mythical lawlessness). It is a perfect choice for straddling the line between anarchy and order. One of the more embedded thematic threads of Westworld is the fundamental Hobbesian question: what is the nature of humankind outside the constraints of civil society? In “The Original,” we are introduced to The Gunslinger (played terrifyingly by Ed Harris), a character who has been visiting Westworld for some thirty years, and who casually abandons any semblance of moral restraint, reveling in the violence made available to him. We are given few hints to his motivations (like him brutally scalping an android to reveal its circuitry), but we really don’t need hints. We don’t need an explanation. There is a larger question here. The show is asking if moral restraints can or should exist in the virtual world. For The Gunslinger, clearly, they do not. Amongst machines, we are happy monsters, without conscience.
Another major theme, more deeply embedded and even more intriguing, is that the hosts may be developing an artificial subconscious. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is Westworld’s Frankenstein, and when he introduces an “update” into his robotic entertainers, it results in a glitch of sorts; the machines begin to reflect on previously erased memories–an artificial unconscious. This reflection is manifested in a very human gesture, which is “off-script” and beyond the mere improvisation the hosts’ programming allows. Here lies the crux of the opening story, and, I assume, the foreseeable duration of the show. If machines can develop drives, something beyond ideation, beyond self-awareness, could their behaviors be motivated by their past experiences? Even forgotten or deleted experiences? If so, the construct might truly be alive. It could develop neurosis, feel regret, be anxious, vengeful…be party to the most hidden human processes, processes not only hidden to its maker but to the machine itself. Let’s hope writers, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, continue along this promising line of inquiry.
Early reviews have made much of Westworld‘s level of violence, its violence, in particular, towards women. Very early in the first episode, in fact, The Gunslinger is seen dragging Delores, our protagonist, into a barn where, we assume, a sexual assault takes place. It is a vile and stomach wrenching sequence, and I cannot fathom how someone could find it glorifying in its representation. It is a difficult scene to watch, but that is the point. The violence is not gratuitous. It is absolutely essential to what Westworld is trying to accomplish. Nolan and Joy’s script is an examination of artificial intelligence and our response to robotic agency. By questioning whether we should watch a show that portrays graphic violence, critics are suggesting that experiencing representations of violence is a violent act in and of itself. Are sins still sins when they are perpetrated in art, against plastic recreations of the world? These are questions worth exploring, and such exploration is and should be difficult. Fifty years ago domestic violence was an acceptable practice in our culture, in real life. In an age thankfully purged of such traditions, is Leave It To Beaver a more appropriate aesthetic than Westworld? The answer is an emphatic, no. Leave It to Beaver is arguably more fictional and violent in its dishonesty than HBO’s latest programming choice will ever be.
I plan to critque each episode of the first season, so I will leave it here with so many questions unanswered. With only one hour under their belt, HBO has given their audience plenty to puzzle over and even more to cheer (shout) about. Don’t let the naysayers dissuade you, though. This is meticulous screenwriting, spellbinding performance, and thought provoking subject matter. But be warned: Westworld, the beautiful and horrifying amusement park, has not a single child’s ride within its borders, and neither does the show–smart, adult rollercoasters only.