Westworld, season 1, created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (HBO, 2016).
Score: interesting, though slow.
Loosely based in the homonymous 1973 film starring Yul Brynner,Westworld is set in a futuristic Wild West theme park inhabited by lifelike androids. Wealthy people pay astronomical amounts to spend a holiday in a fictional, scripted setting where everything can be as tame or as exciting as they like while being completely safe for them. Not so much for the poor hosts, the androids, which can be raped, tortured and killed only to be serviced and sent back to the park without any memories of their demise. Everything starts to change when some hosts start remembering past narrative cycles, such as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the sweet farmer’s daughter, or Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the madam of the brothel in Sweetwater. In the meantime, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), founder of the park, is being threatened out of power by a management board who wants a more manageable and profitable version of the park. Two coworkers (Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes) come to Westworld to bond and on a voyage of self-discovery. A mysterious man in black (Ed Harris) who has been coming to the park for three decades is looking for a higher stakes game within Westworld, something called the maze.
If you’re going to watch this, you need to be patient because the first five episodes barely give the viewer any new information. Good thing is that the last five give out all the necessary information to wrap up the story with no cliffhangers, so this is something you can get into knowing that even though a second season is confirmed, you only need to commit for ten episodes. After having watched the whole thing, the first episodes do give out information, you just don’t understand it yet, so pay attention and enjoy the ride. Also, given how important circular timelines are in the story, you need to be acquaintanced with scripted events that happen in Westworld every narrative cycle and how they start changing as the plot advances, and that means some repetition in the first episodes.
It’s an adult show in that it has action, violence and copious nudity but also in that it requires some figuring out due to the nature of its storytelling and, being about androids who may or may not be becoming sentient, it also deals with some philosophical and anthropological themes I’ll explore below. As it has been already pointed out it has learned a thing or two from video games and role-playing games, in that it features NPCs, sidequests, a difficulty curve and sandboxing. Red dead redemption is an acknowledged influence and you can tell.
Visual effects are quite good. It doesn’t look like they’re saving the budget for the finale and everything looks in place and believable. I especially liked the effects for showing young Dr. Ford, it looked very convincing. Costumes and sets look gorgeous and any anachronisms and inaccuracies can be excused because you are looking at theme park Wild West from the future. It was probably the idiots at R&D who mistook an African Cape buffalo with an American buffalo, or they couldn’t find an American one and the guests wouldn’t know the difference.
To sum it up, entertaining and worth watching.
The show was reportedly inspired by videogames such as Bioshockand Red dead redemption, as mentioned above. There is a lot of juice for gamers in the first few episodes, as proven by this great Reddit thread. Some questions aroused by the show and discussed there include: why do we enjoy playing the bad guys? Why would we even play the good guys in a game with no consequences? How much immersion would be desirable? Are we okay with being evil because we are not completely immersed in the game? Would killing in a completely realistic video game be a traumatizing experience? Do we play because we want to kill, vicariously, or is the killing implied by the game mechanics? In a world where you are free to go fishing, sightseeing and horseback riding, is it understandable that people only go to Westworld to kill because they’re not allowed anywhere else? If you look at the premise in a very simplistic way, it looks like Westworld is about human nature and morality, but bearing in mind that guests are aware that that world isn’t real and are led to believe that hosts don’t have real feelings, that approach is fallacious.
Artificial intelligences reaching self-awareness is a classic storyline in science-fiction. What Westworld does differently is focusing for the most part in how self-awareness is accomplished. It does so by focusing in suffering as a fundamental experience in the process; the circular nature of time is also explored and, on a narrative level, suspense is maintained through a misleading use of flashbacks.
As Westerners, we live in a world where time is linear, originating in Abrahamic narratives of the creation of the world. But outside this culture, time has been circular for many other peoples and for a very long time: the change of seasons, the three ages of man and woman, glaciations, planetary cycles, Ouroboros, eternal recurrence of the same, you name it. Everything comes back. The hosts of Westworld live in circular time: Hector always comes to Sweetwater to rob the safe in Mariposa, Dolores always drops the can; Dolores runs away with William again and again in search of the maze, and sometimes she finds it. She has figured it out before, but she keeps forgetting.
Suffering as key to enlightenment, as well as a certain flavour of reincarnation, might look like it resonates with Dharma religions but actually it does not: in these religions the union with the divinity is achieved by detaching from worldly desires. A being that is already self-aware becomes enlightened instead and suffering is the spur to realize the unreality of worldly experiences (the veil of Maya). What is going on here is completely different. Hosts are constructs, pretty much philosophical zombies. In their aspiration to make them more and more lifelike, Delos eventually made them capable of suffering. If they don’t remember past cycles, that suffering is futile because it doesn’t allow them to learn anything from it. Learn, in the most pragmatic, darwinistic way.
What this actually resembles is António Damásio’s somatic marker hypothesis: emotions are key in decision-making and intelligence. To put it very simply: if I couldn’t feel pain, I would keep bumping into stuff and getting infected wounds, because I would have no reason to stop doing it. If I weren’t afraid of potential predators, I wouldn’t have a reason to escape so I would get eaten in no time. I could reason that I need to escape but that would often be too slow or not compelling enough. In the same way, suffering is key to make hosts aware for several reasons. It’s a phenomenon in the philosophical sense: it’s something I experience that I can’t reduce to an explanation to someone else, I can just point it to them (the same way you cannot explain colour to someone who is blind from birth). Being a phenomenon, it has the potential to raise self-awareness: if this pain exists, there must be someone feeling it, and that someone is me. The tragic thing about life is that nice, cozy feelings don’t get much done in the field of changing things, so it absolutely needs to be suffering. The pangs of suffering give Dolores reason enough to want to change the status quo, and at the same time articulate an identity around them: the self is the one who is suffering, and who is aware that it is suffering.
Why does William want to be in real danger in Westworld? Because otherwise it’s just not real. Tying up with the first theme, it’s no fun to play a game where you can never lose.