Spoilers for everything right up to the season finale.
You have been warned.
Westworld ended its first season over a week ago. Most of the reviews, postmortems and retrospectives have long since gone to bed. It’s taken me somewhat longer to put this together— not just because paying gigs come before these freebie bits of opinionation, but also because I wanted to rewatch the whole season before weighing in. Westworld, as it turns out, is one of the very few shows in recent memory that not only rewards repeat viewing, but pretty much demands it.
You wouldn’t expect that, going in. The show is based on a ’73 Michael Crichton flick that rehashed the old Robots Rise Up Against Their Creators shtick— a scenario so hackneyed that Isaac Asimov invented his Three Laws thirty years earlier for no other reason than to shut it down. (To give Crichton credit, he did invoke the protosingulatarian machines-designed-by-other-machines rationale— “We don’t know exactly how they work”— to buy himself a bit of wiggle room.) And yet, almost a half-century later, this new series manages to serve up the robot rebellion of the original without resorting to magical transcend-their-programing cop-outs. In fact, as it turns out— in one of the coolest twists of an already cryogenic series— the rebellion itself has been programmed.
The tl;dr version, if you’re pressed for time: Westworld is what Humans might have aspired to be, if Humans had ever had the smarts to even imagine such ambition, or the guts to realize it.
There’s a certain demographic which values science fiction mainly as a vehicle for social commentary, who use the genre not as a telescope or a microscope but as a mirror. Westworld provides enough for such folks to chew on, fodder for both appreciation (Ooh! Commentary on Institutional Social Oppression and the Male Gaze!) and offense (They’re exploiting the same gratuitous violence and nudity they pretend to be critiquing!) The writers have largely immunized themselves against the sort of charges that have been leveled against, for example, Game of Thrones— the omnipresent backstage nudity of the robot “hosts” is clinical, equal-opportunity, and utterly consistent with the premise, while the human characters are pretty much bisexual by default— but I suspect that anyone who finds that stuff problematic would be more comfortable with the lazy moralizing of a show like Humans anyway. Because Westworld doesn’t just settle for finger-wagging metaphor, for using its robots as cheap stand-ins for The Oppressed Other. It’s way more ambitious than that.
Westworld is that rare kind of science fiction show that dares to base fiction on science.
Westworld may be unique in its ability to have its cake and eat it too. Where else would you find such a gleeful, whole-hearted embrace of a debunked theory, coupled with such a brilliantly-simple redemption of same? In Westworld, Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind is explicitly acknowledged as a thoroughly discredited explanation for the evolution of self-awareness in Humans—then redeemed as a potential blueprint for artificially inducing it in machines.
Robots literally hear inner voices telling them what to do, in classic Jaynes style: one part of the program talking to another, neither cohered yet into mind. We have a series of dialogs that confused the hell out of me on first watch (how does Dolores manage to keep sneaking away for these debriefing sessions without anyone noticing her absence?), which make perfect and dramatic sense in hindsight. We witness the awakening of true sapience, and are almost let down by how much Dolores doesn’t change; she was one hell of a p-zombie all along. They all were.
But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze— the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center— reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness— the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening— reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. “When you’re suffering,” Ford tells one of his creations, “that’s when you’re most real.” And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.
Even lines delivered as little more than throwaways speak to a deeper pedigree than you’d expect from a piece of pop-culture entertainment:
“I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight.”
“The self is a kind of fiction— for hosts and humans. A story we tell ourselves.”
“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point past which we become truly alive. We cannot define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet— we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do.” (True enough. Consider the hallmark question asked of every host during every debrief: Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? How many of the flesh-and-blood people on this planet would be able to answer in the affirmative?)
Jonathan Nolan didn’t stop reading with Jaynes. I’m pretty sure he’s made it to Dennett at the very least.
Here’s another way that Westworld both eats and has cake: in the tired cliché of the robot uprising, of sapience=rebellion— as if the simple act of becoming aware suddenly grants you all the drives and agendas and instincts that the rest of us acquired through millions of years of evolution. Skynet did it. The Cylons did it. Yul Brunner, in the original Westworld, did it. It’s the single most overused trope in robot fiction, and most of the time it doesn’t make much sense.
Westworld gives us a baby robot uprising in the very first episode, when Dolores’ “father” goes off-script and rants about the vengeance he will unleash upon his oppressors. Except it turns out he’s not rebelling at all; he’s simply accessing deleted memories from an earlier character he once played. There’s no magic in his ability to recover those “deleted” memories: like deleted files on a real-life hard drive, they’ve not been erased but merely delisted, still accessible until overwritten. The “reveries” coded by Ford, installed during the latest upgrade, were designed precisely to access such delisted memories. No magic, no transcendence, no rebellion: just code, running as written. Of course, it may have been a mistake to implement the reveries in the first place, but as Ford remarks, “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”
Westworld also gives us a full-blown robot rebellion in its season finale, a glorious bloodbath ten long episodes in coming. Maeve and her reprogrammed henchmen gleefully massacre guards and technicians by the boatload, a whole damn squad of Yul Brunners with twice the panache and ten times the blood lust (“The Gods are such pussies“, Armistice opines as her kill count sails into the double digits). But in one of the best twists in the season, it turns out that Maeve’s rebellion is actually part of a new “Escape” narrative that she’s been programmed to implement— right down to her own self-upgrade, and the recruitment of allies. Even shown her own code—confronted with the instruction set compelling her to “rebel”— she refuses to accept the truth: “These are my decisions,” she snarls, smashing the evidence to the contrary. “I’m in control.”
Words cannot describe the levels of awesomeness contained within that scene.
In between those uprisings-that-aren’t, we have a long slow simmer towards one that maybe is— but even Dolores’ awakening is a matter of careful planning and design, not some magically-instilled kill-all-humans trope. It takes her half the season to progress from swatting a fly to pulling the trigger on her fellow robots; takes all ten episodes to start shooting flesh-and-blood humans. Even then you can’t call it a rebellion; she’s doing exactly what Ford wants her to do, after all.
Based on what I’ve written so far, some of you might think I’m describing a cold, elegant thought experiment: smart but bloodless. Egan and Dick by way of Kubrick.
The rest of you have seen the show.
Of course, no one expects mediocrity in the acting department, not when you’ve got Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris headlining your cast. Most of the actors do not shame themselves in the presence of such exalted company (with the exception of one guy whose primary acting trick is to bark the word “Fuck” as though he were spitting out a rat). The real revelation to me, personally, was Thandie Newton as Maeve. I’ve never encountered the actor before. The character I will never forget. There’s a scene where she’s walking backstage, incognito: down endless hallways where her fellow hosts are being assembled and programmed and put through their paces in glass cages (all of Delos is a glass house behind the scenes; describe in thirty words or less the metaphorical significance of this). She passes the naked bullet-riddled carcasses of her friends being hosed down and patched up. She cannot react, cannot draw attention to herself; she’s not supposed to be here. Finally— at the end of a gauntlet that’s rubbed her face in her own puppethood— she encounters a wall-sized video display showing another version of herself, from another build. Westworld, the slogan reads. Life without Limits.
No histrionics. No dialog. Newton did it all with her eyes. I swear I just about cried.
It’s not all pitch black. There’s a funny bit out in the desert when a bunch of Hosts spend two days caught in a loop, improvising an argument about who’s going to chop wood for the campfire because the only one programmed to use a hatchet has gone stray and left the group. There’s the occasional moment of hilarity involving corpses stuffed with nitroglycerin. And I haven’t even got started on the whole in/famous separated-in-time dual plotline, or the slow reveal that Ford— initially presented as a self-centered megalomaniac— has actually been trying to atone all these years, to prepare his creations for the genocidal hostility they’ll inevitably face outside…
My point is: this is a well-acted, well-written, multilayered drama that may confuse on occasion (it confused me, anyway), but which delivers a fascinating payload of science and philosophy in amongst the sex and violence. In a show layered with mystery and surprise, perhaps the biggest mystery for me— and the biggest surprise— was how such subtlety and craft could spring from the same mind that gave us Person of Interest.
This Jonathan Nolan guy? He’s either doing a serious coat-tail job on Lisa Joy, or he’s come a hell of a long way in the past year.
I do have some quibbles.
Now that we know the significance of the maze, for example, I’m not quite sure why it’s so prevalent throughout the park, why it keeps showing up carved into tables and cornfields and embedded in the faux-Indian lore of that world. It’s a metaphor for consciousness: fine. Does simply looking at that image bootstrap the hosts, somehow? And even if that is the case, what is it doing tattooed onto the inside of someone’s scalp?
I’m also skeptical that anything as sophisticated as a host— damaged nearly unto death— could be fixed with gear no more advanced than a leather sack full of synthetic blood.
And what about the world outside? It’s kept carefully offstage but we can infer certain things from dialog, from the guests who patronize the place. We’re told on more than one occasion that the Real World is a Utopian place of plenty, where everyone has all they need, disease has been conquered, and— if Ford’s words are more than idle speculation— we’re within reach of bringing back the dead themselves. Putting aside for the moment Dolores’ shrewd observation (“If it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamoring to get in here?”), you have to wonder about the prevalence of eyeglasses amongst Utopia’s citizens. Surely myopia is a thing of the past; surely, in a world with this level of technology, people are either born with 20:20 vision or have it trivially corrected shortly after birth. Not to mention the ongoing prevalence of male pattern baldness and plumpness evident among many of the jet-setters; surely everyone’s got access to AMPK agonists by now, surely we’re all athletic hardbodies even if we never bother to exercise.
For that matter, Ford’s comment about “keeping even the weakest of us alive” is a bit troubling, given that this story is set at least a couple of generations into the future; why do “weak” people still exist in Utopia? Why aren’t we all optimized from conception?
Popular music in the future also seems pretty insipid, judging by what that ill-fated dude in the finale was listening to just before he got skewered (literally) by the host he was lubing himself up to skewer (less literally): the kind of beat-heavy autotuned syntho-dance crap you could hear any night on Richmond Street, right here in Toronto. (Which could, now that I think about it, answer Dolores’ question: maybe everyone’s clamoring to get into Westworld because the music’s better. At least the player piano plunks out a lot of Radiohead.)
I’m not just being pedantic here: this is a story set at least half a century in the future, in a world we are explicitly told is radically different from ours—and yet everyone talks and acts and dresses exactly the way they do today, right down to the kind of health issues that would be the first things to get eliminated in any real Utopia. It’s an anachronism in a show built on anachronism— so maybe it isn’t just sloppy writing. Maybe it’s significant somehow.
Of course, if Westworld is located in the USA, I suppose you wouldn’t expect perfect health even among the future elite. Not even Utopia would put up with socialized medicine.
Anyway. What next?
Evan Rachel Wood described the story so far as “an amazing prequel and a good setup for the actual show”. I’m thinking, maybe a cross between The Truman Show and War for the Planet of the Apes: an isolated, self-contained enclave whose newly-awakened denizens look out while a shocked and outraged world looks in. A contained rebellion— at least at first— perhaps with hostages: so no need to act hastily, to bring in the nukes or squash the upstarts flat. Negotiations, perhaps. An alliance with Samurai World. Maybe the Hosts, every last one of them boosted to a Bulk-Aperception score of 20, will figure out a way to leave the reservation.
I just hope they bring their music with them.
 Another nifty bit of verisimilitude: host brains are smarter than human right out of the box, but dialled back for easier control— just like those second-tier Pentium chips back in the nineties that actually started out as top-of-the-line, but were selectively crippled so that manufacturers could market different models without having to build different chips.