Thursday 27 October 2016

Westworld – I’m sorry, I’m not quite feeling like myself.

Westworld: 1x01 The Original.

In the beginning, there is an interrogation of consciousness, an anxious dance around the question of whether Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), one of the hosts of Westworld, is aware of the nature of her existence. Has she ever questioned the nature of her reality? Would she rather wake up from this dream – this real place, this behind-the-scenes place – to go back to her home, which she perceives as beautiful? She has been given a story too, to explain what happens, a deep belief in the order and purpose of each day (days that restart again and again, unless hosts are recast in different roles or narrative decides on a different path for them). 

We enter this world at a point of change. Westworld has existed for a long time, but a recent update of the hosts includes features by the original creator, Ford, that rely on what should not be possible: the hosts’ memory is usually cleared each time, a fresh tabula rasa to draw on, but somehow, he has found a way to tap into resilient memories to create a set of more believable and authentic mannerisms. Ford calls them reveries, “a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts”, like daydreams (another more archaic definition is “a fanciful or impractical idea or theory”) – which proves to be an irony later on in the series, when the most resilient and effective memories prove to be horrible recollections of violence, perpetrated against the hosts. 

And this brings us exactly to the centre of this story. For one, there is the old question of how far removed someone who looks like a person has to be so that others (and in this case, not just psychopaths, but the average tourist) would be willing to forget all taboos and inhibitions. This is the old question of zombie narratives, at least when they are eloquent – think Romero’s later attempts to show zombies attempting to play out their previous human lives, and how different their slaughter felt after they became more than a threat. It’s also maybe why Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse never quite worked, because it is hard to imagine that the mere promise of a memory wipe would be sufficient for paying customers to overlook all conventions of human interaction (unless of course that model itself attracts psychopaths, which Westworld doesn’t necessarily). What makes a person human, and therefore “sacred” to the extent that protection has to be afforded? There is a second layer to this question as well – Westworld is also a story about characters, storytellers and viewers, and to that extent it asks of us to become complacent in the violence that the writers and the  guests (the equivalents of viewers in Westworld) perpetrate against the characters. 


This is only the first episode, but certain things are set in motion. The reveries rely on buried memories, a sort of subconscious. Later episodes will reveal to what extent that subconscious, that memory, is shaped by trauma. The connective thread between all the different lives that the hosts are living – they are cast in a wide range of different roles, whatever the storylines require – is violence, fear and pain. In The Original, we follow the host that is currently playing the role of Dolores' father. He is programmed with the prime directive of protecting his daughter, and that gives him meaning – the closest thing to love, or all the trappings of parental love, that it would be indistinguishable from the real thing – whose worldview unravels when he finds a photograph that a guest must have left behind, of a woman standing in the traffic of a big city. It collides with everything he knows, it might as well be an alien artefact. He ponders it, obsessively, and eventually starts to glitch. 

The creators

The question of the purpose for Westworld is mentioned right from the start. There are competing interests here. The head of narrative is simply interested in telling a story, and the characters are nothing but tools. The scientists, from Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the surviving creator, to Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), head of programming, to problematic rising star Elsie (Shannon Woodward), care more about the characters in the sense of being intimately acquainted with how they work, and analysing and programming their every move. Ford insists that the little things matter more than the greater storylines do. Further up in “management”, represented by Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), corporate interests dominate, even though we aren’t quite sure what those interests are. 
We will later find out that Westworld started as a non-profit-driven place and was later bought be a profit-seeking company, which changed the direction and purpose of the park, but Ford still has the power to decide. The conflict between the different levels is the meta-level of the show, and it plays out indirectly in the narratives of the characters (when it is decided to retrieve the hosts to find more glitches, narrative is tasked with writing a believable showdown to explain the retrieval). The different levels work awkwardly together and regard each other with distrusts and distaste, from security chief Ashley who has no higher regard for the hosts or the beauty of the creation, only concern for the threat they may pose, to Therese’s disdain for both the scientists for their emotional approach and for narrative for its protectiveness of storylines, to Ford’s genius disconnect from everyone who cannot quite follow down his particular rabbit hole. 
Theresa: This place is one thing to the guests, another thing to the shareholders, and something completely different to management. So enlighten me, what do you think managements real interests are? You’re smart enough to guess there’s a bigger picture but not smart enough to guess what it is.
There are many questions about Ford’s aims and goals. If, as the creator, he eventually reached a point where he could no longer justify how his hosts are being used (he is clearly fond of them, much the way that a god would be, but there seems to be little kindness in that fondness). Is the second definition of reveries as errors is relevant too, as Ford defines evolution as a series of mistakes – which is, in a way, precisely what the reveries are? Are they intended to make an evolution for the hosts possible that does not depend on human input anymore? Because, as he explains, by slipping evolution's niche and being capable of resurrecting the dead, humanity is done, “as good as we’re gonna get”, and the occasional mistake, how Ford terms the reveries, is something that Bernard must indulge at this point – because the only way to go beyond this point is to allow the hosts to develop into whatever lies beyond the purpose of the park. 

It is not yet entirely clear how all of this connects to the Man in Black’s search of the deeper layer of the game, the maze that he is obsessed with now that he has played through all the other storylines, has affected the life of every single host in all the thirty years that he has haunted this place. The symbol for the maze is based on native American mythology (even more relevant after the fourth episode, which reveals that the Natives within Westworld have a whole religion based on the strange men in biohazard suits that come to retrieve hosts – “A lot of wisdom in ancient cultures” is what the Man in Black says), and the maze always comes with an escape door. The deeper level of the game may have been created by Arnold, to offer an escape route for his creations into the world beyond – it wasn’t created for the guests, who weren’t even part of the original conception of this place. 

In a story about storytellers and their characters, words have special meaning. For  example, “may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber” deactivates them, but we will realise slowly that this slumber is anything but dreamless. They function as commands and allow programming to discover traces of memories, identities, directives, which is how the interrogations work. They are meant to be absolute and impossible for the hosts to ignore, but it seems as if Dolores is slowly working her way towards being capable of lying. And then there are the words that her father gives her, before being decommissioned – words he took from one of his old characters, who quoted Shakespeare. We do not yet know their function, but they will be passed on like a virus. “These violent delights have violent ends”.  The question “Would you ever hurt a living thing”, which ends the interrogation to ascertain if the hosts have become terrifying yet, really only makes sense if it comes with a clear definition of what a living thing is. 

Random notes and outlandish theories: 

Many have pointed out what a beautiful metaphor the pianola in the opening sequence is. The music rolls program the piano, but from the outset, all we hear is the music. A machine is programmed to replay art, but it isn’t able to create it – if it did, we would be at the point that Derek from TSCC was so afraid of (“They cannot appreciate beauty - they cannot create art. If they ever learn these things, they won't have to destroy us. They'll be us.”)

The first episode does a great twist on the Western narrative, by dangling Teddy Flood as the possible male hero, only to later reveal him as the sad hosts whose sole job is to die again and again. When he realises that he cannot protect Dolores against the Man in Black, it shatters is entire worldview and his conception of self. 

The glitching killers seem to converse with Arnold (“not gonna die this time, Arnold”), the man we will later find out was the other creator, who somehow managed to break the rules by dying in the park – but it is interesting that his identity would be interwoven with the reveries of the hosts, would be so deeply embedded in their memories. 

There are a lot of interesting ways in which the programming prevents cognitive dissonance, like the reasoning that was given to Abernathy about how his life changed so utterly from being a sheriff to becoming Dolores’ father (“I am what I am because of you”) – but maybe the dissonance of previously having been a classics (And Gertrude Stein) – quoting cannibalistic cult leader is, in the end, what breaks him. I love the questions this show poses about identity, and what kind of personhood or identity hosts would have, considering they have so many different lives – how would you create a stable, authentic identity based on the memories of different lives? It must be an identity very different from what we consider human, and perhaps, as Ford hints at, an existence beyond humanity, which has reached its limits by creating something that may be able to recreate itself in the future. 

2016, what a great year to have an entire television show dedicated to the question of how responsible creators are for their characters, and if that responsibility goes beyond telling a particularly captivating and gruesome story by using them. 

Ashley, head of security, prophesises that all creations (be they children or hosts) rebel eventually, which may be foreshadowing or simply a nod to how this story would go conventionally, but won’t in this case (or at least, the quest for consciousness and self-knowledge is for now at the centre, and rebellion would come later – Dollhouse will pop up here a few times, sorry about that). 

One of the theories that I still have (now after four episodes or so) is that the Man in Black realises that violence is the one thing that creates lasting memories in the hosts, and that his journey is somehow related to the idea of creating consciousness in the hosts. I’m not sure if that can co-exist with the idea of him simply being an obsessive gamer who wants to complete 100% (to the extent that he wants to complete a challenge that the original creator included in the game for the hosts, not the guests). 

I think there is a very good chance that the head of programming is, himself, programmed. More about this in future episodes. 
Abernathy: A most mechanical and dirty hand.
I shall have such revenges on you...both. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth. You don't know where you are, do you? You're in a prison of your own sins.

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