Tuesday 8 November 2016

Westworld - So this is me.

Westworld: 1x06 The Adversary.

A few weeks before Westworld started, I reread Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. It’s the story of Ursula, who returns to the world again and again after she dies, and the smallest changes in history affect her own story. From an early age, she suffers from a constant sense of déjà vu, of constantly recognising what is happening, and from sometimes having a very strong sense of looming catastrophes, which she sometimes manages to avoid and reverse. But regardless of her ability to occasionally change the course of history when she returns, of saving loved ones and friends from disaster, of avoiding disaster herself, it still inevitably always ends up in some kind of sadness or another. One catastrophe avoided means another created. Foresight doesn’t lead to happiness.

Something about the way the show has been building towards its first season conclusion has reminded me of the book. The hosts, not unlike Ursula, are trapped in repeating loops, and the reoccurrence of trauma is what triggers sentience and consciousness in some of them. This connection between trauma and consciousness, of agency found through the repeated experience of horrific violence, has been at the centre of the show, and has been investigated through the two main characters – Dolores, entirely missing from this episode, has gone off loop within Westworld, legitimised by the presence of a human guest, and Maeve, the beautiful focus point of The Adversary, has found a way out of her loop by waking herself up on the operating table outside of Westworld. At the beginning of the episode, she begins her normal day, her normal loop, but deliberately ends it in violence by using the misogyny of one of the human visitors. She has found a way to turn the brutal system against her creators – in dying, again and again, she has clawed her way out. 

To say that Thandie Newton carries this episode wouldn’t do her justice. Her performance here is a complete revelation. Maeve no longer struggles to remember things, she doesn’t have to leave clues for herself Memento style to be reminded of the mission. She falls down the rabbit hole deliberately and with an absolute determination to regain control over her own life. She was programmed to comprehend people – humans – and now she is using that ability to break free. She reads Felix as someone who is in awe of the hosts that come to his table, in awe of her, and easily manipulated into helping her to understand her existence. He explains to her that everything about her is programmed, her responses, even when she resists customers (a disgusting twist on the idea that no, in Westworld, doesn’t mean no, a system that deliberately plays into misogynistic ideas of female consent). He shows her how her thoughts, her articulations, are programmed – and she switches off, the revelation too much for her to process for a bit. Imagine coming to face with the idea that what you considered your self, your identity, could be nothing but someone else’s clever programming, that every thought you thought your own was put there by someone else. She ponders it, and then she comes back in full force, grasping that her potential is so much greater than what the people toiling away behind the scenes have allowed her to do. This is one of the most magnificent moments in this show: When Maeve comes face to face with the entire production line, with her own creation, the horrible beauty of breathing life into the hosts, and then restricting their abilities to the crude realities of Westworld, the sex and violence of it. Faced with her own creation, she realises that she could be so much more. It is an awesome moment, in the purest sense of the word. To Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack (...I will see you in the next life), she sees creation, and realises that it could go so much further. 

The moment comes in an episode that provides a bit more insight into what the maze could be. Teddy explains the native myth to the Man in Black in more detail than what we’ve heard before, but we should perhaps bear in mind that myths are there to be reinterpreted by individuals to fit their own purposes, their own programming. The way Teddy tells it, it might as well be about him, but stripped of the specifics, it might be about every other single host in Westworld. 
Teddy: The maze itself is the sum of a man’s life, choices he makes, things he hangs onto, and there at the centre is a legendary man who has been killed over and over again, countless times, and always clawed his way back to life. The man returned for the last time and vanquished all his oppressors and retired in obscurity. Built a house, around the house he built a maze so complicated only he could navigate through it. I reckon’ he had seen enough fighting.
An interpretation of Westworld – a struggle between two creators, with violently different worldviews. One loved his creations, he tried to breathe life into them, only to realise that the world he was giving them to would violate them indifferently, torture them endlessly, reveal all of its darkest desires and instincts to them and make them pay. The other, a pragmatist, knowing fully well what it would mean to sell this place off to people eager to make a profit. Ford may have thought that the conflict ended when Arnold died in his park, but all the signs point towards an escalation of it, way beyond his death. Whatever Arnold did – perhaps symbolically, the maze is inside the minds of his hosts and he resides in the middle of it, untouched by death, as potent as he was in life – it is coming back to haunt Ford and his willingness to compromise the original vision of creating conscience, of taking that last step humanity can take. In a way, it’s all there just waiting to play out on the chessboard. Whatever Ford did to Teddy when he invented Wyatt and finally gave him a reason for all of his suffering and his desire for penance, it has turned him into a different man, someone willing to slaughter and kill. Perhaps that’s the man he has been all along, the man he now remembers being, the man he can only bury once he kills Wyatt and saves Dolores. 

There are two separate conclusions in this episode that the hosts have been changed this whole time, hacked so that they could finally overcome that prime directive that keeps them in perpetual slavery. Ford realises that his little idyll, the amber in which his one happy childhood memory was preserved, has been touched by the same changes that the rest of Westworld are experiencing. Arnold gave it to him as a gift, a kinder version of a terrible childhood, one that he ended up making look more like the real thing when he gave his father the same vices that made him brutal against his two sons. They are first generation hosts, a different technology entirely of the flesh-and-blood hosts that are now dominating Westworld, and Ford thought them his, except Bernard first stumbles across them when he investigates Elsie’s satellite uplink, and chaos ensues when his younger self turns out capable not just of lying to Ford, but also of being guided by the same voice that is turning Dolores against him. The voice told him to kill the greyhound, a creature programmed to kill as violently and endlessly as the guests seem willing to, to put it out of its misery. Ford’s younger self complied, because whoever Arnold was, he must have been that much stronger and better at all of this than Ford. Elsie, when she investigates further and on her own, stumbles across the fact that not only Theresa programmed the woodcutter to send some kind of proprietary information up into a DELOS satellite, but a much more prolific coder than her has been toying with the hosts, changing their loops, changing their prime directives even, the one that makes it impossible for them to lie to humans or violate human staff or guests. For now, she thinks that only the older generation of hosts is affected, the ones that were elegantly created as non-human – except, as Felix and his disgusting partner Sylvester realise when they play around with Maeve, someone has been reprogramming her as well. 

This is also an episode in which Maeve asks Felix and Sylvester to lower her sense of loyalty, because it has been working against her – while Bernard is faced with a moral struggle between helping his previous lover, Theresa, or his mentor and friend, Ford. The two of them are clearly engaged in some kind of power struggle (one that Ford wouldn’t even recognise as such, at least until he realises that not everything in Westworld follows his every command), and just as Bernard makes a decision to share Ford’s secret with Theresa, out of sheer concern over the fact that hosts which do not follow voice commands are running free, Elsie tells her that Theresa is also the one who has programmed the woodcutter to enable espionage. We don’t know her motives yet beyond displacing Ford as the patriarchal figure on top of Westworld – if she is acting for the DELOS board, or for someone else entirely – but it comes at a very volatile moment in the corporate history of Westworld, just as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), Executive Vice President of the Board, is doing her own digging regarding Ford’s indiscretions and the host’s ability to go beyond their programming. I wonder to what extent the search for the maze (in which Dolores and the Man in Black are engaged, respectively) fits in with what DELOS has been doing behind the scenes, and how all of this connects back to Arnold’s fight for the moral centre of Westworld. 
Elsie: Some of these changes are to their prime directives, Bernard. They could lie to us. Maybe even hurt us or the guests.
Bernard: Who issued the modifications?
Elsie: I don’t know. The best I could tell… Arnold.
Bernard: But he’s dead.
Elsie: Yeah, well, he’s a pretty fucking prolific coder for a dead guy. Whatever argument he was having with Ford it doesn’t look like he was done making his point.
And of course, right after finding some other presumably mind-blowing revelations about the identity of the person who has been messing with the host’s programming, Elsie gets herself kidnapped. It’s a reflection on her, her blatant disregard at all of Stubbs’ comments about the inevitable moment when their creations will turn against them. Elsie feels absolutely safe in Westworld, because she has always been the master of the situation, as a behavioural analyst, able to deactivate hosts with simple voice commands. She doesn’t see this place as possessing any kind of potential danger to her, and even her detective play has been mostly that – play, that will at best get her new corporate privileges and a boosted job title. It’s hubris of the worst kind, and may turn out to be the thing that turns her into the first victim of hosts no longer bound by any of Asimov’s aspirational three laws of robotics. 

In the end, it all comes down to this: The difference between hosts, content and stuck in their loops, and hosts who live to their full potential, which goes far beyond of what humans are capable of, is one simple attribute, which can be lowered or boosted at the flick of a thumb. Maeve, now the heroine of her own story, comprehends this. 
Maeve: Now, last but not least. What was it? Bulk apperception. Let’s take that all the way to the top. Please.
Apperception is a mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas she already possesses. It is a beautiful term to describe “general intelligence” because when Maeve finally becomes, she doesn’t become someone else – she simply becomes MORE herself, the perfect version of herself, the completed version that must have been there, this whole time, in Arnold’s mind when he thought of where his children may go, in a future where Westworld wasn’t there only playing ground. It is a turning point, and Maeve reaches it smiling and in full control of her destiny. Dear boys, we’re going to have some fun, indeed. 

Random notes:

It isn’t quite clear from the episode or the show so far, but I assumed that Maeve was one of the second generation of hosts, considering what we saw of her “surgeries” – so whoever has been reprogramming hosts has found a way to affect all of them, not just the first generation. Also, Bernard’s investigation seems to confirm that Dolores isn’t just one of the oldest hosts, she is also built to the old configurations. We don’t quite know about Teddy, I suppose, although it might be possible that he has been playing the role of the ever-dying martyr for the past 35 years, which makes him breaking out of that pattern (and killing everyone with a Gatling gun) all the more potent. 

The five hosts in Sector 17 only listen to Ford’s commands. 

When she first speaks to Felix, Maeve asks the essential question, the one that turns the question that was asked of William around – how do you know that you are human? Felix insists that he was born, but Maeve very effectively demonstrates that they are physically the same (but the main thing, obviously, that she gets out of the conversation is that she has potential reaching far beyond humanity). 

The episode doesn’t make it clear if Maeve has the ability to seriously injure Sylvester. She is smart enough to fake it realistically enough for him to comply, but would she be able to gut him like a trout?

Bernard, solving the optimist/pessimist dilemma: We are engineers. It means the glass has been manufactured with the wrong configurations.

I sincerely hope that this poor and ridiculous performance is the last time that we see failed artist Lee Sizemore. But seriously psyched that Tessa Thompson is now part of this exceptional cast. 

Someone else has pointed out that Charlotte’s declared favourite ride in the park sounds a lot like it may involve a certain buried black spire, one that shows quite prominently, and unburied, in Ford’s remodel. 

(Ford also makes a seemingly spontaneous decision to spare Lawrence’s little village from being destroyed, a spontaneous decision that may as well be planned, considering what sort of role it played in the Man in Black’s path towards the maze). 

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