Tuesday 15 May 2018

Westworld - If you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering.

Westworld: 2x04 The Riddle of the Sphinx. 

You still don’t understand the real game we’re playing here. If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction. 
The riddle of the sphinx goes like this: "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" The answer is, of course, humans, but in Westworld, this answer requires a qualification. It is humans as we know them now, defined by aging and inevitable death. One could even argue that humanity is defined by death, and that most of our endeavours would become meaningless without it, that losing death and becoming immortal would require a complete reorientation of humanity. In any case, it does not matter, because the version of immortality that Westworld showcases here is so horrifying that nobody could truly aspire to it. 
It always seemed a bit odd that William would have sold the idea of Westworld to his father in law, James Delos, solely by arguing that the data they could acquire about unsuspecting free-range guests was incredibly valuable. The more salient argument, especially for a man dying of a cancer that doesn’t have a cure, in part because that same man defunded research to find it years ago, was immortality. What if the essence of your being could be uploaded into a host body, and you could stay in power forever? It feels like any consideration of a soul, or some essential aspect of individuality that is not replicable, wouldn’t even have occurred to James Delos, because he sees himself as a man of power alone, and the scariest part of dying, to him, was always passing on that sceptre to someone else. What if he could be that person forever, what if he never had to give it up? 
And that possibility seems so close, as well. We begin this episode with his daily routine, in what looks like a mix of a Seventies and highly modern apartment. He works out and takes readings of his vital signs, and listens to the music of his youth. It’s highly aestheticized , and the closest pop cultural reference is maybe James Bond, back in the Sean Connery days. And then William comes in, for a baseline interview that will guide them to determine if whatever they create is truly James Delos. Except, after a while, after a repetition, we come to suspect that this may have been going on for a while, that this is James Delos’ Groundhog Day: that William hasn’t conducted this interview twice, but again and again and again, with the same results, in which Delos is informed towards the end that he already is a host, that his physical body has already succumbed to a stroke, and that this event has taken place an increasing number of months and years ago. And again and again, his new body fails him – he manages to repeat the same sequence of quips and expletives, only to eventually glitch, and prove that this technology has not advanced fast enough to warrant him leaving his cell. Slowly, the suspicion creeps into our minds that this hollow version of James Delos will forever be trapped in this tiny cell, observed by scientists, and will forever remain a failed and pathetic attempt at immortality. 

It’s like this question that was always at the centre of Dollhouse, what is it for, what is its purpose, which didn’t really matter so much in the end – because the answer is always, it is for enrichment of those who already possess riches and power, to the detriment of everyone else. The answer to that question is never a narrative surprise, because it can so easily be predicted before it is even asked. 

While we watch a young William return to the room again and again to see his father-in-law fail this test, an old William attempts to play a game that he still does not understand. This William has understood that immortality means nothing, especially not to those who do not deserve it – because you are only alive as long as the last person remembering you, and that monster that Elsie and Bernard encounter in the hidden room is the very definition of someone who has been forgotten by the world. William left him in there to die, Bernard, in a memory he rediscovers with great difficulty, murdered all of his minders, and the man left behind is insane, a shadow of the man whose memory his descendants carry with them, and someone who was always greater in those memories than he was in his actual, ethics-free philandering life. I still do not find this William interesting on any level, or his journey towards Glory, which mostly seems to follow a path of destruction, with no opportunity to redeem himself for his sins, regardless of whether he tries (which he denies – the trying, when he saves his friend, and kills what remained of the Confederados after Teddy let them go last time). What is maybe a little bit interesting is that at the very end, we get a confirmation that was perhaps predictable – that the woman who fought her way out of Colonial India, and is able to speak the language of the Natives in Westworld, who shares with Delos’ Head of Security that she cares about narratives more than she does about people, is William’s daughter. 

If we are putting this whole story back on track, then I am glad that it is giving us Elsie, teaming up with Bernard. I am glad that she is alive, and capable of saving Bernard. I am glad that someone who cares more about the code than people is accompanying Bernard on his own mission, which is still, for the most part, unclear beyond survival. He knows that the project that they discover when they go deeper into the cave uses similar encryption to the one that Peter Abernathy carried to protect the massive database in his head (the database that is, presumably, connected to all those drones collecting biological and intimate data of guests). It gives us a Bernard who is consistently the most fascinating character on this show, who remembers terrible things he did in the past under Ford’s command and is now finally free to figure out who he is when he is free of those commands. More than Dolores, and maybe even more than Maeve, Bernard is making a path for himself. 

He also remembers that Ford’s goal for him was to print a control unit for someone else – another human. So there must be, somewhere in the park, a copy of a person ,who maybe, because of Ford’s genius, isn’t a terrible mistake like James Delos. So who isn’t truly human, after all? 

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