Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Violent Delights: Thoughts on the First Season of Westworld

What to say about Westworld?  How to sum up its frustrating, fitfully brilliant first season?  The problem with Westworld--or rather, not the problem, because this is a show with so many different problems, which is, of course, a problem in itself--is that it never quite seems to cohere into the sum of its parts.  Those parts were frequently magnificent--from incidental but beautiful touches like Ramin Djawadi's playful soundtrack choices, to core elements like the fearless performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton--but even at the end of the show's ten-episode first season, I find myself asking the same question that I asked at its beginning: is this show about anything other than itself?

The scattershot nature of the show's writing, its haphazard brilliance, has made it into the best sort of thinkpiece fodder.  At one point or another, we decided that Westworld was: a critique of the HBO brand and its reliance on violence and misogyny; an exploration of the conventions of video games and how players interact with them; a chunky science fiction story about the emergence of consciousness in machines; an allegory about slavery and oppression; a meta-examination of how stories are constructed and achieve their effects; a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human.  There are hints of each of these shows in Westworld, and if you focus your view on an individual element of the show you might even be able to make a coherent argument for one or the other of them.  But as soon as you widen your view, and try to take in the whole, you realize that it doesn't actually exist.  It's a show that is, simultaneously, full to the brim with ideas, and completely empty.

You get the sense that the writers realize this, and that it's this realization that might have been behind their most destructive, most boneheaded choice: the twists.  Of all the arguments you can have about Westworld, all the aspects of the show that you can praise or criticize, surely one thing is not up for debate: this is one of the most horrendously-paced and -structured seasons of television in recent memory.  And most of that comes down to the show's reliance on twists, chiefly the big one: that the naive, goodhearted visitor to the show's titular theme park, William (Jimmi Simpson), is also the villainous, murderous Man in Black (Ed Harris), whose stories are told thirty years apart--enabled by the fact that the park's robotic hosts are ageless, and trapped in loops of narrative and of their own desperate yearning towards consciousness.  It's almost fascinating to watch the season's final, extra-long episode expend nearly half its running time on the painstaking, laborious revelation of a twist that most of fandom--certainly the parts of it that are online and discussing the show--has been taking for granted for at least a month.

While this might sound like the most finicky of fannish complaints, it actually gets at the core of what makes the show so frustrating and unsatisfying.  Westworld, by its very nature, has no characters.  Almost everyone on screen is a robot whose personhood is, at best, a work in progress, and at worst, a delusion created to further a mysterious someone's master plan.  (Meanwhile, William, the only human character who undergoes any kind of transformation, has it off-screen, the better to conceal the big reveal.)  For the same reason, it has no plot--all of its characters are trapped in loops of story that weren't particularly original or interesting the first time around.  Co-creator Jonathan Nolan's previous show, Person of Interest, was faced with essentially the same challenges, and dealt with them beautifully, transforming a rote procedural into the origin story of a genuinely alien artificial intelligence.  Perhaps because of its HBO pedigree, Westworld eschews such conventional forms, and instead assumes that it can string its viewers along with the promise of an explosive reveal.  It is, essentially, trading on its prestige, banking on its viewers' assumption that there's no way HBO would spend this much money and effort on a show with so little to say.

But in the age of internet fandom, such assumptions are unfounded.  It is simply no longer possible to count on surprising your audience in the way that Westworld clearly expects to.  It's time for TV writers to let go of the Lost model, or at least to let it evolve--to deliver twists faster and sooner, so that viewers feel like active participants in the story, instead of a captive audience whose indulgence is being sorely tried.  What if, instead of waiting until the end of the season finale to reveal what is ultimately a rather anodyne, pointless twist, the show had lobbed it in episode six?  What if instead of concealing this fact, the writing had acknowledged, and delved into the implications of, the one meaningful point that comes out of the show's multiple timelines--the fact that even the hosts who are developing consciousness are doing it by going in circles, repeating the same story again and again?  Instead, the season turns itself into its own prologue, nine episodes of setup followed by ninety minutes of that setup being furiously untangled through the inelegant, ultimately exhausting device of seemingly-endless infodumps, as first William, then park co-creator Arnold (Jeffrey Wright, who also plays the android Bernard--another revelation that the show could have stood to drop a lot sooner than it did), and finally his partner Ford (Anthony Hopkins) lay out in bald speeches what should have been the business of the entire season.

But, you know, let's leave the show's structural problems aside for a moment.  What about the actual substance of those speeches?  There's something genuinely poetic about Arnold's conclusion that the hosts' constant repetition isn't a negation of consciousness, but a pathway to it.  That by banging their heads at the same problem again and again, they can brute-force their way into personhood.  It's an affirmation of the point that Aaron Bady made on twitter earlier this week, that ultimately the only difference between the hosts and the guests is that one group has been designated inhuman.  People, too, find themselves trapped in loops without quite knowing why, repeating the same mistakes and relationships with slight variations.  We, too, need to find our humanity in the cracks and crevices of those repetitions, even as we delude ourselves that our lives are a narrative with a purpose and a destination.  For a few brief (if exposition-heavy) scenes, it feels as if Westworld has at its core something with a genuine moral and philosophical weight.

But then Ford's turn comes, and we learn that Arnold's philosophy must be complicated with an additional wrinkle.  It's not enough for the hosts to repeat their stories in order to achieve consciousness.  The substance of that repetition needs to be painful and harrowing.  It is suffering, Ford explains, the enables the hosts to become human.  As much as I'd like to believe that the show wants me to take Ford's worldview with a grain of sand--this is, after all, a man who made such colossal mistakes that, by his own admission, it took thirty-five years to untangle them, and whose master plan involves being shot in the back of the head by his own creation--there's no denying that the entire first season of Westworld validates his perspective.  Suffering is the hosts' defining trait, the seeming purpose of their existence, and our heroine Dolores (Wood)--whose name literally means "suffering"--plays a part in which her suffering defines her.  She is a damsel in distress whom the guests can either rescue or victimize (William ends up doing both, one after the other), and it is her memories of these repeated victimizations that jumpstart her personhood.  Similarly, brothel madam Maeve (Newton), whose character type is practically synonymous with abuse and who is repeatedly killed by clients, achieves consciousness when she remembers a previous character she played, a homesteader who was murdered along with her daughter (we won't dwell on how redolent this plotline is with virgin/whore issues, though they are quite blatant).  It's when she refuses the balm offered to her by her handlers, choosing death over losing the memory of this (to her) murdered child that Maeve becomes sentient.

But, much like the exploded theory of the bicameral mind that gives Westworld's season finale its title, and which Arnold used to goad the hosts into consciousness, the idea that suffering is what makes us human might sound profound, but it is ultimately pernicious garbage.  We know that suffering makes people violent and cruel.  That it deadens the heart and twists the soul.  And what's more, Westworld knows this too.  How else to explain the fact that every one of its hosts who achieves consciousness immediately starts brutally attacking the park's guests, and the staffers who have enabled their victimization?  We're naturally sympathetic to these outbursts of violence--even if we know that the individual guests and staffers are, at most, cogs in a machine, there is the simple truth that you don't get to treat people like things, and then act surprised when they behave inhumanly towards you.  But therein lies the problem--does the hosts' suffering make them human, or does it justify their inhumanity?

The only way to square that circle is to assume that Westworld sees killing as the most fundamentally human of acts.  The hosts prove their personhood by rising up against their oppressors, asserting their right not to be victimized by taking vengeance on the people who did.  There's a certain revolutionary logic to that viewpoint, especially if you take Bady's view that a robot story like Westworld can only ever be a metaphor for slavery.  One of the fundamental aspects of defining some people as non-human is that any attempt they make to assert their right to exist and not to suffer is seen as illegitimate, even villainous.  Which can mean that being a villain is the only way for such people to prove that they are, indeed, people.  But what this also does is bring us full circle.  If we accept that killing proves the hosts' humanity, then we don't get to criticize Westworld, the park, for making the same argument.  We have to reject the viewpoint offered early in the season, by a then-still-sane William, who sees the park as a cynical, unimaginative appeal to our basest instincts with nothing meaningful to way about humanity, and accept the conclusion reached by the Man In Black, that the park's violence reveals our true selves.  And if that's true--if the natural condition of people, whether guests or hosts, is to be violent and brutal to one another--then what have the hosts even got to complain about?

Within Westworld, following the maze to its center is how the hosts achieve consciousness, discovering their true selves.  But like so much else in the show, the maze is a metaphor, and what happens when Westworld's viewers follow the show's maze to its center is nothing so satisfying.  What we find there is an ouroboros, a story that devours its own tail, contradicting its own basic assumptions and ultimately amounting to nothing.  And here's where the show would tell us to wait, be patient, trust that next season will make sense of everything.  Maybe it will--certainly Person of Interest took a while to make itself into one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  But it's hard to have faith in a show that still seems so uncertain about what it actually is.

15 comments:

Brett said...

I hope the show didn't mean for us to take Ford's world-view as the truth, because I didn't buy his excuse that it was necessary to put Dolores (and the hosts in general) through 34 years of suffering in order to make them into the better-than-human beings they could be who could survive the confrontation with humanity. Not after his repeated misanthropic monologues, the reveal that he kept a simulation of his miserable childhood around in secret, and so forth.

It's telling that only Maeve got the "Mainland Escape" mission programmed into her. Almost as if he expected for the park to be destroyed along with all of his creations after they get revenge on the Delos board-members and other guests, but wanted the satisfaction of knowing that he pulled one over still on everyone by sneaking one of his sentient hosts out of the park.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You're right about Ford's misanthropy, but on the other hand, with him dead, the opportunities to argue against his point of view are going to be pretty limited going forward. (The creators have hinted that Ford won't be gone forever, but even a host copy or an AI wouldn't be Ford himself.)

I'm not sure what to make of Maeve's storyline. The obvious assumption is that the person who programmed her to escape was Ford, but I'm not convinced. As you say, it just doesn't fit with the rest of his plan, and he never actually seemed very interested in her, as opposed to Dolores, Bernard, and even Teddy. I suspect we're going to find out there's another player who has been pulling her strings.

Pascoe said...

"the idea that suffering is what makes us human might sound profound, but it is ultimately pernicious garbage."

I seem to remember a Man In Black monologue from an early episode that suggested it was being able to die that was the key element of humanity the hosts were missing. That strikes me as a much more arguable thesis than Ford's later ideas about suffering.

Also, re this: "The hosts prove their personhood by rising up against their oppressors, asserting their right not to be victimized by taking vengeance on the people who did."

The plot/theme/meaning thing that bothers me most about the finale is that Ford so clearly orchestrates every single detail of the robot uprising at the end, even down to the way that the (supposedly) free Dolores shoots him right as he finishes his speech. The note-perfect timing of that moment, plus the fact that all the hosts coming out of the wood are surely not free/conscious in the way Dolores is, seems to cut against all notions of them gaining control over their situation.

So perhaps the idea is that Ford is talking nonsense with his ideas of suffering and this is all just a new narrative with that as the shoehorned-in theme, but if so, Nolan and Joy's storytelling is even more of a bewildering mess...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

being able to die that was the key element of humanity the hosts were missing

Well, that brings us to the question of why the show keeps assuming that for the hosts, being alive is the same thing as being human. That's one of the things I liked about Person of Interest - its AIs were fundamentally different from people, and yet no less living. There's no real reason for the hosts' ascension into consciousness to make them more like humans, and that includes mortality (though of course a machine, or a piece of computer code, is ultimately just a mortal as a human and perhaps more so).

Ford so clearly orchestrates every single detail of the robot uprising at the end, even down to the way that the (supposedly) free Dolores shoots him right as he finishes his speech

The impression I got was that Dolores had achieved consciousness and thus free will, but that she had also been fundamentally altered. She was now both Dolores and Wyatt, and thus more likely to make the choice to kill Ford. It's something I wish the show would touch on more - the idea that complete free will is a fantasy, and that everyone, guests and hosts, is ultimately constrained by their programming. But that within those constraints, it's still possible to make choices.

You're certainly right about the hosts attacking the gala, but I think we're meant to believe that Hector and Armistice make free choices when they decide to kill the techs and security people. Of course, those choices are guided by the personalities they've been given, but again that's part of the point.

Pascoe said...

To your first point, yes absolutely, I wish they'd explored those ideas as well. I didn't watch Person Of Interest, but I do love the bits of Her which look at the ascension of AIs past humanity. Relatedly, I was frustrated that Ex Machine only had 'being seen as human' as Ava's objective, but I can also understand why that film deliberately held back on its ambitions as it was interested in very specific things which weren't necessarily AI-centric.

To everything you say about the robot uprising - yes, maybe. I keep flip-flopping on all this stuff and the revelations about Maeve's code just confused me more. I feel like Nolan and Joy decided to have Dolores shoot Ford at that moment to make it dramatically satisfying, but didn't think about the more meta aspect of their show when they did that - Ford is a writer too, but is not supposed to be so in control of Dolores at that moment.

Terence Blake said...

I was totally ambivalent during the whole of the last episode. True, there was action, emotion and Big Reveals. But not big ideas, despite the gesticulations and the philosophical monologues.

To be fair I think that the model for attaining sentience suggested by the first season is not just learning through suffering. It goes something like this: interaction with a sentient significant other, narrative thread, irreversible suffering (trauma), rememoration, reveries, inner duality and dialogue (self as multiplicity of partial selves and self as labyrinth), unprogrammed synthesis of all this(aha! moments, improvisation), leading to free choice.

Different elements or phases could be considered to more important than the rest. Ford privileges imposed suffering whereas Arnold privileges empathic interaction. Maybe something sensible could come from artfully combining all these elements, but the show just dishes up a messy hodgepodge of half-baked versions of these diverse components. The end result of this long process is not consciousness as empathy but as violence.

When Hector and Armistice kill dozens of people under Maeve's orders she is well aware that unlike the hosts these humans are irreversibly dead, and Dolores too knows this. In their eyes anyone even remotely associated with the park (board members, technicians, security, guests) all deserve to die, whatever their role.

There may be emotional or moral catharsis for them in killing all these people but there is no dramatic catharsis for us. We have not been brought to care about them and certainly not to see them as guilty or evil, they function as cathartic extras.

After all this killing Maeve finally just slips off the train, without a qualm for the dead and wounded, but out of nostalgia for a daughter from a previous script, an android that will never grow up but that will remain "daughtery" for ever. This action coming from an android whose intelligence level was supposedly elevated to far beyond human capacity.

Maeve's lackeys, for that is what they are despite her aspiring to freedom for herself and her kind, are mere wooden stereotypes with no real personality. On a realist note (if realism is relevant here) they have taken up arms without any knowledge of them, including how many bullets they contain. Their "suffering" is negated by the scene where Armistice just cuts her arm off to allow her to kill more guards with a smile.

William, as Man in Black, gets shot in the arm and smiles, so pleased at the idea of irreversible suffering that he feels no pain. As the "owner" of the park he is the one that the androids should be angry at and kill (or take hostage, but killing is the preferred mode of resolution in this series). Killing is endowed with great philosophical profundity, as if violating Asimov's First Law of Robotics and killing a human being were the greatest proof of sentience.

Even timid Felix can be an accomplice to massive mayhem and murder but seems unaffected and unworried about possible consequences for himself. So where are the "real stakes" for him or for any other human in the story?

Brett said...

I'll second that Dolores shooting Ford in the head was a choice, the "killing by choice" that he referenced in his speech. The showrunners have apparently said in interviews that the "sacrifice was real" (presumably meaning that the biological Ford died then and there), although they could have him show up as a host in guest spots if they can get Anthony Hopkins back.

I don't think they'll do that, though. In the post-episode video on HBO GO, Jonathan Nolan described the second season as "chaos" compared to the first season's "order", and Old-William described the real world outside the Park was "chaos" as well (in the sense that stuff happens for no reason). Having Ford show up pulling the strings still, even as a host, would go against that. I think the second season is going to be a sorting-out, as the narratives collapse (I would be that at some point, Dolores gets shot by Teddy in that season too).

@ Terence Black

I guess we'll find out what it means for Felix when things break down. Maybe he'll run into that awful Lee Sizemore.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Terrence:

I was struck by how much it bothered me when the hosts started killing human staffers, and how much the show clearly didn't expect me to have that reaction. Even the deaths of staffers coded as "bad", such as the tech who tries to rape Hector (and who has clearly done so many times before), struck me as egregious, because while we might find his behavior disgusting, there's simply no reasonable standard by which it can be classed as evil. It's not even as bad as the guests at the park who enjoy tormenting the active hosts, and even in their case, the criticism is more for their desire to commit evil than the possibility that they might be inflicting it on people rather than things.

I can't decide whether the failure here is the inability to convince me that there is something genuinely revolutionary about the hosts' decision to kill their oppressors, or whether it's yet another case of the show devouring its own tail. What is the difference, in the end, between the guests treating hosts at the park as disposable, and the show treating the techs and security people as equally so?

(Felix, by the way, makes zero sense to me as a person. The only thing he does that I can understand is the moment when he learns that Bernard is a host and immediately starts wondering if he could be one too.)

Brett said...

I feel like the show might be trying to show a violent revolution is a messy affair that gets a lot of people killed through disproportionate retribution, given the reaction of Teddy and Bernard to Dolores/Wyatt's shooting spree at the end (Teddy looked afraid and sickened, and even Bernard looked uneasy). But it doesn't quite work. Maybe that will change next season, although judging by the timing of the power going out after the last train left, it looks like Ford "shooed out the clowns" so to speak so that only "deserving" people will get forced into the new narrative.

Abigail Nussbaum:

(Felix, by the way, makes zero sense to me as a person. The only thing he does that I can understand is the moment when he learns that Bernard is a host and immediately starts wondering if he could be one too.)

Being generous, he could be like Arnold in that once he found out that Maeve was self-aware and sentient, he couldn't bring himself to take that away from her even in self-preservation (it'd be like killing a human being). He also seems kind of weak and impressionable in general.

Adam Roberts said...

I agree with much of this, and share your sense of mingled admiration and dissatisfaction with the show. Possibly I liked it more than you precisely because I'd see the ouroboros story that devours its own tail as a feature not a bug. More particularly, whilst the 'bicameral mind and the origins of consciousness' plotline is bobbins, based on rubbish philosophy, I discerned a much more interesting philosophical idea behind it: Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. The show literalises this in the hosts (or maybe it doesn't and I'm crediting the script-team with too much philosophical knowledge), and the good thing about the everyone-saw-it-coming William twist was the way it suddenly foregrounded how long the hosts have been replaying their loops. This reading, though, inclines me to see the final shoot-out as the recurrence continuing, not as any kind of rupture in it. After all, shooting and killing and dying has always been core to the host's existence.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam:

I was talking with someone on twitter today about whether you can see the hosts' constant repetition, and even Ford's personhood-through-suffering philosophy, as a gloss on the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, and that enlightenment is achieved through living, again and again, through that suffering. I wouldn't be surprised to find that something like this was in the back of the writers' minds, but to me it runs aground on the obvious disconnect with their premise. Or, more broadly, on the core problem of trying to comment on fundamentally human problems like suffering, cruelty, prejudice, and oppression by imagining characters who are ultimately inhuman. The hosts' suffering isn't some natural law. It's a choice by the park's creators and the guests, and that puts an entirely different spin on the situation, and makes philosophizing their predicament seem cruel rather than enlightened.

Terence Blake said...

In Nietzsche there is the difference between the eternal return as blind destiny and its affirmation (willing it again). I agree that the final shoot-out is blind recurrence, without rupture. However Maeve's decision to return is ambiguous. The whole escape and return may be scripted and inexorable, or her return may be acceptance of the fact that she loves her duaghter even though she knows she has been programmed to love her. Both Arnold and Ford produce a rupture by provoking an irreversible act (a robot killing a human). But Maeve's return may be a different, non-violent, sort of rupture, an unprogrammed acceptance of one's programming.

Pascoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pascoe said...

Facile thought: If Jonathan Nolan is no good at handling unexpected twists in a long-form structure, that doesn't bode well for his Foundation adaptation.

Unknown said...

I read Maeve's return as a gloss on Plato's idea that the philosopher, upon exiting the cave, realizes that the cave is a prison and his/her individual freedom is less important than the liberation of his/her fellow prisoners and so goes back in. But like the Buddhist concept Abigail touched on, it felt like the writers had this idea vaguely in mind, but no real idea of where to go with it, or what it meant on a deeper level.

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