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.