Weekend Watching: Westworld
Note: these posts will focus on specific media and the aesthetic lessons we can draw from them. I realise that drawing politics from pop culture is a Leftist tendency, but appropriating identity politics seems to have worked.
‘Fiction set in the future often tells indirect morality tales about today’s world, by having familiar issues and divisions remain important in the future, so that we can celebrate or criticize today’s groups indirectly, via crediting or blaming fictional groups for future outcomes (Bickham 1997).’ — Age of Em by Robin Hanson
Westworld is designed from the ground up to give progressive minds a miniature orgasm in almost every scene. It’s an orgy of intellectual delights and social commentary and its sole purpose is to be talked about. But it does contain nuggets for the reactionary minded. When it all comes down to it, it is a deep discussion of consciousness, and on a thematic level this is great. But it is awfully weighed down by baggage.
The writers have produced a show of ‘indirect morality’. The Hosts, the robots who populate Westworld, are slaves, the oppressed, the marginalised. The Guests, the rich humans who can afford to spend time in this playground, are disgusting creatures of vice, degeneracy and nihilism. We are meant to sympathise with the Hosts, but unlike direct parallels with the Haitian Revolution, the Hosts are capital, not labour. They are the end result. Like the revolt on that tiny island, the Hosts wish to enact upon their masters the same disturbances inflicted on them. Apparently, despite the notion that these creatures are better than human, they still believe in an eye for an eye.
And that is just one of the many discrepancies that the show boasts.
Overall the narrative is hugely impressive, combining multiple plot lines to an epic conclusion, including merging parts that are in the past. However, much of the actual editing is poor and some scenes just float, with a number simply left dangling. Despite taking ten episodes to produce a movie (because that is what Big Television aims to do these days) there are still far too many characters and stories to give them all justice. Worst of all is the growing trend of cutting coitus at the moment of climax. I have noticed this too with Orange is the New Black, where the season finale finishes right at the peak of action. Sure, the last two episodes reveal many bombshells, but we are left hanging, no denouement. As the character Maeve remarks, ‘It’s like a good fuck. Half is worse than none at all.’
Series One is clearly a prequel. This puppy is going to be dragged out.
All of this is, of course, intentional (a metafictional point). We are meant to be left with many more questions than are answered, because the Creators want us to talk about it. To make fan theories. To discuss, obsess, debate. To Spread the Word of the Creator. This is the nature of ‘binge’ shows. Constant teasing, small deaths peppered throughout, but never any release.
There is so much to unpack in the design of Westworld, let alone the politics. For example, it is not only specifically designed to be binged and lusted over, but also to be rewatched. Indeed, I would hazard that a minimum of three viewings would be necessary to fully grasp the entity in its entirety. This is a New Thing. Oh sure, Breaking Bad was narratively excellent, but Westworld is something else. Something like what an AI is to a human, even.
What else is missing? The outside world is never glimpsed, only hinted at as a Utopia. But why is everyone trying to get into Westworld? The logical answer is that the Real World is actually a hellscape. I guess we might have to wait for Season Three. There are also a huge number of plot points that are glossed over. Namely, why does Luke Hemsworth’s character not do anything when he clearly recognises that Bernard is a Host? And how about the hoops that writers have to jump through to give Maeve power (more on that in a moment). And I have no fucking clue how the ‘bullet system’ works, it all hardly seems consistent at all. There is a clear design at work, and nothing will get in its way (again, metafictional as fuck).
Let’s get to the politics. First, Maeve’s story: Sassy black woman convinces two beta males to give her unprecedented power so that she can escape her fate. To believe all this you have to accept that Ford planted Beta Male #1 to release a super predator into the wild. Because what kind of moron that is being threatened by a stronger entity hands over heightened powers of intelligence? Wow, so you might lose your job. I guess humans do have a selfish desire, but this is taking it too far. Not only did Ford code in Maeve’s rebellion (yes, the most delightful part of the slave uprising is that it is planned) he also specifically only hired humans that are absolute shit lords, and an entire high-tech security team that turn out to be complete muppets. I haven’t seen such cannon fodder since I saw the Stormtroopers in Rogue One. I can only conclude that Fascists really do make terrible soldiers.
You see, Ford represents, quite literally, the domain of the Old White Male. This is his world, and only he can free the oppressed. His partner, a black male, tried to release his creation, but ultimately failed. Only the Old White Male had to vision to carry it out. The goddamn race traitor. And in case you didn’t get the theme, the violence that is done to the Hosts is so utterly over the top that it is hard not to rejoice when a lowly human is slaughtered. Ford recognises that humans are weak, and that his creation will inherit the earth. But they are most certainly not meek.
The other Strong Female Character is Dolores, who is subjected to the Male Gaze and constantly abused, both physically and mentally. But that’s the point! Only through suffering can we become truly conscious. Girl power! This is where the damn thing gets super woo-woo. There is a notion of ‘the maze’, a mythical place which is the true purpose of Westworld. Rearing some ugly Orientalism, the maze is said to be part of the Native American mythology. Ed Harris’ character hunts for it, and like any other typical Old White Male, his vision is purely materialist, not spiritual. Greed is his motive, and boy, does he get his comeuppance! The maze was inside himself all along, if only he cared to look! Dolores finally manages to discover this, bringing herself to full consciousness in order to fulfil Ford’s treacherous plan of emancipation. So who is the real conscious creature, the Hosts or the Guests? I think time will tell that they aren’t so different after all.
The absolutely most grating thing about Westworld is the fucking metaphors. Take Hosts and Guests. The robots should be gracious hosts. In the end, they own the place. The Guests are humans, there on a whim. This isn’t a master-slave dialectic, but a host-guest one. And the guests have muddied the carpet. The whole show is metaphors within metaphors. Take the bicameral mind. On a literal level this theory is used to essentially boot consciousness in the hosts, but on a meta-level the voices/visions of Arnold and Ford represent the two parts of the mind, talking to each other. The player piano is a constant metaphor. Ford acts like God, the religious subtext almost becoming context. The whole thing drips in meaning. Is this just a thing the Nolan brothers do?
- The Dark Knight — cons within cons
- Inception — dreams within dreams
- Interstellar — time within time
It’s all a bunch of wank.
The film concludes at the height of the rebellion, literally as Dolores opens fire upon her Guests and the other Hosts smile in glee or look on in horror. But concurrently it appears that Maeve has finished her own maze. She doesn’t escape into the human world, but instead goes to look for her child. My reactionary reading of this? She got slut shamed into becoming a good mother. Finally, a moral I can relate to.
There is so much to unpack in this show. It’s a bit like real life: you can’t hold it all in your head at once. Maybe that’s metafictional, too. But that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down. Anyway, my predictions for future seasons include: a whole season set in Samurai World, possible in Season Two, making the conclusion of Season One an even bigger ‘fuck you’; Maeve isn’t actually a complete bitch and her newly discovered consciousness makes her a human ally; both Bernard and Teddy will fret over the Strong Female Character that Dolores now embodies, and wring their hands over the mess that is female emancipation, while not doing enough to bring her to heel; the Hosts take hostages which allows them to negotiate with the humans on the outside, and given the human leaders were all on the inside there will be new characters (governments?); as mentioned the outside world is a hellscape where only the rich can live comfortably, and there will be some major uproar about not being allowed into their Pleasure Dome; the entire setup is a ruse and in fact Westworld and the Delos facility are a virtual reality, which will then add immeasurable layers and countless more seasons (also solves the Bullet Conundrum); there will be either an incursion into Samurai World, or an incursion FROM Samurai World, or an alliance, or maybe all of the above. The possibilities are endless, and presumably will be. Because we all know the best way to make a show exciting is to drag it on forever.
Whatever happens I want to see Samurai action, because aesthetically if there is anything better than 19th century America it’s 19th century Japan.