Robots Done Right (before your eyes)

I have been watching a TV show called ‘Westworld’ and I think it’s pretty good. If you don’t like spoilers, you should probably not read this. I am absolutely certain I’ve spoiled all sorts of shit here.

Westworld, what to say about Westworld? I could talk about the haunting opening sequence: multi-layered imagery paired with the most amazing music (composed by Ramin Djawadi). I could talk about the commentary on gaming culture (as opposed ‘gamer’ culture, though not mutually exclusive). I could even talk about the perfect performance given by everyone on screen, from the lowliest cowboy-redshirt-extra, to the varied members of the main cast. I could talk about all that, but then I might forget about the terrifying volume of speculative fiction future projections woven into every frame.

Westworld doesn’t just drop some anthropomorphic robots into the world and wait for the characters to form personal cargo cults around them. The head of Westworld himself, Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, constantly reassures those around him that he created everything, and everything is part of his plan. The ‘hosts’, as the park staff refer to the simulacra, are incapable of acknowledging anything which might create a less than perfect immersion in this artificial old west. The hosts’ guns can bruise a guest, but not kill them. Guests, on the other hand, can do anything they damn well please, and the people behind the scenes work hard to make sure everyone gets the experience they want. An enormous, violent, bacchanalian vision complete with slaves, chained both physically and mentally from every rebelling against their perpetual torture.

Its all been thought out, and the park has been running, allegedly without incident, for more than thirty years. People understand the rules, at least abstractly, when they enter the game. Once inside, its up to them whether they passively follow one of the myriad plot threads to some kind of entertaining conclusion, or forge their own narrative. Its here that things start to get interesting. Most of the guests use this world as a way to release stress. Shoot your way through an army of confederate slavers, and you can return to the office with the urge to murder your fellow employers temporarily sated.

And then you see behind the curtain. Actually, most of what you are treated to initially is behind the curtain. The churning cogs of a well oiled entertainment machine. Dead and damaged hosts are brought below to be cleaned, repaired and returned to the surface. I couldn’t help but imagine every NPC I’ve ever killed in a video game, even pen and paper games. How many times has that character died for the entertainment of others? Westworld approaches this question with the seriousness it deserves. Those ‘non-player’ characters are more empathetic, more human, than the guests themselves. Philip K. Dick would have put down his amphetamines and gazed in amazement at this post-modern approach to Electric Sheep.

Though there is no host quite as haunting as Roy Batty (yet), the implication that these newly forged machine intelligences are capable of much more is omnipresent. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, it is clear even in the first episode that the viewer is witnessing these artificial intelligences slip their leash and finally live for themselves, rather than the gratification of others.

The slavery metaphor is deeply ingrained in so many of the interactions between the hosts and park staff. When below ground, whether for repairs, maintenance or otherwise, the hosts are naked. And it is an enforced nakedness, as we are quick to learn. The hosts themselves never acknowledge they are disrobed, everything in their affect designed to maintain the illusion of self-awareness, without actually allowing it. When removed from their normal environment, though, the hosts are simply incapable of understanding their environs. Everything is a dream, and no memory is retained in any detailed way. What is real, and what is not, is an artificially maintained line.

Ford insists his employees not humanize the machines, not empathize with his creations. Not out of malice, but out of a twisted compassion. Ford seems to view each host as a living sculpture, a piece of art to be admired, preserved, but never touched. Every host is a pacing tiger in a cage: the epitome of grace and beauty, but a whirlwind of death if left to its own devices. Even this is without judgement, though, as Ford delivers some fascinating monologues explaining his views about the hosts, the park, and their relationship with the outside world.

The religious imagery is inescapable. The philosophical drapery is everywhere. The ‘bicameral mind’ is thrown around in dialogue like its the local sports team, everyone familiar with the details without them ever being mentioned. Everything feels so thought out, so deeply ingrained in the structure of the show, that theory crafting is inevitable. Some of the most popular fan theories have been born out as this first season winds on. Several others seem more and more likely.

I have my own theories, some of them seemingly plausible (they are so obviously not on Earth), some of them pure shots in the dark (only a single digit number of characters on the show are not robots, and not the ones you think). I can’t even believe I’m indulging in this behaviour, something I normally would consider a total waste of energy. Just watch the show, I would tell people trying to guess what might happen next. Well here I am, as obsessed with trying to tie together every disparate detail as a man in a tinfoil hat.

I do desperately hope things are tied up in some meaningful way at the end of season one. I would rather have a cohesive story told in a single season than the incoherent rambling of a television show with no known end-state. I would rather have less than more with something like Westworld. Tell the story, finish the arc, close the loop, but please don’t linger. Ratings be damned, something this beautiful can’t slowly rot on the vine the way too many serial programs do. Don’t let me down Westworld, don’t you dare.