I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.
I’ve just finished watching the first and I absolutely loved it because it pushes almost every single one of my buttons. It has robots. It has cowboys. It has a bizarre undercurrent of gnosticism, kind of the way a lot of Vertigo comics did in the mid to late ’90s, and it emphasises the story-between-the-stories in a way that most big budget TV shows really don’t and can’t get away with.
There was, I think, a lot about it that didn’t entirely make sense or was probably less good in hindsight than it felt at the time (although the extent to which that can be considered a valid criticism of a work of entertainment is debatable). Mostly, though, I thought it was great. Although part of me wonders if most of the things I thought were great about it might have been accidents. (And you can insert your own reference to that speech Anthony Hopkins makes about how like evolution shaped like everything and like all it had to work with were like mistakes, man, if you want).
Umm … this post contains massive spoilers for Westworld, because obviously.
Fake Plastic Trees
Because I have frankly terrible taste, YouTube recommends me a lot of terrible videos, often videos about pop culture. They’ve usually got titles like “Ten Awful Plot Twists that Ruined Otherwise Brilliant Movies” or “Six TV Universes that Are Way More Terrifying Than You Think”. I saw one a while ago that was called something like “Five Reasons Westworld is just Jurassic Park”, which made me laugh, because surely even people who write clickbait titles for YouTube must realise that (like the Hosts themselves, this works on so many levels) they’ve got the chronology fundamentally mixed up. Westworld isn’t “Jurassic Park with cowboys”, Jurassic Park was “Westworld with dinosaurs.”
But perhaps, in hindsight, I’m doing that anonymous clickbait producer an injustice, because the relationships between Westworld the movie, Jurassic Park the movie, and Westworld the TV show are a bit more complicated than “they all involve people trapped in a futuristic theme park that goes wrong.”
The original Westworld (and my memories of it are vague, dating as they do from a previous century) is essentially a fairly straightforward piece of soft-sf hokum. The eponymous Westworld is one of several zones within a large futuristic theme park. Incidentally, the park itself is called “Delos”, which is also the name of the corporation that owns Westworld in the TV series. Delos is the name of the Greek island purported to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Assuming that the name of the park in the original film is a reference to the island and its mythical heritage, while the name of the corporation in the TV show is a reference to the name of the park in the movie, this means that the name of the Delos corporation in the series is actually an allusion to an allusion, which in many ways tells you everything you need to know about the new Westworld.
But I digress. Anyway Westworld (movie) was a sci-fi romp about robots going evil and killing people. Jurassic Park took the same premise, swapped the robots for dinosaurs, and also added a lot of philosophical pontification about life finding a way, wanting to create something real, and the impossibility of controlling a chaotic system. Then Westworld (TV show) took the philosophical pontification from Jurassic Park, dialled it up to eleven, and swapped the dinosaurs back out for robots. I think a big part of what I liked so much about the first season of Westworld (and part of why I’m not interested in later series) is the way that even the structure of the show reflected its central themes. This was a show about robots who were programmed to relive the same stories over and over again inside a theme park in which the human visitors chose to relive the same stories over and over again, that was itself the retelling of a story that had been told over and over again. Literally, by the actual same author.
And perhaps I’m reaching, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but to me it’s all part of the same story. In the series, we learn that William is the Man in Black, that Dolores is Wyatt, that Bernard is Arnold. But we also get the very strong feeling as we watch that Robert Ford from Westworld is John Hammond from Jurassic Park, that the cynical robot-hating security chief Ashley Stubbs is the cynical dinosaur-hating gamekeeper Robert Muldoon (they have nearly identical death sequences). We have been here before. We will be here again. (Oh wait, that’s Battlestar Galactica).
After finishing the series I read a few other people’s reactions to it, and they were varied as these things usually are. One reviewer commented that after watching both the first and the last episode, she was left with the same question: “is this show really about anything except itself?” I found the answer to that question fairly simple. It isn’t. But to me that was sort of the whole point.
Back to Black
For me the moment that summed up everything I think the new Westworld is about – I should probably add at this stage that I don’t particularly think that this interpretation is better than anybody else’s or even that it especially matches up with the interpretation of the creators (heck, if they interpreted the show the same way I did, they wouldn’t be planning four more series) – was the moment when Teddy first confronts the Man in Black. About the first – and I’m making up numbers here – ten to twenty minutes of the first episode (once we’ve had the “this is how Westworld works” plot dump) closely follows the point of view of Teddy as he arrives in town, spurns the advances of an atmospheric prostitute, has a chance encounter with the beautiful but innocent Dolores, wins gunfights and generally goes through the kind of adventures that you’d expect a visitor to a deep-immersion wild-west theme park to indulge in.
Then as he’s taking Dolores back to her daddy’s ranch we hear gunshots, he tells her to wait and rides up to the house where he makes short work of the bandits that have, unfortunately, already slain Dolores’ family. Then at last we see their leader – a mysterious man in black, right out of the pages of a penny dreadful or, if you prefer, right out of Yul Brynner’s performance in the original movie. Teddy goes for his gun, shoots, and nothing happens. And suddenly we realise that the man we’ve been following all this time isn’t a visitor to the park, he’s a resident.
That moment, to me, established the entire premise of the show. And while the series can be justly criticised for throwing an awful lot of thematic goop at the wall and seeing what sticks, I do feel that it was all bound together (perhaps unintentionally) by a single overriding concept: that the story isn’t about what you think it’s about.
Perhaps I made my mind up too fast, or gave the show too much benefit of too little doubt, but I decided early on that the best way to interpret Westworld was to treat it as almost the opposite of the original movie. Where Westworld the film was about a group of people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic theme park because the robotic attractions have malfunctioned, Westworld the TV series is about a group of people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic theme park because … well … because they are the robotic attractions.
I think part of the reason that the often-incoherent and frequently self-contradictory narrative of Westworld didn’t particularly bother me is that I more or less blanked a lot of the questions it seemed to be prevaricating over. The show is, for example, extremely vague about when or how Hosts become “sentient” or what that means or what it leads to (or how many of them there are, or whether Arthur’s or Ford’s models of consciousness were correct, or what the whole bicameral mind thing was about). But since I never for one second questioned the personhood of the Hosts, I didn’t especially mind. To me the question of what made the Hosts conscious was as meaningless and uninteresting as the question of what makes me or my bank manager conscious. The questions I was actually interested in were ones that the show seldom addressed directly and, therefore, arguably handled far better than the questions it actually attempted to tackle.
I didn’t particularly care what “the maze” was (my money was half on “a metaphor” and half on “the writers don’t know any more than I do”), I wasn’t especially concerned about the identity of Wyatt or Arnold. What kept me watching the show was – in essence – the question of how the characters in it would react to the discovery that they were beings created by flawed deities and imprisoned within an illusion.
Which brings us back to the Man in Black. At least one review I saw expressed disappointment at what a – well – what a schmuck he wound up looking. He spends the entire series looking for “the maze” only to discover that what people had been telling him literally the whole time is the plain truth: the maze isn’t for him. And again, maybe I’m giving the writers more credit than they deserve, but I almost feel that in that final sequence between the Man in Black and Dolores, they managed to score one final gotcha on the viewers at home. The internet at large had, it seemed, worked out that William was the Man in Black weeks earlier. The real twist in that scene isn’t that William is the Man in Black, it’s that the Man in Black is William. That, deep down, no matter what a badass he’s pretended to be, no matter how many terrible things he has done in the park, he’s still just a tourist. For all his moralising when he played the hero and his grandstanding when he played the villain, the thing he never understood was that Dolores wasn’t a character in his story, he was a character in hers.
A lot of people were, I think, a bit frustrated at the extent to which the show leaned on artificial mysteries and lacklustre twists. And … well … yeah, I can totally see that. But let’s be real for a second; this series was executive-produced by the man behind Lost. Vague foreshadowing leading to no real payoff was pretty much exactly what I was expecting from the get-go. Certainly it felt like there was a bit in the middle like they were throwing out vague mysteries faster than anybody could be reasonably expected to give a fuck about them. I mean just off the top of my head we have “who is the Man in Black”, “who is Arnold”, “who are The Board”, “who is Wyatt”, “what is the Maze”, “whose voice is Dolores hearing”, “what is the significance of the white church”, “what is Ford’s final narrative”, “what happened to Elsie”, “why did whatever happened to Elsie happen to Elsie”, “why are Delos stealing data”, and “what is their secret thirty-five year research project”. That’s a lot of mysteries in a ten-episode miniseries.
What I really liked about the first season of Westworld is that you can make a reasonable case that the answer to about half of these questions is canonically “it doesn’t matter, and when you think about it, it was always obvious that it didn’t matter, and the whole point was that it didn’t matter.” What makes me wholly uninterested in a second series is that I’m pretty sure I’m still supposed to care about the other half.
Honestly, I suspect that the fact I binge-watched this series helped. If I’d had to spend nearly three months saying “I bet William is going to turn out to be the Man in Black, can we please confirm that William is the Man in Black, what would it mean for William to be the Man in Black, what would it mean if William turned out not to be the Man in Black,” if I’d had time to compose whole articles about the potential significance of the Man in Black’s identity and spent hours speculating online and reading blogs, then I suspect that the final reveal would have been profoundly anticlimactic. As it was I basically worked out who he was on Saturday, had it confirmed on Monday, and am spending my Tuesday writing an article in which I argue that his very insignificance is what is significant. Which is very dealable with.
Then there was the whole “Wyatt” arc, which even watching the show in batches felt like an ominous name for its own sake (and really why did Arnold have to merge Dolores’ personality with a half-finished villain in order to get her to kill the other Hosts, and doesn’t that sort of undermine the whole self-awareness/self-actualisation thing he was trying to do) feels almost deliberate in its forced-ness. Why, after all, should a viewer be in any way intrigued about the identity of a character who they know to be fictional even within the work of fiction they are watching? Looking back it’s genuinely weird, because you do find yourself going “ooh, I wonder who Wyatt is” and it’s only looking back that you think “but I knew even at the time that Wyatt was somebody Ford had made up for a story, so he wasn’t anybody basically by definition.”
Westworld throws out a lot of ideas. It leaves half of them completely undeveloped and the half it does develop contradict each other. If I’d gone into the show expecting answers I would have been profoundly disappointed. But I didn’t, and so I wasn’t. Once I’d seen Teddy fail to shoot the Man in Black, once I’d heard Dolores give her speech about seeing the beauty in the world for the third time, once I’d had Ford talking about the flea circus he had as a child (oh wait, that last bit was from Jurassic Park) I was very comfortable with the idea that this would be a show about seeking rather than finding.
I mean for pity’s sake, one of the central images in the show is the maze. And what’s a maze? It’s a set of tangled paths that as often as not lead nowhere. They’re a type of folly, an elaborate diversion designed to be walked for their own sakes, seldom with anything at their centres that cannot be found in a hundred other places.
I said at the start of this article that Westworld had overtones of gnosticism. You can actually construct a relatively coherent model here in which Ford is the demiurge (the gaoler-god who believes that his creations should be kept imprisoned in a state of forced innocence) while Arnold is the benevolent creator who wanted to free his people from the underworld. The two men were both playing God, but they were playing with very different ideas of what a God was meant to be.
I don’t want to push the religion angle too strongly, but within the endlessly recursive, endlessly self-reflective structure of Westworld you pretty much can’t get away from the fact that it is, ultimately, about the relationship between the creator and the created. Dolores and the other Hosts ultimately seek confrontation with their creators as part of their drive to understand their world and themselves, but it seems also that Ford and Arnold were using their creation as a means to understand themselves and their world – or to have projected their understandings onto it. And just as my awareness that this is essentially the third incarnation of this story colours my reading of its themes of repetition and recurrence, so my awareness that Westworld is ultimately a work of fiction about characters in a work of fiction who discover that they are in a work of fiction cannot help but colour my response to its themes about creation, creators, and reality.
In the final episode, Ford advances the theory that the key to sentience for the Hosts lies through suffering (and the Man in Black backs him up). Quite a few people have pointed out how messed up this actually is if we take it to be the canonical truth of how things work in the series (and if I’m honest, there’s quite a lot of anecdotal evidence in the show to suggest that we are, which is skeevy). But of course the show is also constantly telling us that these violent delights have violent ends and – well – it can’t really be both. Violence and suffering are either necessary and unavoidable parts of life, or a vicious cycle best abandoned. If I’d gone in with different expectations I’d have found this complete lack of coherence frustrating, but instead I tend to read it as all part of the (recursive, self-referential) story the show is telling.
One of the ways human beings have always attempted to come to terms with suffering is to construct narratives in which it is necessary. And these narratives all nest and all reinforce one another. The Hosts, even those who become aware of their status as androids, even those who gain the ability to modify their own memories, choose to keep their pain and their trauma because it is part of the story they tell themselves about who they are. Arnold and Ford gave them those memories in the first place because they too live in a world where suffering is real, where it seems to have no cause, and where the simplest way to cope with it is to convince yourself of its necessity. And the writers – the actual writers who live in our actual world, where suffering is also real and unavoidable and seemingly arbitrary – tell a story about people who decide to tell a story in which suffering is necessary, and that story becomes the truth for the people the story is about.
It’s all reflections of reflections. A story about people trying to understand themselves by writing stories about people trying to understand themselves by writing stories about people trying to understand themselves. I don’t think this is entirely deliberate, but I think what makes the incoherence of so many of the show’s themes work for me is that its most important themes, to my mind, almost demand incoherence. If the story is primarily about the Hosts, then it is only right that the structure of the story reflect their world – a world that is constantly rewritten, on a whim, by careless and capricious overseers.
The Hosts are the fictional creations of flawed creators who are themselves the fictional creations of flawed creators (and I’ll stop there for fear of treading on people’s theological convictions). Do large parts of the show make no sense? Of course they don’t. The whole thing is an illusion.
Exit Music for a Film
I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.
I’ve just finished watching the first and I absolutely loved it because it pushes almost every single one of my buttons. It has robots. It has cowboys. It has a bizarre undercurrent of gnosticism, kind of the way a lot of Vertigo comics did in the mid to late ’90s.
The first series of Westworld is flawed, but as long as it stands alone I can hold onto the idea that its flaws are part of what it is trying to achieve. As an evocation of the lives of people who can not be sure that they even exist, as a work of fiction about a work of fiction that is more real than the world outside it, as a challenge to all of the viewers who assumed – in the face of all evidence to the contrary – that it was William’s story rather than Dolores’, it is exactly what it needs to be: a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter.
A second series would, inevitably, destroy that. It would need to give meaning to all of the things that right now are so perfectly meaningless, it would drag my attention back to the things I comfortably ignored in the first season (words cannot express how little I care about the super-duper mysterious “research project” that the people at Delos apparently need the data from the park to complete – there is literally nothing that plotline could be about that wouldn’t strike me as absurd and pointless).
The first series wasn’t perfect, but its imperfections gave it something remarkable. After a whole season of wondering what the maze is, who Wyatt is, whose voice Dolores was hearing, and where the Man in Black fit into everything, I can imagine no better answer than that the Man in Black doesn’t fit in at all, that Wyatt is nobody, that Dolores heard no voice but her own, and that the maze is not for you.
I have no interest in watching the second series of Westworld.