“I know you think that you have a handle on what this is gonna be: guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy. You have no idea.” When Logan, a handsome, sleazy young veteran of multiple trips to Westworld, says this to his milquetoast first-timer companion William, he’s ostensibly referring to misconceptions about the park. But for all his subsequent blather about the place helping you find “who you really are,” who Logan really is turns out to be a guy who enjoys, well, guns and tits and mindless shit. He indulges in multiple male and female partners twice in his first day of vacation, pulls out a gun in a restaurant to test whether a fellow diner is real or an android, and brutally stabs an elderly “host” he finds annoying. Despite what he told his coworker, this creep’s robot-resort experience lives down to expectations.
But the real target of his words is quite clearly us, the audience. In Westworld‘s second episode – “Chestnut” – co-creators/co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to take an “as below, so above” approach to their material. The same ethical dilemmas posed to the park’s visitors – the gratuitous violence, the literally dehumanizing sex, the freedom to indulge in absolute cruelty with complete invincibility – are the same ones set forth by the show to its viewers. The implicit promise is precisely the one Logan makes to William: There’s more to this onslaught of nudity and brutality than meets the eye, even if for the time being we mostly have to take their word for it.
Or we can take the word of another character, Westworld inventor Dr. Robert Ford. Portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins, he’s an inscrutable, philosophical old bat of the sort the venerable actor could play in his sleep. He’s prone to having portentous, double-meaning-laden conversations with charming little British kids who may or may not be android versions of himself in his youth: “Are you lost?” the kid asks. “No, just strayed a bit too far from where I’m supposed to be.” Because the project’s slowly going out of control, get it?
Anyway, he’s not too far gone to shoot down a repulsive-sounding new storyline devised by the show’s worst character, scenery-chewing Lee Sizemore – a battle against “savages” that promises “vivisection, self-cannibalism, a special something I call the whore-oboros.”
“No,” Ford says, putting the kibosh on the grand adventure with a single syllable. The speech that follows is worth experiencing in its entirety: “No, I don’t think so. What is the point of it? You get a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises, but it’s not enough. It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want. That’s simple: titillation, elation, horror, their politics. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. The already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
Once again, Westworld offers up a mission statement from the mouth of one of its own characters. Art, it argues, isn’t about vicariously triggering people’s fight, flight, and fuck instincts, then slapping on a patina of pre-digested sociopolitical justification for it. It’s not about giving people what they want but about showing them something they couldn’t see coming, and in which they then cannot help but see themselves afterwards. The critique and the proposed alternative are both so broad that they can include pretty much any show you happen to dislike for being too edgy or too pat. As a sort of moral compass for creativity, however, it’s eminently admirable.
However, it only gets you so far. Sizemore, Ford, and the Doctor’s heir apparent Bernard have their differences with one another, but all three recognize something the less artistically minded technicians in “Q.A.” (Quality Assurance) don’t get at all: It’s all in the details.
That’s a major storyline this time around, in fact, thanks to Maeve, the brothel-madam android played by Thandie Newton whose glitchy memories of a tribal raid on her motherly past persona cause her to malfunction. Noting that her quota of sexual encounters with guests isn’t being met, the Q.A. goons simply bump up her aggressiveness. When that fails, Bernard’s cocky colleague Elsie cranks her perceptiveness levels. The end result is that now Maeve can really tell there’s something terribly wrong going on, to the point where she wakes up in the middle of an off-site operation after she’s been shut down and runs around naked, armed with a scalpel until technicians shut her down. The point is that behavior has to be perfectly calibrated for the whole thing to work.
It’s a feat the show itself hasn’t managed yet. As noted above, Ford is a gnomic Yoda type, while Sizemore is a preposterously broad caricature – how could a person this insufferable get so far in an organization filled with people who personally dislike him? Bernard’s secret romantic relationship with Theresa Cullen, the head of Q.A., feels forced rather than star-crossed. And Ed Harris’s Man in Black is a riveting screen presence, but one-dimensional evil of his sort can only get you so far, even when it’s as beautifully executed as it is in his callous murder sprees. The show that spends so much effort explaining what makes behavior believable hasn’t quite nailed it for its own characters.
It’s telling that the most fascinating conversations on the show so far take place between the androids, who are programmed talk to each other even when humans aren’t around in order to improve their ability to mimic us. When Maeve talks to her assistant and likely replacement Clementine, or to a newly cynical Teddy (apparently removed from his sweetheart storyline with Dolores), we’re essentially watching nothing more “real” than your smartphone connecting to your laptop. But that’s what makes it so compelling to watch: This is a new thing we’re witnessing in science fiction, a new way to portray artificially intelligence in the process of becoming intelligent – by giving it equal screen time with fully sentient beings and simply seeing what happens. The idea fits Ford’s prescription for great storytelling to a tee.
Previously: Wanted, Droid or Alive