“What does it mean to be human?” is the least interesting question science fiction can ask, though that hasn’t stopped the genre from using tales of androids among us to ask it year after year. “What does it mean to be inhumane?” on the other hand? That’s an inquiry worth exploring. To knowingly inflict pain on artificially intelligent machine-men (or machine-women, though that’s a whole other issue) – when we treat them as slaves or toys or, to use Westworld‘s evocative term, “livestock” – that says a lot about us. Dr. Frankenstein made Frankenstein’s monster. The real question is whether this makes a monster of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Judging from its intriguing, disturbing, hugely ambitious pilot episode (titled “The Original”), HBO’s series-length redo-cum-re–exploration of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie is focused on the correct side of this equation. It splits its screen time evenly between the semi-sentient androids – “hosts” – who populate a no-holds-barred Wild West theme park in an unspecified future year, and the suits, scientists, security guards and showbiz types who (supposedly) control them. This latter group includes Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, the elderly scientist who pioneered the technology and continues to refine it; Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, his brainy successor; Borgen veteran/Dr. Jennifer Melfi lookalike Sidse Babett Knudsen as Theresa Cullen, the park’s security chief and philosophical rival to the more artistically minded gents; and Simon Quarterman as Lee Sizemore, whose over-the-top outbursts (spewed in a British accent that make him sound like a refugee from In the Loop) are the weak link in an otherwise tightly scripted affair.
On the other side of the coin, our lead robots are the good-hearted (or is that good-circuited?) trio of young frontierswoman Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood, putting her otherworldly affect to stronger, less campy use here than she did as True Blood‘s Vampire Queen of Louisiana); her protective rancher father Pete (Louis Herthum); and her handsome beau Teddy Moss (James Marsden). It’s both fascinating and jarring to watch multiple scenes between robot characters who have no real consciousness of anything they’re doing or saying – with no actual humans in sight.
The entire opening act is a clever bit of misdirection: Editing and narration lead us to believe Teddy’s a repeat visitor to the park whom Dolores remembers from previous encounters. But it’s not until he tries and fails to kill Ed Harris’ Man in Black — a human who says he’s been visiting the park for 30 years and seems to have grown progressively more sadistic toward its robotic residents — that we realize Moss is a “host” himself. This storyline is an attention-getter, meant to grab audiences the same way Jaime Lannister tossing Bran Stark out the window as Game of Thrones‘ opening gambit did. (It’s also a constructive counterexample to series that have risked viewer frustration by stretching out twist-ending mysteries for multiple episodes at a time – see Mr. Robot‘s past season.)
But just as importantly, Teddy’s death and Dolores’ harrowing, though unseen, rape give us two vital pieces of information: The androids cannot harm the human “newcomers,” or indeed any living thing, not even the flies that frequently alight on their faces; and their memories are reset after every encounter, enabling them to run the same “scripts” day after day, year after year. It’s Ford’s impulsive decision to allow traces of past programming to remain in the robots’ memory banks as “reveries” that enables them to start thinking and acting (and breaking down in various physically and psychologically gruesome ways) spontaneously. That’s where the trouble begins.
But take another look at the timeline of events and you’ll see that the real problems began long ago. Though it apparently has family-friendly zones, Westworld’s express purpose is, to use Sizemore’s evocative phrase, “gratifying rich assholes.” It’s a place where you can play the hero by gunning down a gang of bandits, have a guilt-free girlfriend experience with a saloon full of robotic prostitutes — or, if you’re as brutal as the Man in Black, spend three decades torturing your way through the hosts. Maybe it took the creator’s hubris to trigger the androids’ suspicions that there’s something terribly wrong with their “lives,” but those lives — or more to the point, the lives of the people who created this place — were already terribly wrong, whether or not the bots themselves could sense it. The myth of redemptive violence, the (literal!) objectification of women, the poisonous idea that life can be bought and sold: Westworld enables the worst instincts of all its visitors, and of the society they inhabit.
Which will likely leave some viewers wondering if the show itself is guilty of some of the same crimes as its wild-wild-West theme park. Co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan – the former directed this episode, the latter wrote it – selected for their opening image the nude body of a sexually brutalized Dolores. It’s literally the first thing we see, a choice that’s almost perverse in its willingness to invite the sort of “depiction equals exploitation” criticism leveled at so many other prestige dramas, and HBO ones in particular. And while both male and female nudity abounds, the “sexy female cyborg” trope has reached zombie-like levels of oversaturation. (At any rate, it’s hard to imagine any show will top Battlestar Galactica‘s nightmarish Head Six in that department.) But so far, anyway, Westworld appears determined to demonstrate that you can’t have your cake and eat it too where brutality-for-entertainment is concerned. We have met the enemy, and he is us, pardner.
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