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Westworld [tv]

Entry updated 19 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (2016-2022). Bad Robot/Jerry Weintraub Productions/Kilter Films. Created, part directed and part written by showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, "with" Michael Crichton. Other Season One directors include Jonny Campbell, Richard J Lewis, Michelle MacLaren, Neil Marshall, Vincenzo Natali, Frederick E O Toye, Stephen Williams. Credit sequence directed by Patrick Clair. Other Season One writers include Ed Brubaker, Dan Dietz, Halley Gross, Katherine Lingenfelter, Dominic Mitchell, Daniel T Thomsen, Charles Yu. Cast (all 10 Season One episodes) includes Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandle Newton, Evan Rachel Wood. Cast also includes Louis Hertham, Clementine Pennyfeather, Tallulah Riley, Eric Shackleford, Jimmi Simpson, Tessa Thompson, Shannon Woodward. Ten 62-minute episodes. Colour.

As noted in its entry, the original film Westworld (1973) is more a symptom of its era – post-Vietnam America failing to learn the lessons of history – than anything even remotely resembling a scrutiny of the Imperial West itself. Westworld is therefore deeply and airlessly non-self-reflective. It lacks portals; there is no new world to discover under the glare of surface. The Robots who are consumed by human tourists in the original film could never plausibly be re-themed by discourse academics into slaves (see Slavery) attempting to cast off their lot, nor could the human tourists in the tale plausibly warrant even a hindsight speculation that they might have somehow been meant to represent Homo sapiens as a diseased species. The corporate builders of Westworld, who are not in fact visible on screen, seem incompetent rather than hubristic. And Westworld itself as a narrative fatally depends upon the kind of body-horror Michael Crichton catered to: horror that dissipates as soon as the disease vector (in this case the dysfunctional robot Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner) is erased, and corporate America, having been invaded by a foreign element, can return to "normal". The first Westworld is shut. This cannot be said of the current iteration of the franchise, which echoes with the sound of portals opening. Michael Crichton died in 2008; his writing credit on the new version is ceremonial.

All the same, the current iteration of the franchise – though it has been superbly and expensively shot, and rebooted down to the bare rock, and interleaved with minatory easter eggs that hint of matters untellable or not yet told – does occasionally resemble its imago. The Near Future 1983 date of Westworld's initial founding by the Delos corporation is now a Near Future 2023 (or so), and the mise en scene is also familiar: an adult-adventure theme park, one of several Keep-like enclaves constructed on a private estate somewhere in the American desert (only Westworld itself is featured in the first season). As before, Westworld Parodies a range of false, mostly cinema-based memories of the Old West. Delos's conspicuously one-percenter customers, who are known as "guests", pay heavily to interact with the numerous Android "hosts", usually by having sex with them or killing them. This is clearly understandable in commercial terms: though Westworld glows with fractal fascinations, Westworld itself, without the sex and violence, is as boring as it was in 1973, as demonstrated by the roles taken on by hosts, who again replicate characters overfamiliar to anyone who has seen a B Western: gunslingers, cowpokes, madams, whores, barkeeps, sheriffs, ranchers, ranchers' cows, ranchers' wives, ranchers' rapable daughters, rustlers, Native Americans, comancheros, Red Shirts galore, and perhaps a Mysterious Stranger. Hosts may modify their stereotypical roles, within strict limits; but if a guest steps out of frame – perhaps by making direct reference to the real world outside, or otherwise violating Role Playing Game conventions – any hosts exposed to this rip in the fabric will stiffen into uncanny-valley rote iterations of their roles: for it is a fundamental rule of the Game-World they inhabit that they cannot understand they are in a gameworld. Hosts are furthermore programmed not to resist rape successfully, and are hardwired against killing guests, though they can kill each other; Red Shirts die as anonymously as swatted flies, but any named android killed by a guest or a fellow host will normally be represented as dying in pain, to keep the guests happy. As in 1973, damaged or demolished hosts are taken to the Delos laboratories deep Underground, where they are rebuilt and rebooted. After they have undergone Memory Edit, they resume their roles on the surface as for the first time.

This model is soon transfigured, though more cartoonish uncanny-valley moments – along with the occasional dismantling of a host to reveal circuit boards – will mark an occasional scene as dating from early days. Most of season one is in fact set around 2055, thirty-five years after Westworld's founding, during the course of which span the original Robot simulacra have been sophisticated into genuine Androids "built" by 3D printers. Uncanny-valley moments experienced now tend to presage some significant change in the exceedingly complicated beat of the Westworld story: usually conveying a sense that hosts have gained a new perspective on their immurement: almost as though the weatherman's victims in Groundhog Day (1993) were beginning to wake up. When androids freeze in 2055, it is not exactly because they have brushed against the walls of their cage. It is more as though something or someone from outside the recursion-loops of their roles has just whispered to them.

This turns out to be the case.

It indeed soon becomes clear that hosts not humans are the main concern of the new Westworld, and that their evolution towards consciousness, under the guidance of a newly introduced magus (see below), will drive the plot. Visitors are now seen from without, as though they were under the archaeological gaze of a Martian (or Ariel). Humans are about to become yesterday. This new focus requires a complete reconfiguration of an important figure known here as The Man in Black (Harris); though he is obviously a direct iconic descendant of Brynner's Robot Gunslinger, who attacks humans, in 2016 he has become a human who torments hosts. [Previous incarnations of the Man in Black, from his first appearance in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), are discussed in 1 above.] But his functionality in the new series is not restricted to his re-enacting Mysterious Stranger invasions of the lives of hosts, whose daily Amnesia stimulates him. Though as a young man under his real name William (Simpson) he had been intrigued by the inner geographies of the newly built park, spending huge amounts of time within its reality, by 2055, now transmogrified into The Man in Black, William has shaped these deadly incursions into Westworld life around his search for a secret fastness at its heart, which is to say America; its location is apparently coded in a mysterious maze-like diagram tattooed on a host's skull (he carries the scalp with him), but we soon rightly suspect a McGuffin: for the Labyrinth, which The Man in Black associates with gain, describes something else entirely (again see below). His poisonous lack of empathy with other beings, and avaricious monkeybrain lust to retrieve "his" lost heritage, anatomizes Homo sapiens's unfitness to rule the earth: it is this exemplary wrongness of being that brings him under the continuing scrutiny of the only human in Westworld who is treated as a genuine protagonist, and who is the shaper of Westworld, the magus at whose behest the various time-lines of the show unfold.

His presence in the story – the 1973 film had no such figure – has almost certainly saved Westworld from the multiple-reality-porn plot-swamp that asphyxiated Lost (2004-2010). Robert Ford (Hopkins), the daedal artificer at the heart of the maze of Westworld, appears throughout. The Godgame he conducts in the Zone he originally constructed in the desert wilderness, and has been sophisticating for decades, seems absolute; and the game of Uplift to which he has submitted his android builds, though it will threaten the existence of Westworld as a corporate enterprise, ultimately climaxes along lines laid down from the very beginning. Sequences set around 2025 in the complexly tesseractal narrative maze of the story show him as co-inventor of the first primitive Robot simulacra; scenes set later trace their evolution into the sophisticated hosts of 2055 whose AI control systems have come very close, under his hand, to self-consciousness (see Posthuman; Transcendence). The masque-like plot Ford has fabricated is a body English of the Labyrinth his android children must introject in order to gain their selves (for comments on the bicameral mind see below), at which point he can cast down his wand. When he dies there, at the very end of the first season, it is because he has completed his Game, his paean, his revels (it is understood that Anthony Hopkins's contract specified that – alone of all the cast – he would be told the entire plot in advance; and that Ford's death would be permanent).

As the only being who knows the score, Ford stands out clearly in the tumbleweed interweavings of Westworld. His central similarity to the figure of Prospero is manifest throughout; and his actual name conveniently time-clocks the echolalias that shape the stories here, almost comically evoking at least five previous Fords: (1) the dramatist John Ford (1586-?1639), whose 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (performed 1631; 1633) precurses the kind of Gothic SF that underlies much of the plot of Westworld, and in whose climatic scene the female protagonist's heart is torn out of her body, dismantling her; (2) Robert Ford (1862-1892), the dime-novel assassin who posed in carnivals as the man who shot Jesse James (1847-1882) (see Icons); (3) Henry Ford (1863-1947), who thought of his workers as android "hands" tasked to maintain in unison the assembly lines central to his Utopian vision of a wholly describable world, integrated under his command; (4) Henry's transformation into the deity known as Our Ford in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), a title which of course travesties The Tempest; and (5) John Ford (1894-1973), whose famous chiaroscuro-governed "doorway shots" are homaged throughout, and who more importantly reconfabulated the American Frontier story into a series of elegiac Westerns set in the sort of lost paradise that the magus of Westworld seems to wish to reconstitute: Fordlandia Unbound. (It should perhaps be noted that Westworld was shot partly in Castle Valley, which Ford used for several late Westerns.)

But he is mostly the magus already mentioned. Ford's fateful control of Westworld is deeply similar to Prospero's magic manipulation of the world-as-masque that William Shakespeare so compactly unfolded in The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623). Like Prospero, who composes and conducts the flow of recognitions that make up the heart of that play, Ford has pre-designed the end of his long rule over the enclave or Island of Westworld as a direct outcome of the coming to self-recognition of his android progeny. Westworld may be his dream, but like the similarly hypnopompic Prospero at the end he awakens his Miranda-like "daughter", the frequently-raped rancher-daughter host Dolores Abernathy (Wood), from thousandfold sleep into a brave new world of marvels, a Westworld she is now consciously inhabits, a dream come true: "Some people choose to see the ugliness [here]. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty", she says more than once, pretty well trumping Samwise Gamgee (and at the end of the barren anfractuosities of the Third Season, when she is about to "really" die [promises, promises], she does Samwise again while simultaneously channelling the death of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). In the increasingly tortured countenance of the android Bernard Lowe (Wright), who is Ford's creature and consigliere, can be seen stigmata of both the Slavery of Caliban and the bondage of the Alien Ariel. Ford's diction, and his tendency to speak in soliloquy-like paragraphs, evoke Shakespeare more tellingly than do various poached tags, as does the aura of magic puissance that hedges him throughout, an executive isolation that neither Dolores nor Bernard ever genuinely penetrate. There is indeed a chill unsmiling whiff of deprecation in Ford's demeanour and his philosophical utterances, but though this lack of love for Homo sapiens may resemble Prospero's, he proves incapable of redeeming his perhaps all-too-just misanthropy with any great monologue of forgiving farewell to the players in his dream. Though he may be right about this anthropocene age, the ice in his heart shapes his end. Dolores gains consciousness, and shatters Ford's wand by shooting him in the head.

We first see Dolores, who is the very first of Ford's many builds, "awakening" deep Underground after a reboot, which we learn later could have been her thousandth, as a voice (probably Bernard's) asks her how she's feeling, She answers that she seems to be dreaming or awakening from a dream, adding "I am not quite feeling myself". She is wearing a blue dress, which evokes Lewis Carroll's Alice as rendered by John Tenniel, and hints at the very end of the first series, ten viewing hours later, when like Alice she blows down the house of cards. And so the interjaculations of story of Westworld begin, never to stop, though Ford's puppeteer presence in the deep background is a reassurance that the strings will not tangle. It is also useful to understand that there are, in reality, only two hosts of any central and transformative importance to the storyline, each of them triggered into wakefulness by a Shakespearean catchphrase – "These violent delights have violent ends" – which originates with Ford, and is variously passed on at his hidden behest. The tag is not in itself very meaningful, and can easily be understood as yet another example of sententia poaching, but is in fact a toggle or Meme which initiates a rewriting of host programmes: no host who hears the phrase can now sink back into a state of full Amnesia. Dolores hears it several times, initially from her father Peter Abernathy (Herthum), with complex effects to her own almost unfathomably complex storyline; perhaps more to the point, she also passes it on to Westworld's second significant protagonist host, the acerbic, world-wise, acutely intelligent host Maeve Millay (Newton), mainly seen in her role as madam of the local saloon, a task she initially thinks, wrongly, she has been performing for many years. Maeve now begins to awaken. Though the two meet significantly only this once, Dolores's and Maeve's storylines, which are superficially complex enough to defeat synopsis, resonate together from this point as the two spiral consanguineously towards selfhood. Both are instrumental in the climax. It could be argued that everything else in Westworld is supplementary.

The story of Ford's long-woven campaign, which may in terms of this encyclopedia be called a Time Opera, can perhaps be most eloquently mapped through the superb black-and-white credit sequence which is repeated invariantly (but with accumulative effect) ten times in Westworld', at the beginning of each episode, each repetition adding iconic pointedness to each shot: around twenty in all, the camera always moving storywards, to the right. Though the sequence is not exactly narrative, with each individual shot ending with a cut into narrative vacuum, much is shown. And multiple viewings of this intricate montage may give us a sense (surely intended) that we are being told of matters not quite visible in the trelliswork of story: only here do we see that the androids are not plated together but are "built" by 3D printers, for instance; it is here we recognize that the images of birthing that accumulate through the sequence precisely sums up the entire first season; and it is in the flow of images throughout the sequence that may give us a cue as why there is so much nakedness in Westworld.

Two sets of images predominate. Expectedly, a flow of visual quotations from the traditional "Western" belatingly underlies the whole (see Clichés): the six-shooter; the noir saloon; the player piano; airless hints of a prelapsarian Fordlandia; a horse whose freeze-framed frozen gallop evokes the photographic motion studies of Edward Muybridge (1830-1904), while demonstrating that the horse has just been "built". This raree-show from deep Ago interacts with CGI-enabled quotations from the Near Future sf toolkit: mute androids almost having reverent sex; a futuristic take on Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man; the sinuously futuristic probosces of 3D printers dripping liquid exudate into android-shaped receptacles (snap!), like the birthing finger of God in Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel; skeletal built fingers "playing" the player piano that plays the fingers, iterating a theme tune (heard variously throughout, for the isle is full of noises) that seems almost to embody the inner abysms of the narrative of Westworld.

This doubleness – this rhetorical move in which Ago is transfixed by Next – is a familiar postmodern strategy (see Postmodernism and SF): transgressive estrangement through the ironizing of reality into quotations. Unfortunately the credit sequence fails just as the makers of Westworld fail – just as their creature and spokesman Ford himself fails – to give us anything like a sly confessional postmodern en passant grin, some form of admission that we are all in the same boat. The extraordinarily polished shooting of the credit sequence conveys the same complicit shrug of impassivity that marks the most obvious earlier model for the credit sequence's marriage of printers and female Sex: the coercively Cyborged image of women conveyed in the video created by Chris Cunningham (1970-    ) for Bjork's 2002 song "All Is Full of Love": even though the exposed Robot-Bjork is manufactured out of metal parts (like an Automaton, whose anus is just a hole to be screwed), and not printed (like you and me and tomorrow in Westworld). Made at around the same time as the credit sequence, the film Ghost in the Shell (2017) directed by Rupert Sanders (1971-    ) similarly gets off on uncanny-valley nudity because, anachronistically, its protagonist is also made of plates and circuits.

This lack of an articulate frame of discourse for Westworld's intense focus on sex and nudity does not augur well for the series as a whole, and seems to ignore a discourse clearly embarked upon through the heavily foregrounded treatment of a very similar iconography in another influential precursor tale: the once-famous "Cowboy Kate", in Cowboy Kate and Other Stories (graph coll 1965) by Sam Haskins (1926-2009), a black-and-white photomontaged narrative fantasia on the Western, replete with familiar gear (some of it almost literally replicated in the Westworld credit sequence) and intimations of Steampunk (ditto), but rendered here with a slightly campy but intense "high art" self-awareness that fixes in place the fact that Cowboy Kate is entirely quoted, with a grin, from the coign of vantage of an ironizing male-gaze present. Haskins's complexly faux dance with belatedness is entirely absent from Westworld or its credit sequence. It is as though Westworld, which is all about the past turning into the future, has no past to ironize (or revere). Game-Worlds, it may be, are too serious to joke about.

But it is hard to believe that either Westworld or its credit sequence could have been constructed without some memory of the cultural dis-ease created, even in 1965, by Haskins's exceedingly sophisticated but arguably exploitative use of naked female bodies. In Haskins's tale, the superbly shot entirely naked Cowboy Kate, after breaking out of jail in the Old West, tracks down the (entirely clothed) male villain responsible for her wrongful arrest, trusses him up, drags him back to justice, all without her nakedness surfacing into explicit diegesis. It seems clear here that Haskins wants to have his cake and eat it, that Cowboy Kate's transgressive presentation of female nakedness is meant to be understood as both "arousingly" vulnerable and empowering; this duplicity, in concert with an ironized estrangement of Western topoi, create a sleight of hand of legitimation: faster than the eye can see a Feminist epic is born. Or not. And we can believe that Kate is free, as free as Dolores and Maeve are about to become. Or not.

Though there is relatively little outright nakedness here, the Westworld credits are a bridge between the unrelenting undress of Cowboy Kate and the almost as unrelenting exposure of one female character in Westworld itself, Maeve (who is played by a woman of colour, while the almost always completely dressed Dolores is played by a white woman: in the second season this is briefly "redressed"). Unlike Dolores, who is usually dressed in her Alice blue gown whenever she is interrogated, Maeve is almost always shown naked under similar circumstances, but fully as indifferent to this circumstance as Kate: which "paradoxically" empowers them both to stare down fully-dressed males, and to dominate them through what might be called naked will (neither is shot as a She figure). Maeve's physical ascent up the 83 levels beneath Westworld is fuelled by her growing self-consciousness (see below), and leaves her capable of leaving: by which token we can look at her. That this all might seem to be an attempt to game Feminist concerns has not escaped notice.

But Maeve does not leave, for she is haunted by memories, which she knows may be false, of her small daughter, who may never have existed, though the next season depends on Maeve ignoring this possibility (and the third twigs our fading memory of the daughter in order to make a plot or two move a bit). Her refusal to depart safely defers until a later season any revelations about the "real world" outside, now more than fifty years into the terrible new century; it may also recognize the continuing importance to Westworld of the figure of an emancipated whole woman (as superbly realized by Thandle Newton). Like every host, Maeve has been provided with a fixed backstory, an Inner Space to hold onto, rather like Pincher Martin, the protagonist of William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956), whose fractal tonguing of a diseased tooth seems to create an island fastness that will save him. The precariousness of the hosts' backstories, including Maeve's, is of a similar order (Martin's fastness is a chimaera presaging death). Ford – who had himself created the backstory engine at the beginning of the Game – has deliberately exposed its frailty through his later rewriting of host programmes to provide them with what he calls "reveries", which provide haunted access to previously overwritten memories of their earlier lives. Maeve's multiplex memories of her past and her daughter, which both torment her and cause her to awaken, are intensified by the fact that, as with all host, her memories are eidetic. When they are shown in Westworld, it is impossible to know if they are in fact memories, or a storyline in the Time Opera, or both. It is even possible the show's makers have intended to reveal at some point that the whole of season one is constructed out of true recovered memories. But this is to assume that they did not learn the lesson of Lost.

It is more interesting to trace Dolores's rather different knight's-move climb to self-consciousness, effected at first through a voice in her head that gives her guidance when her stress is great. Ford explains this auditory conviction to Bernard in terms of Julian Jaynes's theory, as argued in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), that humans did not gain self-consciousness, as we understand the term, until they understood that the voices they heard did not come from the gods at all, but from inside. Ford does not instance Jaynes directly, and (rather acutely: it may be Westworld's only joke) says the theory of the bicameral mind works much better for AIs than it does for humans. Dolores of course is an AI, and when two Doloreses, early and late, talk together person to person in episode ten – the episode as a whole is entitled The Bicameral Mind – there is a frisson of genuine intellectual pleasure when the early "Dolores" disappears, and Dolores becomes us. The Man in Black and maybe Homo sapiens have become obsolete; the labyrinth whose secret he had murdered and maimed to uncover is in reality a map of the unicursal mind talking to itself. Dolores and her kin may improve upon that conversation. Or not. Westworld may now become brave, and new. It does not.

Second Season: Bad Robot/Jerry Weintraub Productions/Kilter Films. Created, part directed and part written by showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, "with" Michael Crichton. Other Season One directors include Jonny Campbell, Richard J Lewis, Michelle MacLaren, Neil Marshall, Vincenzo Natali, Frederick E O Toye, Stephen Williams. Credit sequence directed by Patrick Clair. Other Season One writers include Ed Brubaker, Dan Dietz, Halley Gross, Katherine Lingenfelter, Dominic Mitchell, Daniel T Thomsen, Charles Yu. Cast (all 10 Season Two episodes) includes Ed Harris, Luke Hemsworth, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright. Cast also includes Louis Hertham, Anthony Hopkins, Tallulah Riley, Angela Sarafyan, Eric Shackleford, Jimmi Simpson, Tessa Thompson, Shannon Woodward. Ten 62-minute episodes. Colour.

Though it might be argued that a great deal happens over the course of the second season, it is also exceedingly easy to understand that this direct continuation of the first season narrative arc suffers from the kind of asphyxiating, centripetal claustrophobia that often afflicts ongoing but precarious series whose showrunners are visibly desperate to maintain complete control over events. The second season – which is full of traps within traps, Identity-moults ad libitum, control centres controlling other control centres from beneath and below and within – is pure camp mise en abyme [for Arabian Nightmare see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The real world continues to hide behind further arrases. The vast Edsel-shaped cleft in the rocks that opens the gate to tomorrow (also known as the Sublime) is about as arousing as that great car, and will be referred to only distantly during the Third Season, usually in conjunction with previously-owned threats to Maeve about her safely-Sublimed daughter.

Third Season: Bad Robot/Jerry Weintraub Productions/Kilter Films. Created, part directed and part written by showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, "with" Michael Crichton. Other Season Three directors include Paul Cameron, Anna Foerster, Jennifer Getzinger, Richard L Lewis, Amanda Marsalis, Helen Shaver. Credit sequence directed by Patrick Clair. Other Season Three writers include Gina Atwater, Karrie Crouse, Jordan Goldberg, Matthew Pitts, Denise Thé, Suzanne Wrubel. Main Season Three actors include Vincent Cassel, Ed Harris, Luke Hemsworth, Thandie Newton, Aaron Paul, Tessa Thompson, Evan Rachel Wood,Jeffrey Wright. Cast also includes Louis Hertham, Tallulah Riley, Angela Sarafyan, Eric Shackleford, Jimmi Simpson, Shannon Woodward. Eight 62-minute episodes. Colour.

Almost nothing of the original Westworld will be found in the third season, perhaps because it had served its purpose, which is to say that the viewers of Westworld who had primarily engaged in its complex end-stopped narrative will find little to satisfy them in this second continuation and will find it easy to say why. Indeed some small waves of conflict ruffling the commentariat's perplexity as to why Westworld has essentially disappeared: the set burned down: the set did not burn down, or if it did no matter, as most of the season was filmed elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest loss is something no viewer of the First Season would be likely to think: the greatest loss may be simplicity: for a story was told then that ultimately trusted its viewers enough to make sense: that a complicated but ultimately storyable telling, embedded in multiple intersecting time tracks, eventually unfolded into a tale whose beginning and end could be remembered.

The Los Angeles scenes, which seem to be meant to convey an authentic vision of the future, were shot partly in LA, but also in Singapore, a gesture towards corporation slave-state chic directly influenced by Her. It may be that the dispiriting product-placement car-ad LA that the showrunners seem to claim is the real world revealed at last is simply sponsor-friendly infomercial. The only remotely creditable real world in Season Three is a snatched glimpse of some sepulchral vacancy at the heart of nuked Paris. Everything else and everyone else in the fumigated futures otherwise unpacked here has been pre-gated for owners. [JC]


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