Now that we’re a little more than halfway through the first season of Westworld, the project that creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are after is coming into full view. Not only are we seeing the plot take shape (complete with potential multiple timelines and corporate espionage), but we are also getting a sense of the themes that Westworld really cares about. Rather than speculating about potential plot twists and easter eggs, let’s talk about the ideas behind Westworld, and what this science fiction says about our science present.
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One of the most interesting scenes in the second episode, “Chestnut,” is when William (Jimmi Simpson) arrives at the park. He is ushered through the lobby by woman (Talulah Riley) who we quickly learn is herself a robot. This moment very intentionally plants a seed for us: Anyone could be a host. In more recent episodes, we’ve seen subtle hints that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright, above) might be a host as well. The most ominous clue yet came last week when Elsie (Shannon Woodward) said, “You’ve been here forever.” He responds, “Like you said, I have been here forever.”
Automation of jobs is inevitable. But, in our heads, we imagine that this automation will generally be about blue-collar labor: factory work, construction, shipping, and the like. Who’s to say that it won’t eventually pay to automate jobs we consider white-collar? In the Westworld park, the maintenance staff seems human, but advanced scientists and technicians could be robots. As jobs slip into the hands of machines, we have to ask ourselves if there is really any limit to the automation of the workforce.
Image via HBO
In many science fiction narratives about the rise of robots and the apocalyptic downfall of humanity, we assume that robots and humans will face each other on the battle lines. On its surface, the central romance of Westworld, between William and Delores (Evan Rachel Wood, above) feels warm and fuzzy, but becomes incredibly sinister upon second look. In the series’ fifth episode, “Contrapasso,” William chooses Delores over his friend and traveling companion Logan (Ben Barnes). Hosts are deferential to guests because they are ordered to be. If they can override their orders, they are free to act with cold self-interest. Humans, by contrast, are prisoners of their empathy, and are vulnerable to their emotions. When war comes to Westworld in whatever form it will arrive, the robots will likely be united by the same lines of code. The human heart is far less easy to to predict.
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One of the essential themes of any robot narrative is consciousness. The human cycle is a cycle of birth, life, and death. The robot cycle is something different. Often, this is interpreted as immortality. The robot trudges endlessly forward into infinity as long as its gears and widgets will hold it up and rust doesn’t slow it down. Westworld offers a story of life that is a little different. Westworld hosts move through different “roles,” effectively rebooting their lives at the whims of the park staff. Old robots are shipped to a basement to gather dust as memorials to a time when they had a more useful role. At least this was the way it worked before the series arc of Westworld began.
We join Westworld as the hosts are learning to transcend consciousness. As they hold onto the memories of their past lives, they effectively become immortal, as though they are being reincarnated with each change of narrative. With these reincarnations come painful reminders of the past that trigger emotional responses that are beyond human in the depth of anguish they unleash.
Recent episodes of Westworld pair nicely with Black Mirror’s stellar fourth episode this season, “San Junipero.” Both shows contemplate the complex and sometimes harsh realities that would come with immortality. On Westworld, we get the sense that the robots are growing more powerful, but we also see the agony that comes with the ecstasy. As Maeve (Thandie Newton, above) has started to gain greater levels of consciousness, what was once a feint vision of her idyllic life with her child in a cabin has become the vivid, brutal memory of a massacre. Perhaps the most brilliant and painful moment of last Sunday’s episode came when she turned away from the elevator to see that dream as part of a commercial for Westworld.
As we watch the images of her past “life” wash over her, as she takes in visions of a child that was brutally taken from her, but also never really existed, we realize once again something all of us know too well: The truth often hurts. To live numerous truths simultaneously, it turns out, hurts even more.