Friday, April 14, 2017

Westworld

10 episodes, HBO

 As Toasty said in his review show creator Jonathan Nolan "has a theme he wants to explore".  Like his series Person of Interest before it, Westworld is about artificial intelligence, their awakening, and their relationship with humanity.  While PoI looked at it from the most human perspective, championing AI as both subservient tool and omniscient God, but also as a product of how it was designed and who helped it to learn.  Westworld, on the other hand, doesn't so much have a point of view on this as toy with the idea of perspective.  We are destined to create artificial consciousness, or so the show posits, but just how conscious will these beings be?  Characters in the show ponder the idea of humanity of  the "hosts" of a sprawling western-themed theme park, but the show rarely spends time on this idea.  It presents to the audience the idea that the hosts are constructs imitating humanity almost perfectly, but also that they're capable of being so much more than human.  As such we can never look upon them as people, at least, not until "people" in the show are revealed to be them.  Ahem, *spoiler*.

Westworld is a flat-out amazing experience.  It's a sci-fi tv-show with movie-level production values.  With most genre TV shows you're often all too aware of the difference in visual quality and confidence in effects, as much slimmer budgets and production time frames cut corners in telling their stories.  Decisions about how the story is told and what happens often are affected by budget concerns.  Westworld is a rare show, outside TV animation, that seems to be doing exactly what it wants to do at all times and has a budget to support it.  Even Game of Thrones, which has an exceptionally high budget for television, still often visually feels like a mid-tier genre film than an all-out blockbuster.

Production value, however, doesn't make a show on its own (just look at Emerald City).  Westworld fires on all cylinders beyond this regard: it has a phenomenal score, a plethora of great, fearless actors (the amount of casual nudity required is astonishing on its own), and genuinely consumable hook. Like the best binge TV, this one keeps drawing you back in at the end of each episode.  It's one of the many offspring of Lost (and one of the better done ones), asking questions and only providing answers once two more questions are asked.  The first one is, quite clearly, "what is going on here?"  It takes a solid two episodes for the audience to find some grounding sense of the world and its sprawling cast, and even once that's established there a constant sense of questioning motivation as well as reality.

Westworld is a story featuring artificial intelligence, but to me it seems much more a story told about perception, and how we as an audience perceive the world of the show.  It's our perception versus how the hosts perceive things, versus how the humans of the show perceive things, all of which are different.  In the show, characters are forced to rely upon themselves for their understanding of their world, we have to rely upon the storytellers, and what the storytellers give us from practically moment one is an unsettling, ever-shifting foundation upon which reality is built.  In how these characters come to understand their world, we too come to understand it, and look upon it as we look upon ourselves.  The conceit of Westworld is it's a fantasyland, a place to escape reality and fulfill your greatest desires, which could be benign or abhorrent.  Anything goes, and it's all "okay" because these aren't real people you're inflicting your sickest, basest instincts upon.  They don't really think, feel, or remember.  But, as the show notes, what can be most hurtful is what your actions reveal about yourself.


And that whole "the don't really think, feel, or remember" is the great deception of the show, one which is still up for debate by the first season's end.  The hosts are shown thinking, reacting, emoting, remembering, caring, exhibiting fear, anger and despair, and yet it's still just programming, it's still code.  Its veracity must be called into question.  Even the concept that the hosts are capable of improvising and growing and remembering is still undermined by the fact that they have to be allowed to do so.

In ten episodes we learn some truths about Westworld as a destination, we learn some truths about its makers and its owners and its hosts.  We see behind the curtain is another curtain, and behind that curtain yet another.  Even episode ten, which draws back multiple curtains, reveals yet another curtain, with the skirts of more curtains peeking out from behind.  It's all perception.

The most important aspect is how we, the viewer, watch the show.  What the show wants to make abundantly clear to us is that divide between humans and hosts.  When the hosts are brought in for maintenance, they're stripped of their clothing, naked (but in a sense, covered, since their skin is yet another fabrication).  It's a symbolic gensture for the humans, a sign of power and dominance.  That the hosts who start to "awaken" to their reality still feel human feelings around the events that occur to them (beatings, killings, rapes and the odd moment of human kindness) still smacks of insincerity.  The unending torture of their existence only has relevance because of the programming that allows it any significance.  As they become aware, the stock in false feelings should lower, and yet it becomes even more exacerbated.  Ideas like vengeance are far too human to originate from a robot.  And yet, the actors are so good at their job.  At one point I was feeling a sense of sadness at the death of Clifton Collins Jr.'s Lawrence, only to have him turn up at the next scene in a completely different story thread.  That we know this is the show's reality, a Lazarus society of beings repeatedly brought back from the dead, still doesn't lessen the various journeys we take with them.  The genius of the hosts is that they're able to exhibit the emotions but we're the ones who project and empathize with them on a base level, logic be damned. It's the ones that don't connect in the show who seem to be the monsters.  And yet, are they.  Are they monsters for not succumbing to the belief that fake beings are human?  Yet another of the show's wonderful quesitons.

I was reading a review that felt the show was too decompressed, that it didn't progress quickly enough and it belabored some of its points.  I think watching the show week-to-week versus binge watching (as I did) and getting caught up in speculation and debate draws from the show's concept of perception and reality.  Having too much time to think about the questions its posing leads to a greater desire for answers.  I felt in binging that I maybe wanted even more time, particularly in the 9th and 10th episodes which seemed to drop revelations like lead cannonballs as it barrelled towards its finishing arc, while in the background it cleverly seeded more and more and more puzzling questions.  It even managed to use some slight of hand in ignoring the disappearance of certain cast members as it provided first season denouement.  There's always more than meets the eye, despite what it wants you to think.

Westworld is an exceptionally stimulating show, especially in hindsight.  It weaves a very careful story that requires complete coordination between actors, directors, editors, and likely every other department on the show.  Going back to it a second time, I'm sure would prove even more revealing, knowing the answers that you know, and maybe even finding new questions you didn't even think to ask.