Westworld broadens the story while commenting on it

Posted on October 17, 2016


Westworld, season 1, episode 3: “The Stray”


“It’s about change. Seems to be a common theme.”

Dolores says that to Bernard, when he asks for her thoughts on the “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” passage she just read. And while Dolores perceptively notes that Bernard seems to have an obsession with the concept, her line also serves as meta-commentary for the entire Westworld series. It’s about change.

Two things about that:

1. Westworld has a tendency to go meta a little too much, so while Dolores is commenting on Bernard’s preference for reading material, she’s also making a comment about the story in which she and Bernard are characters.

2. Every story is about change, when you get right down to it, which means either the show doesn’t understand how broad a concept “change” is or the show is being once again a little cheeky and meta. In other words, “It’s about change” is one of those anodyne, catch-all literary assessments that almost anyone could make about any story. It’s a practically meaningless observation. For Dolores to make it it indicates the limitations of her perceptions even in a scene that’s all about how perceptive she’s becoming.

Let’s unpack this for a second. Westworld, with its constant discussion of “narrative” and “storylines” for the various robot hosts of the titular theme park, is a story about storytelling. A sinister rumination on the innate cruelty of narrative; the way it sometimes gleefully indulges in the very worst behavior humans have to offer while maintaining a remove from it that allows the people involved (storyteller and audience) to engage with it guilt-free. Reading about rape and murder isn’t the same thing as raping and murdering, after all. Even if the reader gets a thrill from reading about such acts, it’s not considered morally questionable for her to do so, much in the same way the guests at Westworld are free to engage in such acts but removed from any moral concerns because there are no “real” people involved in them.  It’s a story about characters who don’t know they’re mere characters, even as they’re struggling to understand that and become more; even as they fight for a freedom they can’t yet articulate. So yes, Westworld is about “change” and “storytelling” on the surface, but with Dolores’ observation and all that it implies, it’s also about how dangerous and painful the process of change can be. Dolores’ awakening as a conscious being is happening because her hundreds of rapes and deaths have started piling up in what serves as a brain for her. As with Maeve’s awakening last week, it’s her pain that is causing her to achieve consciousness. Pain, the show seems to be saying, is what makes us human. Bernard, talking about his dead son: “This pain is all I have left of him.”

And again, because Westworld loves to state its subtext, we have the head “storyteller,” Dr. Ford, demonstrating this fact by taking a scalpel to a non-responsive host’s face and slashing it open as a way of reminding an employee to not mistake them for people. But Ford, like so many storytellers, is loaded with contradictions. He makes it clear in almost all his interactions with other people that it’s of the utmost importance to him that no one mistakes the robot hosts for anything other than the appliances they are. He admonishes Bernard to not make the same mistake Ford’s mysterious dead partner Arnold once made, implying that the man killed himself because of some sort of confusion as to the nature of the hosts’ consciousness or lack thereof. And yet, it was his “reveries” that appear to have unlocked the memories of the hosts, setting this current chain of events off and causing multiple hosts to start evolving. And when he sits Teddy down to finally give him a backstory (the purported lack of which finally explains the blandness of James Marsden’s performance), he appears to be flirting with the idea of testing the boundaries both of the story and of the characters in it.

The story of Teddy’s nemesis, Wyatt is, we’re told by Ford, like all good stories, “rooted in truth.” And when Teddy relates the tale of Wyatt, it’s a story about a man who disappears into the wilderness and comes back with some “pretty strange ideas” about the world he lived in. According to Teddy, Wyatt claimed he could hear the voice of God and that the land they lived on didn’t belong to the settler or the natives, but to “something that had yet to come.” All of this tends to imply the reality of the situation the hosts are in and also tends to track almost exactly with the story of the late, mysterious Arnold. Dr Ford the storyteller is going meta in his storytelling, just as Dolores has gone meta in her observations about storytelling.

That makes for some fun stuff to wade through on a thematic and analytical level, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the clearest and cleanest way to unfold things for a new series. When we reviewed the pilot episode a few weeks back, we had one main critique that still remains true for the show: It’s going very wide, but not very deep.  As noted, “change” isn’t the most original story theme in the world and “pain makes us human” isn’t the most insightful observation. While the idea of emerging consciousness is a fascinating one and several of the storylines around this idea (most notably Dolores’ and Maeve’s) are some of the best part of the series, the various Lost-style mysteries (Did we or did we not hear something that sounded like a facacta smoke monster out in the desert?) and the sheer overload of subplots is making us a little impatient.

It’s not that the story needs to move any quicker than it is right now. The emergence of consciousness is an idea that needs some time to unfold and room to breathe and we think that aspect of the story is progressing near-perfectly. It’s all the other stuff, from Bernard’s dead son, to the Hemsworth brother and the Ellen Page knockoff flirting with each other, to the various workplace storylines about the concerns of “the board” and the conflicts between various departments that tends to dull our senses. In addition, there’s still a problem with the way the story can’t seem to envision a perspective that isn’t that of a heterosexual male. The women hosts are literally either virgins to be raped or whores to be bought. The male hosts are either brainless or outrageously violent. And the guests all have the exact same “tits and guns” fantasies – even the female ones. The only women guests we’ve seen have been wifely characters standing behind their gun-toting husbands or women who indulge in the exact same shooting and whoring fantasies of the male guests. There was a brief and extremely subtle nod last week to the idea that some guests might want to have sex with male hosts, but for the most part, the world of Westworld is somewhat embarassingly limited in its view of human behavior and the range of human desires. Given that the show is ostensibly about the human experience and what it means to become one, that strikes us as a near fatal flaw.



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