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Question Club: Westworld threatens to collapse under its endless mysteries

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And a lot more questions we had for each other

Last Sunday, we passed the halftime mark on HBO’s series Westworld, with the airing of episode five of 10 in the first season. The series hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season — HBO’s president of programming says things are “looking really good” for renewal, but they’re still watching the ratings, which have been trending downward after a third-episode high. The initial critical response was solid, though, and the show’s many mysteries kicked off the kind of enthusiastic TV-community buzz that brings in new viewers who want to know why everyone is talking about this show so much.

But does Westworld have the potential to go the distance? Halfway through the first season, two of us decided to check in with each other and consider how we’re feeling about a many-year commitment to naked-robot interrogations, mystery mazes, surreptitious time-jumps, and Ed Harris slaughtering his way through the entire cast.

Westworld promotional still John P. Johnson / HBO

Are you satisfied with the show so far?

Tasha: In retrospect, the series’ slow-burn nature makes a lot of sense, especially given that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have planned for at least five seasons. And given that HBO wants every show to have Game Of Thrones potential for expansion and epic sweep, it makes sense to focus on a sprawling cast and have a lot of storylines going at once. But that said, I’m increasingly distanced from Westworld’s diffuse storytelling, its plodding momentum, its teasing conversations in place of action, and its repetition, especially over the process of AI awakening. It’s a visually striking show, with a convincing cast and a world worth exploring. And I’m engaged with the issues it wants to explore, about how video games expose our darker impulses, and how increasingly realistic games start to feel like invitations to sadism. But Westworld triggers some familiar problems for me — the ones I have whenever a show is more interested in endlessly drawing out mysteries than in telling a specific, immersive, powerful story.

Chris: I guess I should have seen this coming. I’ve always struggled to let go when watching films by the Nolan brothers. The mysteries aren’t bad on their own; I just get lost in the scenes that exist purely to justify and explain the plot gymnastics. You mention how the show feels plodding, but I’m not sure that’s my issue. If anything, it feels too fast, considering its density. I expected a mysterious, violent drama with things to say, but I didn’t expect the television equivalent of a cork board covered in notecards and red yarn. I find Westworld difficult. It’s not emotionally heavy like Mad Men, and I don’t feel challenged when I’m trying to track dozens of characters and motives, like with The Wire. It’s just that I’m not sure what the show wants me to understand, because it works so hard to obfuscate the basics: “Where am I? When is it? Why am I here?” Overall, I’m satisfied, but the lack of clarity could kill my buzz at any moment.

Tasha: The Nolans’ approach rewards endless rewatching. My problem is, I’m not an endless rewatcher. I loved my second and third viewing of The Prestige, where the little performance nuances become clearer, and Memento is fun to revisit, to explore how the pieces fit together. But a TV show is a much bigger time commitment. I’m less interested in the prospect of getting to the end of this season and rewatching 10 hours of TV, looking for the little clues that were hiding in plain sight. I’m glad other people are engaging with the show as if it were an ARG holding the secrets of the universe. But I’d also like evidence that the show is meant to stand on its own as entertainment, and while the first two episodes felt like they were setting up that kind of absorbing, rich story, the subsequent three have been increasingly coy about revealing, as you say, the basics: “What do these characters want? How are they trying to achieve those goals? Why should I be engaged with what they’re doing?”

What thread are you most hoping to see pay off?

Tasha: There’s a lot going on in Westworld right now: The Man In Black and Teddy are on their quest for the Maze, Dolores is using William to pursue some hidden agenda involving Arnold’s programming, and Maeve is undergoing her own awakening. And those are just the biggest plotlines. Dolores’ story feels especially erratic to me: is it about how her experiences are letting her transcend her programming, or how Dr. Ford’s new innovations are letting her become sapient, or how Arnold’s old programming is surfacing and sending her off on a secret mission? The answer to that question seems to change every 10 minutes. Doctor Ford’s agenda seems equally self-contradictory: one moment he seems rhapsodic about sapient robots, and the next, he’s sneering at the anthropomorphic sensibilities of an employee who draped a cloth over a naked bot. (C’mon, Ford. Maybe that employee just doesn’t want to stare at bot-peen all day. And that scene would have been much more interesting if we’d known what was going through the employee’s mind, instead of using his behavior as a platform for Ford’s hectoring.)

Personally, I’m more interested in what’s going on behind the scenes at Westworld than in any storyline taking place on the ground. We got just a few hints in the debut episode about “management” and its secret agenda for Westworld as a whole. (Shades of HBO’s late, lamented series Carnivale, where the nature and intentions of “management” were a running theme.) At the moment, that seems like the real story to me, and the ones going on inside the park — including the Man In Black’s tedious killing spree and Dolores’ fetch-quest — feel more like just another story on rails, another pre-programmed part of the game.

Chris: I agree with you about what’s happening behind the scenes. I’m especially curious about Bernard, and whether he’s a robot. An increasingly popular theory among Reddit folks and podcasters supposes that Bernard is actually a robotic clone of Arnold, and that when we see him interviewing Dolores, that’s actually Arnold in the past, before his tragic end. I’ll go a step further and predict that Dolores will kill Arnold, ending their late-night conversations, and that this murder will explain Ford’s distrust of artificial intelligence, and why Dolores is locked in such a grim loop.

Speaking of Dolores, I’m breaking the rules here, but I am so curious about her place in time. Rather than ramble on, I’ll just link my most recent piece, theorizing about what’s going on with her story.

Is the sex and violence astute commentary, gratuitous pandering, or both?

Chris: I want to say both, but I’ll be damned if HBO isn’t determined to have one moment in each episode that has me second-guessing myself. I think the idea of the robots being nude so that employees see them as objects, and don’t project humanity upon them, is fascinating, but more often than not, the nudity is distracting. Not in an erotic way — God, this might be the least sexy show on television — but in a logistical way. Thandie Newton’s brothel-manager Maeve Millay spent so much time nude on the operating table in episode five that I wondered whether the producers bothered to cast a prop body, instead of paying her to lie supine and exposed for hours on end, while two character actors push through their D-story about a robot bird.

As for the violence, the show is over-the-top, but after Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead, I feel utterly desensitized. If anything, the violence pulls me out. The eviscerations just make me think “How did they make organic robots?” and then I need to rewind, because my brain wandered.

Tasha: I’m so used to HBO’s tits-n-butts-n-blood-n-guts aesthetic that nothing in Westworld really registered as meaningfully excessive until the orgy scene, and that only hit home because it was so utterly pointless, so willfully, obviously gratuitous. We knew it was coming because of all the 2015 news about a ridiculous casting call that demanded extras who were willing to submit to “genital-to-genital touching” and a long list of silly, not-sexy behaviors. And the reality looks about as hilariously artificial as that casting call sounded. The entire sequence is so performative, so unsexual, and so strained that it took me out of the story as much as the violence has been taking you out. It doesn’t fit in the setting — a gritty Old West edge-of-frontier outlaw town where virtually everyone just happens to be young, beautiful, clean, and dressed up like they’re at a Victorian costume ball? It’s also flat and completely lacking in the energy of lust, daring, fun, or even glee at breaking taboos. That sequence made sex look boring, more about posing and prancing than intimacy, passion, or even animal satisfaction.

Which is pretty much how I feel about a lot of Westworld’s more elaborate violence — the scalping, the sawing off of heads, the piling up of floppy bleeding corpses. It’s so conscious about confronting the audience that it becomes boring. For you, it raises the question “How did they make organic robots?” For me, it’s “How do they make this messy, repetitive, predictable process cost-effective?”

Image: HBO

Does the show intend to answer even a quarter of its questions?

Chris: I changed my mind on this question after reading Joanna Robinson’s “Unlocking Westworld” explainer at Vanity Fair. Originally, I thought there was no way the show would bother to answer most of its questions, and that some cataclysmic event would obliterate the park, and the next season would take place in Romanworld, or what have you. But now I believe the show is a actually two shows: the first is about the early days of this park, and the second a sequel, set decades in the future, and focused on the solution of the park’s greatest puzzle. And all of the “mysteries” are “artificial” thanks to the Nolan-esque decision to be intentionally unclear about the chronology of events. Which, I think is fun? I am curious if I’d enjoy this show more if the events were in order. I think I might.

Tasha: If all the fan theories about time disjunction turn out to be right, I’ll be disappointed in the show’s direction, because it feels like more effort is going into obfuscation than into storytelling. I’m with you — I’d rather have the show lay out the timelines and move between them, because there’s so much opportunity there for meaningful parallels, for showing how one set of events informed the next. If the creators really are going for a big “The Man In Black is William!” reveal, they’ve already had their thunder stolen by the internet’s endless supply of decoders, podcasters, and theory-spinners. Why not take advantage of the timelines to tell the richest possible story, instead of banking so much on the internet not catching them at their game?

Do you care about any of the characters?

Chris: For all the reasons you mentioned, and others, no, I don’t care about any of the characters. But I can’t decide if my apathy is rooted in the storytelling, or my skepticism about the humanity of every person we meet. What if they're all immortal robots? My brain just isn’t wired to care, which I understand in the context of the show is capital-w Wrong. I get that, with each episode, I should be questioning my personal beliefs about what constitutes life, and what ethical obligation I have to worry about the suffering of artificial intelligence. I get that this television show may well turn into the AI equivalent of Animal Liberation.

But now, in the moment, I feel mentally unequipped to deeply connect with robots. And the show’s loopy narrative structure is convincing me to suspect everyone is artificial. That said, here’s the weird question that rattles around my brain: all of the characters are fake. They’re fictional beings, created by a writer and a director and actors. So if I know none of this is real, why do I care whether a character I’m following is human or a bot? Why am I okay with one form of artificiality, but not another?

Tasha: Maybe because the show still hasn’t fully established what it might mean for an AI to achieve full sapience, so we aren’t equipped yet to see the show’s bots as nearing humanity. Maybe there’s an Uncanny Valley for emotional intelligence, as well as for visual stimulus. But it’s also hard to connect with characters when the show is constantly hinting that none of them are what they appear to be. I think there’s an instinct to hold back on connecting to characters that are constantly rearranging their agendas, especially in a series this committed to flipping the script. We don’t want to get tricked — “You liked William? Ha! Fooled you! He turns into the murdering rapist Man In Black. You liked Bernard? Ha! Gotcha, he’s just a bot copying a real person and operating on a decades-old program. You liked Maeve? Nyah nyah, she’s actually just a slightly retrofitted version of that robo-sparrow the tech keeps messing with!” We can’t commit to standing on ground that keeps shifting.

That aside, Westworld has made such an effort to dehumanize its bot characters that it’s hard to engage with them as people. We’re supposed to empathize with them because they have such terrible lives, being raped, murdered, and then mind-wiped and patched up for the next round. But after seeing them lying around deactivated and full of bloody holes, it’s harder to believe in their subjective reality, even when that emotional distance makes us more like William’s reprehensible future brother-in-law Logan. I think we’re meant to engage with our lack of sympathy, and interrogate what we care about, and why. But the show is working against itself there: its graphic, confrontational dehumanizing imagery is more convincing than its abstract questions about humanity.

All that said, I realize that I do care about one of the characters: Behavioral Department grunt Elsie, who’s consistently ignoring orders and digging into Westworld’s mysteries, even though her bosses keep telling her to knock it off. For me, she’s the audience avatar, grumbling through all the distractions and trying to Get Shit Done. I enjoy her no-nonsense attitude, her courage, and her competence, and I enjoy the way those qualities actually let her move the story forward. Dolores gets trippy confrontations with her imaginary self, and voices in her head, and a hall-of-mirrors approach to who and what she is. Elsie gets to smack a necro-fetishist tech upside the head with blackmail, cut open a corpse’s arm, and throw the bloody evidence of a secret plot onto her boss’ desk. So far, she’s my hero.

What will the show have to do to keep you engaged for another four years?

Tasha: There’s a grand plan at work here, and like so many shows with big multi-year arcs in mind, Westworld is prioritizing the big picture over the current story. But as with so much long-arc TV, it might turn out to be more rewarding in a few years, once we have a better idea of the scheme of things. What does it need to do to keep you coming back? I’ll give you a few ideas off my wish list: I’m ready for the show to stop gently edging toward bot awareness, and commit to it. I’m ready for the behind-the-scenes conflict hinted at in the debut episode to start having an effect on the park, with factions openly forwarding their agendas, instead of (for instance) Ford and Bernard both having philosophical conversations with Dolores. I’d like QA head Theresa, teased as a significant political force in episode 1, then demoted (unconvincingly) to Bernard’s lover, to come roaring back with an agenda and a plan. And I’d like to focus on some of the series’ many neglected threads, and stop introducing new elements that make very little sense, like the existence of an entire tribe of natives who apparently know about Westworld’s overlords, and worship them, and are permitted to walk around pointing at the fourth wall. In general, I’m ready for real, meaningful conflict, with bigger stakes than the question of which bots get shot in a storyline, and then promptly come back in a different one.

Chris: Yes, all of the above! One thing I’ll add: I hope the show leaves the park. I know, I know. Fiction like this should never leave the park. Jurassic Park should have stayed on the island. Jason should never have visited Manhattan, or gone to space. But so many of the questions this show raises about artificial intelligence would benefit from a degree of context the park simply can’t provide, since it operates in a vacuum, as an escape from… well, we don’t really know.

We’ve heard that the outside world is now free of disease and trouble, but I have so many questions: does poverty remain? What about overpopulation? And why are people visiting Westworld when they have VR tanks? I would be shocked if we don’t see other theme parks in the next few seasons, if not by the end of this one. And those will undoubtedly be fun in their own way. But real stakes benefit from a real world. That’s the place I most want to visit.