Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x1 and 1x2)

Are you real? How do you know? That seems like a fairly rhetorical question, doesn't it. You are real because you are sitting at your computer or on your phone reading these words, understanding these words and having some sort of emotional and intellectual response to them. Maybe you're rolling your eyes; maybe you're intrigued and maybe you're arguing back at me already. You can also define your individual realness by virtue of your anatomy and biological responses. You are breathing (I hope) and blinking. Your eyes are moving and your synapses are firing. You can define your realness in terms of the present (you are reading this review), your past (maybe you've read my reviews in the past) and your future (you will continue to read my reviews. Thanks, by the way). In other words, your memories, your biology, your emotions, your intelligence, and your general understanding of what life is all indicate to you that you are a real person. Congratulations. Now what if I told you that you were a highly developed machine capable of near perfect human imitation with no idea that you were an artificial intelligence. Would you still be able to tell if you were real if you, the AI, had a set of memories, had biological responses to stimuli, had emotions and intelligent thought? Would you now fear for the end of you life? And if you're not real to begin with, can your existence actually end? Welcome to Westworld, a place where biological humans with enough cash and gumption can strap on a pair of spurs, a cowboy hat and mingle with robotic hosts unaware of their robotness. Here you can kill, fuck, and play to your hearts content because the objects of your desire are just that--objects not subjects. Grab a tall hat and a gun and let's go!

I had no intentions of reviewing another show this fall but that human spark inside me that wants to analyze and talk and discuss interesting aspects of media and its intersection with culture just won't let me pass this one by. I want to say up front that if you haven't caught the first two episodes of HBO's new Westworld, you absolutely should. Like the Matrix series, I suspect you'll end up questioning your entire existence and reality by the time the credits roll at the end of episode two. Because this is a two-in-one episode review, I'm going to dive right in with the analysis of both episodes, "The Original" and "Chestnut" and skip over any sort of plot set up. That's boring anyways, right? I thought the second episode was actually better than the first. The series premiere was a nice wide look at the entire structure of the show, from the theme park of Westworld and its rules, to the behind the scenes corporation and players who build said amusement park. Width is great because the entire episode could have really been cliche by pretending to be a “cowboy” show and then only panned back to let the audience in on the secret at the very end, but since this is a remake and the conceit is already heavily known, the show did the smart thing and looked at the whole picture right off the bat. What that didn’t allow for, however, was much depth at any one character or story. You get a general idea of who some people are. And who they are common science-fiction archetypes : Dolores is the girl next door and by episode end seems to be glitching; Teddy is the romantic lead who flits in and out of the heroine's life but appears to have a heart of gold; there’s a literal man in black who not only spends his days raping, murdering, and trying to “beat” the game (maybe?) but is also the most self-aware being in the fictional universe, knowing the rules and gamebook before the rest of the players even realize there's a game to be played. Behind the scenes, there’s the aging and maybe eccentric director, the programmer who is more interested in consciousness of machines than he ought to be, the temperamental writer/artist, and the cold and collected head of security. Lot of cliches, but again that’s fine for a season premiere where width is more important than depth.

Episode two did a lot to begin exploring the depth aspect, especially given that episode one ends by peeling away Dolores’s good girl shtick and exploring her realness, if such a term can be applied to an AI. And that’s the point of the show, right? Episode two nicely lays out the entire thesis statement in a pretty blatantly textual way: “Are you real?” “Well if you can’t tell, does it matter?” This isn’t exactly fresh in the sci-fi world and the show seemingly has little interest in being original. And that’s not a criticism! There is so much to explore right now with robotics, the idea of reality/realities, what exactly makes a person a person and how “real” human beings are using “non real” surrogates to play out their deepest darkest fantasies. The nihilism exhibited by the Man in Black is both a cautionary tale for the audience and a red flag to a reality we're already living in. The corollary to the above mentioned thesis statement is that “suffering is when you’re most real” which I think holds up nicely for our current political, economic, cultural, and social climate and out attempts at escapism with any sort of numbing agent, even if we don't have a fully furnished theme park like Westworld (yet). It also holds up with the main character of Dolores. Her introduction sees her as almost bland–she’s the good girl next door who is prime for a big sweeping romance. Her life is the same day to day, a series of moves that have been programmed into her, along with her defining characteristics: a good daughter, a good lover, and a future good wife. Bland, flat and boring. Where she really comes alive (and major–MAJOR–props to the actress Evan Rachel Wood for her incredibly layered and nuanced portrayal during this scene) is in a scene that comes across as psychological torture–the question and answer session of episode one. She admits to being terrified and still she’s asked extremely hard questions about the nature of her world, her life, and her own identity without her AI self having any real understanding, at least yet, of what those heavy words (identity, selfhood, life, reality) even mean! Artificial intelligence and the exploration of its consciousness is certainly not revolutionary but it is interesting as hell.

Possibly the most fascinating two characters at present are the highly self aware creator, Director Ford, and the gunslinger known only as the Man in Black who has been given free reign of the park, a privilege he puts to good use by way of gruesome murders and stomach-dropping rapes. These two are playing off each other; one the creator and god, the other the destroyer and devil, at least on the surface. With regards to Director Ford, it’s interesting that he presents himself both in the park and in his business as…god-like for wont of a better word. He mentions to Bernard something about the perils of playing god and in the park with the young Host he says that everything is magic, except to the magician while, quite literally, controlling the creation around him to suit his own ends. I don’t know if this makes him a “bad” guy (whatever that might mean on this show) or not. It’s worth pointing out that the manifestation of his plans have a religious bent, the show focusing on the structure with the cross. If I had to guess, I’d he’s become disillusioned with “real” people–why else would anyone go to that amount of effort and trouble to create such realistic AI’s if not because they find the real world and its people so repugnant? Ford’s the one who has given all the updates to make the Hosts more realistic; the little human touches like caressing one’s lips that appear to cause the initial breakdown. Is he trying to set up his own human race and declare himself its god? I suspect there’s more nuance to it than that, but that’s all I got so far. As for our Randall Flagg, our very own Man in Black, he claims to have been coming to the park for 30 years so is his carte blanche simply a reward for such loyal services or does he know something that gives him all access? Why is he so bent on finding the “maze”? Has he grown bored with what Westworld can offer? He seems to know every single story; how it plays out, the characters and all the twists in the stories. Is this the ultimate thrill for him, the untold story (lord help me) that he’s never been able to crack? Also, what do we make of his behavior in regards to what it means to be alive and be human? He is obviously real in the sense that he has blood and DNA from two biological humans but is he really “human” in the non literal and abstract sense? He's more of the monster in a nightmare; he’s the dark mirror that is held up to humanity–here be dragons sort of metaphor for what happens when humans are allowed to give into their darkest and deepest desires. Is he what happens when humans can have it all and develop a pressing ennui to their good fortune? God help us all then.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Original and Chestnut 

--Visitors to Westworld are asked to choose either a white hat or a black hat which is just a bit too on the nose.

--"These violent delights have violent ends." So in other words, things are going to get worse?

--Every Host has had multiple lives which are resurfacing. These memories range from violence to love.

--Evan Rachel Wood is knocking it out of the park as Dolores, especially when she is questioned by her makers. The way her eyes un-focus and somehow manage to look beyond the camera and even beyond you is chilling.

--So how do we define life?

--I might do this every week or every other week. But I look forward to reviewing this really complex and thought provoking show!

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