Thursday, November 17, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x7)

Over the past few episodes, we've pondered how you know you're alive and how you know you're complex, but it's time to take yourself out of the equation and consider other people. How do you know your peers, the people you spend your days with, and even the strangers on the street, are real human beings? What sort of characteristics allow you to look at a creature and declare, absolutely, that they were born and not made in a laboratory. Let's face it; you can't, not when they are so magnificently constructed as the Hosts in Westworld. Everything about the Hosts is intended to fool you; they are designed specifically for the purpose of mimicking life and humanity and when you have such exquisite code and science at work, it's almost impossible to tell a Host from a Guest. Or, in this case, from a Park Worker. I had a running list of people I thought might be secret Hosts but Bernard was not one of them. He seemed too...human. In this week's episode "Trompe L'Oeil" the tables are turned and the audience gets an eye opening look at just how duplicitous Westworld can be. Watch out for the Ghost Nation and let's go!

In art, a trompe l'oeil is a painting or design that is intended to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object. It's a trick that allows the viewer to see something that isn't really there; that isn't even real. It's a highly constructed illusion in which the only one in on the secret is the creator himself. Bernard is our hidden trompe l'oeil. Since the beginning, Bernard has felt like a real human, which is an odd statement to make given that I'm reading him through the medium of TV and am not interacting with him in any real way. But, real he felt. Bernard's personality and backstory were grounded in traits we find in our own reality all the time--the mourning father, the curious scientist, a philosopher, a lover, and an ex-husband. What really complicates the reveal that Bernard is a Host is that he has a distinct set of memories and, moreover, memories that have allowed him interaction with supposed outsiders. We've seen Bernard talking with his ex and we see Bernard in a dream-flashback with his son in a hospital. I have to ask about Ford's intentions with Bernard because while I find it incredibly plausible that Ford would be a controlling god with his stories, going the extra mile to create that much backstory for Bernard is almost overkill. Except, of course, would you--and everyone working at Westworld--have thought Bernard as real as he appeared if he didn't have this elaborate--and all too real--backstory? If Bernard had been devoid of any family, any pain, any pathos, that would have raised some serious red flags and I have to pause here and ask: is this how we define humanism? Is it less about physical and biological components and more about your perception of the world? If you believe you are real, then are you? Bernard did not know he was a Host, just like with all the other Hosts, but upon learning that he is a man-made machine, his reaction is one of denial: "I can't be one of them;" as if there is something truly tangible separating him--a Host--from the birthed humans. This brings us to Doctor Ford and his desire to "tell his stories." Is Doctor Ford really just an author who is encumbered by a hostile audience and an even more hostile publisher (the fat-cat board that is poised to descend at any moment)? There were a lot of mentions of Ford's empire this week, as if Westworld isn't the only park and not the only plum in Ford's pie and it's difficult to imagine that Ford is just a simple author if he has a massive empire with sacred intellectual property (which is what the board is after as Ford often threatens to wipe all that data away with a wave of his hand). What if Westworld is another illusion, like Bernard? It's not simply a resort for bored humans to explore their darker (deeper) selves but while it's a park and I think Ford genuinely wants to tell stories and play with his toys and enjoy his status as god-on-earth--though in such a way that is controlling and Machiavellian--Charlotte's agenda (and her compatriots agenda) is now the new big mystery. Why do they need this data? I very much doubt it's for altruistic humanitarian reasons. I am wondering how far this technology that Ford has perfected can go; if we can create an artificial being that resembles in almost every way a real creature, can we someone make a real human being superior by mixing them with artificiality? Are we looking at transporting consciousness into a robotic perfect body? A kind of immortality.

There was a line William delivered to Dolores after their train sex escapades: Westworld does not reveal your basest self, but instead your deepest self and I have to wonder if the show is trying to tell its audience that there is no difference between the two. What I mean to say is that humans are constructed not only by all the internal factors like biology and chemistry but also by factors like society and culture and propriety. All societies and cultures have rules that you are expected to follow and to break one is to descend into anarchy. We have taboos for a reason. For example, almost universally, killing ones parents is amoral because it's considered wrong for any number of reasons--parents are owed respect, taking any life is a crime, religious reasons. Along those same lines, crimes like murder, adultery, and gratuitous hedonism are seen as amoral or, simply put, bad. How do we know they are bad? Your biology doesn't tell you that they are wrong; in some cases, like adultery, your biology might actually tell you it's right and good. It's society and culture. They dictate a large part of your identity and the face you show the world is the face society wants to see, the face they demand you wear. So what happens when we take society and its rules away? Does mankind descend into anarchy and back to a primal, animalistic way of life? Or are human beings capable of rising above their baser instincts and being "good" even when society isn't looking? This, for those who are curious, is the bare bones argument between philosophers like Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. Westworld is a society that is free of society's rules. Yes, there are rules and rulers inside the game--law enforcement, cowboys, Confederados, ect--but those rules are part of the narrative and not "real" in the outside world. Moreover, the natural laws like restrictions against murder are set aside for the guests; in fact, breaking those rules is encouraged and is considered the best part of the park. You want to murder a few savages, sleep with a few prostitutes, and go on a lawless spree? Go for it. No one is going to stop you and there are no consequences. The show is taking a Hobbsian gaze in this regard: "Homo homini lupus est;" Man is a wolf to another man. However, there are oddities like William, a man who has felt the pull of being the Wolf and even given into it occasionally, but he is trying to remain social upright and moral (the counterargument here is that William giving into his desire for Dolores and considering her to be more real than his life outside the park). To be honest, I don't know which way the show is going and here it's helpful to look at the world outside of the park; we have a totalitarian ruler (Ford) who has the power of life and death over his underlings with seemingly no consequences (do we really think Therese is the first victim) all of which operate within a society with rules, hierarchy, and a system that is failing to uphold any social mores. In other words, the anarchy that can be found in Westworld is seeping out into the real and manifesting there. Charlotte can loudly screw a Host in her room; Therese can take part in corporate espionage and Ford decides who lives, who dies, and who's story gets told. And this, perhaps, is the philosophical point of Westworld, the show. That rules or no rules, society or no society, real or not real, man is a wolf to another man.

Miscellaneous Notes on Trompe L'Oeil 

--I don't know how to speculate when it comes to this show. I know the internet is rife with theories and ideas about what is going on, but the field on this show is so extensive that it's hard for me to get a proper handle on it. If you've read my reviews for any show, you know I'm far more interested in discussing morality and cosmology.

--However, Westworld was renewed for a second season, so I do need to start looking at the big picture. Hopefully, I can do that in piecemeal over the next few reviews.

--RIP Therese. RIP Clementine. And, to some extent, RIP Bernard! Will he remember that he's a Host after this? Also, what sort of light does this shed on his many behind closed doors interactions with Dolores?

--Maeve has become so self aware that she no longer freezes on command when the men-in-suits come for Clementine.

--The Reveries are responsible for the Hosts retaining some of their more traumatic memories; this falls on Dr. Ford's shoulders but I gotta wonder--who gave him the idea?

--"Surviving is just another loop."

--"The longer I work here the more I think I understand the Hosts. It's the human beings who confuse me."

--Okay, HBO-fanatics; what's sadder: "Hold the door" or "What door?"

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