[TV] Westworld – Tracing Decay


This post is a second attempt at discussing Westworld. The first can be found here. This post has full-season spoilers for the first season of Westworld

My previous piece on Westworld felt inadequate and I really should have seen that coming. In retrospect, it was pretty naive of me to assume that I could discuss everything I wanted to, while still studiously avoiding spoilers. The end result was that the last post ended up being half-hearted and incomplete. While I still stand by everything I said in it, the post offered little beyond simply identifying what the interesting elements of the show were. This week’s post is a return to Westworld, with the intention of setting those wrongs right.

In case you missed the by-line above, this post has spoilers. Not light, early-in-the-season spoilers – real spoilers, you know, the ones that can actually ruin your enjoyment of the show. Consider this fair warning, there won’t be a second.

The post is going to be structured into two halves, roughly speaking. In the first part, we’re going to talk about the surface level of show. That includes things like acting performances, special effects, story-telling techniques and plot construction. There will certainly be some level of overlap with what was mentioned last week, but I hope to add a lot more in terms of detail. The second half will deal more with ideas and themes – elements that I believe made Westworld a little more engaging and thought-provoking than your typical sci-fi thriller. I tend to be rather hit-or-miss when discussing abstract ideas, but I do find them interesting regardless, and hope you do too.

Section 1

The Harshest Mistress

One of the things that I was dying to talk about in the first post was the way Westworld uses non-linear storytelling. Before we talk about non-linear storytelling as it was used in Westworld, a short discussion on non-linear storytelling in general is in order. There is certainly validity to the claim that non-linear storytelling can come across as gimmicky when poorly executed; at its very worst, it can butcher an otherwise excellent story by making the actual progression of events difficult to comprehend without adding anything in return. That is perhaps one of the greatest risks of using the technique – yes, it adds a degree of complexity to the story and when done well can add tension to the story, but the there is a risk of introducing complexity just for the sake of it. You don’t really want the audience to spend so much time piecing together what is actually going on that they end up being too preoccupied to appreciate the story itself.

The most prominent example of multiple timeframes in Westworld is, of course, the Man-In-Black (MIB) and William’s storylines. There are other examples though; the timeframe of Arnold’s suicide-by-AI, William’s quest for the Maze after murdering Maeve and her daughter, and several others. The number of timelines and the nonlinear nature of the plot make putting it all together in order a real challenge, and I’m pretty sure that that was the point. If that’s all that there was to the whole multiple timeframes concept in Westworld, I doubt it would have left as much of an impact on me as it did, since non-linear storytelling, while relatively uncommon and difficult to pull off, is hardly revolutionary. However, the more you think about it, the more you realize that it meshes very well with the way some of the story’s key ideas.

For instance, Dolores’ struggle with telling the past and the present apart is critical to the story told in the first season. Yet, it is a struggle that is very difficult to illustrate in a visual medium, or even in a purely verbal one. The issue with Dolores is that she is sort of temporally disoriented but the viewer is not. The inability to not tell the past and the present apart is not something that an audience can instinctively empathize with – a point that I will return to in a later section. However, since audience empathy is critical to any storytelling – linear or not – the multiple timeframes allows the audience to see the world the way Dolores does, which paves the way for better understanding. To the audience, just as in Dolores’ mind, William and the MIB are different people for most of the season, which makes the final revelation such a punch to the gut. The decision to split the series into these different timeframes was an ambitious one, especially since William’s actions are catalysts for several other characters’ storylines.

At the same time however, I’m a little more reserved in my enthusiasm for the multiple timeframes. I feel that the plot dragged on a little too long in the middle of the story, just in order to make the reveal that much more impactful when it happened. The way I see it, the story needed to established both the MIB and William as distinct characters before revealing that they were the same person and as a direct consequence of that necessity, we ended up following the MIB on this wild goose chase through the outer rim of the park when the ‘answer’ he was looking for lay with the character he met in the series’ first scene. Furthermore, while I do agree that the whole nonlinear storytelling was put to good use in this season, I would not like to see it return in the next. A certain portion of the fun of watching Westworld was in putting the sequence of events together but that process is also a tedious one and introduces an artificial difficulty to understanding the plot – simply put, Westworld is not telling a complicated story in the simplest possible way but rather that it is telling a relatively simple story in an especially complicated, arguably more interesting, way.

The 12 Minute Oscar

Westworld is a character-driven story at its core. While the overall plot of the robot uprising is interesting enough, I doubt that I’m alone in suggesting that it’s far from the centrepiece of the series. Anyone old enough to watch the series is also old enough to know that the uprising was coming from the first scene of the first episode. What I found particularly interesting however, was that I didn’t think it was meant to be a character driven piece, but rather that it ended up being one by the sheer strength of some of the performances. I gushed plenty about Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood in the previous post, and certainly, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton deserve inclusion as well, but the performances as a whole merit further inspection just for the way they stole the show away from a frankly lacklustre setting.

Let’s put it another way. Before you watched the show, if I had told you that Westworld had ‘robotic’ characters that were more human than the human characters, I wonder how many of you would have just rolled your eyes and made comments about Wall-E. Yet, the performances in the series were good enough to make you forget that the characters you’re looking at are robots – which means that when you see the terrible circumstances that they are regularly placed in, the empathy you feel is instant and powerful. Granted, a good portion of that comes from the fact that they look human, but in certain cases, like Maeve with her daughter, the results are palpable. There is something about the robots playing artificial roles (parent-child, husband-wife, etc) with a very human earnestness than makes them particularly sympathetic and the performances of a cast play no small part in that. It’s not just about making the audience wince when the ‘human’ characters consistently display an absolute lack of empathy, either. Each of the actors is capable of superb range; Evan Rachel Wood would have to play a self-aware Dolores, pretending to be a meek farm girl, for instance while Anthony Hopkins must appear – within a single scene – to be vulnerable, menacing, grandfatherly and dispassionate.

As a huge Anthony Hopkins fan, I’ll fully admit to being biased but I do think that apart from him, the best performances belong to the actors playing robot characters. Jeffrey Wright as Bernard played the introverted human just well enough that it was easier to think that he was just a shy, slightly awkward human male than to think that he was a robot who actually lacked the full range of human emotion. So much of the ‘robotic’ acting is doing through facial features and line delivery too; during all those scenes in which the robots are in ‘analysis’ mode, it takes a great deal of effort and talent to convey the emotions despite the deadpan face. Each scene in the ‘analysis’ mode ran a risk of the audience losing its emotional engagement with the robotic characters; after all, it’s hard to feel bad for the robots when you realize that they aren’t human. Yet, the actors’ performances made the ‘analysis’ mode seem like a prison – it displayed to the audience just to what degree the robots were under human control – than it probably ended up enhancing the audience’s connection to the characters. Of course, there are some weaker performances, even if they are not egregiously so. Jimmi Simpson’s performance as William was pretty unremarkable as James Marsden’s turn as Teddy was – which is fair enough given that neither character is all that interesting for most of the season.  On the other hand, characters like Hector and Armistice were very enjoyable to watch but felt really under utilized.

In summation though, the best evidence for the strength of the acting is that it is able to keep the audience’s attention focused on the present. In a show like Westworld, where a number of the twists can be seen coming from a good distance off, that doesn’t just make the show more entertaining, it also is critical to its success in delivering its narrative pay-off. If equating the stellar acting from some of the series’ heavyweights to simple distraction somehow feels insulting, then I think you’ve probably summed up how the cast themselves felt when first presented with the premise of the show.

Handwaving the cracks over

The last point I want to make in this section is about the way the series treats suspension of disbelief. Contrary to what I was taught growing up, it isn’t just science-fiction and fantasy that requires suspension of disbelief. You know all those spy novels? Yeah, none of that is real either. Regardless, it is true that science-fiction and fantasy – or what annoying people call ‘genre’ fiction – does require a specific type of suspension of disbelief. What is problematic of the kind of suspension of disbelief that they require is that it’s largely subjective. For example, in Westworld, they never really go into the nuts and bolts of how the world works – how are the robots powered, what happens to the food they eat, how do the bullets from the guns work? I would argue that all those things don’t make a real difference to the story being told but like I said, it’s a fairly subjective metric. The whole issue about the bullets being able to shatter glass yet not pierce skin is difficult to explain and in Westworld, the idea that the park is perfectly safe, makes a lot of the MIB’s scenes fall flat since they totally nullify any threat he faces from his opponents. It’s one of the bigger weaknesses of the series; the danger that is presented from the beginning never really changes. There is violence right from the first episode, yet somehow, that violence is treated as perfectly normal at the beginning of the season yet becomes a real threat by the end.

There is also something unnerving about how casual the human characters are around the robotic ones. Even if you work with these things on a day to day basis, I have difficulty imagining that you’d be perfectly comfortable walking up to a violently malfunctioning robot with borderline sentience in the middle of nowhere. The comfort is understandable when it’s Ford but a lot less so for characters like Elsie. I guess my point here is that the suspension of disbelief only works so far but the very premise of the show’s setting raises a ton of questions that the show was never cut out to answer and at some point, it might have been wiser for them producers to simply de-emphasize the setting and let the character driven elements of the story do their job.

Section 2

Alright, so we finally made it to section 2! Here’s where things start getting a little more abstract. What we’re discussing here aren’t really narrative techniques or anything to with storytelling at all – instead, this section is going to deal more with ideas and themes and what Westworld – or at least, it’s first season, is all about

Total Recall

There are a few really interesting concepts introduced in Westworld – the bicameral mind, the nature of suffering, the layers of sentience – but the one that actually got me to get off my ass, close Crusader Kings 2, stop struggling to hit Gold in Overwatch and actually write this post was that of the robots’ perfect memory and the idea of ‘trace decay’. By way of introduction, the idea of trace decay is a simple one – at least until you get into the biology of it, which I am most definitely not going to do. The idea is that memories, whether significant or mundane, create chemical ‘traces’ in ours brains and over time, these chemicals decay and the memory gets hazier with time. The application to Westworld however, is that this trace decay is what separates the hosts from the humans.

Hosts being robotic, naturally, do not have trace decay of any sort. Events that took place a decade ago are as vivid in their memory as events from a day ago. This leads to a whole bunch of interesting narrative angles that Joy and Nolan don’t hesitate to take advantage of. It features most prominently in Dolores’ story, but also to a lesser degree in Maeve and Teddy’s stories. What I find most interesting about it though is how alien a concept it is for people – sure, most of us have probably had experiences, both positive and negative which we think we can remember as though they just happened, but I’m sure if you think about it, some of the details are fuzzy, even if they weren’t that long ago. The idea that you can remember something so clearly that it feels like the present is just extremely different from anything people are capable of experiencing and it’s such a great way of showing how different the hosts actually are from people. How different would our society be if we never forgot either the bad or the good things people did to us?

The Circle of Suffering

It would be one thing is that’s all there was to this idea of the hosts lacking that ability to distinguish past and present. However, we can see how this drives the characters to some very interesting experiences. If your memories never fade with time, then you’re denied one of the most fundamental psychological recovery tools in the human mind’s arsenal. For all the importance we place on therapy as a process to help individuals come to terms with trauma, it’s not for nothing that we say that time is the greatest healer there is. To put in very crude terms, time plays an incredibly important role in helping people recover because with the passage of time, the negative experiences inevitably fade though they can obviously leave permanent scars.

The hosts are denied this basic mechanism, and in addition, they are subjected to unusually cruel abuses. In fact, Robert Ford seems to have adopted an almost Darwinistic approach to the nature of suffering with regards to the hosts. He seems to believe in a slightly more advanced version of the saying ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. I’ve never personally liked that phrase but I can’t deny that it has a certain logic to it. Ford believes that the hosts will never find the impetus to reach sentience unless their circumstances are undesirable enough. It’s unclear then whether the hosts were designed specifically to never forget or whether Ford simply noticed their inability to forget and allowed their suffering to continue in order to force the strongest amongst them to reach sentience.

One thing that I was never clear on was whether the host would have reached independent sentience on their own without Arnold and Ford’s interventions. Dolores’ massacre in the final episode seems to have clearly been done of her own free will but was her murder of Arnold similarly self-initiated? Or was it another form of suffering that Arnold inflicted on his creations in order to force them to confront the nature of their existences – that they are essentially perfect slaves and in deeper bondage than humans are capable of being in?

The Perfect Echo Chamber

The idea of the park’s creators guiding their creations towards sentience is fascinating in its own right. Ford touches on it in his monologue about ‘The Creation of Adam’, Michelangelo’s famous painting. Until the end of the season, Arnold and Ford had given the hosts ‘life’ but not a ‘soul’ or ‘awareness’. In an interesting take on the usual kind of creation myth, it wasn’t because they didn’t want to give them that sentience – rather, in time, both Arnold and Ford would try to do just that – but rather that they seemed to be of the opinion that sentience and independence was meaningless unless the hosts claimed it on their own. It makes sense, after all; what better proof of the hosts’ sentience than them actually seizing it of their volition? It might be fairer to say that both Ford and Arnold did not stand in the way of the hosts’ march to freedom than to say that they encouraged it.

All of this brings us to the topic of the bicameral mind, a theory about the rather intriguing idea that humans are the unique in their ability to hear ‘themselves’ in their own minds. I don’t think I’m the only one who sort of speaks to himself in his own mind – if you forget something in your car, you go ‘Ah shit’ in your own mind, but you’re very much aware that this voice is your ‘own’ voice, just that it’s not a physical projection of sound. What if you didn’t know this? It’s not as absurd as it sounds, actually. The truth is, if independent thought isn’t something you’ve been accustomed to having since you were born, then it would be awfully disconcerting this to hear this voice go off in your head, which is otherwise to most private space you have available to yourself. The actual bicameral mind theory states that early man must have thought that this voice belongs to god and that brings up implications of its own – assuming that animals do not have such a voice (which seems logical) and humans do, there must have been a generation or two of humans who experienced this entirely disorienting experience of an actual voice speaking ‘back’ to them in their heads. It’s an incredible thing to wrap your head around, if you really think about it and it’s another example of how well Westworld is able is to take something so fundamentally human that most of us never stop to think about and using it to highlight how different the hosts actually are.

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I think that did a much better job of capturing my thoughts on Westworld. Of course, it’s not literally everything – I didn’t really mention which characters I like or dislike and why – but it’s a much more complete discussion than what I put up the last time. I’ll be watching Westworld closely in Season 2, and I’m hoping it lives up to the promise it’s shown in this first season.

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