TV: Westworld (season one)
Westworld (season one)
This is the first season of the 2016 HBO drama about a futuristic Wild West theme park, in which the possibly-sentient robots playing the Old West characters begin to develop worrying, and perhaps dangerous, problems. It is an adaptation of the 1973 Michael Crichton film.
I am surprisingly angry about this season.
I say "surprisingly" because I had an okay time watching the show. But it's like they took the best setup possible from, say, Damon Lindelhof or Michael Schur, lavished it with as much money and as much talent as a media megacorporation could proffer... and then left the story in the hands of that one MBA bro in sales who really likes talking about the violent porn he watches.
Again, the setup is astoundingly promising. There is a theme park. It's full of robots who all pass The Turing Test. But they are programmed to loop through the same simple stories, over and over again, to the delight of the park's human guests. Nearby, on a high mesa, in a luxurious (and somehow late-70s-feeling) office building, the park staff manage and control Westworld. As the series begins, the robots have begun to have memories, often traumatic, of their previous iterations.
There is *so much* you could do here. You can engage with many, many themes. You can go the standard Philip K. Dick route, and tell stories about the nature of consciousness or identity. You can do a Matrix riff on the simulation hypothesis, and "how do we ever know what's real?" You can veer away from the 'robottery' of it all and make it more of an analysis of the nature of storytelling, or a critique of Westerns in particular. Or you can very easily make it a searing critique of capitalism, with its ruling class forcing its proletariat to live meaningless, repetitive lives. Or you could use even use the inherent "othering" and exploitation of nearly-identical entities to make it about race. It just goes on and on.
Instead... for the most part, the show is about nothing.
Let me approach this backwards. This is a ten-episode season. The last two episodes are chock full of reveals — you realize, as a viewer, that you have fundamentally misunderstood a lot of the action you've seen so far.¹ If you've seen Jonathan Nolan's other work² — Memento or The Prestige or Inception — you know the drill. There's a twist, and it's complicated, and it recontextualizes everything — like the thinking man's M. Night Shyamalan. And don't get me wrong: the twists in Westworld are clever. Sure, the show isn't really playing fair — the twists directly contradict a lot of evidence that you see directly — but it's still fun.
But there's a downside to mystery-box television. The twists at the end mean that the first eight episodes are necessarily... vague. There are many, many basic details we can't know to protect this collection of secrets. So you get a lot of nameless characters who are going after undefined objectives and contending with shadowy forces who also have undefined objectives. You get that "blight of Capitalized Nouns" that's always crops up when sci-fi has this narrative problem. Everyone's concerned with "The Maze". What is The Maze? For the first nine hours of the runtime, hell if I know. It's the same for "The New Story", or "Arnold's Plan", or any number of other things that are planted but never defined 'til the end.
And this gets to be a problem — too many mysteries, not enough secrets.
I can explain. I've talked before about three handy categories for a story's unknown information: "secrets" (I know <x>; you don't know <x>; the audience knows <x>); "surprises" (I know <x>; you don't know <x>; the audience doesn't know <x>); and "mysteries" (I know <x>; you don't know <x>; the audience is made to wonder what <x> might be). So if the 'hidden information' is "Peter is smuggling a cat past you", we can deploy that as:
- A secret: The audience sees me stuff a cat into my coat, and watches me try to hide it from you at the Cat Checkpoint.
- A surprise: I go past you at the Cat Checkpoint, and then reveal that surprise! I had a cat the whole time!
- A mystery: the audience sees something squirming in my coat at the Cat Checkpoint: WHAT COULD IT BEEEEE?
And that's bad. It drops our best tool for empathizing *with* a character — instead, we're all on the outside, wondering what in the hell is going on in every single person's head. And that exacerbates a problem that's already there — the characters in Westworld are *already* cold, restrained and clinical. Felix watches a man get his throat slashed in front of him, and quietly says "you weren't supposed to do that". A couple breaks off their relationship with a conversation that never rises above the temperature of "me and Lindsey trying to figure out where the TV remote went". Even the trauma-inducing deaths of children in characters' backstories happen to children that we see for literally five seconds before their untimely demises.
We also lack character *relationships*. Think about it: this entire season pursues four different storylines, and they're almost completely siloed off from each other: William and Logan; the Man in Black; the infighting at corporate; Maeve keeps dying. So that drastically reduces the number of possible relationships. And, what relationships we *do* have tend to be both adversarial and unemotional. (Dolores and William might be the only exception.) So what *that* means is this: very little of the plot happens because our characters react to each other; almost all the plot happens because our characters respond to new elements from the outside world. If we don't see relationships to connect to, it's very, very hard to find a way to care about the story.
Now, if this were a better show, I'd say this isolation and frigidity is an attempt to Say Something about the nature of people versus robots, but you see this behavior in every other Nolan-brothers production — it's like a whole cinematic universe that's drained of details, and feelings, and (especially) humor.
(God forbid someone should fart.)
So that's the show that you've got. You can't wonder how it will turn out, because you can't see enough of the picture to know even what central questions they might resolve. You can't relate to any characters because they all play their cards so close to their chests. And you can't invest in how things go for them because nobody has emotions or relationships.
Instead, you get people blustering at each other a lot. Most dialog is a 'flex' — i.e., somebody using their words to exert how much power they have, or how smart they are. I flex; you flex; one of us wins; the other looks vaguely dissatisfied; piano music and cut to the next scene. Now, you could argue that, deep down, *all* drama is this, and all good dialog works like this. You can certainly make the case that a play like Glengarry Glen Ross is *all* this, and that play works beautifully, right? But in that world, you know what people want, and you care about what they want. Levene *needs* the Glengarry leads, goddammit, and you see exactly how his world will fall apart if he doesn't get them. And you *know* how these twitchy salesmen feel about each other.
Here, you don't have that information. You don't have those emotions. You don't have those relationships. You just have an interminable chess game where nobody's told you the rules, you can't see half the pieces, and nobody seems to care much about the outcome. And so it goes for most of the show, as it patiently sets up for its endgame.
Think about that: you've got this amazingly promising setup. Everywhere you look there's a riveting connection to life, to philosophy, to work, to everything that matters. It could be deep and heady philosophy. It could be social criticism. It could even just focus on a Chernobyl-like bureaucratic catastrophe.³ And for most of its running time it doesn't have anything to say.
It was vapid, but still eminently watchable. I mean, jesus, when your third-string cast includes *Tessa Thompson*, you'd happily watch the actors read the phone book. And the design work was fascinating and detailed and purposeful. And yes, I did keep watching in hopes of figuring *out* what the hell I was watching. But I was not enjoying that. I wanted an actual story.
And then the end of the season comes. I'll tread lightly here — I don't think I need to mention any particular spoilers to explain how it went down.
First: we *do* figure out, in retrospect, what this show had been about. And that math problem was very elegantly solved. But thematically it turns out to be kind of a wet fart. The story is mainly about "what is the nature of consciousness?" And that's a noble aim. But I will say this: The Good Place has ruined me for shows trying, on a "dorm-room stoner" level, to address philosophy. What Westworld has to express about the nature of consciousness is this: the writers of Westworld never opened a book about the nature of consciousness. One character believes it exists; another doesn't. By the time someone explains that consciousness is not a triangle but a circle, I just felt sorry for the show. It's like when a student didn't do the reading for their presentation, and they're just spitballing word salad.
But also, the show doesn't really *focus* on "what is consciousness?" with any alacrity. The show is also about office politics. And it's also about "finding meaning". And it's also about the evils of big corporations. It's also about making fun of writers. (More on that in a bit.) And so on and so on and so on — all the thematic work disappears in a haze. Like I said: a wet fart.
Another complication: "the nature of consciousness" is an intellectual concept. And frankly, the show *isn't* intellectual enough to do anything that high-minded.
I'll be immodest for a moment: I have had, at times, a reputation for being intelligent. That means I've had more than my share of insecure people trying to show me how smart they are.⁴ And it's that same sort of tryharding that I see in Westworld. Like, as an intellectual flex, one character corrects another for saying "No one reflects him more than me." And you smile, and it's adorable, because not only is that wrong ("than" has been used as a conjunction for hundreds of years; "than I" sounds like an overcorrection; English linguistic prescriptivism is kind of laughable and stupid these days to all but the stodgiest of grammarians), but it's the sort of bluster-y thing that not-very-smart people do when they're trying to impress you.
So: this is *the show*, being not-very-smart, trying to impress *us*.
And so it goes, over and over. They drop references that are... not particularly deep. Ooh, someone used a quote from Shakespeare! Whose original context doesn't really illustrate anything here, but, y'know, I guess it sounds cool. And they reference philosophy! But not, y'know, philosophers, nor any concepts beyond "consciousness is a thing" (triangles! circles!), nor any of the mind-blowing scientific research about consciousness.
It also does a pseudo-intellectual trope that I absolutely despise: pretending it's too good for "common" entertainment. First off: this world is a Western. The surface stories we see are classic Westerns. And Westworld clearly has no love of Westerns. They manage to create a world that is both inaccurate to the Old West, and inaccurate to the genre. At no point in the robots' narratives do you feel the writers taking joy in finally getting to write (say) the big showdown between the sheriff and the bandits. It's like they take two steps into a traditional western scene, and then cut it short with a gory gunshot wound to the face, because this show fuuuuucks.
And then they make fun of that very exploitation. They repeatedly hang a lantern on how the parkgoers are simpletons for wanting "tits and violence". And then the show is, of course, *nonstop* tits and violence. You are never more than five minutes away from a tit or a violent in Westworld. And "ironic exploitation" is one of those things like "ironic racism" (stick a pin in that) that can just well and truly fuck itself. If you're showing exploitation, your show is exploitative. If you think putting air quotes around it raises you above titillating the audience, you're in more denial than an American politician discussing climate change.
And the cruel thing of it is, Westworld actually *works* as exploitation. When it tips into terrifying, horror-movie violence, that material *works*. When it shows Talulah Riley seducing some milquetoast visitor, that *works*. It's actually good at the base, lizard-brain story moves that it so disdains — far better than it is at its character arcs or its intellectual discussions.
Oh, and it does the "ironic racism" thing, too. It provides "Indians" that, like everything else, don't hew to the old Westerns, but also don't stay true to history. Instead they're just terrifying murder machines. (Who kill people very gorily because, again, this show fuuuucks.) The show seems to think this is okay because the show knows that this is just the company's *concept* of what Indians are like. But, like with the tits and violence, just showing the thing is a form of endorsement that you can't easily extricate yourself from.
And this is as good a time as any to mention how much the show seems to hate women. There's a shit-ton of female nudity — some male nudity, yes, but the ladies seem to outnumber the dudes. You wind up with that cringe-inducing HBO habit of showing a detailed, exposition-heavy conversation, and lingering in the background: breasts. And the whole thing feels very "male gaze"-y — by dint of having the brothel, women are much more sexualized than the men.
And then there's all the rapes. Violence against women, including sexualized violence, is frequent. Yes, there are men that get shot. But those deaths are usually offscreen, usually quick, usually happening to nameless characters, and never sexualized. Westworld comes right out of the gate with the Man in Black throwing Dolores into a barn and advancing slowly on her with a knife, and it just goes from there. Usually the violence is there as a plot device.
And it's all worse because it's on HBO — where the clumsy use of rape for shock value or plot motivation is depressingly on-brand.
Structurally, this iteration of Westworld wants to be a movie. Each episode flips from one hermetically-sealed storyline to the next seemingly at random, with lots of weak scene endings. And there's nothing thematically connecting all those threads threads — there's no reason we see (say) what William does, what the Man in Black does, what Theresa does, what Maeve does, all in that episode. No episode is 'about' anything — it's just the latest chunk of each storyline, mixed together at random.
But then again, if, for the most part, your show isn't about anything, it's unlikely your episodes will be about anything either.
But if this were a movie, that problem would go away — "no episodes" means "no need for an episode to feel like a meaningful piece of narrative". And also, the movie format could be more forgiving to the vagueness that pervades this show. If the first two thirds of your TV series give the audience precious little idea what's going on, that's unforgivable. If the first two thirds of a feature film have you confused about specifics... you might still get by.
Anyway. There's a second season of this. I may watch it someday, since it obviously gives me a lot to talk about. And the show is definitely fun, with (again) some of the best design work and acting of any show, anywhere. I'm told the second season falls apart, though. This does not surprise me. For as good as they are at their puzzle boxes, and as slick as they make the surface of the show, they fail at the basic tasks of TV storytelling: give us characters we care about; make us care about what they pursue, and throw adversity in their way; and make that struggle mean something to us that goes beyond the show.
If you have that, your show can run forever. If you don't, then it all eventually falls to pieces.
For next week: I watched season one of One Day at a Time, but I still need to write about it. (Lemme tell you, alternating between that and Westworld was interesting.) Stalker is my next DVD, and I might try looping around to another season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to another audiocourse about medicine.
¹ Or, rather, you would, if a youtube search hadn't coughed up a video that had a massive spoiler in the video title. Thanks, fandom!
² This is not to dismiss the work of his wife and co-writer, Lisa Joy, who got her start on Pushing Daisies. (I see JJ Abrams is a producer as well.) I'm harping on Nolan because this work feels much more like the Nolan brothers' films than like Lisa Joy's previous work. (Oh god, suddenly I'm actively angry that Bryan Fuller didn't make this show.)
³ I do love the show's depiction of divisional infighting, the only aspect of software development that the show really nails.
⁴ I can only imagine, with horror, the amount of this that women have to put up with.