Westworld: The Cracks of Humanity in its Pristine World
October 13, 2016 \ TV \ 0 Comments
The first episode of Westworld paints with two brushes. With the first, it carefully paints a future that is so advanced and devoid of danger that the Westworld institution is the only way people can experience excitement. As if Westworld’s simulated, rugged western frontier is somehow more alive than the real world. With the second brush, Westworld paints small, passionate strokes that threaten the precision the first brush is trying to create.
I believe the initial canvas Westworld creates in the first episode is simply the emotionless foundation upon which more and more cracks of humanity will seep into until it fractures. I think Westworld intends to have a discourse about humanity and this fractured painting is how it is going to do it.
Here are five ways Westworld tries to portray a controlled world and the cracks of humanity we see seep out.
The opening sequence of Westworld is an interview between host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and lead programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright). Bernard’s questions about the nature of her existence are a voice over while we watch Dolores begin her day. We see Dolores wake then walk onto her porch. She talks with her Father about the natural splendour of their world, while we hear Dolores say in her interview, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray, I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.”
And as she finishes, we see the player piano begin and the guests come into Westworld on the train.
The train theme is deliberately discordant. There are a number of jarring sharp and flat notes worked into the piece. This represents the unpredictability the human element adds into Westworld and the ultimate realization that no matter how hard humanity tries to create the perfect system, the flaw in it is always human.
Westworld presents itself as a pristine, placated, and placid world. The offices where Westworld’s team has a minimalist design. Most rooms only contain precisely the number of chairs it needs; if a job takes two techs to examine one host there are only three chairs. People work off tablets so there are no need for desks, and therefore, no need to adorn them with pictures or knicknacks. The walls are made of glass so there is no need to put up paintings. No need for extraneous furniture like sofas, or coffee tables. Everything is so clinical and impersonal; like a doctor’s office that used an open office concept.
Are there no bookshelves in the Westworld offices because humantiy no longer need books or because we no longer need the knowledge in them? According to Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) Westworld is set in a not too distant future where he explains, “we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now, haven’t we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive … Do you know what that means? That means we are done, that this is as good as we’re going to get.”
And yet we can’t deny our impulses. In one of the first sequences we see Bernard and his subordinate, Elsie (Shannon Woodward) sitting in one of these rooms analyzing a host that is a hooker in Westworld. Bernard is telling Elise about some new code that Ford implemented. Bernard says the code creates a kind of subconscious that allows the host to make gestures as they access old memories. The host runs her finger slowly across the base of her lower lip.
Bernard says, “It’s the tiny things that make them seem real, that make the guests fall in love with them.” As Bernard says this Elise starts to look at the host lustfully. When Bernard leaves Elise leans in and kisses the host.
This is a strange thing to do at work. Especially considering that, to Elise, the hosts are like cars she maintains on a daily basis and on-the-job hanky panky is likely frowned upon. But even in this sterile, controlled environment, Elise can’t help herself. After the she finishes kissing the host, she runs her finger along her lip in the same way, as if this moment of humanity the host displayed has become a part of Elise too.
Bernard and Theresa
If there are two characters that exemplify the detached disposition of the futuristic society Westworld presents, it’s Bernard and Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen). The only emotion we ever see Bernard show is amusement, whether it is in a conversation with Ford about evolution:
Bernard Lowe: It’s the code you added, sir. The reveries. It has some, uh…
Robert Ford: “Mistakes” is the word you’re too embarrassed to use. You ought not to be. You’re a product of a trillion of them. Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.
Bernard Lowe: I flattered myself we were taking a more disciplined approach here. I suppose self-delusion is a gift of natural selection as well.
Or admiring how Theresa’s anger manifests itself in a subtle facial expression.
Theresa is even more emotionless than Bernard. While Bernard shows amusement (or at least the pretense of amusement) Theresa hides her emotion so well that it takes a student of human nature to discover it. While Theresa is getting angry in a creative discussion Bernard notes: “Your brow, when you’re angry but trying to control it the fine muscles pull into a little ark. It’s elegant.”
Theresa seems in control at all times. While she gets agitated, she never gets too worked up, never fully loses her composure. And yet, she smokes.
We also learn that these two emotionless, robotic individuals are sleeping together. After they have sex, Bernard says, “stay a little while longer, we can talk.” To which Theresa replies, “We never talk.”
This doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s as if the human impulses these two have locked away inside themselves breaks free just enough that they can have a connection with each other that is limited to sex alone and devoid of a real relationship.
Man in Black
The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is portrayed as a villain. In Westerns we typically identify good guys by their white hats and bad guys by their black hats (pay attention to the colour clothes characters wear in the show, and when they wear them — it’s fascinating). The Man in Black has a black hat, black gloves, a black vest, and black pants. His precise motivation seems to be unclear, but his goal seems to be discovering Westworld’s secrets. In fact, he seems narrowly focused on this goal. He spends the majority of the first two episodes searching for clues to these secrets. Almost like an unstoppable robot.
But what was the first thing he did before he started this journey? He visits Dolores (the oldest host in the park) and rapes her. Even after visiting Westworld for thirty years and about to go on an all-consuming quest he has to make a pit stop to satisfy his urges.
Which is a very human failing to indulge in before beginning his noble journey.
Westworld is slowly humanizing its hosts as the show progresses. In the first episode we see Teddy (James Marsden) gunned down and see Dolores dragged off to be raped. At the time, we’re not sure that they’re artificial beings. Normally this scene would create some kind of sympathy for Teddy and Dolores, but there is something confusing about the sequence. Teddy attempts to defend Dolores by shooting at The Man in Black. His bullets have no effect. So instead of feeling sympathetic we’re filled with curiosity.
As the episode goes on and we learn that Teddy and Dolores are hosts, we then see Teddy get killed again. But by this point we’ve already seen him die once and come back, so his second death holds less meaning to us.
The second episode of Westworld generates more empathy for the hosts. In this episode we get William (Jimmi Simpson) the first person we’ve seen inserted into Westworld with a sense of morality. He chooses the white hat, he declines help getting undressed, he declines sex with the hosts, he helps up an old man host, and is horrified when his companion stabs the host in the hand. The first episode didn’t moralize much, but here we are shown a character with a clear moral compass who looks upon the hosts compassionately.
Later on we see the host Maeve (Thandie Newton) recall a memory where she was protecting her daughter, first from a savage group of Indians, and then from The Man in Black. This imagery is much clearer than Teddy getting shot down trying to save Dolores. People identify much faster with parents protecting children because children can’t defend themselves.
The show even goes a step further and has her wake up while she’s being repaired. She runs off to a different part of the facility where she sees the bodies of other hosts treated like empty husks, naked and being thrown in piles of cleaning. She finds this image traumatizing and falls to her knees. This not only provides a disturbing image for the viewer, but it also gives us an idea of how the hosts feel about their treatment.
In Michael Crichton’s movie Westworld (upon which this series is based) society doesn’t appear so advanced that it has become boring. Nevertheless, the idea of Westworld being based on the old American west is an ingenious setting to have a discussion about identity.
In America in the early 1900’s there was a popularized theory that believed Americans were defined by conquering the savage West. The movement became so popular it helped elect President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. After his first wife’s death, Roosevelt moved West, purchased a ranch and learned to hunt, herd cattle, and rope. This gave him an attractive political image as a strong, rugged frontiersman during a crisis of American identity, that helped form the idea that this was where America had to go to find itself again.
Likewise, it seems the society in the TV show Westworld is having a crisis of identity. Despite all their advancements they seem cold, detached, and bored. It may be why they created Westworld in the first place. And it is in this rugged frontier that they (alongside with the hosts) will rediscover their humanity.