How HBO's Westworld indicts its own viewers
The show seizes on our impulse to glut ourselves on pleasure, and it isn't nice about it. It makes us seem cheap and unimaginative and horrible.
HBO's Westworld began by tricking us into believing that Teddy Flood (James Marsden) was its "real" protagonist, only to kill him and incidentally reveal how indistinguishable the "guests" in the show's fantasy park are from their victims, the robotic hosts. The second episode invites us to fall for this trick again, but this time we're closer to the mark.
Jimmi Simpson plays William, a man visiting the park with his rapacious future brother-in-law. We see the park's tourist scaffolding this time — a luxe affair with clean lines and bespoke wardrobes where people dress and prepare to board the train to Westworld. In case the philosophical import of this preparatory stage is lost on you, a beautiful blonde literally invites William to choose between white and black hats. "Are you real?" William asks her. "Well," she says, "if you can't tell, does it matter?"
Of course it matters, but the point of that space is to make it moot. The show was already, one episode in, a meta-treatise on our inability to remain innocent of the things we witness — especially those we watch for "fun." Here, it's laying out how the entertainment industry makes that feel right. The park gently ushers guests into a psychological mindset where only their pleasure matters. The beautiful blonde is a Turing test and a proxy for the entire service industry. Brush the humanity aside and focus on your experience.
And so the show theorizes the impulse to glut ourselves on pleasure, and it isn't nice about it. It makes this seem cheap and unimaginative and horrible. We learned from Grand Theft Auto that our first move, when confronted with a sandbox game, is to see what exactly we can get away with. (Can you kill the hooker without paying her?)
Westworld doesn't just underline this tendency, it indicts it. It reroutes our sympathies toward the subtle things away from the more violent delights. We've been trained — by the repetitive Dolores-Wakes-Up sequence in the first episode — to watch for subtle changes that register massive differences. We've learned to think about the hosts from their own point of view and from the point of view of their brilliant and concerned creators. Only in the second episode are we offered a third perspective: that of the tourist. The guest. The viewer. (Hey, that's us!)
The figure for this unappealing creature is William's fellow traveler Lawrence, who seems to be a park regular. He's unbelievably dull. A sexual Augustus Gloop. Lawrence is maddeningly immune to the park's storylines and subtle charms; those, to him, are boring distractions. The point is sex. And oh god, it's boring.
That's right: HBO showed us boring fantasy sex. It's like HBO is lying on its analyst's couch muttering about how tired it is of the whole thing.
That's not to say the impulse isn't there: We see the show's story-wizard, Mr. Sizemore, promise a storyline that crystallizes that tendency toward extreme spectacles — "the apex of what the park can provide," as he puts it. His conception of this includes vivisection, self-cannibalism, romance, titillation, and "something I call the ourobouros."
Our most skilled guests will find their way to the outer limits of the park, besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens, befriending tragically ill-fated sidekicks, and of course, like all our best narratives over the years, our guests will have the privilege of getting to know the character they're most interested in: themselves.
It's a hideous pitch that fights its clichés with gore. But the key point is that the show aligns us with Ford, the tired, brilliant old man, and against Sizemore, the wizard who just wants to give us what we want. "What is the point of it?" Anthony Hopkins' Ford asks in his wonderful, weary voice.
A couple of cheap thrills. Some surprises. It's not enough. It's not about giving the guests what you think they want. It's not that simple. Titillation, horror, elation: They're parlor tricks. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they've fallen in love with. They're not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They're here because they want a glimpse of who they could be. The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.
It's a brutal speech — so brutal you almost feel sorry for Sizemore when he says, "Well, isn't there anything you like about it?" What stands out most is Ford's curious theory of entertainment: the proposition that somewhere in our Gloopy craving for fantasy there's a nested impulse to do it over, or try again, or do life a different way.
I thought of that in the scene when Ford goes walking out in Westworld and meets a young boy who's dressed in a way that resembles Ford an awful lot.
"Are you lost?" the boy asks him.
"No," Ford says, "just strayed a bit too far from where I'm supposed to be. Same as you, I imagine."
The boy complains that he's bored.
"My father used to say that only boring people get bored," Ford says.
"Mine too," says the boy. And then they share a curious imaginary vision of what the park will be together. "A town with a white church," Ford says. "Listen. Can't you hear its bell?"
"Yes," the boy says. "Yes, I can hear it now."
This is a guess, but I think that boy — who turns out to be a host, despite his British accent — might be some kind of young Ford prototype. He shares too much Ford — an imagination, a father, a wardrobe. It's clear that Ford has a grand project in mind. It might be that Ford has found a way to implant his own history into a host, and the new experiment will riff on this version of "a glimpse of who they could be." Ford has indeed strayed a bit too far from the park as he envisioned it, and he's working his way back to its radical conceptual roots.
There are two other big revelations. The first is how conscious the hosts are of the fact that they're lying to the guests in ways they don't lie to each other. A correctly remodulated and less aggressive Maeve gives a guest her usual speech about the voice she heard when she stepped off the boat that ends with her saying, seductively: "This is the new world, and in this world you can be whoever the fuck you want." But when she turns to Teddy, a fellow host getting a drink at the bar, her whole affect changes. "You know the first voice I heard when I got off that boat?" she says in a lower-class accent. "A nice young man from Baton Rouge said my pussy could earn him two whole dollars a day, and he'd be more than happy to let me have up to 30 percent." This goes beyond the explanation Bernard offers Theresa for why the hosts keep talking to each other even when no guests are around. "They're always trying to error correct, make themselves more human," Bernard tells her. "When they talk to each other, it's a way of practicing." But lying — and making clear that what you tell fellow hosts is different in substance and tone from what you tell the guests — goes well beyond the kind of idle chatter Bernard describes.
The second revelation is that Maeve has started having horrific flashbacks of her own. Whatever afflicted Peter Abernathy and Dolores is affecting her too, and it might not be as directly linked to Ford's latest update as we thought. The only thing linking those three guests is Peter Abernathy's phrase from Romeo and Juliet. Dolores became "infected" with trauma after Peter Abernathy whispered "these violent delights have violent ends" in her ear, and when the newly tormented Dolores repeats those words to Maeve, she starts getting flashbacks too. It's clear these nightmares are different from the ones Maeve described to Clementine: When she counts down from three to cope, she wakes up in a whole different kind of nightmare, with uniformed men standing over her talking about the MRSA they found in her abdomen.
"Whatever Abernathy had could be contagious, so to speak," scientist Elise Hughes (Shannon Woodward) said to Bernard. He implies she's imagining things — "the stories are best left to the guests," he says — but there's plenty of evidence that she's right. The hosts are programmed verbally, after all (usually in clear, direct commands). But the show is exploring the way poetry can creep in with depth and damage, infecting the park's clean, shallow, purely entertaining code.