Jumping out of the system
Note: Spoilers follow for recent plot developments on Westworld.
Right now, Westworld appears to be operating on two different levels. One is that of an enterprising genre series that is content to strike all the familiar beats with exceptional concentration and intensity. You see this most clearly, I think, in Maeve’s storyline. It’s a plot thread that has given us extraordinary moments, thanks mostly to some fantastic work by Thandie Newton, who obviously understands that she has finally landed the role of a lifetime. Yet it’s ultimately less effective than it should be. We’re never quite clear on why Felix and Sylvester are allowing Maeve’s escape plan to proceed: they have all the power, as well as plenty of ways to deactivate her, and given the risks involved, they’ve been remarkably cooperative so far. Last night’s episode tried to clarify their motivations, suggesting that Felix has developed some sort of emotional connection to Maeve, but the show has been too busy cutting from one set of characters to another to allow us to feel this, rather than just being told about it. Maeve’s story seems rushed, as perhaps it had to be: it’s about a robot who wills herself into becoming conscious, instead of growing more organically aware, as Dolores has. (Or so we’re meant to believe—although the chronology of her awakening may also be an elaborate mislead, if the theory of multiple timelines is correct.) Aside from the subplot involving the Delos Corporation, however, it’s the arc that feels the stagiest and the most conventional. We’re pretty sure that it’s going somewhere, but it’s a little clumsy in the way it lines up the pieces.
The other level is the one embodied by Bernard’s story, and it offers a glimpse of what could be a much more interesting—if messier—series. Last week, I wrote that I had hope that the show could live up to the revelation of Bernard’s true nature, if only because it was in the capable hands of Jeffrey Wright, who seemed eminently qualified to see it through. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be even better at it than I had hoped. The high points of “Trace Decay,” at least for me, were the two scenes that Wright gets with Anthony Hopkins, who also seems to be relishing the chance to play a meatier role than usual. When Bernard asks what distinguishes him from his human creators, Dr. Ford replies that the answer is simple: there’s no difference. The stories that human beings use to define themselves are functionally the same as the artificial backstories that have been uploaded into the robots. We’re all operating within our own loops, and we rarely question our decisions or actions, except on the rare occasions, as Douglas R. Hofstadter puts it, when we can jump out of the system. In theory, a pair of conversations about human and machine consciousness shouldn’t work as drama, but they do. As Hopkins and Wright played off each other, I felt that I could spend an entire episode just watching them talk, even if the result resembled the western that Thomas Pynchon pitches in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which two cowboys played by Basil Rathbone and S.Z. Sakall spend the whole movie debating the nature of reality: “This interesting conversation goes on for an hour and a half. There are no cuts…Occasionally the horses will shit in the dust.”
But when I ask myself which kind of show Westworld most wants to be, I end up thinking that it’s probably the former. In the past, I’ve compared it to Mad Men, a series from which it differs immensely in content, pacing, and tone, but which it resembles in its chilly emotional control, its ability to move between storylines, and the degree to which it rewards close analysis. The difference, of course, is that Mad Men was able to pursue its own obsessions in a relatively neglected corner of basic cable, while Westworld is unfolding front and center on the most public stage imaginable. Mad Men received a fair amount of critical attention early on, but its network, AMC, barely even existed as a creative player, and it wasn’t until the premiere of Breaking Bad the following year that it became clear that something special was happening. Westworld was positioned from the start as the successor to Game of Thrones, which means that there’s a limit to how wild or experimental it can be. It’s hard to imagine it airing an episode like “Fly” on Breaking Bad, which radically upends our expectations of how an installment of the series should look. And maybe it shouldn’t. Getting a science fiction series to work under such conditions is impressive enough, and if it delivers on those multiple timelines, it may turn out to be more innovative than we had any reason to expect. (I’m still nervous about how that reveal will play from a storytelling perspective, since it means that Dolores, the show’s ostensible protagonist, has been been effectively sidelined from the main action for the entire season. It might not work at all. But it’s still daring.)
As usual, the show provides us with the tools for its own deconstruction, when the Man in Black says that there were once two competing visions of the park. In Dr. Ford’s conception, the stories would follow their established arcs, and the robots wouldn’t be allowed to stray from the roles that had been defined for them. Arnold, by contrast, hoped that it would cut deeper. (Harris does such a good job of delivering this speech that I can almost defend the show’s decision to have the Man in Black reveal more about himself in a long monologue, which is rarely a good idea.) Westworld, the series, seems more inclined to follow Ford’s version than Arnold’s, and to squeeze as much freedom as it can out of stories that move along lines that we’ve seen before. Earlier this week, Jim Lanzone of CBS Interactive, the online platform on which Star Trek: Discovery is scheduled to premiere, said of the format:
Sci-fi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. But historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show at this point.
It isn’t hard to see what he means: the network audience, like the theme park crowd, wants something that is more consistent than episodic science fiction tends to be. If Westworld can do this and tell compelling stories at the same time, so much the better—and it may be a greater accomplishment simply to thread that difficult needle. But I’m still waiting to see if it can jump out of its loop.