Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The ghost in the machine

with one comment

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Westworld.

When you’re being told a story, you want to believe that the characters have free will. Deep down, you know that they’ve been manipulated by a higher power that can make them do whatever it likes, and occasionally, it can even be fun to see the wires. For the most part, though, our enjoyment of narrative art is predicated on postponing that realization for as long as possible. The longer the work continues, the harder this becomes, and it can amount to a real problem for a heavily serialized television series, which can start to seem strained and artificial as the hours of plot developments accumulate. These tensions have a way of becoming the most visible in the protagonist, whose basic purpose is to keep the action clocking along. As I’ve noted here before, there’s a reason why the main character is often the least interesting person in sight. The show’s lead is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Every action exists to fulfill some larger purpose, which often results in leads who are boringly singleminded, with no room for the tangents that can bring supporting players to life. The characters at the center have to constantly triangulate between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain them of all surprise. And if the story ever relaxes its hold, they burst, like sea creatures brought up from a crevasse to the surface.

This is true of most shows that rely heavily on plot twists and momentum—it became a huge problem for The Vampire Diaries—but it’s even more of an issue when a series is also trying to play tricks with structure and time. Westworld has done more than any other television drama that I can remember to push against the constraints of chronology, and the results are often ingenious. Yet they come at a price. (As the screenwriter Robert Towne put it in a slightly different content: “You end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty.”) And the victim, not surprisingly, has been the ostensible lead. Over a year and a half ago, when the first season was still unfolding, I wrote that Dolores, for all her problems, was the engine that drove the story, and that her gradual movement toward awareness was what gave the series its narrative thrust. I continued:

This is why I’m wary of the popular fan theory, which has been exhaustively discussed online, that the show is taking place in different timelines…Dolores’s story is the heart of the series, and placing her scenes with William three decades earlier makes nonsense of the show’s central conceit: that Dolores is slowly edging her way toward greater self-awareness because she’s been growing all this time. The flashback theory implies that she was already experiencing flashes of deeper consciousness almost from the beginning, which requires us to throw out most of what we know about her so far…It has the advantage of turning William, who has been kind of a bore, into a vastly more interesting figure, but only at the cost of making Dolores considerably less interesting—a puppet of the plot, rather than a character who can drive the narrative forward in her own right.

As it turned out, of course, that theory was totally on the mark, and I felt a little foolish for having doubted it for so long. But on a deeper level, I have to give myself credit for anticipating the effect that it would have on the series as a whole. At the time, I concluded: “Dolores is such a load-bearing character that I’m worried that the show would lose more than it gained by the reveal…The multiple timeline theory, as described, would remove the Dolores we know from the story forever. It would be a fantastic twist. But I’m not sure the show could survive it.” And that’s pretty much what happened, although it took another season to clarify the extent of the damage. On paper, Dolores was still the most important character, and Evan Rachel Wood deservedly came first in the credits. But in order to preserve yet another surprise, the show had to be maddeningly coy about what exactly she was doing, even as she humorlessly pursued her undefined mission. Every line was a cryptic hint about what was coming, and the payoff was reasonably satisfying. But I don’t know if it was worth it. Offhand, I can’t recall another series in which an initially engaging protagonist was reduced so abruptly to a plot device, and it’s hard not to blame the show’s conceptual and structural pretensions, which used Dolores as a valve for the pressure that was occurring everywhere else but at its center. It’s frankly impossible for me to imagine what Dolores would even look like if she were relaxing or joking around or doing literally anything except persisting grimly in her roaring rampage of revenge. Because of the nature of its ambitions, Westworld can’t give her—or any of its characters—the freedom to act outside the demands of the story. It’s willing to let its hosts be reprogrammed in any way that the plot requires. Which you’ve got to admit is kind of ironic.

None of this would really matter if the payoffs were there, and there’s no question that last night’s big reveal about Charlotte is an effective one. (Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of Tessa Thompson, who, like Wood, has seemed wasted throughout the entire season for reasons that have become evident only now.) But the more I think about it, the more I feel that this approach might be inherently unsuited for a season of television that runs close to twelve hours. When a conventional movie surprises us with a twist at the end, part of the pleasure is mentally rewinding the film to see how it plays in light of the closing revelation—and much of the genius of Memento, which was based on Jonathan Nolan’s original story, was that it allowed us to do this every ten minutes. Yet as Westworld itself repeatedly points out, there’s only so much information or complexity that the human mind can handle. I’m a reasonably attentive viewer, but I often struggled to recall what happened seven episodes ago, and the volume of data that the show presents makes it difficult to check up on any one point. Now that the series is over, I’m sure that if I revisited the earlier episodes, many scenes would take on an additional meaning, but I just don’t have the time. And twelve hours may be too long to make viewers wait for the missing piece that will lock the rest into place, especially when it comes at the expense of narrative interest in the meantime, and when anything truly definitive will need to be withheld for the sake of later seasons. It’s to the credit of Westworld and its creators that there’s little doubt that they have a master plan. They aren’t making it up as they go along. But this also makes it hard for the characters to make anything of themselves. None of us, the show implies, is truly in control of our actions, which may well be the case. But a work of art, like life itself, doesn’t seem worth the trouble if it can’t convince us otherwise.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2018 at 8:42 am

One Response

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  1. For most people, this show was only fully satisfying to the end if they were already interested in the ideas behind the show before beginning to watch it. I’m one of those people who had been reading and thinking about these ideas for decades.

    Westworld was the most direct and thorough expression of these ideas I’ve ever come across, but admittedly for that reason it is demanding entertainment. I’m fine that the show wasn’t for everyone, something that is true other things I enjoy (e.g., William S. Burroughs).

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 1, 2018 at 5:01 pm


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