Posts Tagged ‘Westworld’
Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Westworld.
Over time, as a society, we’ve more or less figured out how we’re all supposed to deal with spoilers. When a movie first comes out, there’s a grace period in which most of us agree not to discuss certain aspects of the story, especially the ending. Usually, reviewers will confine their detailed observations to the first half of the film, which can be difficult for a critic who sees his or her obligation as that of a thoughtful commentator, rather than of a consumer advisor who simply points audiences in the right direction on opening weekend. If there’s a particularly striking development before the halfway mark, we usually avoid talking about that, too. (Over time, the definition of what constitutes a spoiler has expanded to the point where some fans apply it to any information about a film whatsoever, particularly for big franchise installments.) For six months or so, we remain discreet—and most movies, it’s worth noting, are forgotten long before we even get to that point. A movie with a major twist at the end may see that tacit agreement extended for years. Eventually, however, it becomes fair game. Sometimes it’s because a surprise has seeped gradually into the culture, so that a film like Citizen Kane or Psycho becomes all but defined by its secrets. In other cases, as with The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, it feels more like we’ve collectively decided that anyone who wants to see it has already gotten a chance, and now we can talk about it openly. And up until now, it’s a system that has worked pretty well.
But this approach no longer makes sense for a television show that is still on the air, at least if the case of Westworld is any indication. We’re not talking about spoilers, exactly, but about a certain kind of informed speculation. The idea that one of the plotlines on Westworld was actually an extended flashback first surfaced in discussions on communities like Reddit, was picked up by the commenters on the reviews on mainstream websites, led theorists to put together elaborate chronologies and videos to organize the evidence, and finally made its way into think pieces. Long before last night’s finale, it was clear that the theory had to be correct. The result didn’t exactly ruin my enjoyment, since it turned out to be just one thread in a satisfying piece of storytelling, but I’ll never know what it would have been like to have learned the truth along with Dolores, and I suspect that a lot of other viewers felt the same twinge of regret. (To be fair, the percentage of people who keep up with this sort of theorizing online probably amounts to a fraction of the show’s total viewership, and the majority of the audience experienced the reveal pretty much as the creators envisioned it.) There’s clearly no point in discouraging this kind of speculation entirely. But when a show plays fair, as Westworld did, it’s only a matter of time before somebody solves the mystery in advance. And because a plausible theory can spread so quickly through the hive mind, it makes us feel smarter, as individuals, than we really are, which compromises our reactions to what was a legitimately clever and resonant surprise.
Westworld isn’t the first show to be vulnerable to this kind of collective sleuthing: Game of Thrones has been subjected to it for years, especially when it comes to the parentage, status, and ultimate fate of a certain character who otherwise wouldn’t seem interesting enough to survive. In both cases, it’s because the show—or the underlying novels—provided logical clues along the way to prepare us, in the honorable fashion of all good storytelling. The trouble is that these rules were established at a time when most works of narrative were experienced in solitude. Even if one out of three viewers figured out the twist in The Usual Suspects before the movie was halfway done, it didn’t really affect the experience of the others in the theater, since we don’t tend to discuss the story in progress out loud. That was true of television, too, for most of the medium’s history. These days, however, many of us are essentially talking about these stories online while they’re still happening, so it isn’t surprising if the solutions can spread like a virus. I don’t blame the theorists, because this kind of speculation can be an absorbing game in its own right. But it’s so powerful that it needs to be separated from the general population. It requires a kind of self-policing, or quarantine, that has to become second nature to every viewer of this kind of show. Reviewers need to figure out how to deal with it, too. Otherwise, shows will lose the incentive to play fair, relying instead on blunter, more mechanical kinds of surprise. And this would be a real shame, because Westworld has assembled the pieces so effectively that I don’t doubt it will continue to do so in the future.
Watching the finale, I was curious to see how it would manage to explain the chronology of Dolores’s story without becoming hopelessly confusing, and it did a beautiful job, mostly by subordinating it to the larger questions of William’s fate, Dolores’s journey, and Ford’s master plan, which has taken thirty-five years to come to fruition. (In itself, this is a useful insight into storytelling: it’s easier for the audience to make a big conceptual leap when it feeds into an emotional arc that is already in progress, and if it’s treated as a means, not an end.) If anything, the reveal of the identity of Wyatt was even more powerful—although, oddly, the fact that everything has unfolded according to Ford’s design undermines the agency of the very robots that it was supposed to defend. It’s an emblem for why this excellent season remains one notch down from the level of a masterpiece, thanks to the need of its creators, like Ford, to maintain a tight level of control. Still, if it lasts for as long as I think it will, it may not even matter how much of it the Internet figured out on first viewing. For a television show, the lifespan of a spoiler seems to play in reverse: instead of a grace period followed by free discussion after enough time has passed, we get intense speculation while the show airs, giving way to silence once we’ve all moved on to the next big thing. If Westworld endures as a work of art, it will be seen just as it was intended by those who discover it much later, after the flurry of speculation has faded. I don’t know how long it will take before it can be seen again with fresh eyes. But thirty-five years seems about right.
Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.
I’ve written a lot on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow television shows to experiment with different combinations of characters. Usually, it takes a season or two for the most fruitful pairings to emerge, and they can take even the writers by surprise. When a series begins, characters tend to interact based on where the plot puts them, and those initial groupings are based on little more than the creator’s best guess. Later, when the strengths of the actors have become apparent and the story has wandered in unanticipated directions, you end up with wonderful pairings that you didn’t even know you wanted. Last night’s installment of Westworld features at least two of these. The first is an opening encounter between Bernard and Maeve that gets the episode off to an emotional high that it never quite manages to top: it hurries Bernard to the next—and maybe last—stage of his journey too quickly to allow him to fully process what Maeve tells him. But it’s still nice to see them onscreen together. (They’re also the show’s two most prominent characters of color, but its treatment of race is so deeply buried that it barely even qualifies as subtext.) The second nifty scene comes when Charlotte, the duplicitous representative from the board, shows up in the Man in Black’s storyline. It’s more plot-driven, and it exists mostly to feed us some useful pieces of backstory. But there’s an undeniable frisson whenever two previously unrelated storylines reveal a hidden connection.
I hope that the show gives us more moments like this, but I’m also a little worried that it can’t. The scenes that I liked most in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” were surprising and satisfying precisely because the series has been so meticulous about keeping its plot threads separated. This may well be because at least one subplot is occurring in a different timeline, but more often, it’s a way of keeping things orderly: there’s so much happening in various places that the show is obliged to let each story go its own way. I don’t fault it for this, because this is such a superbly organized series, and although there are occasional lulls, they’ve been far fewer than you’d expect from a show with this level of this complexity. But very little of it seems organic or unanticipated. This might seem like a quibble. Yet I desperately want this show to be as great as it shows promise of being. And if there’s one thing that the best shows of the last decade—from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Fargo—have in common, it’s that they enjoy placing a few characters in a room and simply seeing what happens. You could say that Westworld is an inherently different sort of series, and that’s fine. But it’s such an effective narrative machine that it leaves me a little starved for those unpredictable moments that television, of all media, is the most likely to produce. (Its other great weakness is its general air of humorlessness, which arises from the same cause.) This is one of the most plot-heavy shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible to tell a tightly structured story while still leaving room for the unexpected. In fact, that’s one sign of mastery.
And you don’t need to look far for proof. In a pivotal passage in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite books on the movies, Donald Richie writes of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and he goes to to say:
Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert.
“Rigorous” and “closely reasoned” are two words that I’m sure the creators of Westworld would love to hear used to describe their show. But when you look at a movie like Seven Samurai—which on some level is the greatest western ever made—you have to agree with Richie: “What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.”
I don’t know if Westworld will ever become confident enough to offer viewers more water in the desert, but I’m hopeful that it will, because the precedent exists for a television series giving us a rigorous first season that it blows up down the line. I’m thinking, in particular, of Community, a show that might otherwise seem to have little in common with Westworld. It’s hard to remember now, after six increasingly nutty seasons, but Community began as an intensely focused sitcom: for its debut season, it didn’t even leave campus. The result gave the show what I’ve called a narrative home base, and even though I’m rarely inclined to revisit that first season, the groundwork that it laid was indispensable. It turned Greendale into a real place, and it provided a foundation for even the wildest moments to follow. Westworld seems to be doing much the same thing. Every scene so far has taken place in the park, and we’ve only received a few scattered hints of what the world beyond might be like—and whatever it is, it doesn’t sound good. The escape of the hosts from the park feels like an inevitable development, and the withholding of any information about what they’ll find is obviously a deliberate choice. This makes me suspect that this season is restricting itself on purpose, to prepare us for something even stranger, and in retrospect, it will seem cautious, compared to whatever else Westworld has up its sleeve. It’s the baseline from which crazier, more unexpected moments will later arise. Or, to take a page from the composer of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” this season is the aria, and the variations are yet to come.
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.
Note: Major spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.
Shortly before the final scene of “Trompe L’Oeil,” it occurred to me that Westworld, after a strong start, was beginning to coast a little. Like any ensemble drama on a premium cable channel, it’s a machine with a lot of moving parts, so it can be hard to pin down any specific source of trouble. But it appears to be a combination of factors. The plot thread centering on Dolores, which I’ve previously identified as the engine that drives the entire series, has entered something of a holding pattern—presumably because the show is saving its best material for closer to the finale. (I was skeptical of the multiple timelines theory at first, but I’m reluctantly coming around to it.) The introduction of Delos, the corporation that owns the park, as an active participant in the story is a decision that probably looked good on paper, but it doesn’t quite work. So far, the series has given us what amounts to a closed ecosystem, with a cast of characters that consists entirely of the hosts, the employees, and a handful of guests. At this stage, bringing in a broadly villainous executive from corporate headquarters comes precariously close to a gimmick: it would have been more interesting to have the conflict arise from someone we’d already gotten to know in a more nuanced way. Finally, it’s possible that the events of the last week have made me more sensitive to the tendency of the series to fall back on images of violence against women to drive the story forward. I don’t know how those scenes would have played earlier, but they sure don’t play for me now.
And then we get the twist that a lot of viewers, including me, had suspected might be coming: Bernard is a robot. Taken on its own, the revelation is smartly handled, and there are a lot of clever touches. In a scene at the beginning between Bernard and Hector, the episode establishes that the robots simply can’t process details that conflict with their programming, and this pays off nicely at the end, when Bernard doesn’t see the door that leads into Dr. Ford’s secret lab. A minute later, when Theresa hands him the schematics that show his own face, Bernard says: “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” (This raises an enticing possibility for future reveals, in which scenes from previous episodes that were staged from Bernard’s point of view are shown to have elements that we didn’t see at the time, because Bernard couldn’t. I don’t know if the show will take that approach, but it should—it’s nothing less than an improvement on the structural mislead in The Sixth Sense, and it would be a shame not to use it.) Yet the climactic moment, in which Dr. Ford calmly orders Bernard to murder Theresa, doesn’t land as well as it could have. It should have felt like a shocking betrayal, but the groundwork wasn’t quite there: Bernard and Theresa’s affair was treated very casually, and by the time we get to their defining encounter, whatever affection they had for each other is long gone. From the point of view of the overall plot, this arguably makes sense. But it also drains some of the horror from a payoff that the show must have known was coming. If we imagine Elsie as the victim instead, we can glimpse what the scene might have been.
Yet I’m not entirely sure this wasn’t intentional. Westworld is a cerebral, even clinical show, and it doesn’t seem to take pleasure in action or visceral climaxes for their own sake. Part of this probably reflects the temperament of its creators, but it also feels like an attempt by the show to position itself in a challenging time for this kind of storytelling. It’s a serialized drama that delivers new installments each week, but these days, such shows are just as likely to drop all ten episodes at once. This was obviously never an option for a show on HBO, but the weekly format creates real problems for a show that seems determined to set up twists that are more considered and logical than the usual shock deaths. To its credit, the show has played fair with viewers, and the clues to Bernard’s true nature were laid in with care. (If I noticed them, it was only because I was looking: I asked myself, working from first principles, what kind of surprise a show like this would be likely to spring, and the revelation that one of the staff members was actually a host seemed like a strong contender.) When a full week of online discussion and speculation falls between each episode, it becomes harder to deliver such surprises. Even if the multiple timeline theory doesn’t turn out to be correct, its very existence indicates the amount of energy, ingenuity, and obsessive analysis that the audience is willing to devote to it. As a result, the show’s emotional detachment comes off as a preemptive defense mechanism. It downplays the big twists, as if to tell us that it isn’t the surprises that count, but their implications.
In the case of Bernard, I’m willing to take that leap, if only because the character is in the hands of Jeffrey Wright, who is more qualified than any other actor alive to work through the repercussions. It’s a casting choice that speaks a lot, in itself, to the show’s intelligence. (In an interview with The A.V. Club, Wright has revealed that he didn’t know that Bernard was a robot when he shot the pilot, and that his own theory was that Dr. Ford was a creation of Bernard’s, which would have been even more interesting.) The revelation effectively reveals Bernard to have been the show’s secret protagonist all along, which is where he belongs, and it occurs at just about the right point in the season for it to resonate: we’ve still got three episodes to go, which gives the show room, refreshingly, to deal with the consequences, rather than rushing past them to the finale. Whether it can do the same with whatever else it has up its sleeve, including the possibility of multiple timelines, remains to be seen. But even though I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by the last two episodes, I’m still excited to see how it plays its hand. Even as Westworld unfolds from one week to the next, it clearly sees the season as a single continuous story, and the qualities that I’ve found unsatisfying in the moment—the lulls, the lack of connection between the various plot threads, the sense that it’s holding back for the climax—are those that I hope will pay off the most in the end. Like its robots, the series is built with a bicameral mind, with the logic of the whole whispering its instructions to the present. And more than any show since Mad Men, it seems to have its eye on the long game.
Note: Major spoilers follow for the entire run of Westworld.
“The Adversary” is far from a bad hour of television, but it’s one of the weaker episodes of Westworld. We’re just past the halfway point of the season, which is when a show has to start focusing on its endgame, and in practice, this often means that we get an installment devoted to what showrunners call “laying pipe,” or setting up information that will pay off later on. There’s a lot of material being delivered to the viewer here, but it lacks some of the urgency of earlier installments, and on an emotional level, it’s more detached than usual. (The exception is gorgeous silent sequence that leans heavily on an orchestral version of Radiohead’s heartbreaking “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” a musical crutch that I’ll forgive because it’s so effective.) For the most part, though, it puts advancing the mystery ahead of spending time with the characters, and when we look back at the season as a whole, I have a feeling it will turn out to have been structurally necessary. I like all the intrigue surrounding the maze, the acts of industrial espionage in the park, and the enigmatic figure of Arnold—which are beginning to look as if they’re just different aspects of the same thing. But it’s all fairly standard for a series like this, and it isn’t the reason I keep watching. Westworld has so much going on, both for good and for bad, that its mystery box aspects seem less like the main attraction than like a convenient spine. And it means that the show sometimes has to take care of a few practical matters to prepare for the big finish.
What surprised me the most about the episode, though, was the reason I found it a little less compelling than usual. It was the absence of Dolores. She’s obviously an important figure—she’s the show’s nominal lead, no less—and her journey is central to the overall arc of the season. If you’d asked me if she was my favorite character, though, I would have said that she wasn’t: I get more pleasure out of our time with Bernard. But if you take her out of an episode entirely, something interesting happens. Westworld, like Game of Thrones, is an ensemble series that spends much of its time checking in on various groups of characters, and it means that you often won’t see important players at all, or for no more than a minute or two. And it’s only in their absences that you start to figure out who is truly essential. When Bernard was offscreen for most of last week, except for a brief conversation with Elsie, I was aware that I missed him, but it didn’t detract from the rest of the story. With Dolores gone, it’s as if the engine of the show has been removed. It’s surprising, because her scenes with William and Logan haven’t exactly jumped off the screen, and her storyline is the one area where the show seems to be stalling, because it’s clearly saving her big moments for closer to the end. But Dolores’s gradual movement toward consciousness is such a crucial thread that removing it leaves the show feeling a bit like Game of Thrones at its worst: a collection of scenes without a center. We aren’t supposed to identify with Dolores, exactly, but she’s the most dynamic character in sight, and her evolution is what gives the series its narrative thrust.
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. The gist of the argument, in case you haven’t heard it, is that the scenes involving Dolores, William, and Logan are flashbacks that are occurring more than thirty years before the rest of the show, and that William is really a younger version of the Man in Black. Its proponents bolster their case using details like the two different versions of the Westworld park logo, the changing typeface on a can of condensed milk, and the fact that we never see William or Logan interacting with any of the other human characters. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but nothing that can’t be explained away in isolation as a deliberate mislead, and I don’t think the conspiracy theorists will give up until William and the Man in Black meet face to face. It’s a clever reading, and it isn’t inconsistent with what we know about the past tactics of creator Jonathan Nolan. For all I know, it may turn out to be true. It’s certainly a better surprise than most shows have managed. But I hope it isn’t what’s really happening here—and for many of the same reasons that I gave above. 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.
This isn’t always a bad thing, and some of the most effective twists in the history of storytelling have forced the audience to radically revise what it thinks it knows about the protagonist. But I think it would be a mistake here. 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. It’s possible that this may turn out to be a commentary on her lack of agency as a robot: the series might be fooling us into reading more into Dolores than we should, just like William does, which would be an inspired trick indeed. But Dolores is such a load-bearing character that I’m worried that the show would lose more than it gained by the reveal. Her story may be nothing but a bridge that can be blown to smithereens as soon as the other characters have crossed safely to the other side, as James Joyce memorably put it. But I’m skeptical. As “The Adversary” demonstrates, when you remove Dolores from the equation, you end up with a show that provides memorable moments but little in the way of an overarching shape. (The scene in which Maeve blackmails Felix and Sylvester into making her more intelligent only highlights how much more intriguing Dolores’s organic discovery of her true nature has been.) 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.
In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:
Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.
And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.
I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.
Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”
That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.
In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:
This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.
I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.
And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.
Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:
What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.
This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.