The Wonder in ‘Westworld,’ a first impression

The first (but probably not the last) thing I write about WestWorld:

The show Westworld begins with a dejected Dolores Abernathy sitting naked on a stool. One arm hangs limply. Her lap cradles the other. Her knees lean in on each other, due to her pigeon-toed feet. Her blonde head tilts to the side, and, in a mostly dark room, she is the epitome of defeat and vulnerability. A fly crawls across her eye. She does not react. She is not irritable. She is not human.

However, while the show Westworld begins in such a finite manner, a day in Westworld begins in many ways. New guests arrive to the amusement park by train. Old guests wake from wherever they were the following night. The park’s robotic hosts fall into well-told routines, unaware of how their circadian days (and nights) lead back to the same starting points.

HBO’s Westworld founds itself on repetition and therefore describing how it begins is a rather difficult task. In the show’s first episode, titled “The Original,” Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) starts her day on an endless loop, and if not for her beauty, the audience might yawn at her in the same manner one blinks heavily at animatronic presidents in Disney World. This is intentional. The show needs viewers to accept an invitation to the park, the laboratory, the show, and so Dolores must be both pretty and innocent enough to elicit the concern of local news stories about girls gone missing and whatnot. The audience needs to ask: How and why did this young farm girl end up naked in a laboratory being asked questions?

She is, for lack of a better word, in need of our sympathies.

Dolores Abernathy opens her eyes. She walks down the stairs. Her father greets her. She is in town, on the main thoroughfare. She drops a canister from her saddle bag. It rolls on its axis across the dirt road, much like a planet spinning round the sun. A man, usually Teddy Flood (James Marsden), stoops to retrieve the canister. They will then go horseback riding, and the ride typically ends with Flood’s death. This has all happened before. That much is clear. When did it begin? Probably around sunrise. When does it usually end? Mostly after dark. Abernathy and Flood, who are both androids, are not aware of all this, and we, as audience members, do not gather our insights from these perfectly configured protagonists, but from the Man in Black (Ed Harris). He is the man who shoots Flood. He mocks the blank slate of Flood’s memory. We are also as blank as that slate because, unlike the Man in Black, we have never been to Westworld. The Man in Black says he has been coming here for thirty years; we are not so blank as Flood’s nonexistent memory. We are one degree away from losing.

The first image in the show’s opening credits resembles an artificial sunrise. The second image in the opening credits is a machine arm drawing and crafting such artificial images. This is all very much a chicken or the egg sort of dance being done to a player piano, which is fitting. After all, the show exists on two frontiers: the setting of the Western frontier and the rising of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, the human guest (Ed Harris) murders the robotic hero and rapes the damsel in distress. Which of these behaviors is more natural? Which one is artificial? The villain’s drives? Or the hero’s desires?

Westworld broaches its themes and concepts at neck breaking speeds, and the meshing of all these frontiers is impressively American. Consider how the same nation born from the world’s largest genocide also put a man on the moon and mass-produced the smartphone. Manifest Destiny may have always had the horizon as a destination, but, at some point, the journey through unmapped territories was always a passageway through the self. Or, to put it another way, completing the transcontinental railroad was a journey rushing away from a well-defined humanity. The show Westworld appears to be thinking about all this and therefore is almost impossible to pin down in a single piece of writing.

But what one notices almost immediately is how quickly these fragments become familiar and how once familiar the fragments begin to look more like puzzle pieces to a map. A familiarity with genre conventions allows the audience to start charting a course, which is to say: Not far into the show the act of asking questions shifts naturally to making predictions, and predictions have as much to do with the past as they do with the future.

As in real life, remembering and imagining are difficult tasks to separate in Westworld, and both bear repeating. Almost every scene in the Westworld laboratories features a production line of Leonardo Da Vinci mannequins, spread eagle and dripping with possibilities, just as every scene within the virtual amusement park confines itself to the limits of archetype and narrative. The movement back and forth between the one and the other embodies the present’s daringness to make the future as much like the past as possible, making nostalgia the threshold for innovation and, in the case of the park’s visitors, the gateway for escape. The effect for the audience is to feel a simultaneous collapsing and expanding of a genre, or a story’s possibilities.

Part of the fun for television viewers (as it is for all newcomers to Westworld/Westworld) rests in guessing who is human and who is not, and how those definitions are parceled out is a geeked-out journey into Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. His 1991 work ends with a figure of Christ staring at a Pre-Columbian godhead, suggesting how a person defines humanity often says as much about the self as it does the other.

In Westworld, how this configuration works is twofold. One, the show positions the two genres, the Western and science fiction, into a stare down, where looking to the past or the future results in a reflection on the present. And, secondly, both inside the park and outside it human beings and androids face off against the other in situations that cause a reading of gestures that raises a single question about past settings, which also serves as a hypothesis for future understanding: Are you real?

Those participating in such New World encounters are practicing a very old game indeed, for these practices date back to at least the fifteenth century and the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean. Also, at this time is when Europe began exporting its ideas of the self abroad and through time via the narratives written about exploring the Americas. The writers conceiving the amusement park plot lines for Westworld are essentially aping the narrative tricks that began with John Smith and Cabeza de Vaca and evolved all the way up through the twentieth century and the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and eventually Quentin Tarantino.

In fact, Westworld’s creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) rejects a storyline entitled “Odyssey on the Red River,” suggesting that the story’s plot was so full of stock characters and Western tropes that its corporeality would most likely suffer. In his rejection, Dr. Ford even suggests that the story’s outlandish violence reveals far more about its author than either the West or the park’s guests. In a similar fashion, Greenblatt often argues that European depictions of the Native populations as violent and savage were more likely to accurately categorize their European authors than their Native subjects.

After all, being outsiders to Native customs and not understanding any Native languages, Europeans were often left describing a game of charades in their narrative accounts than describing events as they happened. Moreover, due to this lack of understanding the other, they often filled in the blanks of the other’s consciousness with fragments of what they understood about themselves and their European cultures of origin. Thus, the Native presence in European narratives is never native to anything at all other than European viewpoints of cultures they can name but never interpret.

The amusement park Westworld’s writers conjure similar encounters between the park’s guests and its hosts when they write the host characters to be as savage or just as they anticipate the park’s guests to be. Thus, regardless of whether a guest chooses to behave as a hero or a villain, they are not alone, but with the hosts scripted to be most like their inner selves. Such moments also occur between the park’s hosts and the engineers who designed them.

Many of the scenes that include Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) feature him marveling at human facial gestures, and, in turn, other humans marveling at how he captures their human expressions in his robotic creations. For him, then, every android is a text of exploration, or an account of wonder. Thus, his ability to reflect (or project) humanity allows other human beings to reflect on being human. That is, they will experience such wonder if they are willing to play a particular role in a story made corporeal, only to play along with the story is to normalize one’s awestruck first impressions at the park’s abilities to engineer false realities.

In this way, to accept the story is to engage with one’s sense of wonder in a way that softens it, whereas a total rejection of wonder, most likely, results in behaviors that treat the robotic hosts as objects rather than subjects. The most clear example of this rejection is when guests to the park slaughter the hosts without purpose. However, the park’s security protocol is primarily a defense against world-altering wonder. When Westworld robots fail to achieve their programmed objectives or become outdated, they are updated or replaced. But Westworld robots also are taken offline when updates render them too human to sustain the border between humanity and artificial intelligence. Deep in the Westworld laboratories is a room filled with hosts that are either too outdated and robotic or too sentient and human.

Because the park relies on narratives as a method for control, visitors to the park must recognize the shape of the park’s narrative arcs.

When guests to the park arrive by train to the town of Sweetwater, they are propositioned to either hunt outlaws in the surrounding hills or lay with whores in brothel beds. One can even imagine Westworld’s corporate writers committing godawful posse or pussy malapropisms in their creative meetings. However, this dichotomy is not an innovation by either the park or the show’s creative teams, but an understanding of Western plots, tropes, and archetypes.

In John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) avenges his brother’s death and then runs off with Dallas (Claire Trevor) beyond the Mexican border. In Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) doesn’t even shoot his gun, but overcomes his greatest threat, Lili Von Shtupp (Madelaine Kahn), via his abilities in the bedroom. Then, he and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) exploit the boundaries between film and reality and make for the sunset, making it unclear whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Either way, however, narrative conventions circumnavigate the silver screen, flattening life into a series of collisions (or avoiding collisions) with violence or intercourse.

Lastly, in the bloody works of both Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, heroes and villains are only diverted from acts of violence by sexual acts and vice versa. When McCarthy embarks on such practices, he seems to do so with an understanding that once upon a time the Aztec presented their heroes with virgins on the eve of sacrificing those same heroes on the temple steps. In a sense, every Western has always been a day in Westworld, and every white hat hero or black hat villain has been programmed to either shoot or screw as soon as he steps off the train. Such is the nature of narrative traditions.

When such Apollonian (and Dionysian) propositions present themselves in Westworld, visitors to the park are being interpellated to fulfill particular narrative roles, and the illusion is that they are indeed making a choice that is all their own, because, after all, their choices are functioning within a script. A sequence where this interpellation is most clear is when William (Jimmi Simpson) prepares to enter the park in the show’s second episode by picking out his costume and gun. However, his most important decision is between wearing a white hat or a black hat. This choice matters not only for him but will signify to others how he has chosen to play the game, unless, that is, he chooses to play it ironically and against the coding of his archetype. Most narratives would have started with this sequence, but Westworld delays it, revealing how a hero’s actions are mostly reactionary and naïve. When William steps into Sweetwater, the story’s mechanisms are already moving, and he registers as a black sheep (despite his white hat) in a world propagated by vice and violence.

And yet, a show that is as much about cognition as Western frontiers must account for the randomness of choice or, in other words, what lies outside the realm of narrative.

One of the truly humorous moments in the show’s first episode is when two guests to the park, a husband and wife, join a posse hunting Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro). As the posse moves through the sunlit hills, the two guests give up on the quest because they cannot handle the Western heat. Because they give up on this Westworld story, Westworld’s audience also gives up on this particular Westworld story. And yet, later on, this same undeserving couple ends up shooting Hector right as he ends a killing spree and begins what is supposed to be a “chilling” monologue. As Hector falls dead and silent, the husband and wife then convert themselves into heroic heathens by demanding their pictures taken with the corpses of the vanquished. What these two guests do not realize, however, is that they have stunted one of the Westworld story arcs by not engaging with wonder (it could also be they never possessed the capacity for wonder).

In response to a series of malfunctioning bots, the park’s writers had been asked to write a cover up story that would account for why some fifty or so androids and their stories would be missing in action from the park’s daily mechanisms. Hector’s killing spree and monologue were that cover up story, and yet he never delivered the monologue because two guests too lazy to pursue Hector in the hills ended up killing him on the main thoroughfare. In Westworld, as in the West, the lazy and incompetent can be the victors just as easily as the wise and the brave, and just because a particular mythology exists, does not mean its narrative parts account for the how and the why of history. Chaos and order seem to exist simultaneously.

While the Man in Black (Ed Harris) obsesses over every detail Westworld has to share, this husband and wife neglect to listen, and yet so far the results are the same: Blood and carnage and decommissioned robots.

Dolores wakes from the dream and descends the stairs, but this time she swats a fly. The violent act is a wonder to behold; it is a diversion from the script.

Bryan Harvey tweets @Bryan_S_Harvey.

Originally published at on July 5, 2017.

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