We’re only a couple weeks into HBO’s latest series, Westworld, but it already has all the makings for one of the great science fiction series even as it mixes in all the ingredients that can make it work as a serial drama in the vein of eyeball grabbers like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
I haven’t seen the original 1973 film, written and directed by Michael Crichton (who would go on to return to the theme of “what if amusement parks were scary” with Jurassic Park a couple decades later) so I won’t be incorporating that into my thoughts here – we’re looking specifically at HBO’s Westworld in a bubble.
What makes science fiction truly great is the science – not the fiction. It’s the plausibility of the story and the way we can apply the important pieces of it to our lives, not the laser swords and which-spaceplane-would-win arguments.
Good science fiction will ask a simple ‘What If’ question, provide an appropriate setting for that question, and let the story almost tell itself. From that, we can ask questions about high concepts like intelligence, good and evil, and humanity.
Westworld is primed to do exactly that. For a great rundown of the show so far, check out our own Brandon Russell’s take.
Now that the first two episodes have aired, though, we can get a bit more specific and wade into spoilerville without ruining the show for 99 percent of our audience.
Westworld has already started to give us what I described above. Right from the beginning, we’re asked to question not only what is real and what isn’t, but what we think of as real.
We spend a portion of the episode following around Teddy (James Marsden), watching him take part in what we think is part of the theme park’s adventure, crossing paths with a pretty frontier girl we can only assume he’s met in previous visits before accompanying her home to find her house invaded by bandits.
The situation quickly turns when the Man in Black shows up. Here we’re reminded that the robotic hosts cannot harm the human guests, and for a split second it’s suggested that the Man in Black has figured a way around this, as he fires on Teddy with impunity. The young cowboy’s rounds bounce off the gunslinger while the gunslinger’s rounds do as one would expect.
It quickly becomes apparent that Teddy – a perfect picture of a Western protagonist – is just a character in this theme park called Westworld. He’s part of the scenery, not one of the tourists. But the look on his face shows the same kind of surprise one would actually expect if they ended up on the wrong end of a gun.
And so immediately we are shown that the lines between human and android blur in this place, often intentionally. But a show about a theme park that works would get old pretty quickly, and it’s the glitches that contain the true promise of the show. From here, we delve into some of the most difficult to grasp concepts of humanity.
Just in the first episode, we start tangling with the concepts of memory and dreams. These hosts have to have a certain amount of artificial intelligence to react to outsiders convincingly and to play out the fantasies these visitors have, from simple treasure hunts all the way down to depraved escapades of sex and violence some visitors want to engage in. Hosts are reset regularly to restart storylines; they’re basically NPCs in a big real-life video game, respawning and resetting when a quest ends or when the players interfere with them. They are, ostensibly, the exact same ‘person’ at the beginning of each reset that the theme park engineers designed them to be.
And so the show asks, what if they could remember what happened? What if the things all these guests had inflicted on them, what if all the various roles they’d played, left marks on them? The same way that these androids are designed to react to outside stimulus, they begin to react to internal stimulus as well. We’re only starting to find out how that will play out.
Playing off of what makes The Walking Dead such a popular show, one of the themes of Westworld so far is the idea that humans are the real monsters. Of course, AMC’s zombiefest isn’t the first show to do this. I think that Westworld will hew much more closely to the philosophies of creators like Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling. The humans are the real monsters, sure, but we know that already. We watch the news. We go through life.
Instead, we have these androids starting to react to the world around them as the systems that make them tick begin to malfunction. Through the eyes of these androids, actions that might make sense to us are suddenly bizarre and horrific. Repairing and resetting androids each day makes sense to us, but what if you, a denizen of a small desert watering hole, woke up in a concrete-and-glass monolith with men slicing into your stomach? It starts to look like a nightmare.
These hosts, designed to reflect our fantasies, become a mix of worn down adults and innocent children, scarred by a thousand literal deaths and yet only just now learning to comprehend reality.
So then we have to ask, when do these creations stop being considered machines and start being considered conscious entities? When do we start feeling sympathy for them?
And then we have to start wondering, if these hosts are indistinguishable from humans, are some of the supposed humans we’ve met actually hosts? And even if they technically are, as one character asks in the second episode, does it matter?
We also start to look at what people want from their entertainment, even as we’re watching Westworld itself for the sake of entertainment.
Out in the real world, the park’s head writer, the mind behind all the storylines visitors can stumble across and take part in, struggles with creating a new story. While he wants to build a wild, debaucherous adventure filled with murder and sex and everything else – an adventure that shows the visitor who they are. The park’s creator, on the other hand, wishes for something more original, something that tells the visitor “not who they are, but who they could be.”
This seems to be a struggle between ways of telling stories. Auteur creators fight for originality against board-driven entertainment that simply remixes ingredients. Smaller, more reactive stories fight against big heavily scripted ones. Giving the visitor a quick fix determined by algorithms and surveys balances against making the viewer work for their entertainment.
When I look at Westworld I see something like The Twilight Zone. We have a wide-open world within a wide-open world, offering us all kinds of small stories to ask questions like these. Sometimes it’ll ask new questions. Sometimes it’ll ask old ones from new angles. We’re sure to see twisted things along our adventure through Westworld, but what will haunt us about the things we’ll see – if the writers can pull it off – won’t be the imagery, but the seeds it’ll plant in our heads.