HBO, Sundays through November
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
In an interview leading up to Westworld’s premiere this past Sunday night, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy revealed that much of their new HBO show, lifted from Michael Crichton’s oracular 1972 film, was incubated simultaneously to Joy’s pregnancy with their first child. Concern over where the future of humankind lies dictates concern around of arguably its most profound and unpredictable creation: artificial intelligence. As much as we fret over where our species heads, especially with war, disease, and climate clogging the works, we worry just as much about how technology will affect us. Technology has enabled and streamlined our aggressions, and it becomes easier for children to grasp onto that capability. The tech-friendly world they will grow into is uncertain, as we perceived adults have been given free rein to give into juvenile urges—quickly triggered anger and entitlement among them—at a higher frequency than we do in the flesh.
Therefore, if we humans are irrational and in need of scrutiny, then are we right to perpetuate that imperfection? And if we are, why do we become surprised or outraged when the product of imperfect hands is flawed? It’s why Westworld slides so slickly into our contemporary conversations, forty-plus years after the original inspired scores of paranoiacs. Considering how even an iPhone video isn’t enough to put criminals away, a futuristic amusement park where the financially privileged kill and fuck as they please with little consequence within the unmonitored “glory days” of the Old West isn’t far-fetched. It’s the ultimate “safe space.”
Westworld’s pilot, “The Original,” begins with an animated title sequence laying out molds and shapes for horses and men, some mid-construction, ready to be manipulated. In the four screeners provided to critics prior to the premiere, the credits were incomplete, meaning that instead of actors or directors, I was treated with a loop of “Name Surname.” Oddly fitting, considering the series’ treatment of identity and stock Western characters more defined by traits than names. When we meet the android Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) lifelessly sitting alone in a dungeon-like laboratory, we hear the trace of a twang in her voiceover. She is being questioned by an unseen man, who orders her to lose the accent. She does. “I am frightened,” she says, but she is, along with the audience, reassured. She’s asked questions, and she answers them according to the role she is assigned: the well-adjusted daughter—young, beautiful, dreamy and compliant. She sees the goodness in the world around her—“a place to be free, to follow our dreams”—and the purpose in our days.
Delores is built innocent, as is to be expected from many stock female roles in Westerns. She paints, goes to town, awaits her man Teddy (James Marsden), plans their future, tends to her parents, and that’s on a good day. Other days she sees Teddy die a hero’s death, or she is raped. But as programmed, she awakes the next day, just as bright and hopeful as before, without a trace of memory. Basically, her role is move ahead, forget her trauma, and remember her place, just as the subsequent generations are taught to ignore the past’s more damning facts. That these passive roles are maintained for nostalgic purposes raises a disturbing question about the future: even as the present expresses progress for women, how strongly will male supremacy persevere? Though Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) leads operations for Westworld, she’s still surrounded by men, some younger, some older (Anthony Hopkins as creative director Robert Ford, a hefty name in Western lore), all of them looking to control. When they do, the oppressed will have to move ahead and remember their place, or else lose whatever illusion of power they hold onto. Luckily, Westworld is not content with keeping people in their prescribed places. Look out for the growth of Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), one of the most tremendous sex-worker characters in recent years.
In the first four episodes, which were all HBO allotted pre-premiere, old-fashioned masculinity is confronted behind the scenes and within them. On one end, there’s Teddy, the park’s toothy, chiseled hero. Every Westworld-bound train carries him, as though having been away for months or years rather than hours. He looks out into the sun-soaked mesas and mountains, as pensive leads are instructed to do. Visitors notice him, but some are more interested in the bad guys. Westworld has its bandits and murderers, but nobody like the man in black (Ed Harris), who is so anti-social he remains unnamed. He’s visited Westworld for thirty years, and in this most recent visit, it appears he’s firmly accepted the role of the baddie, shooting up Delores’s family or scalping anyone with information. He doesn’t want to win any of the elaborate pulp storylines written for the visitors to enjoy, he wants to reach the end of Westworld, and he’ll make a coward out of Teddy (who can’t kill; only visitors can) or a toy out of Delores. Harris’s gunslinger is the embodiment of opportunity, and that’s the only title he needs. If the real world can’t be conquered by him, he’ll just have to find another one.
In his 1985 novel Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy writes: “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.” Those words, voiced through an unnamed hermit, compose the troubled, fearful position on artificial intelligence, even though that novel’s characters, living during the 19th century, couldn’t possibly anticipate the mechanics of Westworld. But abstract machines are more frightening. A machine can be an army or a mob creating a larger web of violence or hatred. We can fear artificial intelligence going awry, but what’s more daunting is the idea that they earn the vengeance they seek. That’s what makes the pilot’s final shot of Delores swatting a fly, a nuisance she’d been configured to ignore, so perfect. When man makes man, the devil could too be at his elbow, and the evil can run itself right back to him.