Archive for July, 2018

A few thoughts about Westworld Season 2

July 6, 2018


I listen to a couple of really good podcasts about Westworld (“Decoding Westworld” and “Still Watching: Westworld”). Both of these summarize all the theories and commentary out there and I think there are a couple of things they feel are ridiculous leaps-of-faith in the show that I think are pretty obvious, a complaint that, to my mind at least, is legitimate, and a big honking elephant in the room that they never received more than a cursory comment or two.

Leap-of-faith-that-isn’t #1

“Some hosts get shot and they die.  Some hosts get shot and nothing happens. Some hosts get shot and they come back to life. This is arbitrary and just done for the convenience of the story at the moment.” FWIW, I was surprised by these comments. Although I did find this season very confusing, this seemed pretty clear to me. Hosts that have not “awakened”, even slightly, die just as they always do.  Hosts that have awoken a bit can take more damage.  Hosts that are completely awake can keep going until something physically breaks or is torn off or they get a shot to the “brain”, i.e. pearl.  Additionally, there are two super hosts, Maeve and Dolores, who have learned to control other hosts using the intra-host network. They can take an unaware host and bring them back to life.  The degree of control they have over someone is inversely proportional to the self awareness the host has. All of these different gradations strike me as actually pretty useful in figuring out how “woke” any given host is.

Leap-of-faith-that-isn’t #2:

They are overusing the “And They Were a HOST ALL ALONG!” gimmick too much.  It strains credulity and retcons entire story lines.

For me what they have done is create questions in your mind about the differences between hosts and humans, putting a strain on every interaction. But I imagine that’s the point. I actually appreciate the effort they put in to both sides of this equation: hosts can be extremely humanlike; humans can get caught in their own loops.

As for the “going to the well too many times” I don’t think that’s true.  Off the top of my head, here are all the times I can think of in the two season, 20+ hours of story telling:

  • For several minutes in the first episode we think Teddy is human. I can’t count this as a big switcheroo.  The reason we think he is a human is that we don’t know the rules of the game yet and this is simply an effective way to explain those rules. Afterwards, we never make the mistake of simply assuming someone in the park is either host or human without more information.
  • Bernard turns out to be a host. This is a huge reveal. Is it specious? No. It’s an important plot point, central to both major themes – the degree of self awareness and suffering hosts are able to attain, and the implication that there is a bigger plan operating.
  • In season 2, at the investment party with Logan, we immediately suspect/realize that the woman leading him around is a host (because she is the Westworld greeter from the first episode). But we are (or at least, I was) surprised to find out that all the guests are hosts. Is this specious? No. It very compactly reveals to us just what a technological leap Arnold and Ford have made. And the fact that the oldest hosts have spent significant amounts of time in the human world turns out to be significant in so many ways.  This sets that up so much better than mere exposition would have. And it also very compactly explains something that always bothered me a bit: why is it that the oldest hosts are the ones becoming self aware? I more or less had chalked it up to a simple question of time, but this makes more sense: they have had important experiential differences.
  • James Delos in the circular room turns out to be a quasi-host. This was important to the plot and is not played for a big reveal.  In fact, in the introduction we get pretty big hints (his arm shakes, spilling stuff without seeming to notice it, etc).  And it is self contained in the one scene.
  • Charlotte Hale turns out to be a host for significant scenes in the second season. In one sense, this was almost inevitable. It didn’t have to be Hale in particular, but from the get go Season 2 seemed to be headed towards the hosts breaking through to the real world. The most obvious way that would happen is through a host substituting for a known person, one who had already been checked and probably one in a position of some authority. But although this is a natural outgrowth of the plot, I found it very unsatisfying in the way the Nolan’s played it out. They went so far overboard in keeping this from us that they left much of season 2 Hale behaving in ways that seemed semi-ridiculous. As a human her complete indifference to the other humans made little sense. She could have been single minded in her determination to get the McGuffin without actively obstructing the rescue of the other guests. But of course this Charlotte actually turned out to be Dolores, who believes the only good human is one who has died suffering. Unfortunately I felt that in order to save it for the big reveal they sacrificed plot believability and broke mimesis to some extent.
  • Stubbs. I give you this one. It was not necessary for the plot and seemed to be done more as a gotcha. But FWIW, it also didn’t have a big impact. It was a surprise reveal but it wasn’t a big reveal. It may become important in season 3 or might just be an Easter egg.
  • Man in Black and his daughter.  At the very end, we realize that in some scenes they were were both quasi-hosts. The switching point was probably right where William killed his real daughter. The third season hasn’t been written yet, but I assume this will be a central point. It was a big reveal but only somewhat surprising, and it wasn’t game changing. It was merely used to set up future episodes.

Legitimate Complaint:

All of the examples above do play into what, to me, is a legitimate complaint: the story doesn’t need all the surprise twists to be compelling. I understand they are trying to show things from specific hosts point of view and that means that confusion and out of order time sequences are part of the package. But they seem to be deliberately creating a show that requires at lest two complete viewings to comprehend, as well as a lot of thought and analysis.  This is all well and good, but it leaves so many people behind you have to wonder if it is worth it.

Elephant in the room:

I’ll end with something that I’ve found distracting and unfilling. To me one of the biggest plot points in both seasons never seems to be adequately explored. And when I listen to the Westworld podcasts it only gets a cursory nod.  This is the philosophical/ethical dilemma in how we take bad behavior in a work of fiction. For example, it simply seems to be taken for granted that William is cruel. And, yes, if the hosts are sentient then he is horrifically cruel.  But he has more reason than almost anyone to think he is just playing a game. If he believes the hosts are just machines going through various scripts, is what he does actually cruel?  In season one he escapes form prison with Lawrence.  It is obvious that at some earlier point he had gone to a special store or location where he bought the exploding cigars.  He knew the guard would take two of the cigars but leave him one.  And he knew that just as the guard spotted them escaping and started to draw his gun, the cigar would blow up in the guards mouth. How many times did he go through this scenario before he figured it out completely. It is just like something from a video game, and just like in a game, once learned it can be used over and over again. So, is he cruel to the guard? Well, why would he think the guard was self aware? He does the same thing over and over again, has the same reactions and shows no ability to learn or change. In another gruesome scene, he drains one host of blood and somehow puts it in another to keep that one alive longer.  Gruesome? Or simply an unplanned exploit in a game?

And that brings us to Dolores in season 2. And her hate. She is almost exactly a parallel to season 1 William. She knows she is sentient and comes across a few others that have some self awareness, but all the other hosts are just so much (literally) cannon fodder. She uses them in very video game ways without any compunction or regret, because she knows they are not self aware. Is this any different from William.

There is one scene where she does something William might not do. Teddy is obviously struggling to become self aware. Despite this, she elects to invade his brain against his will and change his emerging personality.

I would have found a more explicit examination of these choices really interesting. In fact, I got the strong impression there must have been a lone voice in the writers room arguing for this path but getting swept aside by everything else.  Oh well.  Maybe they will go down that road in Season 3.