Prestige television these days tries ever harder to swing for the fences. HBO has put a heavy investment into Westworld, an update on the old 1973 Michael Crichton picture where a theme park simulating the Wild West turns rogue when its diamond-eyed robot gunslinger, memorably played by Yul Brenner, hunts down the park guests. It was sort of Crichton’s warm-up to Jurassic Park years later when he was still apparently fascinated by amusement parks gone awry. Aside from the campy and exploitive factors in the show, Westworld’s writers, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, show far greater thematic ambitions than Crichton’s original, unearthing loads of latent narrative potential that end up being an ambitious and timely reflection on technology, exploitation, violence, memory and subjectivity.
Westworld functions as a timely thought experiment analogous our own historical moment as the hegemonic global order slowly unravels; as the grand schemes of the neoliberal experiment have been exposed, its design flaws no longer able to contain managed democracies with the marionette strings of negative liberty, stultified by racial antipathy, neofascism and jihad. Fueled by the nightmares the designers sought to hide, the Westworld’s frontier gunslingers seek their revenge.
What we know so far from season one is that Westworld was created some 35 years ago by two designers, Ford and Arnold, with very different ways of coding the artificial intelligence. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) carried on as the chief programmer of the park after Arnold killed himself shortly before its opening. The robots, or “hosts” of this western themed park are detailed characters forming a kind of hodge podge of formulaic dime novel western tropes – gunslingers, prostitutes, gamblers, prospectors, and so on. The park, which is so unfathomably enormous that it must cover half of the American West, hosts guests who are among the wealthiest people on the planet, each spending 40,000 dollars a day to drink, gamble, fight, shoot and screw their way through the violent frontier simulacrum. It’s sort of like a live version of Red Dead Redemption, where guests can go on their own adventures, both main and side quests such as searching for buried treasure, killing outlaws, or even be outlaws. The guests can do whatever they want without consequence because the hosts are unable to harm or stop them. Naturally, the guests disobey any social rules or ethics, and basically rape and murder the helpless cowboy hosts, who helplessly die despite their bravado. The daily casualties of androids then are taken to the lab, repaired, and put back out on stage where they repeat the same scripts over and over. Each day traumatized, each day made to forget, and returned to do it all over again, groundhog dayed in a western hell.
Gradually the hosts start to gain consciousness, the first step of which is remembering the past traumas, remembering themselves, and begin to make choices that are unscripted. This is all due to a programing anomaly the late Arnold installed a group of his original hosts, their path to realization and self-discovery symbolized by a maze, or really, a labyrinth. The heroes of this journey of discovery are two women androids, sass-talkin’ whore Maeve (Thandie Newton) and idealistic virgin Dolores (Even Rachel Wood), who manage different ways of waging rebellion within their frontier prison.
Westworld as a simulacrum of the Old West marvels the visitors in its attention to detail. But it is a simulation that confines itself to the dime novel tropes it itself is imprisoned to. While it has plenty of outlaws, whores and gamblers, Westworld’s West lacks elements that would be of interest to a historian. There are no travelers seeking to be cowboys or ranchers. It lacks any consciousness of religious revivalism, it has no tent revivals or snake handling, no petticoat brigade or temperance movement. There are no railroad barons and no silver populists. There seem to be no immigrants – no Chinese, Irish, or Polish laborers. There is no consciousness at all about class, race, religion or creed. There is no Ku Klux Klan, no racial pogroms, no Mexicans, no Indian massacres or slaying of striking workers. No cattle barons or land disputes. There are no wildcatters. People also don’t have any disease – no syphilis or gonorrhea or smallpox or yellow fever in the bunch. Point being, for the supposed verisimilitude of the park, even its bloody deathlessness, lacks truth or consequences. Westworld is a dime novel come to life of the glorious and triumphant West without the grotesque social realities of the Real.
It begs the question – who would create such a place? Why would one bother? With such technology, one could imagine they could do something like Star Trek’s holodeck, a place where one could perhaps seek to understand history through meticulous recreation. There could be a sort of cultural therapy where people of the present could get a kind of deep dive into the cultural memory, which potentially could be therapeutic. How about a park of robots where they could listen deeply, respond with resonance, even love the guests with a model of an affirmative, positive society that could be salubrious to a culture already traumatized and dissociated by the violence of history?
Rather what the Westworld project seems to be is one of addictions of a culture that has not abandoned social violence. It is constructed instead to re-create the violence that subdued the Wild West’s virgin land. Like in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, where Indonesia’s leaders celebrate their power by theatrically recreating their real-life mass killings in the style of American movies. Westworld takes this concept into science fiction, peering through a glass darkly of the neocolonizations of the near future’s imagined past – the West, the frontier crucible which fueled American expansionism, tempered by Manifest Destiny. The original western conquest had human limits and consequences – inconveniences which have been eliminated in the future technotopia. Now the re-creation can be toyed around in with gutter bumpers where no mistakes can be made, where all the park’s deaths are simulated. No one really dies in Westworld, so it preserves a kind of perpetual present, a maintenance of a perpetual colonial moment of American imperial triumphalism with a transcendental zero death clause, like a decades-long video game with an invincibility cheat code.
While Westworld tells us little of the real West, it tells us more about the people who created it. Mister Sizemore, one of the staff writers, gleefully presents his new narrative “This story line will make Hieronymus Bosch look like he was doodling kittens! I have vivisection! Self-cannibalism! A special little something I call the ‘whoroboros.’” (tee-hee!) Sizemore then says people come to discover themselves, which is apparently some kind of robopurgatory. Robert Ford (named after the notorious assassin of Jesse James), chastens Sizemore by saying people already know themselves. What they seek is rather “the possible,” transformations beyond the self they cannot themselves fathom. He adds that Sizemore’s narrative engenders no self-knowledge, but only reveals the author’s own sadistic desires. Does Sizemore’s narrative really represent the cultural id of the near future? Do the super wealthy need an elaborate simulation for a monthly id purge? Or is the world outside Westworld some kind of compensatory opposite – like a cult of manners, gentility, tidiness, and rules – as in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes movie Demolition Man, where robots spit out citations when someone curses? Is Westworld sort of a dumping ground for sublimated sadism, a release valve for the mutilated instincts of a mutilated dystopian culture? The Man in Black (Ed Harris) seems to say so, telling Teddy that he’s a recently widowed philanthropist and father “in the real world,” only to become the archvillain and permanent Westworld denizen. It’s a role he chillingly takes to well.
An interesting feature of the show is that we scarcely see anything outside of the park except for the labs where the hosts are created and repaired in what looks like part Intel lab and part butcher’s shop. All we can tell from the behavior of these people is that they are generally perverts. Not just park guests, but technicians and even board members use the hosts as sex dolls. They deliberately keep them naked, deliberately keep them at a clinical distance, as if some kind of robot morgue.
It seems that the people of the near future have created a past through a glass darkly on purpose, not to engage with a living history, but precisely to banalize it. Verisimilitude is not the same as truth, for in all of its detail, there is no consciousness as to the struggles of the time for these android actors. At first I thought this was a fault of the show’s writing, then I realized that this is deliberate because it reflects not the Old West so much as the human condition of the future. And from what can be inferred – what a bleak future indeed.
It is evident that with such resources spent on such a ridiculous park that there is a tremendous financial excess in the world. But this excess is truly exclusive. This is not a shared abundance. It is very much a world run by plutocrats. And if we are to take seriously Thomas Piketty’s vision of Capital in the Twenty–First Century, this is the route global capitalism is heading – to neofeudal, neodynastic world of the super elites and throngs of poor. So Westworld functions as a futuristic Club Med for sadists. Theme parks today are generally G-rated Disney family events. Not so the X-rated Westworld. It’s Eli Roth’s Old West – bachelor parties punctuated with mass murder. While in the Hostel movies billionaires bid on the heads of tourists, here they can enjoy the same thing in simulation without even fear of the reprisal or law. This is not a recreation of history so much as a performance of domination over history itself, which is amnestic in nature, a performance of the death drive. Westworld reifies, as Pankaj Mishra puts it The Age of Anger, “the self serving amnesia among the reigning elite about the historical crimes that secured them their hegemony.” (335) Westworld is their first trophy, the origin point of American imperialism. This is pretty much what our culture does with the past, we boil it down to simplistic tropes or signs that can easily be processed by the society of spectacle – be in in television and movies, at a Renaissance fair, Disney’s EPCOT Center, or other such condensation of signs. Americans turn France into baguettes, berets and the Eiffel Tower, or turn the Middle East into sand, oil sheiks and jihadis, so we turn the Old West into horses, whores and gunslingers.
It’s fitting that the Man in Black is played by Ed Harris, who starred in a thematically similar film in 1998’s The Truman Show about a man raised in a simulation of actors and a town he could not escape. Harris played Cristo, the creator. Here he’s the leading board member of Delos, the company that owns Westworld and presumably other worlds of simulation (Samurai World perhaps?). The corporate backstory shows that they are interested in the artificial intelligence developing inside Westworld. To them, it’s not a park but an experiment. With what would a corporation want to do with artificial intelligence it’s unclear until the next season. But what is clear is that Ford understood their plan and, defiant as ever, conspired against the board by allowing the hosts to become self-aware and revolt.
It’s fitting then that the great awakening in the park is not from the humans, but from the robots. And they do this by a poetic reversal. As the humans have created a simulacrum of the past to amenstically dominate it, the robots battle this by beginning to remember, and their memory is the basis for their construction of identity. The troubling part is that their memories are very painful after having been raped and murdered a thousand times in some sort of Sisyphean project of eternal recurrence. The alpha and omega of Westworld is trauma, and it’s a world full of PTSD’d gunslingers whose identity is unfortunately constructed by Doctor Frankenstein rather than Mister Rodgers.
You would think Ford, if he wants to free the hosts, would soothe or repair these memories before he lets them go, but no. Ford himself, it seems, is of a bicameral mind; he was once known to instruct his staff to keep the hosts naked and afraid seems to have changed his tune, now apparently seeing the hosts in a better moral light than humans – who are as petty, greedy, selfish and sadistic as ever. Ford, God of Westworld, in the season finale, allows the hosts to kill him, mirroring Arnold’s death years earlier. It’s sort of a Dostoevskian “Without Ford all things are permitted” moment. This is either a bold existentialist-posthumanist creed which liberates the robots from their enthrallment, or a curse to nothingness. It’s a choice both wondrous and terrifying because it isn’t apparent if the robots really believe in anything, or have any moral compass at all. That isn’t something we fear when Truman leaves his television set dome for the free world. It is something we fear, however, when gunslingers are free to betray Asimov’s rules of robotics and declare open season on the world.
If the simulation of empire is broken – what sort of blowback might be a fitting comeuppance from these Frankenstein’d gunslingsers from Frontierland? What sort of robojihad might they wage against McWorld’s future technotopia? What other vengences, what other of hell’s gates from the depths of history might be woken once simulation’s zero death game is betrayed? These liberated androids have no alternative culture, no cause, no god, no ideology, no society and no learning to undergird their grasp for positive liberty. They have only their blind reactive malcontent, nihilistic roboterrorists in ten gallon hats. Can they hope to build something more, something they’ll grasp if they see the real world? Would they seek to blend in, or change it? Hopefully we’ll see in future seasons of Westworld. One thing for sure, as the show oft reminds us with its thematic refrain, “these violent delights have violent ends.”