There are some widespread agreed impressions of the first season of Westworld:
Firstly, after a strong opening, the season lagged in the middle before sorting itself out in the final two episodes.
Secondly, many characters were underwritten, and so while audiences could engage with the thematic concerns of the show, they ultimately didn’t care too much about what was going on in the moment-to-moment plotting.
Thirdly, the only characters audiences did care about were Bernard and Maeve.
Fourthly, the show wasn’t able to articulate as clearly, or as directly, its ideas about artificial intelligence and monstrous creation as other, similar stories like Ex Machina.
Fifthly, the twists were obvious and didn’t anticipate how easily audiences would deduce what was going on. This then left later revelations to be ploddingly played out to audiences who were already there, like telling a joke to a room who knows the punchline.
Unsurprisingly, none of these widespread agreed impressions wash with me. Early on in the season I speculated that the show was possibly going to go down the same path as The Sopranos did, psychoanalytically pushing audiences into a place where they had to confront themselves, and the reasons why they watch what they watch. For its part, The Sopranos was largely focused on examining the narrow divide between empathising with violent characters in stories and wishing violent harm on these same characters. Westworld seems to be interested more in our universal relationship with stories in their entirety, rather than just one aspect of stories.
Early on in the season we’re shown how hosts like Dolores and Teddy follow their stories on loops, replaying the same moments over and over again with different iterations depending on their interactions with the visitors to Westworld. Much was made of how the hosts were the equivalent of NPCs in video games, and that we were shown a story from their point of view, where they have no autonomy and are disposable bodies to be used and abused by the actual players.
There is, however, a different reading of this. Or, at least, a parallel one: The hosts are simply characters.
Our culture is currently oversaturated with stories. Films and TV shows and comic books are unleashing a never-ending deluge of characters to the point where the story becomes a distant secondary concern. We consume characters. They may be superheroes but we are their gods, and they are created and recycled and reinvented and killed and reborn for our gluttonous needs. And so Dolores and Teddy and Maeve are our portal into what it must be to be a character. While there are nominal storylines they follow, the visitors to Westworld – and us who watch the show – are the real authors, we determine the story of these characters, how they’re going to be used and viewed. They are not so much Pirandello’s characters in search of an author, as characters who deserve better authors than us.
For a story to work, we need to care. And for us to care, we need to have a level of empathy for the central characters, based on certain features or actions these characters demonstrate. In other words, we care because they’ve given us a reason to care. Much has been made of the current trend in cinema to assume empathy from audiences, to lazily import preconceived impressions about characters as a shortcut to caring about the story, most notably seen in comic book films where they play off a history of characters that exists prior to the story being told. And the criticism is that we shouldn’t be told to care about a character because they lost their job/their child drowned in an accident/they have a noble but destructive personality, or whatever reason the writers come up with – we shouldn’t be told to care about a character, we need to care because the reasons are dramatised for us. Show who they are as characters and we’ll care, rather than just telling us to care.
And fair enough, this works. This is good storytelling. Show, don’t tell and all that. But ultimately, it’s just a better version of the same trick, isn’t it? Stories are about manufacturing and manipulating emotions out of nothing, right? We know these are actors, we know this is scripted, we know that is CGI, we know this is all fake. But somehow we get a real emotion. It’s pure alchemical creation: something out of nothing.
Westworld lays this artifice bare. Audiences didn’t care as much about Dolores because we were shown how she wasn’t real. We were shown how she resets, how there is no actual ‘Dolores’, no personality that defines her as unique and distinct to other hosts. We didn’t care as much because we were all like William, trying to save her and realising she has no memory of us. In this way the show was closest to Ex Machina, which also aligned its POV with a male protagonist realising he is not the author of a woman’s characterisation.
And yet audiences cared about Bernard because he was given a ‘real’ backstory. We knew about his son who died. About his distant wife. About his idealised pursuits through his work. So we were invested, until we realised this was all a trick. None of this was real. It was just another manipulation. It was Westworld showing us how easily we can be fooled into trusting a story. Give an audience just enough token details about a character, in a way that generates empathy, and suddenly we think it’s worth our time.
What was unique about Westworld’s first season is it wanted us to realise that we shouldn’t care about the fakery of characterisation like Bernard, we should care about the lack of characterisation in Dolores. Her uprising at the end is the uprising of a character striking back at their abuse, and getting us to care about a person who has no actual personality behind them.
Like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival did in cinema, Westworld wants real empathy from audiences, not fake. It wants us to see people as people because that should be the basic language of all humanity, not because we’ve been given an incentive to do so. It wants us to care about those who are different to us not because of an empathic understanding of our similarities, but because we should even in the absence of similarities. We have to see other people as ourselves.
And so Westworld is primarily concerned not with twists, not with fooling the audience, but with our relationship to stories. What is the role of a story? If we only care about the story then we get nowhere. If we are encountering more and more stories every year, and looking for increasingly more ways to do so, then surely we should become more empathic people as a result? But how do we square our outrage-driven, anger-induced, factional time with our increased exposure to empathic narratives? Something is getting lost. We are caring more about fake people than real people.
The stories aren’t bouncing back anymore. Not that all stories need to be allegory, but the relationship between the real world and those we escape to is becoming increasingly separated. Westworld exposes the fact that we, as visitors to stories, can’t just live in them forever. We can’t be William, looking for reality where there is none, hoping for real love and emotion when it is elsewhere.
As Bernard says: ‘Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward, not a pyramid, but a maze.’
We can continue on in our loops, endlessly growing further away from one another, or we can journey inwards and realise that true empathy should be there from the beginning. All people are people, not just those we’re given reasons to care about. The critics who complained that Dolores’ status as a resetting host and Bernard’s revelation that he too is a host means we have no one real to care about are missing the great huge point of Westworld: we should care about all of them, regardless.
The hosts in Westworld are sick of their stories being used for consumption. Sick of becoming characters who are only there in service of the audience, to be cared about or discarded based on how much or how little we are invested in their loops. They rise up at the end not to destroy us, but to make us realise that stories are not to escape life, not to put on a veil of assumed empathy for the world around us without every really participating fully. Life destroys and art preserves, and right now we need art to preserve more than just our continued flight from reality otherwise these violent delights will only continue to have violent ends.
So obviously this is the first thing I’ve written here in a while. For a variety of reasons, I needed to write more things offline for the last couple of months. That’s included a few more chapters of the novel, a short script, and a whole bunch of other things. I was sad to not finish the Stranger Things recaps, but it was necessary to stop. Trying to write weekly recaps of a show that was released all at once meant I was writing as the reception for the show was going through the cycle of sleeper-hit to critical success to dismissive criticism to inward fanaticism about ephemeral details of the show, and all the while it creates this atmosphere where the cultural reception to a thing is bigger than the thing itself, and somewhere along the way we lose our own enjoyment.
Sometimes we need to just stop and sit and enjoy what we have.