Even if androids do dream of electric sheep, please, please let Westworld amount to something more meaningful than some sort of revery.mkv. The genre-blending mystery drama is about as ambitious as TV gets, a meticulous puzzlebox of science fiction and western tropes, practically spring-loaded to provide multiple epic twists over the course of its next four episodes. But while watching the last couple of episodes, I’ve found myself struggling to stay invested because of a growing suspicion that nothing that’s happening on this show actually matters.
There are two main mysteries that stand out as the primary focus of Westworld. First, and most pressing, is who or what is causing the park’s robotic hosts to malfunction and go off-loop. This is the active plot line, running along the trope-ridden path of the theme-park-turned-murderous story archetype, and one that seems to promise bloody chaos by the time season one comes to a close in December. The second mystery is a bit more passive, but seemingly connected: what is at the center of the invisible maze that the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is searching for?
What is at the center of the invisible maze?
Both of these mysteries are intriguing, and thanks to the show’s eye for detail, dedicated viewers have been given enough hints to stay engaged as the show slowly reveals its machinations. But I am not one of those detail obsessed viewers that wants to solve the mystery before the answer is revealed. I see the appeal in that kind of viewing, but I don’t find it satisfying. I prefer to examine themes, characters, and meta-narratives to hopefully learn something about humanity. Art is a reflection of life, and high genre like Westworld is the perfect platform to really go hog wild with comments on violence, objectification, male gaze, and identity. In order for themes and allegories to have weight, however, I need to care about the people being used to illustrate them. That’s why I’ve been frustrated the past couple of weeks as I’ve watched and watched without any character sympathetic enough to latch onto as an entry point to the show’s stylistic narrative Rubik’s cube. I keep waiting for a fully rounded cowpoke or engineer or company suit to emerge, to add some compelling humanity to the whole thing, but instead the show has gone in the opposite direction, becoming less grounded and more dreamlike.
Take Maeve (Thandie Newton), for instance. She is becoming autonomous, dying on purpose in order to get more glimpses of the manufacturing and maintenance side of the park which holds the key to her true nature. At the end of episode six “The Adversary,” the animatronic brothel owner gained access to her proverbial D&D character sheet and re-rolled until she liked what she got. Evaluating her personality stats, she forced the hubristic maintenance worker Felix to lower her loyalty points and amp up her overall intelligence. The final image we see in the episode is Maeve’s newly enlightened visage. She has broken free and taken the first, albeit incredibly literal, steps toward self-definition. It is a powerful scene, for sure. But the liberating nature of Maeve’s reprogramming is undercut by my inability to grasp who she is.
Who is Maeve?
Who is Maeve now? Maeve 2.0? NeoMaeve? If you are less loyal and more intelligent by deign are you still you? More importantly, who was she before? She has certainly been one of the more intriguing characters as she has embarked on an existential spirit journey through her multiple deaths, but she can’t remember her past lives as real (because they aren’t), and her personality traits are fluid and changeable too. In Maeve, we have a great example of everyone else on Westworld, a vessel on whom we must impose a narrative and personality traits in lieu of a real backstory or consistent behavior, so that a thrilling but cold plot can unfold. Not given an objective view of any character’s history via flashback, we are forced to accept a story with humans and robots who are no more real than one another, in many cases participating in plot arcs that have no meaningful stakes by virtue of their scripted nature and death not being permanent.
Now, I accept that this is one of those situations where I want a show to be something that perhaps it’s not. And I do like the show. Westworld’s lack of rounded characterization, while difficult to accept for me as a viewer, is clearly intentional. When the characters in a story are all a bunch of question marks, then they are also each a potential vector for audience surprise. There is an intriguing fan theory, for example, that hypothesizes Billy, the white hat guest, exists in a flashback narrative that will culminate in him becoming the Man in Black (who exists in the present). There is also the very likely possibility that one (or many, or ALL) of the administrator characters are actually hosts. Both of these possibilities are guaranteed to be remembered as epic twists in a mind bending sci-fi show, but they will have come at the expense of hiding so much of Westworld’s dramatis personae behind a cloud of narrative mystery that they run the risk of simply being clever instead of meaningful. If everything I see on this show is just a simulation playing itself out, I understand the commentary of it, but I can’t take it any more seriously than if it was all taking place inside the St. Elsewhere snowglobe.
They run the risk of simply being clever instead of meaningful.
There is a way out of this – and I’m holding out hope on it. This plot-over-character value problem might be built into the mythical maze plot line. The signs of the maze are scattered throughout the park, tattooed under the skin of hosts, carved into wood, and in tonight’s episode nearly branded into the synthetic flesh of the new, dark backstory version of Teddy. It is the image of a person at the center of a circular labyrinth. That little silhouette is why I still am watching this show. Sure, on a literal level it could mean that the center of the maze is literally park co-founder Albert’s grave, but as a symbol I see it as a search for humanity at the center of a far too-artificial world.