“Artists use lies to tell the truth while politicians use lies to cover the truth up”, crafted by writers of V for Vendetta, is also the most relevant sentence describing HBO’s 2016 sci-fi western thriller Westworld. Widely regarded as one of the most anticipated TV series of 2016, Westworld is inspired by the 1973 movie of the same name which narrates a story in the distant future when human beings are able to stimulate human minds (or consciousness?) for entertainment, or the pleasure of torture and killing. Boosted by stunning visual effects, an ambitious storyline and strong performances, HBO’s Westworld greets the world with critical acclaim, scholarly debates and record-breaking ratings. The second season was also confirmed, with the season sequel probably debuting in 2018. I enjoy the show very much for its brilliant twists and philosophical relevance.
Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood, image on the left) is a young, sweet woman who always chooses to see the beauty of her world despite its ugliness. By ugliness, she means the ruthless killing that seems to be the communal norm. She wakes up to greet her father every morning, walks to the town to watch the new comers and expects her boyfriend who has left for a long trip. She never questions the truthfulness of her reality, although her entire world has been artificially constructed to fulfil the natural, if not criminal, desires of future human beings. She is an NPC in a game called Westworld, and there are many more NPCs like her called the hosts. They have been programmed to have certain personalities, participate in crafted storylines and never harm their customers. Of course, their memories will be wiped out after every storyline ends with them being killed. They are kept in a loop of events. Some of them are even relocated if their storylines attract few customers. The story of Westworld starts when NPCs start to question their reality and realise the dark scheme behind their everyday life. NPCs slowly ‘wake up’ with their own consciousness and challenge their creators. It is later revealed that Dolores is the first host; created by Arnold who’s into artificial consciousness, Dolores has the secret code other hosts do not share. Dolores is the figure of morality and humanity, ironically. Her stories integrate the entire series, with other characters evolving around her and audience feeling for her. Vulnerable, determined and revengeful, Wood perhaps delivers the best performance in her career.
Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins, image on the right) is the co-creater of the game and responsible for its commercialisation. Different from his partner Arnold, Robert resists the idea of hosts having consciousness. That idea, according to Robert, drove Arnold crazy and killed himself. Robert is the central figure of the park. He skilfully manages customer relations, software updates and board complains. In this season, he spends most of his time constructing his exciting new narrative and eliminates his enemies in the board. Robert develops a new programme called ‘reverie’ which changes everything. ‘Reverie’ intends to make those robots more human-like by allowing them to have subconsciousness and memories. Yet, ‘reverie’ is perhaps the key reason why Dolores wakes up (she slaps the fly on her face, an indicator of her own consciousness). In the end, Robert shows everyone his new plot involving Dolores, and Robert is shot by Delores after the plot ends, leaving the crowd screaming in panic. Robert is arguably the most mysterious character of the series: he enjoys making hosts and even chatting with one of them left in the basement like an old friend. He disagrees with his partner Arnold but slowly wants to make his hosts more human-like while losing himself in the search for consciousness. He always appears to be strong and controlling every aspect of the park behind everyone’s back. Hopkins delivers convincing performances.
The writer embraces a multi-thread narrative in which characters are paired to drive the story forward and guide the audience to the final explosion. The strategy is largely successful although the storytelling can be draggy at times. William partners with Dolores in search of her inner voice and a sense of destination. The mysterious old man (later revealed as the old William) is accompanied by hosts who play villains in his trip to find the centre of the maze. Although it is not perfectly clear what the centre of maze means, it mostly likely refers to Arnold’s secret of creating consciousness among the park hosts. Bernard struggles between Robert and the board (including his lover) before discovering that he is also an AI with exactly the same look as Arnold, with his guilt towards his dead son merely a programmed background story. Writers can only shock their audience after telling them everything. Westworld is not short of such brilliant shocks, and the writers do make the series so thrilling that I just feel the urge to finish all episodes within one night. It is also worth acknowledging that the series has an open ending, while Robert’s death can be interpreted as Dolores’s conscious action or the part of his new plot in the park (we never know whether Robert also gets interested in Arnold’s project).
More importantly, Westworld is a drama of philosophical significance. It addresses the problem of consciousness. Indeed, “what exactly is consciousness” puzzles countless scholars in the field of neuroscience and philosophy (especially those who work on philosophy of mind). Is consciousness part of our brains, or it exists independent of our physical bodies, like a soul? Is artificial intelligence conscious? If so, do they have the same consciousness as homo sapiens and deserve righteous treatments? How about aliens, if there are any? All these questions are very hard to answer at this stage. In Westworld, consciousness has many manifestations. Consciousness can be seen when Dolores slap the fly on her face, as other hosts suddenly remember flashes of their past experiences, or even in the rebellion of the hosts who ‘wake up’. I can sense such consciousness, but I am still not sure about the centre of the maze. Perhaps the second season will give me more answers I want. Westworld predicts a future of moral panic, a future when cruel human nature conflicts with artificial consciousness. I question the existence of law, order and human sympathy: if they are merely imagined by human beings to cover their innate cruelty and selfishness, is such imagination sustainable as the social environment shifts? Westworld may be a crafted story, a fake thriller, a lie, but it seems to reveal a deeper truth concerning humanity and morality.
I recommend Westworld as a thought-provoking TV series with smart writings and strong performances. Its philosophically illuminating core may also attract the intellectuals. Despite the draggy episodes in between that are slightly harder to follow, Westworld is overall a critical and commercial success. I really look forward to future seasons.