'Westworld' Pushes a New Cinematic Frontier

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Westworld is not for the faint-hearted or shallow thinkers. In just four episodes, the show has served up visual and cinematic perfection alongside what is best described as the fire and brimstone of Hell. The talented cast, promising plot, aesthetics of unspoiled pastures, bucolic old west beauty, and quaint frontier towns are abrasively laced with lawlessness, rampant sin, and Tarantino-esque gore. Deviant ruffians, who soak up the swaggering machismo, escapism, and saloon shoot-outs of Westworld, can satisfy any sadistic, masochistic, or nihilistic fetish.

Hollywood long ago relegated Western to the margins, but the genre is making an unconventional comeback with contemporary reinventions such as The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, the perverse Django Unchained, and the stylistic "Western on Wheels" Mad Max.

HBO’s new odyssey, which borders on the frontier aesthetic while also peering into the future, has quite the unique premise: science fiction meets old west. There is no John Wayne or Manichean duality of good versus evil, personified in the white or black hat that were the staples of the classic Western. The divide between right and wrong is distorted, and in an inversion defying the Artificial Intelligence genre precedent, androids—typically the antagonists—are the object of our affection.

The frontier is not just a Disneyland of pathological philandering and unhinged apocalypse. The machinations of everyday life and the residents’ mannerisms are part of an elaborate scheme of scripting, boundaries, and programs. Those that live there, "hosts," are androids so sophisticated that they look, feel, and bleed like humans. They live in ephemeral loops of memory wipes and physical erasure, all the while doomed to a fatalistic destiny. Moreover, they are entirely at the mercy of their creators: The most murderous highwayman could be reprogrammed one day to become a charming milkman the next.

From sleek headquarters atop an imposing mesa, mankind controls its anthropomorphic puppets. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) heads the team responsible for programming and engineering, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the corporate P.R. guru keeping the venture profitable and feasible, and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is park manager and founding visionary.

Newcomers who pay to come to the amusement park, the "guests," are visitors from the real world who pay an exorbitant sum to indulge their deepest desires and unspeakable fantasies. These wealthy patrons are the most villainous characters in the series, evidenced by their schadenfreude in playing Destroyer of the World.

In episode four—titled “Dissonance Theory”—latent conflict and tensions begin to simmer among the guests, hosts, and park staff.

Our androids are increasingly glitching with autonomous behavior, flickering memories of the past, and a slowly dawning self-discovery. Déjà vu engulfs several favorite protagonists: the innocent Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and the cunning brothel madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). Their genesis of consciousness triggers a quest to understand the constructs and constraints of this "reality," which will undoubtedly define the rest of the season.

The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a grizzled, gruesome, and veteran Westworld guest, pushes his on-screen kill count past 20 (off screen, likely past 1,020). Peering beyond the prefabricated missions that Westworld’s staff concocted, he is precise and intentional in his actions. To proverbially win the game, he must solve a maze, which he and numerous other hosts and park staff refer to as the key to understanding Westworld.

Up in the control rooms, Bernard reveals his complicity in the androids’ errant behavior. Ford flexes his omniscience and omnipotence over hosts and his own staff, making the entire world stop in one scene. In a row with Theresa, he warns the MBA folk to stay away from him and his plans. He has an aspiration and a still unrevealed plan to play God over his dominion.

So—what’s at the end of the maze? What will happen on the androids’ slog towards self-consciousness? What will Ford be and do if he can accomplish his grand scheme? In typical fashion, the series leaves us with much more unanswered than answered. Furthermore, Westworld episode four goes beyond these simple plot questions and opens a Pandora’s box of tougher ones. Is man entitled to an arc of destruction over his domain? Is this absolvable? Is conscious AI worthy of protection and rights?

The Man in Black is recognized by another guest, who says: “I am such an admirer of yours. Your foundation literally saved my sister’s—,” when he is violently cut off. This excerpt reveals the disconnect between Westworld alter egos and real life egos, and begs the following question: In the absence of constructed moral scruples and societal rules and norms, would we all behave as if we were in Hobbes’ state of nature? At this point in Westworld, that is what we are led to believe.

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