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This week, Westworld. Next week, hopefully more Westworld. I love the periods of time where I feel motivated to write about something regularly like this. 2020’s airing of Westworld’s third season was easily the time I wrote most prolifically about one T.V. show. I wrote about every single episode for eight consecutive weeks. Most of the writing holds up, but unless you were subscribed at the time and have archived these editions in your email inbox, they now live behind a paywall for paid subscribers only (as is the case with anything older than a year). Nonetheless, I highly suggesting checking them out. They would make a great companion for your rewatch or first time viewing.
I also wrote about what is maybe Westworld’s best episode, “Kiksuya,” from season two back in the Tinyletter dark ages.
Aside from me believing the show to be remarkably, consistently good, exceptionally thought-provoking, well-acted, and well-plotted from season one to three, close reading Westworld is a delight because of the kind of TV creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are. Westworld is a text that is meant to be theorized and interpreted, both in the most facile enthusiast ways and the… well, equally facile, if we are being honest, manner of the academic. Every frame is rich with layers of meaning and the show is hardly beholden to silly things like continuity. That is one of the show’s strengths, the fact that it “reinvents the wheel” every season (as Evan Rachel Wood says in her post-“The Auguries” interview). The show that returns each season bears little resemblance to what preceded it. Sometimes, the ideas are even different, as different as ideas in a work of fiction can be from another’s (which, in my view is not very).
All of this is to say I’m a fan. I think Westworld gives its audience something to really sink its teeth into. What more can you ask for?
“What if it’s the world that needs fixing?”: Life’s Endless Repetition in Westworld Season Four Episode One, “The Auguries”
Westworld has spent its preceding three seasons arguing how humanity is compelled to repeat itself by all manner of contrivances. Now, in season four, it finally admits what we already know — humanity repeats itself for no other reason than it just does. That’s not exactly true, of course. Repetition compulsion is a little more complicated than tautology. It is something other than oneself, this agency called the unconscious, that compels one to repeat. Westworld takes this notion seriously but adds another layer, too. History, both personal and political, circumscribe people’s reactions and horizons of possibility.
In the past status quos of Westworld, there has always been a kind of architect controlling people's lives. In seasons one and two, it was the narratives that dictated the behavior of the Hosts, the Westworld answer to the Replicant. In season three, big data and the Rehoboam AI controlled the lives of biological humans. Now, in season four, there is no AI, no robots aiding in public life. In the seven years since season three’s concluding events, it appears that AI and robots have been outlawed, or at least supremely circumscribed in their societal role and function (the season stinger shows Caleb [Aaron Paul] and Maeve [Thandiwe Newton] visiting a 1930s mobster themed Delos park I've called "Mobworld"). But that doesn't mean the loops are wide open. In exploring the aftermath of the riots season three's conclusion initiated, Westworld suggests widespread systemic change isn't as easy as one would hope. Hardly being fatalistic, the show makes a more important point. When you take an action, you can't be sure what the outcome will be. The causal relationships between something like revolution and the subsequent regime are complex. These complex elements of causality are exactly what drive Caleb back into the same construction work both before and after the riots he helped orchestrate.
Unconscious desire is also a contributing factor to an event's outcome. In "The Auguries," the episode begins to suggest that people's unconscious is the thing that has supplanted the scripting of Rehoboam and the Host's narrative writers. But that doesn’t always mean the same thing for our various characters, with William (Ed Harris), Dolores/Charlotte (Tessa Thompson — you’re gonna have to read the wiki for this one), Caleb, and Maeve all seemingly on a violent, explosive collision course. Meanwhile, someone who appears to also be Dolores, going by Christina (Evan Rachel Wood), is living a quiet life of a game designer, perhaps being the subjectival aftermath of the Dolores who deleted her memories in the last bit of the third season (again, checking the wiki or maybe watching a recap video is recommended if you’re confused).
The way Westworld revels in its genre conventions and sci-fi absurdity has become a real strong suit for the show, or at the very least something that has endeared it to me. Characters die and are reborn as Hosts (such is the case, now, with William), rebuilt and “reinstalled,” of all the major characters only Caleb seems to be precariously, finitely human in the biological sense. While we have no reason to doubt Caleb remains human, Westworld does enjoy its subversion of audience expectations. “The Auguries” indulges in its sci-fi pulpiness with easter eggs that can be read deeply. There’s the flies that take control of a cartel member, evoking the fly the original Dolores killed signifying her careening off from her designated loop.
There’s also Christina, whose “loop” for the episode suggests she may not just be far removed from Caleb and Maeve, she may in fact be in a different (virtual) plane of existence altogether. But, like William during his first visit to the Westworld park, she’s given a choice: “white or black?”
Christina’s choice, though, is just between two options for her roommate’s footwear rather than a data collecting hat that will dictate the guest’s moral alignment in the park.
Christina is allergic to choosing, anodyne beyond even the original Dolores host. As a video game writer, her job is threatened because of the saccharine quality of the stories she pitches.
While there is some suggestion that Christina is exerting actual influence on people's lives through her stories, a later-season twist to be unveiled no doubt, her own conception of her work is that it is meaningless and entirely self-fulfilling. It doesn't matter to the players who play the games whether NPC, background characters are well-developed or not. They are, as her date puts it, “cannon fodder.” But there’s something deeply meaningful for Christina about making the stories of these background characters. Call it Host-NPC solidarity.
It’s not quite meaningful enough to give her life, meaning, though. Christina, like every character in “The Auguries,” is aimlessly seeking rather than finding. On her date, she suggests that reality is often disappointing.
Her date suggests that pharmaceutical intervention could help cure what he diagnoses might be depression. In this moment, we see the first shades of the original Dolores when she says, “What if I’m not the one that’s broken? What if it’s the world that needs fixing?” But, in this world, there’s a cure for every feeling.
Bracketing for the moment a phobic relationship to prescription medication for mental illness, Dolores has a tendency to envision sweeping change to a world where she feels dissatisfied. This tendency seems to be the engine that is moving the plot forward, with Charlotte (who, again, is actually a version of Dolores) attempting to execute her vision and kill Maeve and Caleb. Stripped down and reconfigured, transposed to the blank slate of Christina, this idea returns to the fundamental coordinates of desire. She believes she is missing something, and finding that one thing will resolve all her problems. As the episode ends, she narrates another NPC story pitch:
I want to write a new story. About a girl… a girl who’s searching. The girl doesn’t know what she’s searching for. She just knows there is an emptiness in her life. Or maybe it’s inside her. And when she finds the thing she’s searching for, everything will make sense. I want a story with a happy ending.
Westworld has constantly frustrated this notion — that obtaining something will satisfy one’s desire or that the irrationality or “disarray” of the world can be put to order by uncovering some kind of secret.
But the fact that things simply go on may be too much to bear. For Caleb, who finds himself in a very similar position at the beginnings of both seasons three and four, he finds his convictions challenged. As a true believer in Dolores’s crusade from the previous season, the exposing of everyone’s clandestinely collected data did less than one might imagine for such a catastrophic societal collapse. It was, it seems, also temporary.
Caleb confronts this shortfall in a conversation with a coworker, much more talkative than George. His coworker’s cynical outlook is that “the riots” only increased job security for those whose livelihoods were threatened by automation. Otherwise, the world is the same. Effect did not follow cause in the way that Caleb, Maeve, and Dolores expected. A problem, too, for many modern protest movements — both successful and unsuccessful. Molly Anne Rothenberg explains why this might be the case in The Excessive Subject (2010) using the notion of retroversion. In short, complex outcomes are difficult to anticipate from causal factors. She writes:
[W]e are used to conceiving of change in a linear way: I strike a stationary billiard ball with a cue and it rolls into the corner pocket. First comes the cause, then effect. But retroversive causality challenges that linearity, as if the act of striking the ball into the pocket could loop backward in time to change the initial position of the ball on the table. Of course, physical force at human scale rarely exhibits retroversive causality, although physicists describe the quantum world as a phantasmagoria of such phenomena. On the other hand, social forces seem always to exhibit retroversive causality, precisely because they necessarily involve signification, meaning, or interpretation.
The conversation between Caleb and his coworker is illustrative of this idea. The coworker argues, “the riots had no point,” but the claim is supported by the failure of the riots to accomplish their primary imperative. The way they are interpreted is dictated by the success or failure of their political program. Caleb’s coworker also makes a second point in support of the Incite company and Rehoboam AI that previously regulated human life, arguing “that Incite machine that they blew up didn’t tell us who we could be, it told us who we already were.”
In season three, Rehoboam predicted Caleb would kill himself in ten to twelve years, severely circumscribing his job prospects as a result.
Now, seven years later, as Caleb sits on the edge of a mirrored building taking a break from work, the moment is fecund with morbid possibility. Has his life really changed so little? Despite such an epoch-defining disruption of society, is he still on the same path?
We come to find out that Caleb’s life has changed, he has a daughter and a “patient” wife. His daughter imitates him, practicing shooting a toy pistol across the street from her house and pantomiming the symptoms of PTSD. Caleb is confronted by his wife the same way Christina is by her date. She says:
I’m beginning to think it’s not that you fear war, it’s that you miss it. This life is too ordinary for you.
Caleb may turn out to be vindicated in his suspicion that his family will be attacked, but his wife isn’t wrong either. Caleb’s anxiety about being observed and threatened is also an unconscious desire. It may be another opportunity for a great overturning, but it’s also less reasoned than that. In the state of war, Caleb might, like Christina’s NPC, “find the thing [he’s] searching for” so that “everything make will sense.” What fuels him is not an avowed or even unconscious preference for war and violence, but rather the persistent feeling of not knowing what he’s searching for.
Maeve, who gets to be the star of the episode’s obligatory action sequences, offers another interesting symbolic paradigm. Going off the grid, quite an achievement for a robot, Maeve’s reminiscence is precisely the thing that draws her pursuers to her. Here, “The Auguries” suggest that dwelling in the same fixed position for too long is dangerous for anyone. It was, after all, that same imperative that inspired all the Delos theme parks to disastrous results.
Westworld’s fourth season is off to a great start, and in all my close reading I haven’t even gotten a chance to talk about Ed Harris’s downright inspired performance as William. The real William has been replaced by a Charlotte-aligned Host, but Harris has lost none of his edge in inhabiting the character.
In his attempt to buy the self-perpetuating data storage facility in the Hoover Dam, a “unique proposition” where one’s data can be “written in stone,” William refers to it as a “lump of concrete.” The reduction of something singularly valuable to utterly valueless is what one would expect from a robot who operates not on the basis of desire, instead simply executing his programming. Or, it could be the case that William just really really wants it. He, like Caleb, Maeve, and Christina, may be searching for a lost object at the mercy of his desire. For him, that lost object is the Valley Beyond, the digital repository that houses all of Westworld’s Host’s consciousnesses. It’s quite an objet a.
Weekly Reading List
https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/micro-short-workouts-workday-serious-results — Sam Reiss writes very well about fitness for Inverse. Here, he outlines the benefit of short workouts.
This scene is the cold open for the 2001 Cowboy Bebop movie. If this is not one of the best film openings of all time, it is at least the one that has impressed itself upon me the most in my history of movie watching. I got to thinking about it while rewatching yet another favorite, Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) remake. When I watch Pelham, I usually just pay attention to Denzel. But this time around, I found myself more arrested by John Travolta’s villain and with a new appreciation for James Gandolfini as New York’s mayor. Travolta has the same kind of attitude and energy of this indignant, laid-off, security company employee. I’d be happy to see more of these kinds of villains in contemporary films.
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Until next time.