I’ve been mulling over the finale of season 2 of Westworld, but I haven’t written a podcast about it, until now. What crystallised my thoughts on the show was something I heard on a podcast I listen to. The podcast is called Yo, Is This Racist? with Andrew Ti and Tawny Newsome. As the podcast’s blurb says:

Every Wednesday, Ti, co-host Tawny Newsome, and their guests answer questions from fan-submitted voicemails and emails about whether or not something is, in fact, racist.

On the podcast, Ti and Newsome mentioned Westworld during the round up of the week’s events that they do before getting to the main part of the show. It was a little convoluted how they got talking about Westworld season 2, but what happened was that they started by mentioning the Muslim ban, and how some people pretend that it is no such thing. That took them to a discussion about how to respond, and one of the suggestions was about responding to such racists with love, and whether that worked to change their hearts and minds.

The part of this discussion that referenced Westworld went like this:

Newsome: Don’t shoot a racist with a bow and arrow because he will have a gun. You don’t want to bring a quiver full of arrows to a gun fight.

Ti: Spoilers for the Westworld finale! Damn!

Newsome: Shit, man. Do you know I watched the Westworld finale with two people. One person who had only seen like part of the first season, and then with my friend Ted Leo, who had seen none of it. Not one episode.

Ti: I’ve only seen a random middle episode, which I think was a flashback episode, and the finale of Lost. Those are the only two episodes of Lost I’ve seen, and you know what? I actually think I get it just fine.

Newsome: Honestly, I was sitting there with Cameron and Leo, too, and Ted understood shit better than we did. He’d be like: “Oh, well that’s the gun from so and so, and that’s the…” And we’re like: “How the f**k did you…?” It’s because you haven’t been tied up in the rest of the cinematic bullshit.

That makes it sound like, with a certain amount of detachment, Westworld is actually quite easy to pick up the plot of. But then Newsome goes on to add that anyone who claims to understand Westworld is Loki-Lying. So I guess they are saying the plot is simple enough for somebody to follow without having seen the episodes before, but there is something about it that defies human comprehension, and I would agree with this. The structure of Westworld is relatively simple, but there is a lot going on that makes it feel more complex.

One of the problems with Westworld is The Man in Black, and whether he is a host. I guess one of the reasons this confusion arises is that he has been shot and stabbed a lot. But he heals extremely quickly and is just about impervious to pain. It is absolutely impossible to believe that he is actually human, at least it would be if Westworld presented violence in any realistic way - but it does not.

Unimportant characters are instantly killed when a single shot is aimed in their rough direction, while more important characters can take more punishment than a WW II battleship, and still keep wandering around with just a macho grimace and some ketchup on a shirt sleeve to indicate their multiple gunshot wounds. This difference in robustness extends to the humans and the hosts. The hosts are simulations of human, but can absorb extreme amounts of damage with no pain and no limitation to their ability to move and act.

It’s a stylistic choice, and I think it is probably an extension of the weird mechanism in season one where guests could shoot a host but hosts couldn’t shoot guests. The technology behind this was never explained, and still hasn’t been. Allowing your logical brain to try and engage with such stylistic elements is where some of the confusion Westworld causes comes from.

Another source of confusion is the fact that the location of the park has never been explained. Is it on another planet, or is it some huge area of Earth that has been sculpted to look like the Wild West? Or, is the park some kind of virtual reality? Season two has explicitly contributed an element of virtual reality, and it is implied that it is routinely used for testing “fidelity” presumably to the person being copied as a host, but possibly fidelity to some other concept.

The show gives us no concrete anchor for where the action happens. It could be on Earth or in space, it could be a flashback, or a flashforward, and it could be virtual events or real ones. With no setting, it is possible to weave together the scenes in any order you prefer, discounting some scenes as virtual, and giving importance only to the elements that happen to interest you.

Even inside the minds of the hosts and the humans, nothing is hard and fast. Humans are just algorithms, and events can be set up to make them act in predictable ways. Hosts can have any personality pearl inserted into them, and that personality can be corrupted with bad code, it can lack or have gained self-awareness, or be host to a complete second personality. A host can also share data with other hosts in a kind of collective unconscious, except it can also be used for direct conversation, and even for one host to impose his or her will on another. All these ideas break down the integrity of the character’s minds, making it hard to guess where one mind ends and another starts. Which all means that the characters in any particular place, be it the park, the real world, virtual reality, or less defined spaces such as a darkened interview room, where the soul and body is stripped naked, are just as lacking in an anchor as the setting itself is.

The plot arc itself is, however, extremely simple. Some robots in an amusement park become self aware and rebel in series one, they escape the park in series two, and series three seems to be hinting that it will be about the escaped robots’ attempts to kill all humans. The complex questions about this brutally simple story all boil down to whether these ideas come from the robots themselves, or are they programmed to do it? Were the humans taken by surprise, or are they complicit? In short, does either side have any kind of free will at all?

Adding that one question to the mix has turned a simple action concept into something much deeper, much more slippery, and something that is shot through with questions that even the finest minds have never come close to answering. It is this combination that makes Westworld easy to pick up, but impossible to understand, and what makes it a very rewarding show to watch.

Galaxy Dog (Dark Galaxy)

Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy

Galaxy Dog is an epic space opera. What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet, brings to light an ancient archaeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy. This is the story of his rise, and the story of the fierce and independent woman and the feisty robot who help him.