The Good, the Meh and the Ugly: are Westworld’s villains firing blanks?

Game of Thrones had the depravity of King Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, but HBOs new hope depends on something too abstract to get the blood pumping

The 1973 film Westworld, directed and written by Michael Crichton, was a crude movie about crude machines staffing a depraved theme park. Crichtons pleasure robots were either sexy toasters or bad toasters. When they malfunctioned, the machines simply played out their protocols and killed all but one guest. Remember how infected web cams and smart fridges brought down a chunk of the Internet last week? That, but with bullets. HBOs serial television expansion of Westworlds Cowboy-Guignol is staffed with robots beyond the toaster stage, androids flirting with consciousness. Considering the violence in play, this isnt necessarily an improvement. If Westworld doesnt hit an unexpected fork in the plot soon, it could go down as a mild update of the bloodbath from Game of Throness first season.

Unlike Game of Thrones, Westworld cant make up its mind up about torture never mind evil and good and the show hasnt presented a villain as easily loathed as King Joffrey or a hero as obvious as Daenerys Targaryen. Robots becoming sentient is only interesting if those robots are worth saving, and Westworld will only gain our trust if the abuse of robots is dramatically and philosophically distinct from the suffering of actual humans.

The twin suns of Westworld are in the logo. At base, the image is Da Vincis Vitruvian Man, rebooted as the musculature of a half-finished android stretched on a circular frame. In the shows intro, these figures sink into vats of scientifically advanced milk, which turns them, somehow, into the lifelike hosts of the 21stcentury Westworld park. This protean figure is also a few fibers shy of the flayed red man on the House Bolton sigil from Game of Thrones. These are the forces holding Westworld in place: philosophical queries into selfhood and the bloody spectacle that underpins HBOs most popular product.

The only compelling characters, so far, are robot hosts: Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy, a ranchers daughter, and Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, an olde tyme madame in a local saloon. Newton manages to seem more alive than the living, and Wood pulls off silent shifts in reflex that suggest a machine under the skin. To date, Dolores and Maeve have been raped, scalped and abused in unknown ways. (Only some violent bits are shown on-screen.) Here is where philosophy overlaps with crowd-pleasing. Game of Thrones built an audience on the bodies behind the Bolton sigil, characters raped, bisected, disemboweled, flayed, despined and castrated in the name of prestige television. But the disproportionate violence against women backfired, leading to a protest against the rape of Sansa Stark in season five. Westworld flirts with these levels of sadism, while giving itself a possible out. As Ford himself explains, as he casually slices an offline host with a scalpel: It doesnt get cold, doesnt feel ashamed. Doesnt feel a solitary thing that we havent told it to. Cant get upset about hurting robots right?

Evil Dead: Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton Photograph: 2016 Home Box Office, Inc. Al
The hosts are in a category scientists call Weak AI, where machines play out binary decisions to sophisticated levels of action without ever achieving the consciousness that allows for intentionality. On Westworld, the hosts are approaching Smart AI, where coding leads to consciousness. The Weak/Strong AI distinction is not minor. As Westworld begins, new lines of programming are causing host memories to multiply, even though the hosts go through a nightly memory erasure. This glitch is creating traumatic feedback loops for Maeve and Dolores except, hang on, there is no trauma without consciousness. As Dr Ford the parks creator and mastermind has explicitly told us, his hosts are Weak AI. This squares with what is now possible, and what keeps Westworld in the realm of speculative fiction rather than fantasy. In place of the giants of rug and ice in Game of Thrones, Westworld presents a make-believe charnel for the 1% and derives frisson by not being inconceivable.

Which is where we go off the rails. What happens if your heroes arent real and your villains arent that villainous? The men and women creating or abusing the hosts havent sunk any lower than bureaucratic creeps and black card frat boys. If Westworld asks for suspension of disbelief and allows hosts to be sentient, two potholes yawn wide open. First, the hosts will be, categorically, victims of ritual abuse, which is as sickening as anything on Game of Thrones. Second, if the hosts mount up and override the built-in safeguards that prevent them from hurting humans, will we care? Aside from the emo head of programming, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the staff are either ruthlessly ambitious or ambitiously narcissistic. Our god mode God, Dr Ford, is more detached than Bolton-level evil. We would miss approximately none of these people. This means that we are at least a season away from developing strong feelings about the actual humans, which is a long time in the age of generous binge-watching options.

Wishing for violent retribution is an odd square to land on. Game of Thrones played fast and loose with sexual violence to bring in the gawkers, just to pull it back in season six and let the Stark women have their moment. In Westeros, the depraved eventually get their depravity back, at least. Westworld cant make up its mind about what should and shouldnt happen to bodies, or karma. Last nights episode featured a dogleg into an orgy with no narrative significance, and a repairman calling Maeve a fuck puppet. If Westworld wants us to ride the brighter side of the seam between exploitation and entertainment, that signal is not coming through.

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