UK TV review: Westworld, Episode 3
Ivan Radford | On 24, Oct 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Westworld? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1.
What makes us human? That’s the question that a lot of sci-fi essentially boils down to. What, exactly, does a soul consist of? Snips and snails and puppy dogs tails? Sugar and spice and all things nice? The fact that either of those will trigger recollections of hearing them as a child is a clue to Westworld’s theory: memories are the key to humanity. Not just making them and accessing them, but understanding them. Learning from them. Growing from them. It’s what, in theory, makes humans better at chess than chess computers. It’s what makes one person unique from another. It’s what gives you motivation, as well as a personality.
But what about characters in fiction? They can have memories. They can have motivation. They have a past that, while invented, can make them unique from another person. Does that mean they have souls? Looking at the humans on display in HBO’s sci-fi epic, we certainly believe they do. But they’re not real: they’re made up people. And isn’t that what the robots in Westworld are too? And does that mean there’s no difference between memories and backstory? Can one replace the other?
Episode 3 of Westworld dives into these questions with irresistible depth and intrigue – if you weren’t convinced by Episode 1 (a look at the park from the behind-the-scenes) or Episode 2 (a look at the park from the guests’ POV), this is the episode that will have you hooked.
“Consciousness” is the word of the day, folks. Well, that and “Arnold”, who, we discover from Dr. Ford, was his old partner. We learn (courtesy of both a dramatic monologue from the king of dramatic monologues, Anthony Hopkins, and a freakily CGI-ed younger version of him in a flashback) that he and Ford created the park and worked there for several years like the eager young brainiacs they were. Within 12 months, their robotic creations had already passed the Turing Test. Then, Arnold died mysteriously in the park. By accident, it seems, even though Ford assures us he was a man who was careful and took precautions.
Why did Arnold die? That’s no doubt got something to do with his break-up with Ford: they diverged in their working philosophies, as Arnold become obsessed with creating not just the illusion of AI, but actual AI. His brainwave? To take a leaf from Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind theory – that the mind is split into two, the speaking half and the listening half, and that over time, that speaking half would be perceived as the voice of God, giving them instructions to follow. The result is something of a building block of religion, mortality and, therefore, humanity. And so, Arnold turned the robots’ code into an inner monologue, making them think they could hear a voice of God – theoretically hoping it would kick-start consciousness. As Ford points out, though, someone who thinks they can hear God is also considered insane.
Sure enough, that’s what happened: the machines began to go crazy. (We know that there have been malfunctions and incidents in the park before. How related this is to that is unclear, but we suspect this is many, many years before the park was open. The important thing is this: robots go cray cray, yo.)
It’s a head-spinning, intricate idea in itself, before we even get to the plot part of the episode. After all, we’ve witnessed Dolores hearing voices, prompting her to break her programming to increasing degrees. And we’ve seen two robots (including that one who likes milk a lot) go violently mad, all the while talking to an imaginary person called “Arnold”. Is that them talking to the voice in their head?
There’s certainly something going on below the surface with Dolores, and we get more chance to observe that in detail during her scenes with Jeffrey Wright’s Science Dude. Like most of their conversations, he fills her with his own sadness and memories, but also gets her to read books, books that talk of change or burgeoning self-awareness. This week, it’s Alice in Wonderland.
“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is: Who in the world am I?”
Evan Rachel Wood is magnificent, managing to be simultaneously blank and colourful; coded and conflicted; dead and alive. She delivers Lewis Carroll’s prose with all its deeper themes in tact, while still appearing as though she doesn’t understand any of it. It’s a constant balancing act, not too much robot, not too much human – and that uncertainty is where Westworld is mining richer and richer material. With anyone else in that role, it’s hard to imagine it working.
We also, of course, get to spend more time with Science Dude, and Jeffrey Wright is similarly excellent, able to be logical and smart, yet also emotional and sympathetic. He’s the opposite of Ford, who clearly has terrible taste in choosing partners he can get on with.
“Don’t make Arnold’s mistake,” Ford advises him, which suggests that he’s aware Science Dude is at risk of thinking of Dolores as a human, rather than a machine. (One brilliant moment sees Ford admonish an employee for covering a naked robot with a blanket, pointing out that they don’t feel anything they haven’t been told to.) But there are others way his comment can be interpreted. Does it mean that Ford knows Science Dude has been basically taking therapy sessions with Dolores? Or does it mean he’s threatening Science Dude not to continue with his experiments, or else he’ll meet with the same, sticky end as Arnold?
In other Crazy Robot News, one of the hosts goes AWOL, giving Luke Hemsworth a chance to shine as security chief Stubbs, paired up with Shannon Woodward’s Boffin Girl to track it down and immobilise it for repair. They have a fun, flirty strain of sarcasm, as you might expect, but that only makes the ensuing events eerier, as they stray from the beaten narrative path. It turns out the AWOL host is a woodcutter, which means that with him gone, the other robots in his story are unable to lift an axe and continue their scene, instead getting stuck in a loop waiting for him – a wonderful, post-modern touch that recalls Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. But even creepier is when they find the woodcutter and he not only fights the humans, but also kills himself by smashing his own head in with a rock. Why? It can’t be his programming – is it the voice in its head telling him to? Is it him wanting the voice to stop? And, most troubling of all, is it aware enough of existence to grasp what self-destruction is?
The axe moment also introduces us to another of the park’s rules: only certain robots can use weapons. A smart move, that, given the malfunctions that happened in the 1970s Crichton movie (or, if you prefer, in The Simpsons’ Itchy & Scratchy Land). So when Teddy takes Dolores shooting – Teddy certainly knows how to do romantic dates – she realises she can’t pull the trigger.
Good old Teddy. Wooing Dolores and looking handsome. That’s all there really is to him. When Dolores talks of wanting to go away, he puts it off (“someday”), because that’s what he’s programmed to do: keep her there, so the story can continue. But just as we hit the point in a Western when we’d normally get more of Teddy’s motivations, up pops Ford to do exactly that: he gives Teddy a backstory to fit in with his new storyline. Suddenly, Teddy has a haunted past full of a former commanding officer in the army, who essentially went crazy and started killing folk with a bunch of masked murdering types. The thing that turned him insane? Hearing the voice of God. (Give us an A. Then an R. Then an N, O, L, D.)
It’s a wonderfully ambiguous parallel to Ford’s own history, not only giving James Marsden more to do with his character – of course, he ends up dead again – but also raising a whole heap of questions. Does that change in memories make Teddy a new person? And, if he and Ford share a similar backstory, who’s to say which one has more of a soul?
Herein lies the brilliance of what David T. Thomsen and co-creator Lisa Joy manage with their script: they blur the line between fake backstory and real backstory. Using the same techniques that Ford is using inside their story to tell his own tale, they manage a masterful piece of head-screwing that, in any other hands, would become pretentious, dull and annoying. Incredibly, that doesn’t happen.
Wyatt, it’s worth remembering, isn’t someone we’ve met before, but we believe in him immediately, thanks to Marsden’s committed performance – he plays everything with such serious conviction, that we can almost buy that this is his actual backstory. And why wouldn’t he be believable? That’s what he’s programmed to be.
Compare that with Science Dude and Dolores, whose scenes give him a backstory too. Here, we unearth a man struggling to cope with the grief of losing his son that he connects with someone who, in a way, resembles a new child. Talking with his ex-wife, he admits that the pain of their dead son is all he has left of him; memories, even of sad things, are part of what makes him who he is. (How tragic it is, then, that he should pour these memories into Dolores and then effectively wipe them. What a soul-destroying act that is.)
Wright’s performance is just as charismatic as Marsden, but Science Dude isn’t a real person either. One’s memories may be “real” and the other’s may be programmed, but Westworld proves there’s no discernible difference between their humanity on the surface. While Wright’s tears give his scenes an immediate impact, Teddy’s action scenes are made exciting through music and direction. Teddy’s sequences should carry no tension whatsoever, as it’s all artificial, but by blurring the boundaries so much that we become uncertain about what’s programmed and what’s not, Westworld drums up suspense anyway. The show even makes sure that when guests tag along with Teddy’s plot, it doesn’t bother to point out the humans from the hosts; we’re constantly suspecting something new might be about to happen, whether that’s down to a human’s actions or a malfunctioning robot, which makes everything grippingly unpredictable.
(William, one of the few guests we do recognise, continues his steps into darker territory, as he shoots up an evil host to save a girl, much to the delight of his friend, Logan, until he passes up the chance for sex to go on adventure to the outer rim of Westworld.)
And amid all of this densely layered writing sits Dolores, who is effectively learning her own backstory by recalling what the Man in Black has done to her – presumably countless times. After all, Dolores, kept in Westworld by Teddy, is a trope in a story designed for people to have sex with, for robots to abuse and assault so that she can be saved, for Teddy to swoon over. Her existence is horrific. So it’s only natural that she should be the one to have the impetus to break free from that cycle; she ends up in a barn with an attacker approaching and, hearing some kind of voice in her head telling her to shoot and (crucially) remembering a similar scene with the Man in Black, she overrides her programming and pulls the trigger – and runs away, into the arms of William.
It’s not massively shocking, given the practice shooting build-up and the fly-swatting in Episode 1, but it’s in the levels playing out underneath Dolores’ actions that the excitement lies. Is she actually acting of her own free will here? And who is the voice in her head? Is it just her code making her think that she’s got free will? Is it a fragment of Arnold from years ago? And, in a world where fake backstories are disarmingly convincing, the most disturbing question of all: is Ford’s backstory about Arnold fake too? If so, what really happened?
Westworld just took a step from very good television to great television.
Westworld Season 1 is available to watch on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead) to Sky Living (Divorce) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, The Young Pope). A 7-day free trial is available for new subscribers.
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