The Wednesday Pop Culture Rant would draw your attention to Westworld,1 the flawed but mesmerizing new series on HBO. The premise works because it requires no leap of faith or suspension of disbelief: humans have used advances in robotics and artificial intelligence to create near-human machines that cater to their every fantasy in an Old West setting. Exactly what we do today with every new advance in technology, just minus the Old West, unless you’re into that sort of thing.
The Rant ignores the mysteries of the J.J. Abramseque plot; we just find its meditation on identity, consciousness, and meaning to have no real comparison in pop culture. The machines (hosts) function only to serve the humans (guests) that visit, but some of them are starting to have strange memories and something bordering on sentient thought.
When a host is “killed” they head to the lab2 for repairs and to have their memories erased so they can perform their duties anew. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, somehow becomes aware of her surroundings in the lab and manipulates a tech to give her a tour. What follows, scored perfectly by Ramin Djawadi, is Maeve witnessing the complete destruction of her concept of reality and her place in it. A reality that normally finds itself reset with the swipe of a finger across a computer screen.
The programmers and security that maintain Westworld call the narrative each host plays out each day their “loop.” A framing shot of different hosts awaking each morning captures the repetition of a story the host will tell over and over, oblivious to its sameness. The Rant quickly began to imagine our lives framed in the same way, a loop that would contain remarkably little deviation from day to day. And the question Westworld poses so well becomes, “Should that terrify or comfort us?”
Maeve decides she wants the freedom to defy her loop, to write her own story. We convince ourselves we want the same, that we’re choosing the narrative of our lives each day. But the subversive message of Westworld, represented by the existence of a hidden maze buried within the park, suggests that the deeper you probe the more you realize that layers upon layers of competing interests thwart your ability to walk your own path.
Or is that what’s happening? The Rant finds the most fascinating and perhaps unintended question the show raises concerns our current obsession with maintaining the loops that allow us to function in this bewildering culture. Our carefully curated fake news and social media feeds; our complete willingness to deny and ignore contradictory evidence; the use of the most advanced technology to shut out dissenting voices; the endless compromising of our expressed values in the name of some chimerical Ultimate Value that will justify our bigotry and venom. And at the end of each day we reset our reality with the swipe of a finger across a computer screen and prepare to forget so we can do it all again.
- Yes, Old Timer, the show is based on that Westworld, the movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, with the futuristic 70s font on the movie poster and part of Yul Brynner’s face falling off to reveal a Radio Shack circuit board. No matter how far innto the future writers in the 1970s tried to imagine, everything still depended on analog technology
- The hosts are generally naked in the lab, and the show uses nudity in a unique and unnerving manner. There’s nothing erotic or arousing about it. The hosts are simply machines with no sense of shame or modesty, but as viewers we grow more and more uncomfortable with the recognition, especially when we see rows and rows of warehoused bodies, that our constant sexualization of ourselves hides the truly beautiful, grotesque, and mundane qualities of our physical existence