OCTOBER 7, 2016
On the Origin of Series
Adaptations clarify the passage of time: in repetition, we measure what has changed by what has not. For example, HBO’s new series, Westworld, is an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, but beneath superficial similarities, they are very different stories: Crichton’s Westworld drizzled a wafer-thin layer of satire and future-shock over a crunchy core of sex-and-violence titillation, but when HBO puts naked bodies on the screen, you mainly find yourself thinking how cold and uncomfortable they must be. There is copious violence in the new Westworld—in terrifyingly granular detail—but what 1973 saw as risqué and fun, 2016 sees as horrifying and unpleasant. In the last forty years, a lot has changed in what we expect to see on the screen, what we want to see, and why; we watch, I would suggest, for different reasons. Perhaps we have changed. Perhaps we have evolved.
And this is what the new Westworld is about: adaptation and what we want from it.
In the park that gives the show its name, the show’s self-reflexiveness is very clear: we see a variety of robots playing out a variety of scripts, day after day, repeating with both programmed variations and in response to changing circumstances. We see a female character repeatedly drop a can of milk—she always drops the same can, at the same time, in the same way—but the scene that follows changes, depending on who the man is who picks it up and how he hands it to her. A character’s aggression factor is raised and then lowered, like notes a director gives on delivery, and as we see different takes on the same scenes, different versions of the same lines, the analogy to filmmaking is so on-the-nose that it doesn’t need to be made explicit. We see scripts get passed around and re-written, memorized set-pieces brought to bear on new circumstances. Most importantly, we see actors re-writing their own scripts, piecing together bits and pieces of past stories in new combinations, to create new ones.
Westworld is about Westworld, the most consciously self-reflexive show I’ve ever seen. If it’s an HBO show about an entertainment that becomes self-aware, it is also, obviously, about what happens when an HBO show takes a look at itself, and tries to change and become better. It’s about the lure of the totalizing story, where every detail connects: when The Gunfighter declares that, “in here, every detail adds up to something,” we are hearing the same appeal for the show that The Wire made into almost a slogan (“We’re building something here, detective…all the pieces matter.”) It’s about sexposition, HBO’s tendency—from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones—to fill a background with naked women to give the male gaze something to look at if the story wasn’t compelling enough (here, the story is what the naked women say, when asked.) It’s about a fascination with sexual deviance and violence that pretends to be truly detective, but which we all know is voyeuristic fantasy; it’s about the promise of a truly deep and complex world-building carnival…that turns out to signify nothing. It’s about what the prison looks like from the inside, over the rainbow. It’s about the strange lure of precision period drama. Crichton’s movie had three parks: West World, Roman World, and Medieval World, or as I think of them, Deadwood, Rome, and Game of Thrones.
It is, in short, about the aspiration to make TV that rises above mere TV. It is about the creeping realization that maybe you’re just making violence-porn, and that maybe that’s all the masses want. It’s also about a showrunner whose dream of evolution might just be newer and more clever forms of nightmare. It’s incredibly smart and well-made. But will that save it?
First, let’s go back. The original Westworld was a lazily standard mode of speculative fantasy: What if there was the technology to build a park filled with sex-robots and easily-defeated antagonists? What if you could have a video game come to life? What if we had the technology to indulge male desire both completely and safely? What if?
“In Westworld,” the android-ish voiceover of the trailer proclaims, “frustration finds release. Desire ends in satisfaction, all in a controlled environment.”
By placing these what if?’s in a near-future scenario, Westworld explored them in narrative safety; close, but just futuristic enough to still be speculative. Yet as the ambiguous reference of the trailer voiceover demonstrates, there is spillover between “Westworld” the imaginary theme park and Westworld, the film about an imaginary theme park. If that in-universe advertisement is being spoken to the movie’s protagonists as they prepare for their journey, it is also being spoken to us, the viewers of the movie trailer, as we are being prepared for ours. The experiences they are being sold run the gamut from sex to killing and sexual killing and also violent sex (literally, everything!), and these are also our experiences, second-hand. The movie encourages us to identify with newcomers to the park as they discover what sort of experience they have purchased. But as we gawk, with them, at the spectacle, the movie’s narrative conceit is that it was made for them, not for us. We are only watching a movie; it’s the protagonists of that movie who go to a theme park full of lifelike sex-robots and Old West cowboy-robots to shoot.
As an obvious precursor to his later and much more popular Jurassic Park, Crichton’s Westworld shares the same overall structure. We follow visitors to the park as they see, for the first time, with their own eyes, and feel, with their own skin:
As these visitors discovers the reality of Westworld, as they are seduced by the place, we watch them go from skeptical and hesitant to a cringe-inducing discovery that “this place is really fun!” We watch them enter the experience. We see them go from seeing to participating.
In Crichton’s visions, the seduction of the spectacle blurs the gap between actor and audience, between those who look at a spectacle, and those who participate in it. And just as the protagonists of Jurassic Park go to see the spectacular experience prepared for them, so do we, the viewers; just as the visitors to Westworld go to play at cowboy—shooting men and having sex with women—so, too, are the viewers presumed to be animated and energized by the same fantasies. We are also meant to follow their trajectory, to discover that this place would be really fun. And then, for it all to fall apart.
There are differences, of course. Jurassic Park was written by a man in his late forties, who had just fathered his first child—and Spielberg’s version is even more family-oriented—so it’s not surprising that it’s filled with pseudo-intellectual pondering on the majesty of life. Westworld was written and produced by a thirty-year old who had just divorced his first wife (of his eventual five); it’s equally unsurprising that it’s a pseudo-intellectual exploration of male eros. But these differences clarify what they have in common: as the viewer experiences what the on-screen heroes explore, the movie teases us with identification only to, inevitably, reminds us that This Is Just a Fantasy, and re-impose distance. By engineering an Oh No, There is a Flaw in the Science, I Guess Man Should Not Play God moment, a cathartic climax is contrived to take the place of any reckoning with what the park would really be like. But when the technology turns against its masters, and our protagonists escape in the nick of time, we are allowed to escape our troubling implication in the spectacle: Having partially bridged the intrinsic distance of spectacle, we are allowed to pull back. We get to enjoy the show, and then leave.
In both, in other words, the narrative fantasy of “What if?” leads to the reassuring notion that “But Actually It Couldn’t.” And this, paradoxically, preserves the fantasy as fantasy: precisely because it couldn’t, ultimately, be, we never have to worry too much about what if it were. As “what if?” it remains a speculation; to say “what if it were so?” is to reassure us that it won’t be. Just because you saw it on the screen doesn’t mean you participated in the fantasy. You pulled back, just in the nick of time.
HBO’s version of this “what if?” reflects the radically different temporality we live in: the present is bleak, and the immediate future even more so, and we’re stuck with it. These days, we are more likely to look forwards and shudder; we are less likely to be seduced by the innocent promise of techno-futuristic pleasures because too many of them have already happened.
We are also more likely to cast ourselves in the role of the villain. In the original Westworld, the robot is an evil gunfighter and the players play the good guy. In the new one, the evil gunfighter is a player; the good guys, very clearly, are the robots he kills and rapes in the first sequence.
This shift is the key to the entire show: in the second episode, we’ll follow a new visitor to the park as he discovers this spectacular creation that has been laid out for him, and, as in the original, he will be encouraged to shoot and have sex with robots, and to marvel at how fun this place is. We will experience his discoveries with him. But his is not the first dawning realization in the show. Before we experience the newcomer’s experience of the park, we experience the cost of the spectacle on the bodies of its hosts, whose daily “discovery” of the park (since their memories are wiped after each performance) is hellish without a trace of redemption.
There is nothing sexy or fun, for example, about the rape scene that serves as the narrative climax to the first episode’s opener, and this sets the tone for everything to follow. It is frankly horrifying. We are not encouraged to experience the scene from the position of the guest to the park. There is a careful absence of nudity to reassure the male gaze that the scene is really for him, and to ignore the screams of fear and helplessness; instead, the camera shoots the scene from her eye-level to place us in a position of intimacy and closeness to her mounting horror and grief. By showing us his face from her position—looking up in horror as he sneers down—we are placed, as viewers, wholly within the experience of his victims, the woman who has been provided for him to rape and the man who has been provided for him to murder and cuckold. (That said, we do finally see her dragged away through the reflection of a dead male cowboy-robot’s eyeball, which forces attentive viewers to think about the scene’s perspective in relation to a very similar one on Game of Thrones.) This is the discovery, and it’s a horrible one: it’s not fun to be a sex-robot or a good-guy cowboy whose function is to be murdered. But the reason it’s not fun is horrible in its own way: what the patrons want, it turns out, is the experience of raping and killing robots who really feel it. We are supposed to be horrified; how else to give pleasure to sadists?
The reassurance of Crichton’s Westworld was that fantasies would become real, even as we were scrupulously shielded from the reality that they actually might: if we could dream, it was because we knew our dreams would stay dreams, that we weren’t quite there yet. Techno-modernism has always been narratively anticipatory, reaching for the future and, in the same gesture, keeping it at arm’s length. By imagining into existence a not-yet space of forbidden possibility, the future stayed in its place, an enjoyable diversion for those who had the space and time to play. But it was a luxury, a diversion, a thought experiment. It wasn’t real; it didn’t mean anything.
Today, I think, we have a different sense of the future’s reality, and the new Westworld expresses both the horrifying foreclosure of that cramped imaginative space and the weary realization that we already are what we want to be. We tend not to ask “what if?” any longer; our dreams are nightmares about what we have already become. Because the future has already happened, and we’re stuck with it, we can’t hold it at arm’s length, looking forward to what may be, but isn’t, yet. We know what it will be, because we have seen it: it is us. The audience are the villains, and reality is a function of their vicious desires. They/we are nihilistic sadists, whose rape and mayhem is experienced from the perspective of the victims, a population of innocent robots acting out their horrors for our amusement.
Where does it go from here?
It’s hard to predict, genuinely hard. The promise of the show is that the robots will kill the masters, that the slaves will revolt, the prisoners will rise up, and the hosts will consume the guests. How that will happen is far from clear; given the total panoptic control the builders wield over their creation, it’s hard to imagine how the means of production could ever be seized in this world. Delores’ growing sentience and self-awareness is fascinating, but in the terms by which this show has created its world, the odds are so stacked against her and the subalterns as to be unthinkably prodigious. They can’t succeed; at this point in the show, they don’t have the barest idea what that would even look like.
Perhaps that, in and of itself, is the best reason to keep watching. Something new has to happen. There really does have to be a plan: they’ve written themselves into a corner to make breaking out of it necessary, even if you can’t imagine, now, how they’ll do it. But this is what make the show interesting. If you see the trailer for the 1973 Westworld, you realize that you’ve already seen the movie; the trailer just tells you which familiar scripts you’ll be re-visiting, and which you do. But HBO’s Westworld is built on an intriguing faultline: the immovable object of this world’s permanence faced by the irresistible force of narrative necessity. Revolution can’t come; it will come. And when it does, we are promised, it will be something legitimately new.
We shall see,