Monday, May 20, 2024

Westworld on Caring about Robots’ Feelings

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Recap and Review of Westworld Season 1 Episode 2, “Chestnut”

“Chestnut” opens its doors to the audience showing two newcomers in town, as it connects to its source material, opens up discussions about how consent is given in situations involving the hosts, illustrates triggers, and gives one of its characters a huge reality shock.

First of all, I love the focus shift to Maeve in this chapter and how her narrative mostly carried the episode until that final amazing sequence in the end. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Dolores last week (and even how she is spreading the ‘virus of sentience’ through the voice code). But the toning down of her story was pleasant given how big the theme park is and how much we still have to explore.

We are also introduced to the main target demographic of Westworld: adult men looking for a good and morally ambiguous time. The two characters, Logan and William, are archetypes of the Bad/Good Guys so far and they mostly served as expositional devices in the episode.

They show us how can one enter Westworld and that there are hosts working even in this part of the operation – they are being literal “hosts” and even ask if the guests have any mental illness as to not being subjected to anything they can’t handle which was a nice touch.

As a matter of fact, the host assigned to our Good Guy William, Angela, perfectly summarizes what I think creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy want to pass with this show: “If you can’t tell if it’s real, does it matter”? Well… Yes.

From my understanding, the reality of Westworld is giving off the opposite as the answer, but we as the audience are supposed to know better – we see these fully immersive robots who are humanized in pretty much every single way having complete interactions with people and environment alike exactly like us, but who are still seen as ‘entertainment’ within the show context. In other words, Westworld is depicting people who don’t give a shit about the hosts and simply want to play this video game as freely as inconsequentially as they want, but it is hardly endorsing the idea to the audience as we see more of these creations, because we can humanize and empathize with them.

See Logan, for example, and the other hedonist guests who keep going on about “best vacation ever”; “I went straight evil one time”, and so on: they acknowledge that they don’t care about the hosts so they just go and do whatever the fuck they want.  After all they are “just” robots, right? If they kill or hurt one, it gets reset the next day like nothing really happened.

Some of the people behind the scenes of the park show the counterpoint: Elsie mentions that the hosts do have memories and they basically HAVE to delete them often. As she said, “Can you imagine how fucked we’d be if these poor assholes ever remembered what the guests do to them?”. It’s all very morally grey/blackish while self-aware – they may not just be proving Rousseau’s idea of people being inherently bad, but also profiting from it.

The thing is: yes, we are supposed to care about them. The audience rightly cared about Dolores being raped last week. The people cared about the hundreds of casualties from the shootout. The same goes about the Native American being scalped as well as this week with Maeve waking up in an extreme case of vulnerability and realizing her grim reality. It’s what we do: we empathize.

However, this is a part of the show that may get hoisted by its own petard. As Kylie said on her review, as Gretchen described in her Acedia Article, as Barbara spoke about in her piece about trauma as a plot device: the show may be treading in dangerous “Hardened Women” tropey waters—which I hope it gets subverted—as it really is just the (often gratuitous) violence that will make the hosts snap out of it. Take Teddy, who got sidelined this episode: he gets shot mid-conversation with Maeve, dies, and then gets shot two more times by the “BEST VACATION EVER” screamer. Basically, a rehash of last week and possibly every day as a host whose story line may be just getting Sean-Beaned.

Want more gratuitous violence? Basically any scene with the Man in Black (MiB). In “The Original”, he scalped the Native American host, taunted Teddy about his literal inability of shooting a guest in the head as his coding won’t allow, killed him, and for icing on the cake, raped Dolores. In “Chestnut”, he kills a bunch of people who were going to hang Lawrence (this is a cool off-screen shooting though), then dragged him with a rope for miles (I’m assuming), found his family, killed a bunch of other people, killed his wife, and threatened to kill his daughter before she revealed the path to the Maze. Dude is essentially a Villain Sue right now.

It’s probably the show’s point really that something grey is going on — especially in terms of sexual consent. The BTS host, Angela, for instance, was programmed to consent to William’s wishes if he wanted to have sex with her. In contrast, Dolores was dragged through the ground screaming by the Man in Black. There are also the sex workers at the saloon doing their own thing. Again, the Guests pretty much go to Westworld to not care about any of these issues with robots, as illustrated with Logan and the MiB, but we still do.

It’s not by accident that Theresa Cullen (who Kylie described as the COO) said “We wouldn’t want anything disturbing our guests from their rape and pillage”. She knows it’s not a strictly right thing what they do (or better yet, what the Guests do), but in the Westworld reality, she can definitely make use of some vacuum for apology as, once again, “they are just robots” and it’s her job to oversee the customer’s happiness.

Maybe it’s almost how we play video games, in a way, and how the concept applies to Westworld. Do we feel guilty if we run over and kill a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto? Should we? What about games like Telltale – do we usually try to be Good or Bad and how do our actions make us feel? Is that the same thing for the people in Westworld just amped to 11 given the lack of reality thresholds? The show is probably trying to create those types of discussion in light of how technology has evolved that sex robots and A.I.s are not a thing from the super distant future anymore.

Personally, the show does get me caring about the hosts. Thandie Newton as Maeve showed so much in this episode alone. We learn that possibly in another storyline (similar to Dolores’s father being a professor last week) she lived with a daughter and both of them were (either/both?) scalped by Native Americans in war paint and shot down by the Man in Black.

It is with her that we see how easy it is for the ‘mechanics’ to mess up with the hosts’ settings and how dismissive of the robots they can be — it’s “just a robot hooker”, after all, so let’s make her extra feisty! This just proves Thandie Newton’s performing ability even more given she basically had the same scene thrice in this episode with different line deliveries each time.

Maeve IS contaminated though, that’s for sure. She was able to remember her past life and woke up during her repair surgery (the biology of the hosts are so good they can get MRSA from the flies, oh my god) fully conscious of her western self.

Now, this sequence was just breathtaking as it was because of the context, but it is worth mentioning how nudity was used to intensify the vulnerability she felt and also how little dignity the injured/dead hosts get when they are being taken care of.

It all screamed to me of desensitization and, again, how they are just dead robots. The people in charge of cleaning and analysis are so used to seeing these bodies that way that it’s simply not phasing. I imagine it to be kind of like an adult seeing one of their kid’s Barbies naked — it’s just THAT innocuous. However, to the host that just woke up to a completely different reality she is used to while being operated on, and running into a whole place full of dead people she may recognize… it’s disconcerting.

“[…]Anyway, that is the culture that we’re in. So for me to agree to be totally naked is a big deal. But that is the level to which I trust these people. I don’t want to be naked everyday on set. I don’t want my kids to have other people tease them, because they will. But it is worth it because of the value of what that nudity is going to impress upon people. It is vulnerability. The hosts are treated like carcasses of meat, and that nudity relates to our vulnerability, to our complete lack of dignity, as seen by our programmers. What you’re seeing shouldn’t be happening. It’s not of a sexual nature – of course, there are scenes in the show that are sexual where there is nudity. But because you’ve seen nudity in this vulnerable, awful [Westworld backstage facility] it also translates into those prostitution scenes – because that’s been placed in your mind it will make you more conscious of the nudity in general.” – Thandie Newton.

The above line is from EW’s interview with Thandie Newton. It is definitely worth a read as she mentions how the episode happened and how feminist she thinks the show is.

On side plot news, we have what I assume was Benioff & Weiss’s Game of Thrones Season 7 pitch to HBO as, Lee, the writer, exclaims proudly “Vivisection! Self-Cannibalism! A little something I like to call ‘Whoroboros’! Horror! Romance! Titillation! Our most skilled guests will fight their ways to the outer limits of the park, besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens, befriending tragically ill-fated sidekicks […]” about the new storyline he has concocted.

I believe the follow-up scene is not only sort of meta in a way that it serves as a commentary to itself and its use of violence but also to the whole fetishization of violence that has been going on with the media lately (case in point, Game of Thrones’s Go! Go! Go! Shock After Shock!™ entire marketing strategy) showing self-awareness from Nolan and Joy — they know it’s not the best thing ever, but in this consolidated TV business, it’s hard to be able to do something different. It is up to Ford to shut Lee (the writer) down as he explains the guests want more…they want better. Honestly, I’m just going to put his entire speech here because it’s beautiful and shows a more nuanced Dr. Ford and what his intentions may be.

“What is the point of it? Get a couple of cheap thrills? Some surprises? But it’s not enough. It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want. No, that’s simple. The titillation, horror, elation… They’re parlor tricks. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no on had ever noticed before… something they’ve fallen in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” – Dr. Ford.

Dr. Ford, by the way, is probably on to something when he says some new original storyline will be available as he looks at some sort of mini-church with a cross on the roof – is this the place the Man in Black is supposed to find for the Hidden Quest? Also, is this hidden mission a tradition side quest, an easter egg, the main goal of Westworld…? Well, the curiosity is killing me and Westworld is definitely getting me to come back for more.

Closing thoughts:

  • Can IMDB stop lying to me? I was really hoping Tessa Thompson would appear.
  • As someone with a deadly paralyzing fear of snakes, the scene with Ford, the kid, and the rattlesnake not only really subverted my expectations, but also definitely cleared up the doubt that only the flies aren’t robots in Westworld.
  • I know I barely touched upon Dolores this episode, but she was barely in it really. However, it is worth mentioning that something fishy is going on between her and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Some theories imply that he may be feeding Dolores ‘faulty’ information and also told her where to find that gun.
  • Some other theories I saw mentioned the kid Ford was talking to being Ford himself as a child but as a robot and the MiB being either a sentient host turned Guest or a VIP guest who was literally born in Westworld.
  • By the way, Hemsworth Brother #3 in is the show as the head of security that interviewed Dolores last week.

Images courtesy of HBO.

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