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Westworld S01 review

The first original android story I’ve seen since Robocop. And that’s quite an achievement seeing as it’s based on a 1973 Michael Crichton (rip) film. I’d say it was a great series, not perfect by any means, but that I won’t be awaiting its second series. Be warned now that this review will contain many SPOILERS so watch and enjoy the series first.

In fact I baulked when I discovered the writers plan to make five seasons. That would explain why the ending to Season 1 is as dissatisfying as The Prisoner‘s ending. They would have done well to learn from The Prisoner – a series that works perfectly as a one-season story. A series that had a perfectly coherent structure and ending (despite the sloppy execution). A series that would have been better had it not had filler episodes. As with The Prisoner, Westworld is marvellously designed with exquisite attention to detail paid.

As with Blade Runner the story has been altered a lot from its inception. With Blade Runner the robots were given a humanity they don’t have in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In Terminator the robots have developed a consciousness and perceive humanity as their enemy – the same story used for The Matrix as well. In Robocop the android is fully autonomous and learns of its humanity (the same story stolen for Terminator 2), but it is still a robot – a machine, and not human. Robocop has so far been the best at telling that story without descending into madness. In Westworld 1973 the robots are inflicted with an unknown pathogen and attack the humans. It makes no attempt to explain why – it could have been a computer virus, intentional malicious code, or something else. But it does appear to have happened without a human directing the destructive behaviour. There is no attempt to link it in anyway to them becoming conscious.

What the series does brilliantly is to turn this idea completely on its head and surge forward with their own. Just like Blade Runner, the nature of the androids is fundamentally altered to fit the new reality of the new story. Like Robocop, we ultimately learn that the androids do not really possess humanity, and specific to the story they don’t have any real free will or consciousness (Robocop on the other hand is sentient but he understands he’s a robot and not a human). This is quite brilliantly explained to the audience in several different ways, perhaps my favourite being when William is shown the inside of Dolores. Despite not having these qualities, they do possess emotion. It’s the fact that they possess emotion that drew one of their creators mad, and drives the other as well as Bill and the other guests. The androids believe they have sentience, but do not. Dolores’ affection and longing for William is nothing more than a part of a larger behaviour loop (probably intentionally set by Ford for Bill’s enjoyment), hence why it resets itself and continues to drive her character. Dolores was able to kill the man she most admires because her safeguards were disabled and she was instructed to, yet she can’t harm the man she despises when her safeguards are on. This is why I fear the show will descend into ruin in the following season/s… if they decide to make the androids sentient that fundamentally alters the reality of this world, and undoes the very thing that makes these androids special and unique compared to the ones in other somewhat similar sci-fi stories (Blade Runner for example).

Now that I’ve highlighted some of the show’s positives, let’s talk about the negatives. The twist with Bernard being revealed as an android was completely predictable. I think I was 2 or 3 episodes in and I was already convinced that either he or Theresa was an android, and of the two I always thought it was Bernard. Now, this actually makes sense because he’s a puppet used by Ford to infiltrate goings on that don’t otherwise involve him and protect his interests in the park. But this made for a terrible twist because of how predictable it was – why not reveal him as Ford’s double-agent earlier and use his character to a greater potential?

Why does Ford have Bernard kill Elsie? Elsie poses no threat to him whatsoever, and he can effectively control her through Bernard. It makes no sense at all that he would want to kill her. The only thing that scene serves to prove is that Bernard is completely under Ford’s control and does not have free will. That’s it. And that’s fine, it’s a good way to explain that, however Ford still needs a reason to send out his unwitting hitch-man in the first place, and he has no reason to do so. I thought that an explanation would surely be forthcoming by the end – but no, it seems the writers were perfectly happy to leave that glaring plot-hole in there.

William turns out to be the Man in Black. Great, that plot-twist I actually liked. I actually did not see that one coming, although perhaps I should have in retrospect. The one criticism I would put forward is that there is no way that Dolores will remember the younger William and not recognise him now, he’s been coming to the park regularly for 30 years. But in any case it layers the story brilliantly, further cementing the perplexing reality of the androids as capable of emotion but not free thought. Something William came to understand, and I suspect is why he enjoys his time in the park. He’s not a sadistic murdering bastard, he just likes the thrill it gives him. That’s why he’s not on the outside committing acts of atrocity against real people they way that Ford (the real sadistic Hannibal Lecter) does. Speaking of which I read with interest that Anthony Hopkins admits that reprising the Lecter role for two additional outings was a mistake (the TV series was an unmitigated disaster from my POV). So perhaps he plans not to return to this series and that’s why the ending was written the way it was – I think it would be a huge mistake if the series is going to continue to leave the ending the way it was… but I also think it’s a huge mistake continuing this series beyond one season. It’s as absurd as if The Prisoner was extended to another season!

Ford creating Bernard in Arnold’s image made no sense. In fact the whole back-story unravels into chaotic nonsense. Arnold felt the androids had “humanity” (or rather their own consciousness) because they expressed emotions. But Bernard designed those emotions for Ford several years after Arnold’s suicide. See? Makes no sense. I understand why Ford would give Bernard Arnold’s back-story, that part is fine, but making him in the physical image of Arnold doesn’t make sense, and it wouldn’t work there are people that would recognise Arnold and that’s beyond Ford’s control. He wouldn’t put himself into that kind of danger.

The androids feeling guilt over killing other androids also makes no sense. The other androids just get repaired and brought back on-line again. This whole pseudo-plot was just a ruse to cover for Dolores’ real guilt for killing Arnold. And although she appears to kill Ford at the end of the series, it’s probably just another android Ford made in the basement of the cottage in his own image. Or an avatar … perhaps he created avatars for all his guests so they can experience “real stakes” and that’s what he means by taking it to the next level. That would make sense, but the idea of actually enabling the hosts to kill does not make any sense and wouldn’t work anyway since the engineers in the basement can just roll back the firmware any time. Note that we never saw the rest of the pictures Theresa picks up, and nor do we see the end result of the android he’s rendering there, which is probably the Ford android.

Logan’s fate is left up to the imagination of the audience. Or perhaps not. The last we see of him, William has tied him to a horse and sent him straight towards the edge of the park, where if the android horse continues it will explode presumably killing Logan in the process. However, nothing in the series suggests such a grizzly fate has ever occurred to any of their guests, it’s more likely the horse will refuse to leave the park border, turn around and return Logan to some place in the park. All throughout the series we have seen that the host safeguards work flawlessly (except of course when Ford intentionally disables them), hosts are not allowed to let humans come to harm or to leave the park so the idea that the host horse will disregard its safety directives would not be in keeping with the rules of the fantasy world. Even if all this is ignored and the horse does leave the park, it’s unlikely the explosive device would be strong enough to harm anything other than the host itself anyway… and there would still be a team of engineers back in the depths of the bunker monitoring it anyway and they could remotely deactivate it or turn it around as well. None of this explains how William got control over Logan’s company however, but that loose end doesn’t really need an explanation anyway.

There’s a lot of believability lost with the sheer level of mayhem. The film suffers this problem too where it is explained that a stay in the park costs its guests $1,000 per day – yet they seem to be able to create far more damage than that, and there is not enough guests in either the film or the series at one time to pay the staffing costs, let alone the costs of daily park maintenance and repairs. There are dozens upon dozens of staff and only a handful of guests at one time? Even if the train was full with guests (which it wasn’t) when it comes in, that’s still not enough people to pay the wages of all the park staff. And for that reason I would have thought that the more menial tasks like android repairs could be carried out by androids instead of humans, especially when you have a hanger full of deactivated androids serving no present purpose. And yes I know it was carried over from the film, but it makes no sense that they would render their own android horses and livestock when they could just as easily use real animals that don’t need to be programmed and would far cheaper to maintain for the park (plus of course provide food).

Charlotte’s master plan goes nowhere. Seriously, what the fuck. Not to mention that she walks around the park in high heels and a tight-fitting dress like it’s Jurassic World – fuck me. So she activates an android, gives it her custom code, and sends it out into the world at large. I suppose this is intended for the second season, but brining the chaos and mayhem out of the park makes no good narrative sense, and it’s better not to show the futuristic outside world anyway and concentrate on the park. Once you lift the veil it will lose all its magic, it will no longer feel like a real place that could exist in the future, instead it will look silly.

And this leads me back to the series’ ending. The whole sub-plot with Ford’s new story didn’t go anywhere, it’s all just a stupid set up for some future story. It had no purpose whatsoever in the series itself. Furthermore, Ford has conducted himself honourably for 35 years and then all of a sudden he starts killing people? I don’t for a second believe that. The ending as presented does not fit the series… it’s just there to lead into the next season. What a horrible mistake. The series could have drawn to its natural conclusion, and that would have been that. But instead we get a forced ending to set up the next season… better get James Cameron involved if there’s avatars afoot. Without all that nonsense the ending would have been great – the realisation that Dolores isn’t on a journey, she’s just in a loop, and that William is the Man in Black –  brilliant. End it there, on the high note. Don’t force it to be something that it’s not.

So the series was good, not perfect, but prepare for it to be utterly ruined in the following seasons. Take my advice: don’t watch!

 

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