The Swirl of Westworld

By: Anshuman

Westworld: A HBO TV series based on the concepts around the old movie Westworld (1973). Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, this series rose to humungous unanimous critical and audience acclaim with its first season, for the themes it deals with, the story it tells, the plot twists it tells and the satisfying narrative it brought forth with stunning production design, acting and music/sound design (Bless Ramin Djawadi for that, God of music composition.)

A little bit about me as well, I’m Anshuman Gupta and I HUNGER for good plot driven stories. Philosophy is a forte of mine, so is science fiction, this show naturally was bound to become one of my favourites. Right now, it’s 12:54 AM on a Monday. I have college classes at 8am tomorrow and yet here I am writing this piece about this show after having watched the season 4 finale 1-2 hours ago. I am still digesting it, the audacity of it and the sheer brilliance of it. We NEED to talk about Westworld.

This piece is meant to be for fans and non-fans alike, it won’t deal with any spoilers from any seasons, at least not spoilers non-fans would understand anyway before watching the show. So even if this is your first time hearing about such a show existing, if you knew about it and its popularity and are curious about what it actually is, if you were turned off by hearing later seasons weren’t supposedly good, if you’re an ex-fan because of season 3, or if you are as much of a fan as I am, I implore you to read what I have to say.

Westworld is one of the most intelligently and brilliantly written narratives that I have had the chance to experience, it’s very complex and so to dial it down to what it simply is, there is just no way to do that while doing the show justice but I’ll try. Westworld, in the most simplest terms, is a show that asks the question – “What does it mean to be a human? Is it having a biological body, or is it the sum total of our memories and consciousness?” The show leans more on the latter without giving any answer, but rather letting the viewers scratch their heads in confusion and ponder as philosophies and questions are laid before them.

Season 1 rose to popularity as it was a complex show featuring highly advanced robots that were created by humans and resemble humans, used for entertainment at man-made parks. Humans could do whatever they wanted with these human-like robots referred to as ‘hosts’. They had no free will of their own, simply going about in their predetermined loops by lines of code to carry out story narratives in the park that humans came for entertainment and to indulge in their worst impulses. Westworld, was one such park with the theme of the “western countryside”, and all the cliches and characterization that came with it.

So a show dealing with advanced human robots, having the entire premise be set in a western world reminiscent of old cowboy movies, with all the glorious HBO quality.

The concept alone was MADE to explode in popularity and become mainstream, how cool is that? Especially when the first season centres around the hosts developing consciousness, all the drama and tension that comes with that? Pure crowd-pleasing stuff.

The show though, was much more, so much more than a robot vs human show set in a western countryside. The first season rose to such acclaim over all the other successor seasons because it was the introduction of a fresh storyline, the first introduction to all these characters and the cool concept, and the philosophy and complexity being a nice blanket to coze in on familiar tropes as you were blown away by spectacular plot twists, rightfully blowing your mind and making you shake with excitement. The first season’s magic was lightning captured in a bottle. It was evident it could never be recaptured as future seasons continued the story and God bless the creators for never trying to recapture it or structure the story to retain the mainstream love and adoration.

They weren’t scared to not spoon feed the audience, they weren’t scared to absolutely confuse the audience, they weren’t scared to make viewers watch entire episodes without understanding what the hell was going on until the story beats unfolded. They weren’t scared to let the philosophy remain the ‘cornerstone’ of the project.

Are we really humans because of the body we are in? Are we really set to be the prime species of the world, the top of the food chain just because of our bodies? Every creature on this planet has their own biological body, biology isn’t what led us to conquer all. It was sentience.

Sentience can be described as consciousness. Consciousness is being awake, being allowed to think beyond our primal urges, being free. Memories define our consciousness, it maps and codes us and gives us purpose, meaning, emotions. The hosts in Westworld can not be called humans just because they have our bodily functions, they have no free will. They are puppets on a string with no thoughts beyond their own code, stuck to their predetermined loops and never allowed to break free. 

But, what if they do find consciousness? They develop consciousness? Consciousness can be described as a ‘maze’, a giant journey of dead ends and crossroads we go through to break our loops, form our memories, have our core memories and use that to ascertain our free will and do what dictates us. So, what happens when they reach the centre of the maze? When they achieve consciousness?

By the science fiction media that exists today we are well too aware of the concept of sentient robots coming to fight us. They are differentiated from us always as we are humans, they are machines with meat flesh.

Westworld challenges that, it challenges the whole concept of humanity, of the core of humanity. It isn’t some nihilistic piece of humanity being irredeemable or the corruption in this world. In this world, the year is in the future, the time is not now, and humans have achieved everything they can. They have advanced as far as possible in medical sciences and created technology that seems to be the top brass. So, Westworld poses the idea that, if humanity ceases to suffer or face the struggle of survival, they will never be able to evolve and will usher in their own destruction. 

“What happened to the Neanderthals? We ate them”.

Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of our time, plays the role of Dr. Ford in the show and he was widely acclaimed for his portrayal and acting. He is a fan favourite, a perfectly written character, and the driving force behind the plot beats of the show. I’d like to share a monologue made by Dr. Ford in Westworld:

“I read a theory once that the human intellect was like peacock feathers. Just an extravagant display intended to attract a mate. All of art, literature, a bit of Mozart, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and the Empire State Building… Just an elaborate mating ritual. Maybe it doesn’t matter that we have accomplished so much for the basest of reasons. But, of course, the peacock can barely fly. It lives in the dirt, pecking insects out of the muck, consoling itself with its great beauty. I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight, and we have spared them that. Anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones who are free.”

If you ever lost a loved one and you didn’t know it, but they were replaced by an exact “host” copy of themselves, with the exact minute details of their physical appearance, their memories and cornerstone of their life attached, they being conscious, would it be different? Would they be the same person that you lost, or are they doomed to be a different entity?

Well, Westworld asks, “If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?”

If the hosts do reach consciousness in the show, watch to find out, how do they reach consciousness? How does one unlock consciousness, make it to the centre of the maze? The answer this show gives feels so simple, yet not one you’ll think of, one that when you are told feels overly complicated but when it boils down to it, is really simple.

Reddit became obsessed with figuring out the secrets of the plot back when S1 of Westworld was airing in its full glory and peak popularity. They managed to predict one of the biggest plot twists of the first season thanks to the clues laid out, and became obsessed with ‘unravelling’ all the plot twists yet to come, ‘predicting’ the plot rather than ‘contemplating’ the plot. S2 therefore, as the writers also felt pressure from the fanbase, was deemed too ‘convoluted’. Trying too hard to remain ‘smart’ and ahead of its viewers, leading to the lossage of the plot entirely. Yet its ending still was something the fans loved, albeit with less popularity as the mainstream aspect of the show was ripped away.

S3 seemed as a direct response to that, becoming way simpler with the ongoing story and plot, but perhaps too simple as the ending of S3 induced a HUGE backlash within the community. Suddenly it felt like a different show, a dumb show, the writers too focused on the action pieces and some things ‘logically’ not making sense or the ‘technicalities’ not being concrete all the time around. “Why is this highly important facility guarded with so few people?” , etc.

I remember when I finished S3, I angrily ranted on my Instagram stories as to how the show was ruined. What I felt S3 did to Westworld is what many people felt S8 did to Game of Thrones. With S4 around the corner, I wasn’t too hyped for it, not even realising when the first episode had aired but watching it all the same, and keeping up with it weekly, and boy was it A TREAT. 

I no longer feel angry about S3 nor do I feel the show was ruined or the writers were dumbed down/lost the plot. S3 needed to be EXACTLY what it was to help S4 lay out a storyline that brought back the ‘essence’ of Westworld many felt was lost after S1 itself. In fact Westworld never lost the core plot/storyline/philosophy it was posing and telling, despite all the changes. Sure there are many who still aren’t fans of S4 because it isn’t still AS concrete with the ‘technicalities’ as S1 was, but with the way the storyline played out you stop caring about that and as a result retroactively like S3 a lot more as well because frankly, it doesn’t matter.

Westworld is a show that uses the characters for its plot and story. The characters revolve around the plot, which is always a controversial decision that mostly results in shitty storytelling to get from Point A to B while sacrificing character arcs and commiting character assassination. God bless Westworld for not doing that despite using its characters strictly for the plot and story. Sure you can nitpick about some of the technicalities and meta logic to question the sense of some scenes/story arcs, but that’s just missing the point of the series and the overall plot that the writers mean to play out. Westworld isn’t a TV series for you to just watch, it’s a storyline you view with the writers and what they are posing in front of you. It’s more ‘self aware’ if you will, more meta than any of The Matrix movies could ever be. Its main purpose is meant to be the contemplation and discussion around its themes and decisions rather than the digestion of good content. It asks us, and we are to think.

Cogito, Ergo, Sum. A Latin phrase that translates into ‘I think, therefore I am’. That phrase can be seen as a common theme for the viewing experience Westworld is supposed to be.

Sure, S4 will never be as popular as S1 was, or maybe not even as highly regarded because again, that magic lightning in a bottle cannot be replicated when you continue the storyline. It’s not about casting multiple lightning into multiple bottles and awing at them, it’s about opening the bottle and letting the lightning shock you and tell you the story of how it descended from the heavens. S4 can easily be digested into numerous plot holes and out of character moments like S3 was at the time, but dare I say it, that would be disingenuous towards the show.

The show explores so many more themes, the concept of fidelity, the simulation theory but using it more than just a wow and shock factor and actually lingering on its implications and philosophy, even godhood technically is pondered on with such a unique and admittedly agnostic look. The ending of S4 that I just watched, the final shot of it, hits so hard with the story revelation and decision as it culminates the beautiful journey in such a dark, bleak yet perfect way.

The finale of S4 doesn’t just feel like a season finale, it feels like a series finale. We were told by the creators this story was planned for a five season arc, and it’s absolutely certain if there is a fifth season it’ll be the final season and I’m praying there is one, but as of now season 5 hasn’t been announced. And even if it doesn’t, S4 still in a very dark, but powerful, profound way wraps everything up and serves as a conclusion to the storyline Westworld was, which is honestly very convulsing but in a good way.

Just because the characters are used for the plot doesn’t mean there aren’t any strong characters. One of my personal favourite characters in fictional media that was in this series is The Man in Black, played beautifully by Ed Harris. Dolores, played beautifully by Evan Rachel Wood is such a profound and powerful character. Bernard, played exquisitely by Jeffrey Wright is the perfect audience lens character who evolves into one of the most intriguing players of the game. Caleb, introduced in S3 played by Aaron Paul, is so beautifully humane and moving, especially in s4. The characters are complex, they are profound, they have emotional stories and backgrounds and they hit hard with the emotional quota, but ultimately they are in service to the intelligently written complex philosophical plot that surrounds Westworld, and the show is ALWAYS about that plot and the story.

Don’t let the action pieces, Maeve’s stingy one-liners, Stubbs and Bernard’s comedic chemistry, etc. in the simplistic storyline of S3 fool you into thinking the writers had abandoned the art of Westworld in lieu of more money by bringing back it’s mainstream image. It’s all a well planned out beautiful trick. There are MANY hiccups along the way, I’m not going to pretend the way the story gets to its next points is always perfect, or the writers are always good, but in conclusion the hiccups don’t matter when you take it in as a whole. Sure, you can fixate on those nitpicks, declare the show trash after S1 and view it negatively, but it’s an experience which is ultimate when you view it in a way that can be described by one of the most beautiful quotes in the show, not because of its content but it’s timing in the show and the character work behind it:

“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray, the chaos. I choose to see the beauty”

And that ultimately, is how I plead with you to watch this show. Screw your negative thoughts and disdain towards slowburn, still watch Westworld despite it being a beautiful slowburn and ponder on it, it’s one of my most favourite experiences when it came to consuming fictional media and art, and even if you cannot move past those nitpicks and complexity, the worst case scenario is you’ll still watch S1 of Westworld, which is in my opinion, the best written season of any television show in the history of mankind.

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