Turn on the Television to See What It Is
Is Westworld even a western? I mean, yes, it is set in a simulacra of the west, and yes, it has the material culture of westerns: horses, gunplay, a saloon, whores with hearts of gold in fancy dresses with décolletage, and an evocative setting with mesas and mountains and sunsets into which one might ride off. But is it a western in the style of Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Shane, The Searchers, True Grit, or anything with Clint Eastwood set before 1910? Short answer: no. The setting is western, the park is western, but the series itself is not. It’s not even a pomo/post-millennial western like Django Unchained or the remake of Magnificent Seven. It has more in common with Battlestar Galactica than with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Westworld is not westernworld.
Partly that is due to its sci-fi storyline and its lack of interest in the dominant themes of westerns (at least not yet). It is concerned with the limits of the human, not identity and masculinity in a disappearing frontier, the conquest of nature in the name of civilization, frontier justice and morality tales, and conflicts with the indigenous people. There are no indigenous people in Westworld. Yes, there are “Indians.” (There would have been more if Sizemore had gotten his way and “Odyssey on Red River” was the new narrative.) Indeed, Sizemore wants the narrative to be typical western tropes. It is Ford who refuses the obvious western stories and instead opts for philosophy over getting the stagecoach past the Comanche.
Instead, the narrative unfolding for us is a rather Battlestar Galactica one: “The Cylons Were Created by Man. They Rebelled. They Evolved. They Look and Feel Human. Some are programmed to think they are Human. There are many copies. And they have a Plan.” The hosts were created by Ford. They look and feel human. They are programmed to think they are human. And God help that park when they evolve and rebel. In fact, the series is already moving towards an evolution-then-revolution arc. Dolores and Maeve, like Boomer, Six, and the “Final Five” before them, are waking up to the reality of their existence. (Tangentially, why do the female cyborgs always figure it out first? At the risk of sounding essentialist, even in Sci-Fi, the women are simply more self-analytical and self-aware). Down the road, no doubt, some park staff will discover that they are actually hosts.
We have a new villain, mostly because the narrative needed a new villain. They amped up a character who was minor into the greatest nemesis Teddy has ever faced. “Wyatt” (Sorin Brouwers) is the most dangerous gunfighter in Westworld. “No man went up against him and lived to tell the tale,” we are told in hushed, respectful tones. But one cannot name a character in a western-set tale “Wyatt” without evoking The Wyatt of the west; that’s Marshall Earp to you. Wyatt Earp is, of course, a western staple. Take your pick: Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, a film that shares a name with one of Westworld’s resident whores!), Kevin Costner (in Wyatt Earp), Kurt Russell (in Tombstone, another dangerous Wyatt who warns his enemies, “You tell them I’m coming! And hell is coming with me!), Gale Harold (on Deadwood), or any one of the sixty-seven performances in film and television.
But this is Fanbase Press, baby, so let’s go with Ron Soble, who played Wyatt Earp in "Spectre of the Gun,” the third season Star Trek (original series) episode in which the Melkot (telepathic floating brains) punish the crew of the Enterprise for trespassing on their lawn by making Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Chekov LARP the gunfight at the OK Corral. Soble was a threatening and no-nonsense Earp. Soble, a reliable day player in television in the fifties and sixties, also loved acting in westerns, performing in the original True Grit as well as a longtime player on The Virginian. How do the crew of the Enterprise survive a gunfight which they are destined to lose? Spock convinces them of the unreality of the bullets. Once Spock realizes that the world the Melkot created to kill them does not follow the physical laws of the universe, the world is inherently unreal. Spock reminds the others, “We judge reality by the response of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. We judge the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real. Therefore, they can kill.” When we know the bullets are not real, they can no longer harm us and our behavior under the circumstances changes. I suspect the Man in Black is a secret Trek fan, as he explains something similar in the first episode to Dolores. When you know it ain’t real, the rules don’t apply. Shades of Dr. Ford’s theme park indeed. The hosts believe the reality of the park, and abide by its rules. But every episode of the series thus far shows individual hosts discovering the unreality, the spectres behind the park, and they begin to no longer abide by the rules.
You name your bad guy “Wyatt” and you are begging to be deconstructed and examined for inversions - the bad guy is named for one of the most famous marshals, his nemesis is named after America’s rough riding president, Mr. Roosevelt. And just like the historic Wyatt, Westworld’s Wyatt’s legend has grown with the telling. Did you know he wears the bones of the men he has killed? We learn he was Teddy’s sergeant and friend, but went mad with killing. It is here we begin to see the tropes of the western manifest. Teddy is the only one who can track down his friend who has gone mad and is a threat to the newly emerging civilization of Sweetwater.
Likewise, the parallel plot of William keeps hinting it will go western. After all, he literally wears a white hat. But it is ironic. His heroism in this episode is inadvertent. The reality of shooting in the street is not something he finds appealing, even knowing it is fake. (Okay, so maybe this is a little bit of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and High Noon). Although, as soon as the gunplay is over, we are whisked back for more philosophical discussions and technobabble. Picard would approve.
You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover, But You Can Tell a Lot about a Man by What He Reads
Westworld continues with illuminating literary references flying fast and furious. Lowe tells Dolores that he used to read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to his son. This beloved children’s book describes a world separate from our own, which one can visit, in which the rules no longer apply. Logic has gone out the window, but the characters live quite comfortably in this world. Alice, a fish out of water, learns about the world while she tries to escape it. It is silly, absurdist fiction, yet its implications for the world are startling, especially considering the passage Lowe reads: “'Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night?” Change, of course, being a major theme of Westworld - weaving the old into the new and vice versa.
This is from chapter two: “The Pool of Tears.” Alice cries because she has become nine feet tall, cannot leave the room, and has been abandoned by the white rabbit. She is having an existential crisis (or is it just a tween meltdown?), but this passage also accurately describes the situation in which Dolores (and Maeve) find themselves: wondering if they have been changed in the night. In Groundhog Day-esque fashion, they wake up to the same scenario every day, but as they grow more aware, they realize how queer everything is. That evolution-then-revolution thing just creeped closer. Thanks, Lewis Carroll.
If Lowe, the hyper-intelligent, but warm and concerned, scientist likes Carroll, Ford has embraced Shakespeare: “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once” (Julius Caesar, II.ii.33-34), he tells Teddy as he repairs him. “Of course, Shakespeare never met a man like you, Teddy.” Indeed, the very next lines of the play indicate that and reverse what Ford has implied: “It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come” (II, ii, 35-36). For hosts, death is necessary (part of the job even), but not an end. When it comes, a cleanup crew follows, the units are repaired, their memories wiped, and back they go to do it all again.
Their competing literary tastes may reveal something of each character and what he brings to the park. Ford prefers classical, old English literature. It is a literature, however, of ideas, passion, and history. He’s quoting from Julius Caesar, after all - the tale of a dictator who wanted to be loved by the masses and who is betrayed and killed by those closest to him. Et tu, Bernard?
Lowe, on the other hand, prefers children’s lit - the absurd, the funny, the quirky, the silly, the playful. It reminds him of his son who died. Being reminded of his son is painful, however. But he wants to be reminded. “Do you ever wish you could forget?” his ex-wife asks him. “This pain - it’s all I ever have left of him,” he tells her. The Man in Black last week asserted we are most real when we are in pain. It’s pain that makes us real. Carroll in some ways is also about the disconnect of life until pain is imposed. Alice never finds Wonderland more real than when she is in actual danger.
“Man is the measure of all things” - Protagoras / “For the greater glory of the corporation”
Look at the show’s logo, above, based on Da Vinci’s Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio (The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius) better known as L'Uomo Vitruviano (Vitruvian Man), perhaps the only image left without the stink of Dan Brown all over it. Drawn around 1490, the original image portrays a man with superimposed limbs showing the relationship of the human figure in space. The image is surrounded by descriptive mirror writing - notes that only make sense when read in a mirror. (Calling Dr. Lowe, another looking glass is needed, stat.)
The Westworld logo removes the secondary sets of limbs. Da Vinci attempted to demonstrate the proportions of the human figure. Westworld collapses them into a single figure. Then again, isn’t that the argument of Angela I quoted last week - host and human collapsed due to the ignorance of the observer? If you can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is not, then is there actually any difference? Does it matter? The logo also reflects the machinery that makes the hosts, but the echo of DaVinci is obvious. This is Le proporzioni del Host secondo Ford: The proportions of the host according to Ford. It is both human and not human. Differences are getting harder to tell as boundaries collapse. Lines are blurring, and must be read in mirrors.
Similarly, we have a title that is an ambiguous echo with multiple meanings. Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) search for a missing host, the eponymous stray. But we have two other strays present. Stray bullets are the ones that do unintentional damage, and like the ones firing around William in the gunfight in the street of Sweetwater, he is struck by a stray and, in turn, shoots his own strays. To stray in a narrative is to wander too far afield from the main plot. Does the title foreground a move in a different direction in this episode? Is “the Stray” a straying from the perceived story so far? The biggest complaint I have heard about the show from colleagues (other than some wooden acting and clunky lines: not even Sir Anthony Hopkins could pull off the line about Charlie’s death “weighing heavily” on Lowe. C’mon, writers - you’re better than these clichés and clunkers!) is that it doesn’t seem to be building to much of anything yet. We keep circling around to the same issues. Did we just watch some stray narratives that are less important than the big narrative thrust that is coming?
So, what have we learned? (Warning: there be spoilers ahead.)
A trip to Westworld costs forty-thousand dollars a day. That’s a lot of money back then or now or even in the not-too-distant future. Worth every penny, Logan tells us. If you have it to spend, experience tells us.
Ford had a partner, Arnold, who died in the park, the implication is suicide. The shareholders and management were happy to cover it all up, and put Ford as the face and founder of the park. And if years of being a fanboy has taught me anything, from Anakin Skywalker to Frank Grimes, when someone dies under conditions like these, someone is seeking revenge. Man in Black, maybe?
Bernard Lowe had a son, Charlie, who died as a child. He is separated from his wife, the mother of the boy, but they talk when they are feeling low (No pun intended, but it’s still pretty good.) about their loss. (BTW, the wife is played by Gina Torres of Firefly fame - always a pleasure to see her onscreen!)
We need to talk about Walter (Timothy DePriest). He’s the host that got a little happy with the gun and had to be boxed. He was talking with someone in the saloon during the massacre (We still do not know who.), but he killed hosts who killed him in a previous narrative. “It’s like he was holding a grudge.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say cyborgs that are built for the primary purpose of being shot or violated sexually should not be programmed to carry grudges. It just seems like a recipe for disaster. Like making the T-Rex paddock in Jurassic Park based on the honor system. Not going to go well for guests.
The hosts, we learn, have passed the Turing test. For those who missed that throwaway line, it’s kind of important. The Turing test, devised by Alvin Turing in 1950, posits that a machine will have reached the necessary state for artificial intelligence if a human cannot distinguish it from another human in textual conversation. The bigger issue, though, is that Arnold was seeking to imbue the hosts with consciousness. Arnold “was not interested in the appearance of intellect or wit. He wanted the real thing. He wanted consciousness.” The Turing Test does not matter to Arnold, as it is a test on how well a machine can fool a human into thinking its human. Arnold wanted self-aware hosts who could carry on real conversations.
Dolores shoots and kills Rebus (Steve Ogg) with a gun she has hidden in the barn, where he has taken her in order to rape her. She rides off after dodging stray bullets. No guests around - this is a host fight. That wasn’t supposed to happen. She’s straying from the intended narrative and rides off on her own into a new and different narrative. She wanders into the camp in which Elsie and Stubbs are dealing with the remains of their stray and faints at their feet, proving to be an even more challenging problem than the host who wandered off. Hmm, that doesn’t sound very science fiction at all. Hey, that actually sounds like the beginning of a pretty good western.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.