08 January 2017

No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons: “Westworld, Season 1: A Story We Tell Ourselves”

in Bucharest, Romania
Westworld season 1 HBO

But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze — the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center — reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness — the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening — reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. When you’re suffering, Ford tells one of his creations, that’s when you’re most real. And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.

Peter Watts

I was planning on doing my own review of the series, but Peter Watts did a much better job in the article above – which is hardly surprising since his own novels tackle similar themes. I also picked up on that reference to suffering as stepping stone on the road to consciousness, although it reminded me more of the awakening of gholas in Dune by reliving a traumatic event from their past lives.

Westworld Trailer (HBO)

Westworld does put a new perspective on many classic sci-fi ideas, as well as on philosophical questions that have probably been on our minds since the dawn of human consciousness. Time and again the hosts are being asked if they ever questioned the nature of their reality, something we as people rarely do in our hectic lives. Time and again the hosts are being shown to be controlled by their creators’ programming, even as they rebel against the established order. This might seem at first a major difference to human beings, until you remember we also operate based on instincts and cultural restraints and our free will might be an illusion: The self is a kind of fiction – for hosts and humans. A story we tell ourselves. The show is definitively worth re-watching for its depth, to discover new interpretations and subtle details.

Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.

Dr. Ford

That being said, overall I haven’t enjoyed this season as much as expected. Looking back, the major problem is that the entire season is nothing more than a prequel for an actual show. It’s setting up the rules of the world and the characters – which are effectively immortal and therefore can be expected to return indefinitely and assume new roles – almost as if HBO couldn’t decide if the show would be successful and made an entire pilot-season. The one storyline worth watching is Maeve, as it contains both powerful drama, a strong character and reflections on the major themes. The rest are overly convoluted and obscure for the sake of simply drawing out the story to fill ten episodes.

I suspect my low impression stems partially from the new watching habits of the streaming era. If the entire season of Westworld would have been available from the start, I could have watched from start to finish in a couple of days at my own pace, focusing on its story and thinking about the implications more closely. This way, with an episode a week apart, I almost forgot what happened in the previous one before the next was released – and I’m sure I will forget large parts of the story until season two arrives no sooner than a year from now. The significant online buzz certainly helped keeping me interested (a phenomenon that simply doesn’t happen with Netflix releases), but at the same time spoiled many twists, for example how one of the engineers is secretly a host and that the Dolores timeline is taking place in the past, not consecutive with the other storylines. I’m certain I will revisit the show later, most likely before season two. Let’s just hope until then HBO figures out how to properly run a streaming service – HBO Go is still relying on Silverlight on the desktop, a plugin that is discontinued for more than four years!

HBO Westworld opening credits screenshots
My rating: 3.5

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