Monday, November 28, 2016

Westworld's Three Domains

I've been gone for some time, but -- this seems as good a time as any to come back, since this blog feels like the best place for my current musings. If this is the only post in a five year span, please forgive me.

My ongoing viewing has been Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Westworld. The first two are currently between seasons, so I'm focused on the third one, whose first season is just coming to an end. I have thoughts. This is the place for them, methinks.

My instinctive reaction to the show is that it's steeped in influences, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's built on foundations of Inception, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Battlestar Galactica, Ex Machina, The Hunger Games, and various other postmodern reality-bending science fiction, and almost every artifact in the show can be seen as a refraction of one or several of these. I don't think it's doing anything ground-breaking with this conceptual material, but it's beautiful and well-executed, and there's nothing wrong with delving deeper into themes that our culture is currently hung up on.

My primary criticism of the show, up until this morning, was that it's too caught up in the self-indulgence of contemporary plotting and writing: the need to always have three, four, or five ongoing plot arcs, each with several characters, to the point where every concern feels trivial. In particular, Maeve's character arc, which represents a massive disruption as far as the setting is concerned (like, she's the lynchpin that's bringing about the end of the whole world of the show), doesn't feel entirely earned. There are enough characters that I can't always keep track of them, and when an old face turns back up in a new context, I find myself scrambling to remember where I saw them, or why it's even interesting.

But I think I've worked out a way of thinking about these plots that will help me make better sense of them, with the finale impending. As far as I can see it, this season consists of three primary narrative arcs: Dolores, Bernard, and Maeve. The other plotlines -- Ford as sinister mastermind, Charlotte and the board of directors, and the Man in Black -- are all background noise, threads that don't serve much except to tie those three major plotlines together.

Those three major plotlines can be thought of as, respectively, Spiritual, Existential, and Political.

I say "spiritual" for Dolores's plotline because it seems to be a journey of self-discovery and transcendence, and it takes on cyclical, mystical overtones. I wouldn't be surprised to discover, in the finale, that her journey brings together Past and Future and Good and Evil, and that she satisfies Westworld's obligatory "messianic" role.

I say "existential" for Bernard's plotline because it's a journey inward, to find the boundaries of Selfhood. The stakes are the limits and accountability of consciousness, and the reality of one's own emotions and experiences.

And Maeve's journey is political in the sense that she's working out, and manipulating, her place in the power structure. If the world is created and activated in the spiritual realm, it's in the political realm that it's ultimately brought to an end, through fire and revolution if necessary.

Some of this is informed by a certain fan theory floating around out there, that seems pretty highly likely as we approach the finale.

As another side-note, I have to say, I wish one of these Artificial Intelligence movies -- AI, Ex Machina, Her, even The Matrix -- would tackle the Hard Problem of Consciousness more directly. They all take it for granted that these intelligent agents have an inner life, perfectly analogous to our own. This is necessary for stories of self-discovery and heroism, but it's also kind of a cop-out.

I wouldn't even mind, if they didn't seem to be approaching this problem and then running away from it, like children running away from the waves lapping up the beach. Westworld is particular is obsessed with the secondary symptoms of this idea. Ford has a whole monologue on how he doesn't believe there's a clear distinction between human and machine consciousness. Logan, William's evil friend, is the epitome of a consciousness skeptic, believing adamantly that however human they appear, these hosts are simply machines, no more self-aware than calculators. And from what it sounds like in that last episode, it seems like "the maze" itself is just a test of sentience for the hosts, a high-powered Turing Test for some pragmatic "consciousness" criteria.

And yet, we're always privy to inner experiences of the hosts. Bernard and Maeve and Dolores have intense flashbacks, many of which seem to be distorted or fabricated, just like human memories. Wouldn't it be creepier if we'd seen, in some experimental sequence, a close-up of Bernard's eye as he's describing a vivid memory, and then a cut to complete black, or to a screen full of code? And wouldn't it be a beautiful moment if we got to see Bernard go from inert self-monitoring terminal to actual conscious mind? I'm not sure how you would do this, cinematically: some visual effect or camera trick representing the first glimmerings of a private, conceptual picture of the world, inaccessible even to the human operators.

Maybe this is part of the larger formal message of Westworld: that consciousness itself is basically a cinematic device showing flashbacks, a film reel that starts at birth and ends at death, that does nothing more interesting than represent the machine to itself. And that this simple mechanism is all that's necessary for "automaton" to become "living thing with a rich inner life."

Lots of questions. No answers, so far. But the finale is bearing down, and perhaps the questions will all least keep getting more interesting.