Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

Westworld Season Two Reflections

Westworld-S2-2-1070x598Although it has maintained a broad appeal, telling a beautifully depicted story and asking questions about artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity in a comfortable and technologically advanced world, the second season of Westworld has been shackled by narrative devices that give it little room to move or grow.  First, a signal climactic event is visited and revisited in the initial episode of the season, from which there has been no narrative space to move into. The deeper issues of how we use stories to perceive and create reality (or consciousness) have been discarded in advance of a plot driven by revenge and violence.

 

The first season of Westworld displayed ample amounts of violence and sex, but seemed to be making comments on the baser human instincts that the park revealed.  The characters with whom we sided—the robot hosts—were fighting to escape their loops: the repetitive cycles of abuse perpetrated on them to delight the human guests. When the first season culminated in a host revolution, the viewer could cheer, because the robots were breaking free of their loops. As the second season began, the hosts descend to violence against the humans and each other that rivals anything that occurred in the first season.

 

23-westworld.w710.h473The war begins in the first episode and is shown in two closely linked timelines: one immediately following the uprising that ended season one, the other taking place a few weeks later.  In the first timeline the hosts decimate the guests, in the second nearly all the hosts are found “dead” in an artificial lake.  The season has been spent linking these two timelines and filling in some backstory to explain the “true” rationale for the park.  We see waves of humans face the hosts, each one being dispatched with swift and stylized violence. We also watch as the hosts turn on each other. Set free from their controlled loops they repeat and amplify the excesses they had suffered as vehicles for the guests “bloody delights.”

 

westworld-season-2-trailerWhile the first season was unabashedly bloody it also had four major narrative strands of awakening: Dolores gained consciousness and free will; William became the “Man in Black”; Maeve gained a kind of consciousness, but on a separate and less certain course than Dolores; and Bernard had his humanity stripped from him. Each of these plots had a cumulative development: each episode moved these stories forward, and there was a distinct pleasure as we discovered the stories for ourselves.  That discovery was shared by the characters as well, some with pleasure, and some without. The climax of each story—personal revelation for good or bad—mirrored the overall plot.  There was simple structural pleasure to be had.

 

lead_960_540In the second season these four characters have remained the main focus.  But now, because the climax preceded all the events to follow, the action is more repetitive.  Where else is there to go after mass slaughter? The characters do not grow so much as have secrets revealed to them or new powers added to them.  They are at the mercy of plot needs.  When Shogun World and Raj World, or the named but unseen Pleasure Palaces are introduced they are just grim mirrors of what goes on in Westworld.  When the Cradle and the deeper purpose of the park is revealed, the viewer may have been able to anticipate their existence, but both feel like sleight of hand adjuncts to a story about characters. “Look over here! Isn’t this fancy? Don’t pay attention to the repetitiveness of the story.”

 

Maybe Westworld will pull out of this narrative funk—there are three episodes left in the season.  How cool would it be to discover that after revenge is piled on top of revenge that some kind of peace breaks out.  Imagine that: peace as a climax. Maybe it will build on the theme of the power of story that underpinned the first season, and subvert narrative expectations by inverting rising action, and we can be as surprised as William was at the end of the first season. Or maybe the next slaughter will just be bigger, more choreographed, more beautiful, and meaningless. Here’s hoping for a quick turn.

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The Greyhound

“You got any stories, friend?”

And so begins Episode Five, “Contrapasso,” of Westworld. Each of the other nine episodes begins with a host, one of the robots at the heart of the story, waking up or coming on line.  This one begins with a host, Old Bill, making a request of Ford, the creator of the robots and all the park that is Westworld. Ford answers, “Yeah, suppose I do,” and goes on to tell the story of “the saddest thing [he] ever saw.” A pet greyhound kills a cat when it is let loose from its leash. An event that is wholly anticipated (“our father warned us”), ends in horror (“to the horror of everyone, he killed that little cat, tore it to pieces.”), which is also entirely predictable. Who wouldn’t feel horror at a “little cat” being torn to pieces? Because this exchange between Ford and Old Bill breaks the pattern of the opening sequences, it is, as much as anything might be, the key to Westworld’s first season.

Westworld, for all its science fiction underpinnings, timeline switches, sex and violence, is a show about the power of story.  The hosts repeat their stories, which are called loops by the park employees. The guests participate in narratives, taking either white or black hat roles, and act out fantasies of sex and violence that are forbidden in the real world.  Ford and the park employees create and manage the narratives and the hosts to meet the guests’ expectations. Only one guest, The Man in Black, sees these stories as part of a game, and wants in on the bigger game, the more meaningful story, the maze.

Ford’s exchange with Bill hints at all this.  To begin with, Old Bill, is programmed to listen–that is his loop. But, because he is an old host, he isn’t very good at it. When Ford asks, “Never seen a greyhound have you, Bill?” Bill doesn’t recognize “greyhound” and reinterprets it to fit his understanding; he answers that he has seen a few showdowns. This shows one of the fundamental challenges of stories.  The teller and listener need to have a shared language and culture. At the end of the story, Bill responds, “That is one humdinger of a story, partner. Shall we drink to the lady with the white shoes?” Ford looks at him sadly. His secret is safe in Bill’s hands.

The secret Ford shares is the secret of loops.  The greyhound “spends its life running in circles, chasing a bit of felt made up like a rabbit.” Whether by instinct or routine, its life becomes automatic, robotic.  The greyhound running in circles is like the hosts on their loops.  But the dog chases a fake rabbit—just as the hosts are fake humans. While the hosts are on perpetual loops, the guests come to Westworld to break from their loops of their daily lives, to experience a simulacrum of authenticity. The hosts and guests share this. In the park the guests fall into loops that are just as predictable (if more extreme) as the ones they left behind at home, and just as predictable as those that dominate the hosts.

The viewers of the show are invited to sympathize with the hosts.  The guests are portrayed as crude and cruel, the hosts are doe-eyed and wistful. However, the hosts are machines—sophisticated machines, but more like supercharged go-karts. They are not “little cats.”  And yet, because the story of the show plays on the viewers emotions, our attention is refocused, and our expectations shift to hopes that the hosts will be set free from their loops—much in the same way that a father would bring a rescued greyhound into a home to give it some respite from years of cruel running in circles.

The Man in Black shares this hope.  He sees the park as too controlled, and therefore as inconsequential. Even when he gets a glimpse of the maze, he rejects it, because his expectations (“You know what I wanted,” he tells Ford in Episode Ten, “The Bicameral Mind”) were not met. His idea of the story he wants to see prevent him from seeing anything else. He, like Old Bill (and the Man in Black’s name is William), cannot understand the story he is being told.

One of the fun parts of watching the show when it first came out in 2016, was listening to the discussions about the stories in the show.  People wondered who each character was, what timeline each one occupied, and what the big secret would be. They were viewer stand-ins for the Man in Black, or Old Bill, listening and not understanding, letting their expectations or programming get in the way of what was told.

The secret to art of reading is in large part dependent on being able to see the structure of a story as one reads it. We know that if an event happens in chapter one, the rule of plot (rising action) will lead to an amplification of that event later in the story.  If a stranger dies in chapter one, then a friend will die later.  If a distant friend dies early, a dear friend will die later. Stories follow familiar patterns, and when those patterns are broken the reader or viewer may revolt. This is one reason why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey holds such sway over popular screenwriting: familiarity is the writer’s friend.

However, life is not a screenplay or a story. Unexpected, if predictable things happen.  Dogs chase down little cats and the results horrify us.  “I got the cat. Now what?” wonders the dog.  The reason that Ford’s story is “the saddest thing [he] ever saw,” is not because of the little cat, it’s because there’s nothing else for the dog to do.  Its life is defined by chase and kill, and once it has succeeded that’s all there is. Growth, or meaning, does not come from meeting expectations, but from the realization, and it can be a sad realization, that life, as opposed to a story, does not follow an order.  Life is chaotic and random. It dashes our expectations and makes us strip our stories bare and try (and perhaps fail) to revise.

The overall story in Westworld points us to this, if gently.