In the previous post I wrote about some of the general themes I saw in HBO’s Westworld. Such big picture topics are inherent in the basic description of the series — intelligent robots used as playthings — and don’t require spoiling plot points or character revelations. Everything I wrote about in the last post is part of the general context of the show.
In this post I want to look more closely at things that struck me in particular, but it requires exposing certain aspects of character or implementation that could count as spoilers if one is very strictly trying to avoid knowing anything about the show.
But if you have some idea about what’s going on, maybe just from trailers, this post shouldn’t spoil anything for you. I won’t give away any of the big secrets or reveals.
The first topics involve the main characters in the series…
Both are robots.
These two initially seem to represent a pair of Yin-Yang female archetypes:
Dolores is the innocent and sweet rancher’s daughter, the proverbial “girl next door,” the one you bring home to meet mother. She’s programmed to see only the beauty in the world.
Maeve is the hard-bitten, experienced pro, the shrewd madam, the Yang-whore to the Yin-madonna. She’s programmed to be cynical and to understand her customers.
At least that’s how it starts. That’s how it’s set up.
As the season progresses, those roles become much more complex. They blend into each other. There is much more lurking behind the stereotypes.
In the end, Maeve, with apparent mother’s instincts, is the soft one, while Dolores turns out to have a dark past as well as a dark future.
A key point of Yin-Yang is that the light side contains a bit of darkness while the dark side contains a bit of light.
¶ Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), another central character, is The Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
There is repeated use of a passage supposedly from the book (but, according to the interweb, in fact from the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland and spoken by Alice — it actually does sound more like her line):
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t”
That we hear this quoted several times indicates its significance, and the passage possibly tells us some important things about Ford and Westworld (which may be why it was misattributed — or perhaps even that is a clue).
Ford does have a world of his own, and we have to wonder at every turn what is real and what is story.
Further, we wonder not just how Ford tricks us, but how the makers of the show also trick us.
For them also, things aren’t what they are, but what they aren’t!
Stories within stories; tricks within tricks. Westworld is wily!
There is also a distinct reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At one point Ford says:
“One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay [for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought,] for the dominion I should acquire…”
Like the Alice quote, this one is also rather strangely selected. It’s a line from a letter by Captain Robert Walton to his sister. He is, in fact, referring to his own possible death in pursuit of his goal to explore the North Pole.
But, as used, we can wonder if it refers more to sacrificing others than the self. And we can wonder if the quote isn’t a keynote sounded about Victor Frankenstein and his goal.
In any event, as I wrote last time, we have strong references to the Frankenstein myth, including an avatar of the Doctor, as well as the Prometheus myth on which it’s based.
Robert Ford is also like Shakespeare in that both wrote and staged grand stories about human nature and the human experience. (And Shakespeare features prominently and repeatedly in the series.)
In particular, we can remember the great quote from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;
And so we have, as protagonists and antagonists, two female robots, both the eye of their separate storms, and we have Victor Frankenstein and his assistant (Bernard Lowe). While there is a second tier of very significant characters, it is these four who drive the story.
Along the way, there are some very interesting symbols, signs, and portents…
¶ The player piano is both symbolic and possibly a blatant clue for viewers.
As a symbol it represents a very simplistic robot, one of the early automated devices from our history.
It also ties music into the mix, and the music in Westworld is — at the very least — highly evocative and seems even significant in the context of the show. We see, several times, the robots responding in crucial ways to music.
In the title sequence, the skeletal fingers playing the piano pull back from the keyboard while the keys — in player piano fashion — continue to play. The lifelike gives way to the machine.
We also see a player piano (with robot player) in Ford’s office as well as in the cantina scene between Ford and the MIB (and Teddy). That latter appearance is extremely suggestive.
Of course the key player piano is in Maeve’s place of business.
We often see a closeup shot of the player piano roll starting a new tune. I’ve wondered if that’s a visual clue that a programmed sequence, a new story line, is about to begin. (It’s something I’m going to watch for when I watch the series again.)
These closeups could just be scene-to-scene transition shots, but when I watch the series again (and I will), I want to watch for what happens immediately after we see that shot.
In particular I noticed it just before Ford gives his speech to the board members, and combined with certain other clues, I have some deep and abiding suspicions about what really happened in the final sequences.
¶ Ford ultimately asserts that suffering is a key aspect of consciousness. According to him (and Arnold), it basically starts with memory and improvisation as a layer on top of that. But it’s suffering that causes self-awareness to flower.
For example, the experience of Maeve and her child, several years ago. (The resolution to that event, how it ended, the appearance of the maze, bothers some logically. Keep in mind much of Westworld is seen through the eyes of the hosts!)
Suffering is also a big part of the role Dolores currently plays.
What I find interesting (other than that it just kind of makes sense) is that my Buddhist friends tell me that a key plank in Buddhist philosophy is that “Life is suffering.”
¶ Yet it is another bit of Shakespeare — from Romeo and Juliet — that seems, almost command-like, to trigger events.
It starts in the first episode when Peter Abernathy, after finding the picture, whispers the line to Dolores.
Later, Dolores whispers it to Maeve!
As a tie-in we also come to find out the Abernathy robot playing Dolores’ father (the first one) originally played a Shakespearean scholar in an early story line.
Here is a bit of the scene with that line:
Romeo and Juliet, act II, scene VI Friar Laurence's cell. FRIAR LAURENCE So smile the heavens upon this holy act, That after hours with sorrow chide us not! ROMEO Amen, amen! but come what sorrow can, It cannot countervail the exchange of joy That one short minute gives me in her sight: Do thou but close our hands with holy words, Then love-devouring death do what he dare; It is enough I may but call her mine. FRIAR LAURENCE These violent delights have violent ends And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey Is loathsome in his own deliciousness And in the taste confounds the appetite: Therefore love moderately; long love doth so; Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
In the play, the line is a warning about loving too intensely and immediately because it’s like dynamite and a match! It blows up and destroys everything leaving you with a hole.
As I discussed in the last post, in the context of the show it seems a symbolic caution about computer games and other entertainment media. It is also a concrete warning about the goings on in Westworld.
As the malfunctioning Peter Abernathy says when Robert Ford asks what would he say to his maker:
“By most mechanical and dirty hand. [laughs] I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do. What they are, yet I know not, but they will be the terrors of the earth. You don’t know where you are, do you? You’re in a prison of your own sins.”
The first sentence of that is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5. Quite apropos given how much happens at the mechanical hands of Dolores, Maeve, and others.
The point is that Westworld is a rich and textured show with a great deal going on (and a great deal, we assume, planned — the story is meant to last five years).
It’s science fiction at its best, well in the 10% that isn’t crap. It’s thoughtful and it gives you much to think about. It’s clever, and it’s smart. It’s good enough that you almost have to watch it multiple times to get all there is to get.
So far I’ve seen every episode at least twice (up to four in some cases), and now that the whole season is done, in a few months to let it get fresh again, I intend to watch it again from start to finish.
Yeah, it’s that good. A strong high-range Ah! in my rating system. (If future seasons keep up the quality, I’ll likely bump it to a Wow! rating.)