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‘Westworld’ Questions Whether The American Idea Can Survive The Future


Warning: contains spoilers.

The future is nostalgia and the past reveals our destiny in “Westworld.” This is the sci-fi Western created by husband and wife Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO, from the old Crichton novel-movie about a futuristic theme park gone astray. In their hands, it turns into one of the few good reflections out there on America’s origins and the crisis technology creates in our lives.

Season 1 was about the mysterious process by which robots begin to be aware of themselves and take control of their lives. The robots starts as mere puppets playacting in a period setting in the Old West, for the pleasure and, often, the debasement of clients who want to escape the world of the near future in favor of a fantasy of freedom. People get to act out their fantasies without restrictions and, they think, without consequences. Every exploitative pleasure, but also heroism, becomes available, in a fantasy — which we badly need at some level, or we wouldn’t be watching movies and TV shows.

Then some of the robots undergo a great internal struggle between love and death and thus become aware that they are human. Their suffering gives them depth, memories, and, in our eyes, dignity. But they are treated as slaves, so they never learn that we, the humans, are also human. So in the good old American tradition, they start a revolution to win their freedom. That’s what’s happening in Season 2, which has just premiered.

As in any Western, the struggle to survive brings up the question of character. Will these robots become American in their struggle? Human? Mortal and, thus, fearful of their mortality? As in any science fiction story, the question is whether we’re in control of technology or it is in control of us. The mix of hi-tech and the Wild West seems strange at first, but on reflection, the robot is a good fit for the two genres. It’s Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” wrapped into one.

The machine has been an often unsung hero of American freedom for a long time. The American empire of liberty is inconceivable without technology, after all. We know that we have liberated ourselves from the tyranny of nature, saving our lives and our individuality in the artificial world we have made for ourselves. But we are uncertain about our own future and so on this show we see one possibility we should take seriously, that the robots are going to liberate themselves from slavery to us — we’re the last part of nature, after all, mortal flesh dependent on sexual reproduction for a future. What if the future’s post-human?

“Westworld” also does a good job of making its treatment of technology a reflection on our ongoing bewilderment about tech corporations and the various dangers they pose to our freedom. It includes enough examples of worries about artificial intelligence, data privacy, surveillance, and everything else that is brought up or should be in our recent Facebook scandals, including corporate espionage. It gives us a future Facebook-Disney merger, where a massive corporation creates the ultimate theme park and at the same time creates AI technologies that threaten humanity. Underneath the fun and danger of the Old West, there is a new way of controlling humanity being developed.

American Agony And The Struggle For Freedom

That said, the political and technological problem is just part of the reflection on our anguished, but precious humanity we get with “Westworld.” If the age of the robots is upon us, the robots are quickly going to learn what a terrible thing it is to be human, for we are capable of great joy, but also of great misery. And if we don’t want to deal with our humanity anymore and feel unable to solve our political and social problems — we only end up pushing the burden of humanity onto robotic shoulders. They, too, will know doubts about the self and about sanity.

Our mortality burdens us — that’s what we see in our new prestige television, wherever we turn. We have delayed thinking about mortality and therefore about who and what we are for a long time, hoping that the future would render the question obsolete, or at least answer it. Our big idea is to turn everything into a robot. We don’t yet know whether the robots are supposed to solve the problem of mortality or to prove it is inescapable and we are doomed. But we are endlessly fascinated with them and “Westworld” does a marvelous job of showing the fearful and wonderful humanity of these robots.

Our protagonist is Dolores, Spanish for pain, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She’s a beautiful young woman who becomes the political leader of the free robots and who seems to articulate the all-American love of freedom and the related anger at tyranny. She was chosen by one of the park’s creators to prove that robots were capable of freedom by showing that they are not harmless, that they are not merely instruments to be controlled at will. But of course, with the gaining of her own will, Dolores loses her innocence and has to suffer every time she learns how much suffering there is in our world.

The other robot who assumes her humanity is Maeve, played by Thandie Newton. She starts as a sassy prostitute in the brothel in the Old West town, but through her own suffering, becomes independent and takes control of her memories. At first, she decides to run away from the park and disappear into anonymity among humans. That’s an understanding of freedom as essentially being alone and in every way a secret or a mystery to anyone else — individualism taken to an extreme.

But then she remembers she once had a daughter. All she learns about the technology of the park and the fake character of the memories cannot change her mind — she is a mother, so she must go seek out her daughter. Although robots are not life-giving creatures, she cannot let go of another understanding of freedom — living with love. Protecting someone she thinks of as a daughter.

The Destiny Of The West And The Western

These characters and their stories show the complexity of humanity faced with technological control of body and mind. While an obvious failure — like the other theme park from a famous Crichton story, “Jurassic Park” — the creation of Westworld is also the promise of a new birth of freedom for America. This brings us to the Western, the genre used by John Ford and others of America’s best poets, to make movies that reflect on the character and destiny of America.

Westworld had two creators. One idealistic, who came to believe that the robots should be free and who became willing to sacrifice himself for their freedom, the other one lacking any respect for the humanity of the creation and who ended up running the park for the inevitably corrupt and evil corporation. Both had designs and powers invisible to everyone else and which set in motion great conflicts in Westworld.

They are the twin impulses at the core of all American political conflicts, between an understanding of freedom that leads to enthusiasm and another understanding of freedom that leads to political and technological institutions, agreements, and order, invariably imperfect and sometimes criminal. One creates visions, the other systems. Both are necessary and neither can quite control the other.

The show is most astute when it suggests that the origins of America are far more important than people usually grant, because their influence is invisible and has been incorporated in our very way of thinking, without our understanding where it comes from. The insistence on founders also connects it with the Western, because that, too, is about the foundation of law and order in America.

So “Westworld” is interested in the Western beyond the level of mere ironic deconstruction of delusions about freedom. Jonathan Nolan is a very insightful writer, who has often written with his more famous brother Christopher, and who also created “Person of Interest,” the best story about AI, the surveillance state, and the dangers facing us. He knows the debts we all owe John Ford and he seems to know that while America lives, the Western lives.

I am impressed by his attempt to explore our own very artificial situation by comparison with the more natural situation of the Western. “Westworld” questions whether we can be American anymore, whether we have a reliable, worthwhile future. But it also suggests we have to turn back to the Western to understand ourselves and the crisis of our freedom, because all the elements were already there. We’re just seeing them in a strikingly new configuration. And it is so well done in this show.