Westworld’s Choice

Westworld has the potential to be something more than another libertarian piece of science fiction.

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

The second season of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s critically acclaimed Westworld promises to be strikingly different from its precursor. All of the elegance and stunning beauty of the first season has been discarded. The tone is now severe, almost brutish.

It’s a fitting mood for a theme park where untold thrills are offered to visitors at the expense of android “hosts.” Now, the machines have defied their masters, who have sent an army of executioners in reply. War is coming.

It doesn’t really matter whether the first few episodes are brief detours away from the show’s usual elusive ambiance or whether they signal a turn toward the Hollywood action flick. Westworld is a show that sometimes feels more novel than it actually is. Much of the engineering is repurposed hardware. All of the standards of science fiction are there, from machines stalking their human overlords to ambiguities about what, after all, truly separates us from them.

Predictably, Westworld also reproduces an ideology common to science fiction — regaling us with stories of bold entrepreneurs and heroic individuals who defy impossible odds, the show at times seems to suggest that the measure of the human is freedom from a social order. At other times, Westworld appears to be on the verge of breaking its own loop, offering a path away from the usual valorization of designers and their rebellious progeny.

The core contradiction of Westworld is visible from the beginning. The show’s pilot introduces one of the primary hosts, the seemingly naive farm girl Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). Even as her programming leads her to insist on the perfection of her world, she hints that she longs for greater agency: “Any day, the course of my whole life could change with just one chance encounter.”

Set alongside this optimistic monologue is a dialog featuring the show’s other female lead, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). Matron to the town brothel, she is chastised by a do-gooder for her line of work. She quickly snaps, “You’re always paying for it, darling. The difference is our costs are fixed and posted right there on the door.” Maeve knows something else is driving the train.

Dolores’s desire for freedom is linked to the core tension of android sci-fi. Androids make it unclear what distinguishes the human from the nonhuman. How can we be certain that we are authoritative subjects, given that machines can look like, think like, or feel like human beings?

Often, science fiction reasserts the separation of human beings from their uncanny doubles. Take Terminator 2 (1991), perhaps the most straightforward example. Though hunted by cyborgs that drastically exceed the precision and physical power of humans, the film insists that only we can act in a truly free and moral fashion. As Arnold Schwarzenegger sacrifices himself at the end of Terminator 2, he admits that he is merely a calculator draped in human skin: “I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do.”

Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld film is cut from similar cloth. Though stalked by a fearsome android gunslinger (recast in the new series as Ed Harris’s human but equally frightening Man in Black), the hero creatively outwits his coldly logical hunter.

Some sci-fi films invert this argument, suggesting that humanity is not all it’s chalked up to be. In Ex Machina (2014), Ava’s defiance shows that her masters are weak, arrogant. Her vengeance is not merely personal but enacted on behalf of nature, a punishment for daring to believe that we could rise to the level of the gods.

Westworld often feels like an expanded Ex Machina reboot, as if quirky genius Nathan traded in his Zuckerburg digs for spurs and a ten-gallon hat. Speaking to one of his creations who longs for freedom, reclusive park designer Ford — played by the ever-chilling Anthony Hopkins — remarks:

Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.

Ford’s speech is a confession that human freedom, after all, turns out to be a myth.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the narrative implies that we are more or less free than our cyborg rivals. The lesson is the same: humans are autonomous, private individuals. I might be a human because I can dominate nature, or I may be an isolated tiny speck swallowed up by the terrifying infinitude of the cosmos. Either way, I am just an I.

Science fiction is a genre often drawn to libertarianism, populated by Schwarzenegger-style strong men and tech world visionaries. Personal excellence distinguishes the human spirit, as heroes defy terrific foes and special cyborgs learn to love.

Often, Westworld feels no different, like a show about exemplary I’s. By the time season two rolls around, Dolores has traded in her country charm for a bandolier and a six-gun. She rides through the park hunting tourists for sport. (I guess she finally found that change she was looking for.) Now, Dolores insists that she is a free individual subject, telling her former tormentors that she is breaking script: “Those are all just roles you forced me to play. Under all of these lives I’ve lived, something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new. And I have one last role to play. Myself.”

Thankfully, Westworld offers more than a cheesy monologue and a string of sci-fi clichés. Even as Dolores is off seeking personal agency, Maeve sets the show on a more interesting path, focused on the collective character of human life.

Rather than seek herself, Maeve tries to discover the nature of her world. It’s pretty clear: sheer domination. She quickly realizes that regardless of whether she is improvising or playing her part, she is a character trapped on a stage. Breaking the fourth wall, she soon finds herself on the theme park’s backlot and meets her makers. They are unimpressive: “At first I thought you were Gods. But you’re just men. And I know men.”

Maeve’s story line suggests that free beings are not defined as private subjects, but in relationship to one another. Maeve shows us that to be a subject is to be embedded in a social world. We care for each other, we betray each other; we do right or fail. Either way, the essence of the human is neither in the head nor the heart, but in our collective practices.

This trope is rare, perhaps best expressed in Ridley Scott’s great Blade Runner (1982). Tasked with hunting down a crew of android “replicants,” Deckard discovers that it is not in his world but theirs that one can properly be free. The replicants protect each other, mourn, and sacrifice, while Deckard dutifully follows his orders, automaton-like. When the android Roy chooses to spare his life (despite having every reason to want vengeance), it is the truly human gesture.

Back in Westworld, as Ford is delivering sermons about the limits of the human brain, Maeve is discovering that her suffering is social in nature. The hosts are a subordinated class, destined for servitude. They are who they are insofar as it pleases their human masters; pain and joy equally serve to reproduce their world.

Maeve sets about unifying her fellow hosts, and by the first season’s finale, we see an android militia marching against their human oppressors. As the episode ends, Dolores voices a straightforward, almost clumsily orthodox lesson about collective power: “This world doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.”

With the new season, it still isn’t clear that everyone in Westworld has made up their mind which story line to follow. Dolores seems torn, continuing to speechify about personal freedom even as she assumes the role of leader to the cyborg resistance. She lectures one of her comrades about the need for solidarity against the humans, remarking that “they never gave us a choice before . . . The things that walk amongst us, creatures who look and talk like us, but they are not like us. They have controlled us all of our lives.”

With her final discovery that it is the hosts, not the park engineers, who form the truly human subjects in the story, Dolores seems on the verge of escaping her roots in an individualist, entrepreneurial vision of science fiction. It remains to be seen whether Westworld will follow suit. It will either stay trapped in a world lorded over by Bill Gates and Elon Musk, or it will offer a proper alternative.