This post will be talking about HBO’s new drama Westworld, but I’ll also be talking about ABC’s LOST. (And possibly Mutant Enemy Productions’ excellent film Cabin in the Woods.)
If you’re not up to date on these properties then this post might not be for you. (Unless you don’t care about spoilers. I don’t judge.)
Last chance to eject, because I’ll not be shying away from talking about plot details of all of the properties I mentioned above.
Go Westworld, Young Mandroid
When HBO announced that they were going to create a series based on the 1973 Michael Crichton movie Westworld, I was pretty happy. I liked the film, even if it is exactly as cheesy and 70s as you can imagine. Yul Brynner was awesome as a gunslinging android with some disdain for Asimov’s three laws of robotics.
At first I assumed Westworld would be a mini-series, kind of expanding on the movie (which was just this side of short and uncomplicated.) But then I heard that it would be at least a full season, which implied possibly more seasons to follow. I was very skeptical. I mean, I assumed I knew what the show would be about.
- Man creates android.
- Man gives android guns.
- Android shoots man.
- Woman inherits the Earth.
Okay, apologies for paraphrasing somewhat from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which might naively be called Westworld with Dinosaurs, but the Jurassic Park storyline really refined and perfected what Westworld was originally going for.
Anyway, it didn’t seem to be something that would be complicated or deep enough to go for several seasons.
I’d probably have been satisfied if Westworld had just been an expansion of the movie I knew. But instead, it gave me something else, something very close in tone with another television show that I love. LOST.
The Past is Lost to Me
Not everyone enjoyed the television show LOST as much as I did (and I’m sure there are at least some people who enjoyed it more than I did; I’m not a rabid super-fan, right. Right?) but it was quite a groundbreaking show.
LOST successfully juggled a large ensemble cast, wove multiple storylines across multiple timelines, presented facts and then overturned our assumptions based on those facts with insightful revelations, layered on mysteries, and subtly sneaked in some doses of crazy sci-fi. All with a reasonable and deliberate pace.
(We can debate perceived pacing problems in season three and the final season, but please not in this post. Feel free to comment in my clumsily written LOST Final Season Defense.)
Once the television industry took notice of LOST‘s success, several competing shows were produced during the run that aimed to emulate the formula: a large ensemble cast, big mystery, surprising twists. Very few were all that successful (Heroes started off so promising) and after LOST ended, there was a brief spike of shows predicted to be the next LOST, but those failed to live up to the claim.
On the contrary, Westworld was touted to be HBO’s next Game of Thrones and there was no mention of LOST, so I was surprised that Westworld kind of snuck into the same Bermuda Triangle zone. And with intriguing ease.
Live Together, Die Alone. Reset. Repeat.
The Westworld pilot episode was sneaky: I (like many others) thought that the character of Teddy (played by James Marsden) was a human guest riding in on a return trip to the adult amusement park run by Delos. (It is Delos, right? Like from the 1973 movie?)
I interpreted him as a sort of an analog for Richard Benjamin and James Brolin from the source film.
I’d known Ed Harris was cast in Westworld as a villainous-looking cowboy, so I’d gone in with the assumption that Harris would be stepping into the role of Brynner’s man-killing malfunctioning android.
That was clearly not the case, as Teddy existed as the heroic but doomed android love interest of the robotic rancher’s daughter Dolores, herself a kind of prize for guests who were interested in preying on the innocent.
Due to his immunity to the park’s non-lethal-to-humans gunfire, and his anachronistic observations on Teddy’s narrative situation with Dolores, Harris appears to be a human guest. He’s quite ruthless and practiced at killing the android hosts who have no ability to harm humans.
He is as unstoppable a bogeyman as Yul Brynner was, but to the robots whose nightmares he inhabits.
The show suckered me in to caring about the androids via Teddy and Dolores in a way that the 1973 film hadn’t done, and I’ll admit that it’s the android experience in Westworld that I’m most invested in. For me, they’re almost the same as the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.
The androids exist largely as playthings for humanity, who in a sense might as well be gods to the androids (fragile gods, but still gods) – which is not that far off from the role of the LOST crash survivors. That plucky group of castaways would eventually come to learn that they were part of a complicated and not-well-defined game between the mysterious Jacob and his dark, nameless brother.
Okay, I don’t want this to get super bogged down in comparing and contrasting between LOST and Westworld (because that might require several posts) but I do want to make a few quick observations, on why I think Westworld might be able to approach LOST as my new favorite mystery-show, and where it has possibly learned some lessons from LOST.
- At least we know more than the androids do.
For several seasons of LOST, we viewers only gained information and insight as the survivors did. They were confused by, oh, mysterious monsters in the forest and numbered hatches. And since they were confused, so were we. But for this show, we’re aware of the androids’ situation as host elements in a narrative to be experienced. So when the androids begin to start gaining more awareness of their situation, they should be confused but we’ll be able to appreciate their awakening.
- Multiple layers of mystery, available from the start.
LOST would establish mysterious situations, and then when one mystery was solved it would notoriously open up a new one.
(You know, the survivors are harrassed by the Others. Oops, some of the Others weren’t Others, they were tail-section survivors. We get their story. Eventually we get some information about the Others as survivors are held by them at the old Dharma compound. These guys don’t have all the answers, as they’re following orders from Jacob. So we get some answers, but there’s a new layer of mystery. Etc. This chain of not knowing things would occasionally get tiresome.)
Westworld presents several layers of mystery at once: at the android level, at the guest level, and the park overseer level, and at the, uh, Man in Black level. (Maybe the MiB should be at a guest level.) The information-gathering doesn’t have to be so linear.
I appreciate that the show can operate among these different levels of mystery at once, which makes the interactions between guests, hosts, and the Delos employees less supernatural and more relevant.
- Characters can be stupid to advance the plot.
Okay, let me explain.
It’s a tired trope among these shows that sometimes characters don’t behave because of natural motivations, but instead make some odd choice because the story demands it. Sometimes, that’s just what needs to be done. Yes, it’s lazy writing, yes yes. (That’s lazy criticism by the way. Come at me.)
In Westworld, there is a large population in the story that literally does things because their personal plot demands it. Stupid or inexplicable behavior is just going to happen with malfunctioning robots.
I’m not trying to encourage the writers to hack together whatever they want and justify it because of faulty programming in an android, but it is a get-out-of-jail-free card that should be occasionally used. It would have certainly made more sense for Michael to not tell anyone that he was talking to Walt on the Swan Station computer if he had been an android with broken programming. (I appreciate that not everyone will see this as a plus.)
- Fertile ground for philosophical questions.
LOST didn’t get too full on with philosophy overtly, but once you start naming characters based on philosophers, philosophical references are going to be dissected.
But Westworld is pretty much guaranteed to be having some overt god-complex/ethics-of-AI discussions, at least among Bernard and Ford. But what I really want is a conversation about ethics that includes a gun toting Dolores wanting some satisfactory answers.
I have a longer list of bullet points, but I think I can hold them off for some other LOST/Westworld posts. I’ll end this by briefly talking about another vibe I’m getting from Westworld, caused by overseers surveying their captives who exist as archetypal pawns in stories designed to satisfy and satiate mysterious beings. I’ve seen something like this before.
Little Haunted House on the Prairie
A few years ago, I got to see Cabin in the Woods, the excellent meta-horror movie where a bureaucratic organization arranged carefully scripted horrific scenarios as part of a ritual to appease some race of dark gods. The film makes deliberate use of horror-genre tropes as a sort of commentary: we’re the dark gods that need to be appeased, right?
Okay, I don’t want to get too liberal arts and sciences about this. Cabin in the Woods is just a great film, with an innovative twist.
Obviously, I get the same vibe from Westworld, with the Delos employees running the park acting analogously to the stuffed-shirts who set up the grisly sacrifices in Cabin in the Woods. It’s not quite the same, sacrificing a school room full of children to a floating creepy-girl ghost is a bit more monstrous than setting up androids for abuse. Or isn’t it the same? I guess it depends on how lifelike the androids become.
If the androids do achieve some level of sentience, that unlabeled top of Arnold’s pyramid, when the realization comes that they are playthings being sacrificed for the enjoyment of the mysterious and terrifying humans, they should react with the appropriate horror.
And I’m looking forward to that. Which makes me feel kind of creepy, I guess.
Okay, no guarantees on when the next one of these will come out, but I feel reasonably certain that it’ll be about the Man in Black, another LOST archetype.
Images from HBO’s Westworld, ABC’s LOST, and the movie Cabin in the Woods.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2016 Some Rights Reserved