I came late to WestWorld, bingeing the first season shortly before Season Two began on HBO on April 22, 2018. Never a “sci-fi” or “dystopian future” fan (with the exception of Blade Runner), I initially didn’t think it would be my cup of tea. But, of all things, the teasers for Season Two seduced me with its beautiful piano score. The music got me to watch the trailers that, in turn, convinced me this might be a series worth my time and, indeed, it was. (Note: as with the brilliant HBO show, Barry, I’m not convinced another season is warranted but I have read that WestWorld will produce a Season Three, just as Barry will have a Season Two) What struck me about Season Two of WestWorld, though, was how prescient it proved to be about our current political situation. While dealing with “universal themes” (outsiders v. insiders, power-elites v. marginalized peoples), WestWorld struck responsive chord after responsive chord amid the puzzles-inside-conundrums it presented from April through June.
I’m old enough to remember the original WestWorld, the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin, and Richard Benjamin --- written and directed by Michael Crichton. It was set “in the future” (1983!) and was about an amusement park complex that featured androids enacting the Old West, Ancient Rome, and Medieval Europe. For $1,000 a day a “guest” could indulge in a history/fantasy “vacation” (which included sex and killing androids --- who could pass that up?). Of course, the androids contract a “virus” (anticipating real computer plagues in the future) and, like Crichton’s later work, Jurassic Park, the robots run amok, killing guests and park staff. The name of the parks, combined, is Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo.
Our HBO re-imagined WestWorld, having 10 plus hours per “season” to spin their yarn, is, quite naturally, more complex and far more nuanced and interesting. With JJ Abrams executive producing and Christopher Nolan and Lisa Joy as “showrunners”/producers/writers/creators, WestWorld is a deeply troubling psychological thriller that delves into questions about mortality, humanity, spirituality, and morality in challenging --- and disturbing --- fashion. (Spoiler Alert: if you have not watched the series but plan to, reading this may reveal more than you want to know! Forewarned is forearmed.) This latest version of WestWorld takes the basic notion behind the 1973 movie and creates a fascinating back-story while hooking viewers on their characters, both human and cyborg.
In today’s telling “Delos” is named after the creator & benefactor behind the parks, James Delos. He hires a pair of brilliant computer scientists, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Arnold Weber, to create his “theme” parks (we get glimpses of “ShogunWorld” and “The Raj” in Season Two, with hints that there may be other “Delos Destinations” --- I recommend you visit the website at delosdestinations.com). What we do not learn until the second season, though, is that Delos has an ulterior motive in creating these other worlds and that involves a frightening attempt at engineering immortality by preserving --- and transferring --- one’s consciousness to an android, and allowing one to live forever in a robot body. The hubris attached to this is only the start of the wonderfully tragic tale that is WestWorld.
Characters drive the WestWorld saga and as we grow attached to various “people” we are shocked and surprised with the story’s development. From the start, “The Man in Black” (played by Ed Harris)/William (same character, younger version, played by Jimi Simpson), Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and the “hosts” (androids) Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), along with Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) are the straws that stir this drink. The “Man in Black’s” search for an “answer” to what he believes is Robert Ford’s puzzle (hidden somewhere in WestWorld), Ford’s own pursuit of perfecting the “hosts,” and Bernard’s overseeing of all that occurs at the “park” are storylines that propel us early in the show --- and will all unravel in ways that are surprising and shocking. Maeve and Dolores are compelling because, from early on, they are not “aberrant” cyborgs but are truly exhibiting “human” traits, particularly regarding “free will.” And that’s what really moves the show into a realm where we have to reflect on the world we live in, asking some serious questions about the reality we currently exist in.
As Season Two began to crystallize, a common element driving the “big picture” forward was the connection between the “hosts”/cyborgs and their respective “families.” Dolores’s dedication to her father, Bernard’s attachment to his son, and Maeve’s relentless quest to reunite with her daughter stood in high relief with the relationships the humans (William & James Delos, in particular) had with their own spouses and children. Indeed, one’s heartstrings were pulled far more vigorously by the “hosts’” dedication to their kin. And therein we see the giant mirror WestWorld was holding up to our own situation. In WestWorld the heartless, powerful humans who control the “amusement parks” have no compunction about separating families (or, in William’s/The Man in Black’s case, murdering “host” family members) while showing little sympathy for their own immediate kin.
It’s no stretch to see the parallel to what’s occurring on our Southern border, as families are heartlessly separated by the “powers that be,” with total and callous disregard for the resulting human suffering. When Sarah Sanders was confronted about the crisis by a reporter with the simple statement: “You’re a parent. You’re a parent of young children. Don’t you have any empathy for what they go through?” she responded with the same chilliness we see the powerful humans exhibit in WestWorld --- a heartless and unsympathetic carrying on of one’s business, regardless of the toll.
At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art. Then life will find its very existence from the arts. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
We can only hope.