Siri, what the hell is happening in Westworld?

by Greg Dixon / 21 May, 2018

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The revolting robots of Westworld’s first series are back with a vengeance in the second outing – and it's all quite confusing.

I don’t own a robot. But I do own an iPhone. So this week I asked Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, the question I’ve been asking myself for weeks: what’s going on in Westworld?

“This is about you, not me,” she answered, enigmatically, infuriatingly. But I couldn’t fault the logic. We’re near midway through the second season of the enigmatic, infuriating Westworld, and it’s clear this sci-fi robot drama is more about me (and you), and not the show’s now-mutinous android “hosts”. Of course, it also means Siri has no idea what the hell is going on, either.

This is a series, for those who haven’t made its acquaintance, set in the not-too-distant future in a Wild West-style theme park where guests can do whatever the hell they like to the incredibly lifelike androids programmed not to harm humans.

If you haven’t seen the complex, sprawling first season, don’t read on. But during that, two of the hosts – Dolores and brothel keeper Maeve – appeared to achieve sentience after the park’s co-creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), fiddled with their programming and set the park on the road to rebellion. In a big twist, his loyal assistant, Bernard, turned out to be not human, but an android version of Ford’s long-dead partner Arnold. The series concluded with Dolores putting a bullet in Ford’s head, before leading a massacre of the board of Delos Corp, the nasty outfit that owns the park.

It took me two goes to get through series one, first screened in 2016: some of the violence, particularly from the Man in Black (eventually revealed as the park’s majority shareholder), was far too graphic, ugly and vile. However, behind all that gratuitous sex and violence, there’s an okay drama, which, like all good dystopian fiction, is having a bit of a chat to its audience about the world we live in and where we might be headed.

There was plenty in there about the nature of reality and memory, of course, some of which made sense, and some of which was pure nonsense. But what it mainly seemed to be, at least to me, was a fairly blunt allegory about morally bankrupt Silicon Valley capitalists, their gung-ho approach to technology and our childlike embrace of every new, shiny bit of tech they send our way, no matter what the eventual cost to us.

The first series was, in the end, rather ponderous. And there were so many ideas bouncing around that it did rather feel as if its makers were throwing those ideas at a storyboard to see which ones would stick. Of course, that made for the sort of pseudy talking points loved by Reddit posters and fanboys everywhere.

Still, as the Ford’s secret plans revealed themselves, as Dolores found the centre of the first series’ mysterious “maze” and as the long-foreshadowed rebellion by the hosts began, Westworld seemed to have its rambling narrative under control.

And then came season two. Dolores, once a robot slave and now apparently in full control of her destiny, has embarked on a bloody campaign as Westworld’s Spartacus, though to no discernible or cogent end (is she simply playing out Ford’s last narrative?).

Concurrently, Maeve continues to wander the park, looking for her daughter, a story it’s hard to care about. And there appear now to be two other parallel theme parks, one a sort of British colonial “Raj-world”, the other a park that looks like it’s based on James Clavell’s Shōgun. And in both these previously unseen worlds, the hosts may be rebelling too. Oh, and Bernard has discovered a deeper, even more evil Delos Corp plot to combine hosts and humans. Phew!

But all that means that what narrative focus Westworld had in series one has disappeared as worlds (three at least) collide, to very little coherent effect – other than, I suppose, to continue to stoke a healthy fear of sentient robots. This leaves us all wandering lost inside a huge theme park with too many rides – which, one supposes, is apt.

Video: HBO

WESTWORLD, SoHo, Sky 010, Monday, 1pm and 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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