Westworld and the Art of World-Building

TV Features Westworld
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<i>Westworld</i> and the Art of World-Building

I find Westworld slightly unnerving in the way I find Black Mirror slightly unnerving. It’s a feeling that’s grown as I’ve made my way through the season and read recaps of each episode. An obvious question lingers, but it’s one worth asking, and it’s this: Why is the gap between the person who created the story and the person experiencing the story more troubling in the context of something like Westworld or Black Mirror than it is, say, when a playwright or author indulges in dramatic irony? What unnerves me here? What leaves me cautious? Is it the gap itself? Or is it something else?

I’d argue that it’s not the fact that the “hosts” serve as a meta-commentary on HBO, remembering the trauma of previous lives as they wake up fresh and new every day, as Jeet Heer of The New Republic posited on Twitter in the early days of the season. And it isn’t necessarily the fact that each episode is a reflection of a certain kind of economic policy bearing fruit, either. Rather, each series —formerly, Black Mirror; presently, Westworld— is unnerving because each conveys a world in which we can’t necessarily see or sense the author’s mind popping up into the middle of a text, that moment when we know we’re there with Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, or whomever. If there were a Holden Caulfield knocking around the future these shows occupy, one would wonder about his capability of looking into Westworld and feeling like something was looking back, as he more or less put it in The Catcher In The Rye.

When Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson) talk about what the park reveals, they talk about the park in relation to what it brings out of someone, not in what they see, sense, or hear. They speak selfishly. They speak out of self-interest. For William, to speak of the park’s “deeper meaning”—even as The Man in Black (Ed Harris)—isn’t mysterious but somewhat sad, a reflection of how far a story’s capacity for generating otherworldliness and empathy has fallen in this world—a capacity otherwise so strong that there’s a decent case to be made in academic literature that novels played a role in the development of human rights—and why it’s even sad to watch Robert Ford himself brag about introducing “reveries” to the hosts.

No one in Westworld seems to know how to use a story or how to read a story to build a world.

This would also explain why—for all of Westworld’s expressiveness, thoroughly impressive acting, and pleasant design (though a question of how pleasant is part of the broader point) —it also conjures a world of deep verbal restraint, which leaves us with fewer keys into the interior of the characters than we might have otherwise liked. When Maeve (Thandie Newton) suggests to Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) that the two of them should break into hell and rob the gods blind, it stands out: It’s the rare creative line that suggests how she might explain the world to Hector and indicate how she might think of the world herself, a world where—emotion-wise, at least—we’ve seen her collapse in horror at the sight of a room full of dead hosts being hosed down and then later quietly observe her surroundings as she walks through floor after floor—blood being introduced to a host, a buffalo spinning in a circle, someone practicing swinging a vest over their shoulders—to the sounds of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” (“I think you’re crazy,” Thom Yorke sings. “Stop sending letters. Letters always get burned… I will see you in the next life.”)

This is also why I’d gently disagree with Vulture’s criticism of the use of Radiohead in the show, as it plays into something I wrote about years ago that’s applicable here and now, in which—at one point—I quote the painter Mark Rothko, who told his interlocutor, by why of explaining why he made the kind of art that he made, that “the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”

The verbal restraint the characters display in Westworld is a tell. The fact that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) saying to his son that—in the words of The Mad Hatter—“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, and everything would be what it isn’t!” pairs so well with Rothko advocating for pulverization in the name of freedom, humanity, and everything art is otherwise credited with bringing us is a tell. There is no room to build a world in this world (Anthony Hopkins’ Ford even has backdoor code built into his creations)—and when something does start to happen—or seem to happen, at least—it brings to mind a music video someone made for the Radiohead song “Nude,” in which a collection of old equipment starts to come to life, in fits and cracks and thumping scanning beats, where it starts to sing, “Don’t get any… big ideas, it’s not… gonna happen,” and even when it’s just that—some good-for-nothing old computer equipment—we’re haunted by the ghost of humanity, of hope, and—just for a second—we start to believe. It’s not a story, this equipment gasping to life, but it is a flower making its way through the cracks, just as the awakening hosts in Westworld are, and just as some expressions are out there in the digital wash of the present moment.

To which I say—don’t let someone turn this into something it’s not. Think back to James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, in which he writes, “Most people have not lived—nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died—through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain.”

No hammer shall ever touch you but your own. And even when that happens, you will be rebuilt on the other side—in, as Thom Yorke sang, the next life.



Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to Paste, he has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.

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