The Biggest Mystery of Westworld

Somehow I’ve watched 5 episodes of Westworld.

I say ‘somehow’ not because I think it’s bad – though I don’t think it’s as good as some people seem to, it’s got good production values, some great actors but only so-so writing – but because after watching a couple of episodes I realised it was a ‘Mystery Box’ show.

What’s a ‘Mystery Box’? Here’s someone talking about the concept. I remember the first time I watched that and realised, “So Abrams is in love with the idea of setting up stuff and not explaining it, whereas I want to know. I stopped watching Lost not long after.

To be clear then, I hate Mystery Box shows. I want the thing that makes me want to keep watching to be how the next bit of story turns out, what happens to my favourite characters, and not what is the secret of the thing that we glimpsed when the shadowy character said the vague thing about the possible location of the thing that will lead to…

But none of that is what this post is really about.

Because after watching five episodes there’s a bigger mystery to me that who the Man in Black is, or what’s special about Delores, who Arnold was and what he tried to do, what Dr. Ford is up to, what “the game” is, where the map leads…

No the biggest mystery is more fundamental and potentially more detrimental to my enjoyment of the show.

Let me explain: in Westworld there are very realistic human-looking robots (‘hosts’) populating a theme park where rich people can go and live out a Western-themed fantasy. Which means a lot of killing and fucking. At least in terms of their interaction with the hosts. Also there are behind-the-scenes technicians who repair, de-brief and interact with the ‘hosts’ in a more clinical manner. And since the hosts are not human the WW staff treat them in a glib manner – slicing them open and performing ‘surgery’ (repairs), abruptly switching them off, or turning off their emotions in order to analyse them. And when this occurs the hosts are naked because… well because titillation and ratings I assume.

Actually there was one attempt at an on-screen explanation for the need for nakedness. A tech had draped a cloth over one host and Dr Ford angrily removes it reminding the guy that hosts are not human. So in order to reinforce the non-human nature of the hosts they need to be naked because when we see someone naked, say sitting talking to a fully clothed person interrogating them, we immediately think cold mechanical machine not a vulnerable human being with flaws and a need for/right to dignity don’t we?

OK I’m getting side-tracked about the nakedness. But I’m supposed to be talking about mystery and the nakedness is not a mystery. It’s dumb but no mystery – see again ratings and titillation.

No the biggest mystery in Westworld is the way the real humans interact with each other. Which is normally. They have friends, colleagues, lovers, enemies and they behave toward them in perfectly ordinary ways according to the nature of the relationship and their emotional state.

Why is that a mystery? Well because they spend a lot of time treating human-looking objects as objects. They treat them callously, indifferently, cruelly. They use them for sexual pleasure. They kill and rape them for fun. And all this is justified* because they’re not human. But justified or not surely it has an effect? There must be some emotional bleed through?

Surely such behaviour towards these things that look, act, feel as human as you are would eventually degrade your attitudes toward other actual human beings? You’d start to find yourself behaving more carelessly and callously toward the people in your life. Or if not you’d at least start to feel a disconnect between the two. In the case of the techs in particular you would have to compartmentalise so much, build up such cognitive dissonance that it would have to come out in some form.

And yet, so far, five episodes in, I don’t see it. Maybe it’s coming but it seems they’re more concerned with spinning the various clue threads than showing us the emotional consequences of having proxy humans to hurt.

Why we haven’t seen it, well to me at least, that’s the mystery.


(*Maybe. I’m guessing the show will want to explore this idea. It’s already made it pretty clear that there’s going to be an arc of hosts becoming fully self-aware, which will lead to questions of whether or not they are ‘real’ people. And whether therefore the humans have responsibilities toward them. That’s OK, it’s been done before, a lot, but it’s OK.)

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