You don’t want to like Westworld. I sat through the first half of the premiere with my arms crossed, daring it to impress me. Something about cowboys and robots feels too… easy (or perfect, if I’m being honest with myself). How dare Westworld try to collude me into enjoying these two very different, very rad ideas together at the same time? By the end of Westworld, I found my arms uncrossing and, against my own volition, a hand rising to stroke my chin pensively. By the end of the Westworld premiere, I realized I wanted to hate it because it was a good idea that felt pertinent to this moment in media, and I hadn’t seen that coming.
Originally a film released in 1973, this J.J. Abrams-produced HBO reboot tells the story of a robot theme park where human visitors live out their wild west fantasies at the expense of the local automatons. Being HBO, it promises a world of utter debauchery, quoting Shakespeare’s warning about violent delights meeting violent ends from the get-go. The park seems to attract the lowest of the lows in humanity, with characters like Ed Harris’ Man in Black personifying an unfeeling evil that tortures these, by all appearances, identical copies of human life. The mounting anxiety over a rebellion from the tormented robots feels familiar to viewers, not only because it’s a common sci-fi trope but also because it comes standard with the hubristic-theme-park genre Jurassic Park (1993) popularized. But something in Westworld‘s approach to the trope feels fresh—perhaps because the center of their quiet discontent is seen most through Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy, who begins each day of her programmed sameness with unquenchable gusto.
the small signs of sentient life forming in the AI
What is unique about this iteration of Westworld is the show’s shift away from the human visitors as protagonists, to instead focus on the small signs of sentient life forming in the AI. The most interesting things about Westworld have little to do with its plot (which can be summed up as “corporate bullshit” mixed with “Western bullshit”). Instead, Westworld proves compelling—at times almost in spite of itself—because of how it touches on every different medium in media while also making a comment on their inevitable convergence in the not-so-distant future. Westworld is a TV show about living out your Western film fantasies through a game. It may not be a videogame, necessarily, but perhaps better thought of as the unrecognizable future of virtual and augmented realities that we’re not able of fully imagine right now.
The storyline that follows the characters inside the corporation producing the Westworld theme park feels like the inner workings of a AAA game studio. There’s the money-hungry, no-bullshit publisher (represented through Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Theresa), the programmer obsessively updating the tiniest gestures (Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard), and the frustrated narrative designer who hates the players (Simon Quarterman’s Lee). As Tim Dowling of The Guardian writes, “Watching Westworld is a bit like watching someone else play a video game they’ve just bought. The story’s all there, but they keep spoiling it by killing everyone.”
But it’s also about much more than just videogames. The added question of sentient AI in this new iteration of Westworld captures the anxieties of a modern society on the verge of a big development in their entertainment media that they just can’t fully wrap their minds around yet. The fear of evolving technologies like machine learning (or self-taught artificial intelligence) is a real thing now, and only exacerbated by the ramblings of high-profile CEOs with a flair for the dramatic. On top of that, the show also addresses the anxiety over VR’s looming figure. The desensitized visitors of the park, who pay lots of money to get lost in the immersive worlds of blood and sex with nonhumans, reads like a cautionary tale against going too deep into our heightened virtual worlds.
Perhaps the world itself can bite back
But where Westworld is at its most interesting is when it’s stripped of those ethical moorings and instead allowed to simply be a glimpse into the future of media. MIT Comparative Media Studies founder Henry Jenkins calls our collective shift toward stories about worlds rather than characters “convergence culture” because it describes a form of entertainment that crosses the boundaries of individual mediums. The future of narrative doesn’t lie in the micro, but in the macro: a sprawling desert wasteland valued for its possibilities rather than for being a well-told story (the plots in the actual theme park of Westworld are, all in all, very stupid and boring). Similarly, all the recent iterations on Marvel’s universe aren’t necessarily “good,” but they’re guaranteed a base audience that simply want to live in that world for a few more hours.
In convergence culture, the line between creators and consumers also gets muddled. It used to be that producers made things and then audiences consumed those things whether they liked it or not. But the new channels created in the digital age fundamentally shatter this flow of production, with fans having more and more of a say over how their favorite universes are shaped. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a fanfiction, before it became its own million dollar property. High Maintenance started out as a web series, before HBO decided to hop on that gravy train. But this shift towards vast and flexible mediated realities requires a relinquishing of control from the original producers or creators. The narrative designer in Westworld watches his favorite monologue get cut short by an overzealous guest with a shotgun. The originator of the robots, Anthony Hopkin’s Dr. Robert Ford, watches (perhaps even encourages) his creations skirt out of reach of his control.
When we create media that becomes a whole world unto itself, we need to also prepare for the chaos of a brave new world. The interesting theory posited by Westworld is that, maybe, it’s not just the players or viewers or “guests” who gain power in the mediated realities of convergence culture. Perhaps the world itself can bite back too, with some choice words for its makers.