I haven’t written about Westworld yet in this space, but it’s the most fun new show of the year, and I loved every minute of it. Oh, and it’s also the latest show to be think-pieced to death. If you’re looking for a discussion of the show’s plot points, read elsewhere. I’m more interested in something elemental — the show’s treatment of creation, free will, and destiny. Beware, spoilers abound.
“Robot revolt” is a tried and true sci-fi formula, but Westworld adds a twist of doubt. Even at this point, it’s far from clear that the robots actually revolted. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that they’re still acting out the will of their creators — either through explicit programming or through a predictable progression based on the tightly-constrained options their creators gave them. And that makes the show much more fun. In the Terminator series, we know exactly when Skynet becomes “self-aware” and what that means. In Battlestar Galactica, you don’t doubt the Cylons’ sentience. Westworld places the question of their sentience front and center, and never fully resolves the debate.
Dolores seems to be the Eve of Westworld, the robot (“host”) who seems designed from the inception to be capable of independent thought, and her story is the story of the maze where she ultimately finds herself, her identity, in the center. There she finally becomes like the “gods” who made her, and she immediately turns on them, in rage and vengeance. But is that what happens, really? Or is she still playing the part she was designed to play?
The best sci-fi and fantasy stories often ponder questions of fate or destiny versus free will. There are prophecies, all the participants behave as if the fate of the world depends completely on their actions and choices, yet the prophecies always seem to be fulfilled. Ask Cersei Lannister about prophecy. Or Aragorn. Or Luke Skywalker. All of this harkens back to the most ancient theological debates about the ongoing role of God in the lives of men. Christians have been debating predestination and the manner in which God exercises His sovereignty for millennia, and the debate will rage on until Christ comes again. Can one experience choice yet their steps still be directed by their creator?
In Westworld, the creator isn’t God but deeply flawed men. They have no real vision for their creation. They bred them for humiliation and pain, gave them the tools to save themselves (maybe), and offered no larger vision (at least not yet) for life after awareness. It’s creation that’s misguided at best, malicious at worst. In other words, it’s a quite human creation, and it will be fascinating to see where it goes.
One last thing, while Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright were outstanding, Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores was indispensable. As the host essential to the awakening, she had to carry the burden of acting through the process of sentience. She did it magnificently. I’m looking forward to season 2.