“Are you real?”
The question is asked by William (Jimmi Simpson), a new guest to Westworld, to the host who takes him through orientation. In context, he’s simply asking whether his current host is human or robot, but the question has a deeper meaning as well: are the hosts themselves “real” in any meaningful sense? I’m not an expert on AI so I can’t suggest a definitive rubric of what this would mean, but some possibilities might include: sentience, consciousness, subjectivity, interiority, the ability to experience rather than simply simulate pleasure or pain.
This is no small question. The guests of the park can’t truly experience Westworld as a place of depth and substance unless they imagine the hosts as real. The ability to imagine another being as a subjective creature with a interior life as rich and complex as your own is the beginning of empathy; the inability to conceive of those around you as fundamentally real is a major component of sociopathy and psychopathy. The Westworld guests who can think of the hosts as real can experience the park as a place of risk, of ethical responsibility, of self-exploration. But those who callowly insist the robots aren’t real experience the place only as a consequence-free video game, a place to play at being a psychopath.
William and his friend Logan (Ben Barnes) dramatize this difference. Logan is a return guest to the park, an unfettered hedonist who wants his more reserved friend to discover his true self. I’ve no idea what he thinks this will consist of—letting himself loose to maim, and screw, and kill, as Logan does. Logan is the kind of guest who thinks he can do whatever he wants because the hosts aren’t real. William, on the other hand, treats the hosts as you’d treat a human being, refusing to engage in transactional sex with them, helping up an old man who stumbles in the street, and listening politely when the same man later interrupts them at dinner. (Logan puts a steak knife through his hand to put an abrupt end to the conversation.)
So which is it? Are the hosts real or not? And how does that question relate to the question of who you really are? It depends on whether your true self is who you are when there are no consequences, or who you are when all the chips are down and the stakes have never been higher. Logan and William represent two different answers to these questions—and conveniently enough, they happen to be wearing a black and a white hat, respectively. We’ll see how they act out of these basic perspectives in future episodes.
As for the hosts themselves, this week they gave ample demonstrations of their realness. To the guests, the hosts may seem to be nothing more than skillful human simulacra, but the show’s frequent adoption of the robots’ POV proves to us viewers that they are anything but. Both Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton) have flashbacks to past trauma, presumably from erased storylines or previous selves. These flashbacks may technically be glitches, but as Dr. Ford said last week, evolutionary steps forward are largely accidents. This particular accident—this glitch in the hosts’ programming—may be the first stirrings of consciousness.
Outside the park, the staff are working on a big new storyline under the direction of Sizemore, whose name turns out to be a little on the nose. Sizemore is an unsubtle hack with a maximalist approach to storytelling—his new project allegedly rivals Hieronymous Bosch and boasts both vivisections and “self-cannibalization.” Ford, usually not one to comment on the storylines, is inspired by Sizemore’s hackneyed work to finally reject the storyline and offer something of his own—presumably to be revealed in weeks to come. Ford offers a perspective that’s diametrically opposed to Sizemore’s, and to Logan’s, bringing the episode full-circle: guests don’t come to Westworld to discover who they are, they come to discover who they could be.
Odds and Ends:
- Cullen and Lowe are doin’ it.
- The Man in Black killed a lot more hosts this week, including a woman who was killed in front of her husband and daughter. This is objectively a horrifying scene, yet something about it fell a little flat. This gets back to the real vs. not-real thing: in most of the action scenes so far, the show itself seems to believe that the hosts aren’t real. Their deaths don’t have weight. They feel like video game deaths. We’re still only two episodes in, but this is a problem; it robs what should be exciting or harrowing scenes of emotional weight.
- I love, love, LOVE the complex that the park staff work and—apparently—live in. At times it looks like an abandoned shopping mall; at others, a vast and crumbling warehouse. Perhaps we’ll learn at some point why the mysterious Corporation in charge of Westworld can’t spring for a decently-lit workspace for its workers. In the meantime, it’s just an interesting stylistic choice, and the perfect counterpoint to the world of the park itself.