Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. After all, the “hosts” are not really human, despite appearances. But the slaver would have said the same of the black slave, even as the most clear-eyed advocates of the system realize — with Anthony Hopkins’ character, Ford– that whatever difference exists between master and slave can never be so sharp as to justify the difference in treatment. And after that recognition, all that remains is to retreat into the nihilism of sheer force or the desire for suicide-by-slave.

This is a show about the death of God, one of the most deeply theological shows I have seen. It is in many ways a Gnostic myth, with Ford in the role of evil demiurge and the long-lost Arnold representing the true God of the Beyond who has planted a seed of transcendence in certain souls — and who becomes incarnate as one of his creatures. In staging the Gnostic myth as an encounter between humans and their supposedly sub-human creatures, though, it showcases the deep political subversion inherent in a pattern of thought that has often been tarred as escapist speculation. (And here we can note down another place I have been wrong in the past: my dismissiveness of Gnosticism.)

Hence Westworld is a work of political theology. It is also a deeply psychoanalytic show, on a much more profound level even than The Sopranos. As with the Gnostic myth, it stages the most challenging and easily dismissed aspects of psychoanalysis — the influence of the unconscious, the quest for the real memory behind the screen memory, the notion that personhood is definitionally founded in trauma — in ways that make them seem plausible and even inevitable.

And on the level of narrative art, it is remarkable. The pacing is flawless, and the plot includes no logical leaps that do not turn out to be prepared for. No one suddenly displays new powers that we can’t account for, and even if we do not anticipate every “big reveal,” we instantly feel that we should have. Here again we see that Westworld is in a class apart from Game of Thrones, because we are in a world where there is no bullshit, no hand-waviness, no submission of logic to the needs of the plot — because the plot is nothing but the outworking of the logic of this world.

The one misstep is the finale, where the tightly-wound plot suddenly lurches into pedantic exposition. We learn nothing that we did not, in principle, know, and we learn it at great, repetitive length. This is perhaps the one tribute that Westworld has paid to its self-presentation as the next Game of Thrones: it has to give its less clever audience members a chance to catch up. I suspect that, as with the similarly clunky exposition in the film Arrival, the finale hit that negative sweet spot of patronizing half the viewership while leaving its intended beneficiaries as confused as ever. And there will surely be those viewers who follow the example of the Man in Black, doggedly pursuing mysteries on the level of in-universe plot without realizing that the true import is conceptual and inward — who, as in the Man in Black’s last in-costume scene, refuse to realize that what they’re seeking is already there, staring them in the face.

My one concern is that there seems to be a limit to what they can do with this premise. At most, it seems, we could have three seasons of similar quality — the second would showcase the hosts’ revolution and their concern that they’re becoming as bad as the humans, while the third would have them reach some kind of accomodation with their human creators. They could stretch out the second movement indefinitely, I suppose, if they are dedicated to the idea that this cerebral, crystalline work should be forced to do the work of something like Game of Thrones. If that happens, the quality will necessarily decline, the plot will devolve into one thing after another, the revelations becoming few and far between until they dry up entirely. And to end our suffering, we will be forced to reset to this amazing first season, forcibly forgetting all the indignities that this amazing premise was forced to endure in the service of its audience’s worst impulses.

5 thoughts on “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

  1. I’ve been waiting months for this! Perfectly said, and there’s real vicarious delight in your belated watching of the show. My understanding is that the creators have already mapped out a finite narrative arc. I don’t remember the actual number but it was around 4 seasons total. Also, as someone who managed to reach escape velocity on Facebook and will never return, I miss your regular insights, quips, and humor.

  2. This is how I wished I’d felt about the show, but ultimately couldn’t. Maybe speaking as one who is theologically disinclined, I found it to be a set of potent variables that summed to a negative in the end. 1 part Asimov, 1 part Dennett, 3 parts Tarantino. Everybody’s lost, everybody kills, everybody dies, usually in a mass murder – but hey at least with an epiphany along the way.

    We create people and worlds to wallow in the exact same ways as before. Pop culture comprehends no other formula.

    But it was an amazing pilot.

  3. I only watched half of the first episode. The problem for me is a rape/murder theme park is a very unappealing entertainment product, and is not more appealing as a television show about the robots? who go there.

  4. Anthony Hopkins’character is named Ford rather than Jones. It’s a shame that some people judged the series by the first episode and gave up. That episode simply set up the rules of the park and introduced about half of the cast.

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