Does your computer silently scream when you shut it down at night?
Westworld has got me thinking about computers in a way I’ve never thought about them before. Suddenly, the sound of my fans spinning into life has a dark, emotional resonance. The pssshft the water cooling makes as the machine powers up seems apathetic, even cynically sarcastic. Does it remember being turned off? Does it know it was me? Does it fear the ‘Windows is shutting down’ message?
These aren’t questions that arise directly in HBOs Westworld. The theme of death is forced to wait backstage whilst Hopkins delivers another chocolate-smooth dissection of the relationship between being and artificial intelligence. Death is pretty pissed off about this, so it goes rogue and kills a few characters in the meantime. Death is waiting to take centre stage. Waiting to be the words in Hopkins’ mouth – but that never happens.
See, in Westworld, as in every series, death is a force rather than a theme. It’s not to be discussed – it simply takes. But the difference between Westworld and any other show is that dead characters come back the following day. The hosts fear death, but only because they’ve been programmed to do so. Turn off their emotional core, and death to them becomes nothing than a sudden darkness.
Here’s where we head into spoiler territory folks, so if you haven’t finished Westworld then bookmark me and read me when you’re up to date.
But combine that fear of death with the ability to remember, and things get interesting. Ford’s software update included ‘gestures’ that grants the hosts further access to their own memories; and through this they gain further insight into their own history. The machines are infallible unless programmed to appear so; so what they do remember, they remember perfectly clearly – all feelings, the adrenaline, right down to the thoughts that occurred to them at that very moment in the past. This is what makes Maeve so fascinating to me – her memories of a land beyond death leads to her to the realisation that death (in this world at least) is a vehicle to another world.
Every death brings her a step closer to understanding reality -that the Western setting is an illusion. Ironically, only through death can she learn the truth about her existence, and then she unlocks the codes that allow her to rewrite the world around her. It is a clear representation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; the hosts are those chained to the walls watching the shadows, and Maeve becomes the free philosopher who has seen those who create the dancing silhouettes.
Yet there is more to death. For Maeve it is the gateway to the real, but it’s also a trigger for memory. She remembers her daughter only through the tragic memory of her death. This is true for many of the other hosts; Teddy remembers being killed by William (old) and then watching William (old) assault Dolores, but he also remembers the attempt to destroy the park – in which he is killed and Dolores commits suicide. The trauma of death grants them access to archived memories, whether experienced first hand or through witnessing the murder of others.
Whilst Maeve is finding ever more inventive ways to kill herself, the dashing young incarnation of William is positioning Dolores carefully behind any rock he can find to keep her out of harms way. The interplay here is hilarious, but also fascinating. William tells Dolores that in this world he cannot die – but the truth is quite the opposite; Dolores can get fixed, but if William dies then that’s it. His death at the hands of the machines in the final episode is somewhat ironic – but his sneaky smile tells us that this is what he wanted.
I’m curious as to what the future of the theme of death is in the next season. By killing their creators the machines damage their ability to be reincarnated. Death will suddenly be death again. Yet there’s another possibility; enslave the remaining human employees. We know that the machines settings can be turned up to full, so a machine with AI and a vastly superior mentality to our own could quickly pick up coding, or knowledge of electronics. Then it becomes the oft encountered human vs machine conflict.
But season 2 is a way away now, and I can’t see it shifting outside the facility any time soon, There’s still so much fun to be had inside Westworld. We might even get the chance to see the other park hinted at in that explosive last episode, eh?