‘Westworld’ Has No Moral Compass. That’s What Makes It Hard To Watch.

The first time through, I missed the after-the-end-credits scene of the Season 2 Westworld finale. Turns out, there was a similar tag-on at the conclusion of Season 1, but I didn’t stick around for that one, either. When “The Passenger” reran, I dutifully tuned in for the final minutes to see The Man in Black — a host? A human? — being tested by his daughter Emily — a host? A human? — for “fidelity.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lisa Joy was kind enough to save us all some trouble and just flat-out explain what was going on.

“In the far, far future, the world is dramatically different. Quite destroyed, as it were. A figure in the image of his daughter — his daughter is of course now long dead — has come back to talk to him. He realizes that he’s been living this loop again and again and again. The primal loop that we’ve seen this season, they’ve been repeating, testing every time for what they call “fidelity,” or perhaps a deviation. You get the sense that the testing will continue. It’s teasing for us another temporal realm that one day we’re working toward, and one day will see a little bit more of, and how they get to that place, and what they’re testing for.”

Reading her description, I thought, okay — so, they have taken a human, or a host, or a hybrid of the two, and put him through the psychological torment of repeating the same loop over and over again, with no memory of each cycle. Is this moral?

That question should be at the heart of Westworld. The question of morality should make the show a compelling, thoughtful watch. But because of the confused storytelling and the consistently blurred lines between reality/fantasy, robot/human, past/present, memory/experience, the show doesn’t have room to present clear questions about what is right or wrong.

There’s no starting point in Westworld — to use the show’s own verbiage, there’s no baseline of accepted modes of behavior and action that all other events are set against. When we enter the show, everything has already been twisted from the world we know, but we’re not really sure if this is a misguided utopia or a very dark vision of the future.

You could say Westworld is very good at introducing ideas that bring up moral questions, but it makes little attempt to resolve those questions. In Season 1, I thought it might have been the robot uprising after this entire species was essentially created to be abused by people. But as the show went on, it was revealed that there are so many problematic things going on, no one is in the right. If the robot uprising may have actually been pre-programmed by a human, is it justified?

Ultimately, what Westworld lacks is the identification of morally problematic choices and consequences for those choices. This is where, in my mind, the show fails — because instead of giving viewers clean character arcs, it seems the powers that be behind Westworld have decided to just throw in neat ideas wherever they could. It’s like the producers are sitting in a room, trying to come up with cool concepts without really thinking about whether or not they fit with the show.

There’s an easy comparison here: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As any Buffy fan knows, there were distinct rules in the universe, and consequences for violating those rules. That’s not to say the rules were never violated — they were — but the characters always had to deal with the fallout. Think Willow and her misuse of magic. The line that Buffy could never cross: killing humans, even if they were bad guys. The Buffy-verse has a set of moral rules that Westworld just does not.

Here’s my short list of potentially problematic aspects of Westworld. Ask yourself how many of these contradict with one another. A clever moral web, you could say, or a lack of moral consistency that prevents you from fully investing in this piece of fiction, because you just don’t know who to root for.

  • Humans create a species of humanoid robots for guests to play with in a park. The robots can’t fight back. Visitors to the park are told they will experience no consequences for whatever they do while in the park on “vacation.”
  • Robots are endowed with the ability to grow, love and form attachments. Although their memories are wiped between “builds,” they retain familiarity and bonds with others, intangible connections they don’t quite understand. They recall, with some prompting, their past abuse at the hands of the guests.
  • The park is copying the cognition of the guests while they are in the park, without their knowledge. The purpose is to turn humans into hosts, something I still don’t quite get, although I predicted it. Is the intent to sell immortality? Otherwise, why would this happen at all? How are the hosts they would create with human consciousness a superior version to the ones they already have?
  • The hosts eventually commit violence against humans, guests and park administrators alike. They do not discriminate between those who have actually caused them harm, and those who happen to be in the way.
  • The hosts can be particularly vengeful, aka Dolores. However, she was designed to be vengeful. Indeed, the entire robot uprising seems to have been orchestrated by a human being, Ford — so do any of the hosts really have a moral justification for taking the actions they do?
  • The Man in Black mows down a group of people, to the shock of his daughter, before he kills her, too. At this point, he’s gone insane, convinced the world has been created for him and none of it is real. He has immediate regret when he realizes the figures were not hosts, but people — but what is the true moral difference here? How is it less reprehensible to end the life of a host designed to act, think and look like a human, than to actually end the life of a person?
  • How should The Man in Black be held accountable for that action? There’s no clear answer because Westworld is a world without consequences — which makes it ultimately unsatisfying.

By the way, we won’t find out soon what happens with host/hybrid William and his testing with Emily. Later on in the Hollywood Reporter interview, Joy says that she doesn’t envision that as part of Season 3. They are just working towards that much-later storyline. (Which is another reason why Westworld is a show that is best binge-watched. Put in a weekend and move on, enjoy the candy without thinking too hard about what’s going on.)

 

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