‘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.)



Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Older and Far Away (S 6 E 14)

Great Episodes is a series of blogs on my all-time favorite episodes of, well, everything.

A lot happened in Seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I know this because I skipped ahead from Season 3 to 6 and it was a totally different show.

This was back when binge-watching meant gathering up DVDs, and the dear friend who’d lent me Seasons 1 to 3 — while I was in the midst of a minor depression and had no desire to watch a “vampire show” — only had 6 and 7, and left me on the hunt for the seasons in the middle.

I got back to them, eventually, and had that clever introduction to everyone’s Buffy-character-they-love-to-hate, Dawn.

Poor Dawn. She was miserable and mopey, but she also was created out of some grand astronomical event, her mother was dead and her sister killed vampires. Not an easy life, and it would be easy to see sorrowful Dawn, in a moment of vulnerability, let her guard down to a guideance counselor who offered a listening ear.

We find out later in “Older and Far Away,” that she’d been tricked, in typical Buffy-demon fashion: enacting “justice” by imposing a punishment with far-reaching and unpleasant effects.

The title is from the J.G. Ballard novel Empire of the Sun, which I haven’t read, but apparently involves a young boy who experiences an extended period away from his parents during wartime. When they are reunited, he feels a lack of emotional intimacy.

“As Dr. Ransome stood formally on the terrace in his American uniform, Jim had wanted to explain to his parents everything that he and the doctor had done together, but his mother and father had been through their own war. For all their affection for him, they seemed older and far away.” (J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, p. 278)

This is my favorite Buffy episode, although I often find it hard to pinpoint exactly why. It moves slowly and the collection of characters goes through a virtual S-graph of emotional experiences. The energy between and among the Scooby gang and a few strangers shifts in subtle but dramatic ways. It is compelling, particularly in the second half, and does an extraordinary job of advancing the plot in a quiet, but meaningful, way.

In the beginning, the gang is meeting up at Buffy’s house to celebrate her birthday. There are a few unexpected guests: Xander and Anya bring a cute young man in a red shirt, Richard, as a possible love interest for Buffy. She’s invited her friend Sophie, from work. Spike shows up unannounced, bringing along his friend Clem whom Buffy remembered from that poker game where the stakes were kittens.

Despite the mismatch of personnel, everyone gets along and settles into a peaceful environment of mutual acceptance. No one seems to care about Clem’s “skin condition,” Sophie’s multiple allergies, or Richard’s general naivete about the whole world of magic and demons — a world one would think the entire town of Sunnydale would understand by this point. The group’s playing games and no one wants to leave.

Until they realize, the next morning, that they can’t leave. They are trapped in the house, and will be for another two days. Sophie will begin to panic. Anya will respond to the cramped quarters by pressuring Willow to use her magic skills, even though she’s in recovery. Viewers find out Willow’s not gotten rid of all of her magic supplies. Dawn’s penchant for stealing from The Magic Box will come out in dramatic fashion, with Anya seeming more hurt than angry.

The group experiences, more than anything, time — a point made by Halfrek in the last scenes when she at first refuses to lift the curse. “All you’ve got is time,” she tells them. Over those few days, Tara finds a neutral space to connect with Willow, Anya turns to Xander in the face of fear, and Buffy finally stops running around long enough to listen to Dawn. At the end, everyone leaves, except Buffy, who stays home with her long-suffering sister.