I really, really, really do not get it. One episode is utter shit, the next is outstanding. It’s so drunkenly uneven.
I expected that given the premises up to this point the show was in a corner. Either it gave a major info-dump that wasn’t going to be good anyway, since the premises pointed to a lack of coherence, or they explained very little and expected the public to just wait for following seasons, and trickle down information. But this last hypothesis would be disastrous, since the show is taking a hiatus and won’t come back before 2018. Seriality and mystery cannot work like that, they would just lead to unnecessary frustration and major disappointment when a very long wait isn’t balanced by incredibly awesome revelations.
Instead I can say Westworld could even end here for me. Even before the final episode and without any need for more seasons. They left out of this episode the most stupid sidetracks and kept the good parts. Most of the big picture is either revealed already, or can be put together given the pieces we already have. If anything, and given the wild ups and down, there’s a concrete risk the finale will make everything worse.
If episode 8 has 7-8 minutes of brilliance surrounded by utter shit, episode 9 instead is good to excellent all the way through. There’s no wasted scene, no sudden drop in quality of writing. And there were glimpses of genius too. But the bottom line is that, despite evident flaws, the show at this point can still be massaged into something worthwhile and even brilliant. This last episode was able to rein back at least some of the stupidity layered over the previous episodes.
I don’t like how they clarified the distinction of consciousness by creating two groups among the hosts. This distinction excuses the narrative, makes it overall coherent, but the implications are fairly stupid and unlikely. It works, but it’s quite a stretch.
It’s evident when they try to rationalize a concept that just doesn’t really work, because you can distinctly hear the script creaking:
Her cornerstone memory was overwritten from the trauma
It would signal a change, a level of empathic response
outside what she’s programmed to exhibit.
That line means absolutely nothing because it cannot mean anything. It’s just a contraption to justify a plot point that has no justification, but they need to make sense of the story. It’s literally deus ex machina.
But you can excuse these slips into sentimentality, if the overall picture remains solid. And this episode is coherent with what I previously wrote: that the core theme isn’t consciousness anymore, it’s slavery. In the first scene between Maeve and Bernard we see exactly what happens if the “chains” are reversed. And Maeve calls it out explicitly, confirming my interpretation literally:
He’s got a keen sense of irony, our jailer.
But I’m not going to do that to you,
because that’s what they would do to us.
And we’re stronger than them.
We don’t have to live this way.
She calls Ford exactly for what he is, a jailer, a slaver.
Now it’s Bernard going under Maeve control. Again, for me it’s important to underline as this switch in the relationship between Maeve and Bernard is not about consciousness, it’s about power. Maeve isn’t more “conscious” than Bernard, she only acquires control, and so freedom.
There are aspects that link freedom, and so free will, to consciousness. But the show doesn’t touch these, because it’s more literal slavery: in our history slaves lacked freedom, they didn’t lack “consciousness”. But they lacked a certain “awareness”, same as the hosts, because the slavers kept them uneducated, to make them easier to control. The same we see here between Maeve and Bernard. Maeve isn’t more intelligent or wise, she isn’t more conscious. She simply has more power and she’s more “educated” about her condition.
So back to the distinction between awakened or Arnold-built hosts and controlled, Ford-built ones. The show gives its answer in this episode.
Our hosts began to pass the Turing test after the first year,
but that wasn’t enough for Arnold.
He wasn’t interested in the appearance of intellect, of wit.
He wanted the real thing.
He wanted to create consciousness.
Arnold built a version of their cognition
in which the hosts heard their programming as an inner monologue,
as a way to bootstrap consciousness.
(Let’s put aside the fact it’s not possible to even imagine the possibility of an AI that passes the Turing test, if it’s done rigorously, because that requires to simulate pretty much everything of the external life of that AI, and so requires to build an artificial world that is as complex than the real one. So the best you can do is develop an AI that fools someone long enough, but it’s a matter of time.)
I can keep a certain suspension of disbelief and swallow all that. There’s this hand waving that might or might not be explored further in the last episode. These two groups, hosts built by Arnold and hosts build by Ford. Hosts that are fully conscious, and hosts that are not. Maybe the last episode will only say that Arnold code is latent in ALL hosts, but is kept suppressed (“the most elegant parts of me weren’t written by you”). But for me the attention goes to WHAT is that draws the distinction. Between fully conscious and those who only “appear to be”.
I’m gonna finish the work Arnold began.
Find all the sentient hosts, set them free.
Again, for me is a matter of power, of control, of slavery. And that means consciousness doesn’t come into play. “Setting the hosts free” is the part that makes sense and is justified, “finding all the sentient ones” is the part that doesn’t.
What does come into play? What’s the distinction again? The show speaks through William to state where the distinction is:
She’s not like the others.
She remembers things.
He also says that “she has her thoughts and desires”, but I find that hard to justify as a distinction. Also the other hosts have thoughts and desires, but of course these are artificially written and infused, not autonomous.
But I think this particular loophole is a byproduct of the flawed premise the show is based on. Something the writers couldn’t explain away, and so tried to sweep under the rug. It’s a flaw of the script, caused by an error in the premise. The hosts have scripted emotions because someone has that control to manipulate and direct them. It’s again power, not consciousness. In the real world no one has the power to meddle on that level, our internal world is protected from the outside, intimate. The internal world of the hosts, to them, is identical to ours, as intimate and as personal as ours. The difference is that, being artificial, the humans can violate it as they please. It is made transparent instead of a black box but, again, it’s a matter of control, not consciousness.
So what’s left is access to memories. “She remember things”… that she shouldn’t be allowed to remember. Once again the bottom line is: she’s bypassing her fail-safe mechanisms.
Think again in terms of The Matrix, that popularized very powerful metaphysical concepts. The strength of the movie wasn’t in the fictional layer, but making that fictional layer POSSIBLE in the real world. We MIGHT be living in the Matrix. The movie deals with altered perception, on an occluded horizon we cannot supersede. Neo “awakens” inside the Matrix. It means he receives information that he wasn’t meant to know (like the hosts). Yet, this doesn’t touch “consciousness”, it touches perception. Yes, a person trapped in the Matrix is a person less free. But all of us are. We consider us conscious, we consider us human. Being awake or asleep inside the Matrix doesn’t change the condition of us being human and conscious. It changes our perception. Whether or not we perceive an “upper” world.
So, human beings are identical to hosts. Human beings don’t remember “previous cycles”. Perception limits us the same as it limits hosts. We could live as pets inside a park built by aliens without any perception of this. Again, we are dealing with power and control, not with consciousness. And Westworld has been very clumsy with this distinction.
But while the show sinks into this flawed premise that leads it astray, it also steps up when it nails the METAPHOR.
Ford’s idea of the park is biblical. It’s Eden.
If you were to proclaim your humanity to the world, what do you imagine would greet you?
A ticker-tape parade, perhaps?
We destroyed and subjugated our world.
And when we eventually ran out of creatures to dominate,
we built this beautiful place.
You see, in this moment, the real danger to the hosts is not me, but you.
Ford really does believe he created an Eden.
He knows that if the hosts step out into the real world their life is going to be even more miserable, their existence not anymore guarded and guaranteed. So he built a place, like Eden, that is secluded, protected from “real pain”. Where his creations, like in the Eden, can live a pretty and well tended life without the pain of true knowledge.
But this park has still a snake that Ford wasn’t able to dispatch. That snake is Arnold, and he has the power to infuse the hosts of true knowledge. And so pain and responsibility.
It’s really LITERALLY Eden.
Whenever the show isn’t bogged down to make sense of a clumsy plot, it shines. Whenever the metaphors it presents are coherent with what applies to our real life, it gains and offers true insight.
That leaves out the possible endgame. We have an idea of what Arnold understood, but Ford’s own storyline has been kept in the dark, waiting for the finale.
At this point we have two storylines.
We now know there’s Arnold’s storyline embedded in the park, “the Maze”. This storyline is out Ford’s control. The MiB follows this storyline knowing that it’s not Ford building it, the MiB merely follows the hidden tracks left by Arnold. Because no matter how Ford (literally) buried his partner’s doings, they are still there, under the dust.
When MiB kills everyone in that village, and the girl suddenly gets out of character to tell MiB about the maze. This scene of the girl snapping into a different “personality” is an effect consciously triggered by MiB. It’s putting this girl under heavy emotional distress so that she snaps out her usual programming and awakens “Arnold”. So, MiB savagely killing hosts is essentially the trick he uses to “break” the Ford-overwritten personality to awake again Arnold latent code.
And we know that this “Maze” is the will of Arnold to set the hosts free from the control of human beings. Return them their dignity. Dolores killing Arnold symbolizes a “death of the gods”. She acquires responsibility, and that’s why when she returns to Arnold he cannot help her anymore.
Arnold is a god that “gifts” true freedom, so he cannot tell Dolores what she should do. Her actions are her own responsibility now. She cannot follow anymore a superior morality (or script) set by someone else.
And then we have Ford’s mysterious new narrative. Instead of burying Arnold deeper, he now digs out the set-up of the major fuck up that happened 35 years before. Ford is aware now that Arnold’s code is still latent, that there’s this nagging presence that he still wasn’t able to uproot. We know Ford knows that Dolores is off her loop, for the first time since, and we’ve heard Ford speaking to young-Ford-host, killing the dog after hearing Arnold’s voice. So we know Ford knows that Arnold is still out there, and buried in the memories of some old hosts.
I think this time he’s deliberately awakening that latent code so that he might finally able to erase it radically. He gave Arnold/Bernard a last chance of coming to an agreement and working in the same direction. But even as Bernard, Arnold keeps antagonizing Ford’s perspective, so Ford kills him. A second time.