Westworld – Episode Five: Contrapasso

 We continue with our reviews of HBO’s new series ‘Westworld’, inspired by the 1973 film of the same title written by Michael Crichton.


I can’t spoil it; this isn’t ‘The Walking Dead’ – nothing happened this week, at least nothing that didn’t happen last week and probably will happen again next week.


For a drama to work there needs to be…well, drama.  Something.  Anything.  What we have here is a programme that’s going round in circles waiting for something to happen.  There’s no sense of jeopardy in Westworld – the Guests can’t be hurt by the Hosts, and if the Hosts are “killed” they can just be repaired overnight.  So there’s no danger.  We know that there are narratives within Westworld with which the visitors are supposed to engage, so we can’t even tell if what’s happening is the story within the story, or something new.  There certainly aren’t scenes of alarmed technicians hissing “but that’s not supposed to happen,” so we have to assume that everything’s normal.  Which isn’t really that great for episode five of a series in which something is supposed to go horribly wrong at a theme park.  That’s if that’s what this is about at all.  The marketing seemed to suggest so, and the fact that it’s based on a film in which that was the entire plot would certainly lead the viewer to expect just that, but instead we have endless scenes of people playing cowboy in a wild west setting, technicians engaged in…I have no idea what they’re engaged in.  The narrative isn’t making it clear.  And then we have Anthony Hopkins engaged in the kind of philosophical discussions only people who need to be enigmatic for nine episodes on television have.  He’s now underplaying this so alarmingly that I think he’s been tranquilized.

I’m not even sure when these scenes of people analysing the robots are taking place.  If I was a holidaymaker who woke up in the middle of the night to discover that his robot companions were missing I think I’d be slightly miffed.  There’s nothing on-screen to suggest that’s not what’s happening, but that makes no sense. Do they really bring Dolores back to base every night to ask here these endless questions?  Presumably so.  If I were The Nice Man (I have no idea what the character’s real name is, but as he’s the only nice person who’s not a robot you probably know who I mean) I’d think it odd that Dolores disappears at frequent intervals.

Anyway, Hopkins was part of the scene where someone finally engages with The Man In Black and asks him what the fuck is going on.  Expect that Hopkins doesn’t do that directly, so the Man In Black answers back in exactly the sort of infuriatingly vague doublespeak you get when the writers are making it up as they go along.  None of these people talk the way people do in the real world.  Perhaps they’re all robots.  Perhaps none of them have characters of their own and we’re watching as they develop them.  If so, this is pretty much spot on, because it’s as interesting as I’d expect that to be.  To put it plainly, it’s not.

So let’s talk about the bicameral mind.  The theory, first suggested by Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, is essentially this; the human mind was originally divided into two parts, one which issued commands and one which obeyed, and the mind remained this way until roughly 3000 years ago, at around the time consciousness developed as a result of the increasingly complex demands of society.  Prior to this people had been happily wandering around with no sense of introspection; they did what they were doing until a voice suddenly told them to do something different and they obeyed, without question, attributing that voice to a God, burning bushes, whatever took their fancy.  That’s why the Bible and classical myths are so jam-packed with visitations from whichever deity happened to be in the vicinity.  Over time, as consciousness (in its modern form) evolved these voices died away (although we retain a vestige of them which can manifest itself as schizophrenia).  It was a controversial theory in 1976 and remains no less so today.  Richard Dawkins famously wrote “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”

Currently, our understanding of human consciousness is incredibly limited, and it’s true that Jaynes’s theory does explain a great deal, but current consensus is that Jaynes was talking nonsense.  How any of this fits in to ‘Westworld’ probably won’t be explained until the last episode, but the robots are walking round hearing voices, so who knows?  (And that’s not voices in the sense of their base programming – they’re walking around talking to people that aren’t there.  Whether those voices are coming from within them or without is something we’ll have to wait and see.)

On the plus side, this was the least rapey episode so far, so that’s an improvement. The final thirty seconds of the episode suggested that things are looking up on the narrative front too (something actually happened), so maybe next week there’ll actually be something to watch for.

 ‘Westworld’ airs on Sunday nights in the US on HBO, and on Tuesdays in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

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