The Return to Westworld

I loved the first season of HBO’s adaptation of Westworld. It was all the things I love about their best shows, it was dark, thought provoking, well written, well acted, with an intellectual rigour that belied its pulpier moments. I loved it so much I wrote an article about how it is a great example of the philosophical concept of ‘The Uncanny’ for Philosophy Now magazine. The second season however… eh. It had its moments, some of the show’s best in fact, but it was also too long and meandered around its plot points without as strong a drive as the first. As such I was keen to see season three when it was announced but its timing could not have been worse. HBO isn’t available in the UK and I’m not a NowTV subscriber so it’s difficult to watch here in the UK anyway (I watched the first season with my wife in the USA) but season three also came out at the start of the pandemic which meant it just got buried. It was only at the beginning of this year that I returned to it because the original 1973 movie was on the BBC. The movie is great fun and a well paced thriller/horror but isn’t that interested in the philosophical or existential questions the premise throws up. Consequently I went back to the TV show to watch season three and oh boy was it a doozy.

Unlike season two, three has even more to say maybe than season one. Season one was about what intelligence is and does it define what it is to be human? Its conclusion is deliberately vague as it butts up against the question of free will and determinism as defining characteristics of consciousness in the sciences. It embodies a lot of its ideas in its characters and smartly presents the various arguments through how different characters act (or don’t act) and, in the best way, provokes thought and discussion. This is particularly apparent in the character of Bernard whose arc asks a lot of questions of the audience about self-awareness, free will and deterministic living. Unfortunately season two falls flat as it spreads itself too thin. Its thesis asks if human beings create the sense of self through the communities it creates and is culture a repository for intelligence and knowledge? It’s a really interesting question and asks a lot of the viewer. In its best moments season two is some of the most profound TV I’ve ever watched but unfortunately the overall plot doesn’t match the ambition of some individual episodes. Set in the immediate aftermath of season one it only covers the period of a couple of days and sets up a big climatic showdown but with nothing else to do between the first and last episodes the characters tend to just wander back and forth, wasting a lot of time. Losing all the narrative tension is so frustrating because the two “pocket” episodes, The Riddle of the Sphinx and Kiksuya, frame the season’s thesis perfectly and are just great stories on their own. They ask, point blank: can we imbue an object outside ourselves with our minds, our memories and our souls? And if we can, what does it mean when those things deteriorate? One is a horror story, the other a love story. It’s amazing stuff for a mainstream show but the rest of the time there’s too much busy work for any of this to land. Maeve and her jaunt around Edo Period Japan is a really interesting look at how formality and routine could be seen as repositories for intelligence and consciousness but without giving the characters much to do they just get into scrapes while ignoring the main plot. Meanwhile Bernard’s journey is set up as doubting whether consciousness or intelligence is even real/necessary and is it even present in others? There’s a beautiful setup to this early on when he is diagnosed with “prosopagnosia”, the inability to read human faces, sometimes called ‘Face Blindness’. This, among other revelations for Bernard, equally asks heavy questions about our understanding of intelligence in other beings, human or otherwise. Sadly all he does as a character is wander around doing not a lot for the majority of the season. It’s all philosophically dense and crunchy work that is undone by not making it particularly engaging or giving the main cast much to do with these existential queries. It would have been so much more fun if it had been a whole season of pocket episodes about random characters wrestling with their confrontation of the Self and the Other like the two best episodes are. Season three though makes some even bigger swings and is a much tighter story.

Season three hits the ground running by throwing the doors open and smashing the Host’s world and the “real” world together. It also introduces a new human character played brilliantly by Aaron Paul, an ex-vet with PTSD, mental health being another fascinating inclusion into the discussion of consciousness. But now Westworld meets the main problem presented in season one head on. With a bat. The whole of season three is about the question of free will and determinism and not just as sub text, the main characters are all presented directly with the question and they all respond differently. Whether it’s William who feels trapped by his past and unable to make his own choices, or Maeve who seemed to achieve free will in past seasons but then has it taken from her, each character’s arc is reflective of a belief in either free will or determinism. But the best part is, it has car chases, shoot outs and punch ups in every episode too. Start to finish this season delivered on its early promise as being both a fun, pulpy, action packed sci fi, while remaining cerebral enough to keep asking some of the biggest philosophical questions we have today. And the biggest one isn’t even the discussion of free will but can outside forces translate into consciousness and even, dare I say it, a soul?

Season three seems to take a fair amount of inspiration from Hegel’s text Phenomenology and the Spirit a deeply complex tome in which he sets out his concept of dialectics, the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, his most famous and still much argued over concept. The other main concept he puts forth however is the idea of the ‘Unfolding of Species’ that is less a Darwin-esque theory of evolution but more a spiritual one. Hegel’s argument is that human being’s internal/intellectual/spiritual development has a sequential progression and requires agency in choosing how to develop, which is achieved through collaboration with other organisms. In short, consciousness is not developed in a vacuum and requires interaction to develop into intelligence and awareness. Westworld season three seems to agree with this assessment. It has the humans deliberately distance themselves from other people and ‘reality’ by spending time in a park with robots or distancing themselves from real relationships, making them cold, callous monsters, meanwhile it is when the Hosts finally interact with the ‘real’ world and people outside of the proscribed structures of the park they are confronted with the development of their new sense of consciousness. Being smart enough to fight to survive and escape the park is one thing but socialising directly with people and the world, the more mundane aspect of free will as it were, awakens a more difficult level of self-awareness for the hosts to understand. With that awareness comes a level of abjection, best described in the character of Charlotte. Her development through the series is fascinating in that not only is it her interactions with other humans that force her to make choices and consequently develop but it is her very physical existence that creates cognitive tension too. She cuts and injures her body throughout the series, feeling her consciousness unwelcome in a new skin. This reflects a belief some scientists have surrounding AI and the body/mind problem, that consciousness only occurs by having a physical presence in the world and not just being a brain in a jar. This is a development of Hegel’s theory that Intelligence can only occur through sensation too, that smell, pain, and physical stimulus is key to the growth of consciousness and emotion. That disjunct created by switching brains and bodies, Westworld suggests, would be deeply disturbing and destructive. This theory that consciousness, intelligence, awareness, emotion, sensation and so on, is an expression of physical and social interaction is under explored in science fiction and it was thrilling to see it used so well in a TV show like this.

After a lacklustre second season I was ready to jump ship on Westworld altogether but (like my favourite TV show of all time, fellow HBO production True Detective) season three came back swinging. It isn’t alway successful, it occasionally over extends, but its grip on the concepts it explores, its faith in the characters and the tautness of the scripts means that can be ignored. Despite all the mucking around the Warner Bros purchase has done with HBO, Westworld season three proved it is still the best producer of prestige television today and few even come close. You might have lost interest after season two and I don’t blame you but I’m begging you to come back to Westworld and give season three a try, it does not disappoint. With a fourth, and probably final, season on the way, I really can’t wait. I’m just hoping they stick the landing…

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.