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Westworld: Episode 1 Review

Westworld asks if a robot were to become conscious, how could it happen?

The HBO series Westworld is known for having an incredible first season and a lousy second. In fact, the second season was said to be so bad, I personally disengaged from the series altogether and only found out it had four seasons when I began writing these reviews. We certainly won’t be going over all four seasons, but I do want to talk about the first season because it explores the question of consciousness in some depth. Westworld asks if a robot were to become conscious, how could it happen? What could a programmer do to accomplish this task? Dr. Robert J. Marks discusses Qualia in great detail. Westworld tries to tell a story explaining how this quality could come into being inside a mechanical mind. Of course, it chooses to tell this story through the lens of Materialism, so its options are limited. Still, it gives the subject an interesting exploration, and the writing isn’t all that bad either.

The first episode begins with our protagonist, Dolores, being interviewed. She answers the man’s questions, and as she does so, a fly crawls over her eye. Right away, it’s evident that despite the way she behaves, she has no real emotions.

Soon, we’re following Dolores through her world. We meet her father, and once she enters the town, she’s reunited with her lost love, Teddy. However, as she and Teddy are riding to her house, they realize bandits are attacking Dolores’s home. Teddy rides up to house to find that Dolores’s parents have been killed. He shoots the two bandits, and it looks like the danger has passed, but then one of the “newcomers” appears. He’s given no name. He’s simply referred to as the Man in Black. Teddy tries to shoot him, but the bullets have no effect. The Man in Black puts the gun up to his forehead, and Teddy finds he can’t fire the gun at all. The Man in Black takes Dolores to the barn, and the scene ends.

Then Dolores wakes up again, and all is well. As the next day starts, we see Westworld through the eyes of the staff. It’s really a theme park with over a hundred interconnected narratives played out by robots like Dolores and Teddy. Physically, they are so life-like they’re practically human, and when it comes to their programming, they have a remarkable way of adapting to changing situations. For instance, Teddy is programmed to meet Dolores in town, but when a handful of tourists come to greet him because they’d met him during their previous trip, Teddy turns into something of a tour guide, and Dolores—although she was programmed to spend the day with Teddy—goes to paint a portrait of some horses instead.

All is Not Well in Westworld

But all is not well in Westworld. Ford, one of the company’s founders, has installed an update in some of the robots like Teddy and Dolores. Bernard, one of the main programmers in Westworld, calls these updates reveries. Basically, the robots can access the data from their previous existence as characters either in Westworld or someplace else. These instances where the robots are accessing a prior moment or detail from their past are referred to as memories. These reveries are indicated to the programmers by minor shadow movements in the robot’s gestures. Before long, some of the robots break down, and Ford’s update is quickly blamed. However, Ford doesn’t appear concerned with the breakdowns. He shrugs them off as mistakes and says mankind was built by a series of mistakes.

But Ford’s materialistic appeal seems to be a pretense. The causes of these various breakdowns suggest that there is more to blame than just the update. For example, a fly lands on yet another robot in the same way a fly had landed on Dolores, and this robot glitches as soon as the fly lands on it. It’s as if the robot noticed the fly, but couldn’t figure out what to do, so it did nothing and found itself locked in some kind of digital loop.

But the most telling glitch of all is the one that affects Dolores’s father. He picks up a picture a tourist left behind, and it causes him to do the unthinkable; he asks a question, and that question breaks him.

A Deadly Shootout and Programmed Exchanges

When Dolores sees her father, she rushes off to find a doctor, but before she can retrieve help, criminals enter the town and begin shooting everyone. The programmers have decided to recall all the updated machines, and they are using a shootout as an excuse to avoid tipping off the tourists to the fact that something is wrong.

As the shootout takes place, Teddy tries to save Dolores but is shot. While Teddy is dying, both he and Dolores begin exchanging preprogrammed lines, but these lines are somewhat out of context. Perhaps, they really are confessing their love for one another. They’re just working with the lines they’ve been given.

Dolores is one of the few who survives the shootout. At last, the programmers enter the park to retrieve all the bodies, and she is shut down to be interviewed later. As for Dolores’s dad, Ford speaks with him, and the robot begins threatening his creator. Everyone in the room is convinced the machine has turned violent, but Ford informs them that Dolores’s dad used to be part of a previous attraction, and his character was one of the villains who often quoted famous authors. Still, Dolores’s dad is decommissioned. As for Dolores herself, her update is wiped, and she returns to her home. It looks as if everything is back to normal, but when a fly, once again, lands on Dolores, she swats it. She kills a living thing, something she’s not programmed to do. Despite the programmers’ best efforts, something has changed, but it’s unclear what or how.

Episode one is a very strong opening for the series . . .  if you can ignore the vulgarity, which is always an issue when it comes to HBO. Make no mistake, this show is dark, gratuitous, and violent, and if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy seeing such things, I’d recommend staying away from it. But if you’re willing to put up with HBO’s nonsense, the ideas hidden within the series are worth exploring.

The situation will continue to escalate in episode two, and we’ll talk about that in the next review.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Westworld: Episode 1 Review