There’s a classic childhood nightmare that most of us get over pretty quickly: What if everyone is a robot except for you? How can you ever know that anyone else is real?
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” features a character who goes mad after reading this passage, which describes a delusion all of us have felt at some point in our lives:
You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines. Their only true purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so that Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.
Most of us quickly get over this existential crisis. But the guests at Westworld, the robot theme park that gives HBO’s new drama its name, may never need to — they really are surrounded by machines.
Westworld is populated entirely by Western-themed robot cowboys, Indians, prostitutes, saloon keepers, bandits, and other stock characters, programmed to act out endless loops to keep paying customers amused. The humans can do anything they want to the robots – including shooting them, stabbing them, raping them – and the robots can’t do anything back.
Guests live out their own answers to the question: What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?
You’re free to let your mind wander around big questions while watching “Westworld,” because the actors, writers and everyone else programmed to amuse you do such an excellent job of building out their world and its dilemmas. If Anthony Hopkins weren’t so convincing as the apparently benevolent Creator of This Universe, and Jeffrey Wright weren’t so interesting to watch as his disciple, you could easily get distracted from the question of whether robot farm girl Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) will ever escape her endless loop to run off with gallant newcomer Teddy (James Marsden), or evade the unwelcome attention of the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
The robots in this story appear to be doing what robots sci-fi stories always do: becoming sentient. That makes them more empathetic than humans willing to cast off their humanity to torment creatures that only look human. The loving machines, the fighting machines, the whiskey-pouring machines, spouting off pre-programmed lines – and learning, through repetition, to perhaps be resentful machines.
The robots in “Westworld” serve as one of those wonderfully flexible metaphors that we can easily apply to vast numbers of people who are alternately included and excluded from our expanding and contracting circles of empathy. Some kids playing Cowboys and Indians recognize that both sides are human beings with complex emotional lives. Some kids don’t. Now add in the reality that some of the Cowboys and Indians in “Westworld” really aren’t human, and you have yourself a provocative setup.
The only thing that prevents me from endorsing the show wholeheartedly is that JJ Abrams, one of its creators, is so excellent at setups and yet so inconsistent at endings. (“The Maze” that is important to “Westworld” reminds me a little too much of “The Hatch” in Abrams’ “Lost.” I hope “Westworld” provides more interesting answers than “Lost” did.)
“Westworld” gives you a lot to consider, and immerses you so completely in its manufactured reality that you’re never distracted from its complicated questions. The best thing I can say about it is that after seeing the first four episodes, I’m very eager for more. I’ll be a watching, thinking, worrying-about-Dolores machine.
“Westworld” premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.