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Television

Commentary: How ‘Westworld’ has uncomfortably reflected our world

Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins
Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from the first-season finale of HBO’s “Westworld.”
(John P. Johnson / HBO)

“What just happened?”

The query was raised via an on-screen prompt following the confusing Season 1 finale of HBO’s “Westworld.” Perplexed viewers were then directed to a website where they could get some answers.  

But that question has also been ruminating in our collective consciousness since Nov. 8 when Donald Trump’s victory marked the biggest upset in the history of presidential elections, after one of the most uncivilized campaign slogs in modern memory.  Unfortunately, there is no explainer website to clear things up.

Both events offered surprise endings and more dispiriting parallels than were probably good for our threadbare attention spans. 

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“Westworld” started as a sci-fi drama set in a Wild West-style theme park when it debuted in October, where robot hosts fulfilled the fantasies of human guests and, ultimately, it was humanity that took a vacation. Lots of violence. Lots of sex. Lots of moral dilemmas and flawed characters. Essentially, the stuff HBO is good at.

But just a couple of episodes in, it began to feel more like a stark reflection of our out-of-control election year rather than an escapist diversion.  

“Westworld’s” old timey saloons and stagecoaches, there to represent a simpler time, were quickly revealed as nostalgic fronts for narratives run by behind-the-scenes strategists. In its lawless town of Sweetwater, Average Joe guests found empowerment in the chaos, turning from underdogs to vicious bullies. And the park itself teetered on the edge of anarchy thanks to leaders who used the programmable population as pawns, until the pawns began to take matters into their own hands.

CNN, FOX and MSNBC all reported out stories with similar arcs, except the tales starred humans and used nostalgia as a campaign slogan. People with a new sense of purpose were beating each other up at campaign rallies or attacking immigrants who dared to look different. 

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Democratic and Republican policy makers continue to play insider baseball, leaving the country in the dark about how it’s supposed to move forward with a disenfranchised left who refuse to accept Trump as their honestly elected new leader, and a president-elect who’s spending his nights defensively tweeting that he won the popular vote (which he didn’t). 

And thanks to technology, everyone gets to pick their own narrative, just like “Westworld”! 

Our Facebook feed filters out all that stuff that runs counter to what we want to believe, just as the partisan cable news networks we choose to watch also do. Unlike the player piano in the Mariposa saloon that only plays “old-school” jams, streaming allows you to personalize your playlists and shun anything outside your preferred niche.

No matter if it’s fabricated like the hosts that guests interact with in “Westworld.” Fake news, or propaganda, had its own unregulated Wild West, a platform where users could put their better instincts aside and later be let off the hook as “gullible” when such lies helped sway an election. 

In “Westworld,” blurring lines between fact and fiction leads to malfunction.

Mechanical hosts wake from controlled dream states to the painful realization that the folksy world around them is in fact fake. But the labyrinth of manufactured narratives cannot be conquered without first achieving self-awareness — a largely doomed pursuit when your nervous system is a collection of Wi-Fi signals and your thoughts are controlled from something that looks like an iPad.

It’s no wonder the hosts who’ve been in the park the longest often lose their minds rather than find them. 

For those who do manage to keep all their hi-tech marbles locked in those perfectly engineered heads, the show makes the point over and over again  -- in philosophical discussions between brilliant creators and the grunts and nods of cowboys -- that in order to evolve we all must suffer. (Cue the HBO rape, torture and cannibalism scenes). 

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But the double-edged sword of technology allows guests in “Westworld” to revert to their most base instincts, just as it renders our world such a mixed bag of advances and regressions. 

Season 1 is over, and no one knows what comes next as “Westworld” changes leadership — another real-world parallel that would feel prescient if it wasn’t so irritatingly close to the bone.

The series’ finale was more confounding than it was enlightening, as character’s various perspectives offered different versions of the same world, and it was never clear which story was the real one. 

Is the park facing anarchy, a new world order, or the dawning of a new, brighter day? 

These are questions that are hard to answer when we’re still pondering the events of the last few months, asking what just happened?

On Twitter: @LorraineAli


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