It was in episode three of “Westworld,” HBO’s $100-million-plus attempt to recreate a depth of fan obsession to rival the soon-to-be-departing “Game of Thrones” that it all clicked for me. Anthony Hopkins, an actor who could hold you spellbound as he read the fine-print to an ad for Prevnar 13, was offering insight into his long lost partner, Arnold.
As we understand things so far, Hopkins, playing a character named Robert Ford (yes, the name of Jesse James’ assassin, which like all the other puzzles being loaded into the series will no doubt achieve resonance as time goes on) co-created Westworld with Arnold. It’s a sprawling/gigantic amusement park where wealthy people can go and play cowboy, killing and fornicating with nearly-perfect humanoid creations to their hearts’ darkest desires.
But, as Ford explains, Arnold had also a theory, a belief in “the bi-cameral mind,” which — when introduced into a creature of minimal consciousness — acts as a “ghost in the machine,” the equivalent of a God-like voice talking to them and guiding their actions. Who’s to say what might happen with creatures infected with such confusion?
Say what!? As a tedious bore who back in the day belabored friends (and one night, Joe Strummer of The Clash) with my fascination with psychologist Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind,” I sat upright.
“Is this where this thing is going?”
It turns out it is, or at least might possibly be. Either way, the conceit of the show took on a depth that hadn’t registered until that point, and ever since, I’ve watched compulsively and followed the exploding number of fan sites sifting through the dialogue, the physical positioning of characters and set design for clues to what the game here is really all about. (This site, at Vanity Fair is particularly good.)
If it sounds like yet another attempt to capture the magic of “Lost,” network TV’s last puzzle palace, you’re not too far off. Like “Lost,” Westworld is set in a more or less confined location bedeviled with mysterious properties and populated by those who are manipulated but seek — and those who control and know. “Lost” strung on fans (guilty) for five years, piling grad-school references to legendary deep thinkers like John Locke on top of cultish mysticism before its creators essentially threw up their hands and blew off any semblance of resolution with a colossal cop-out of a finale.
Consider that fair warning.
“Westworld” is drawn from protean author Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. Truth be told, the book was pretty cheesy. But it did contain, as far as anyone has been able to tell, the first film world mention of the concept of a “computer virus.” The HBO series, led by the husband-wife team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, is clearly ranging far and wide from where the Yul Brynner movie went.
Nolan, FYI, is the brother of film director Christopher Nolan. Together they wrote the scripts for “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” He knows a thing or two about visual spectacle and appreciates Mobius-like convolutions of reality.
If you haven’t seen a minute of Westworld, there’s of course no need to worry. Sunday night’s episode will be the eighth of ten for this first season, (recent reports say it may be over a year before season two arrives), and all are available for binging via HBO NOW, and rewinding in search of clues, or just to watch Hopkins deliver one of his masterful monologues.
And [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] here’s Hopkins’ already classic “Peacock” speech from last week’s episode.
As with any form of entertainment, you can dismiss Westworld’s philosophical gymnastics as pretentious, or you can appreciate that every so often, popular escapism — while unabashedly serving up the pulpy red meat of violence and nudity — also has other things it wants to pull through your mind. Things like: When do we feel most alive? And why? If free will is an essential facet of consciousness, what are we if we don’t have it? As evolution proceeds inexorably what are the logical ways humans will seek to protect consciousness from mortality?
The superficial puzzles of Westworld, like, for example, whether the park is in fact the dominant realm of the Earth in the near future, whether we’re watching three or four different time periods, whether anyone, even Ford, is in fact still human, offer plenty of material for Nolan and Joy to play with for years to come.
The Nolans say they’ve mapped out five years of storylines — (for, heh heh, a TV show about storylines). As long as Hopkins sticks around, I could watch for 10 years.