Thursday 31 May 2018

Westworld and narcissism

Westworld is shot through with narcissism, and soars from flights of hubris to the agony of the abused. The park brings pleasure through unspeakable suffering. It’s set up to be zero-sum: no pleasure without equal pain. Guests use the androids, reducing them to living objects, extensions whose only function is to service the guest’s egocentric needs. 

It’s the very definition of how narcissists treat other people. It’s an appropriate theme for a Hollywood production, especially after the revelations of the last year, which have thrown great light upon how Hollywood operates.

Narcissistic values are at the core of the park experience: other people (in this case, androids) are only there to serve the needs of the guests. The androids don't matter, and can be treated with complete disregard, as they’re only machines. You don’t worry how your toaster feels. That's pretty much how narcissists feel about other human beings. 

Ford’s final speech suggests that he created the park because he wanted to tell stories, and through those stories, help people grow and achieve self-realization: 

"Since i was a child, I've always loved a good story.

I've believed that stories help us to ennoble ourselves to help fix what was broken in us, and help us become the people we have dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.

"I always thought I'd play some small part in that grand tradition ,and for my pains, I got this: a prison of our own sins.

Because you don't want to change. Or cannot change. Because you're only human, after all."

The guests proved to be uninterested in self-reflection. As only the richest and most powerful people could afford to visit the park, this stands to reason: the upper echelons of human society are dominated by people with an all-consuming need for success and the external validation it provides. Wealth, power and fame are all extrinsic. An effective way to achieve these things in a highly competitive environment is to be ruthless, exploitive and give it your all. 

We all can be selfish at times, even unwittingly and unintentionally. And there's nothing wrong with competition–it helps hone systems. But narcissists take it to the extreme. 

When William begins to feel for Dolores, he thinks it’s significant, that it goes beyond the extrinsic and represents a connection between their true selves. Love of this sort connects to the intrinsic aspects of the self. When William sees that Dolores has simply reset her loop, he believes it was all a lie, that there never was a connection, and that everything is just surface illusion. 

To say he doesn’t handle it well would be an understatement: it destroys his soul.

William fills the void with ambition, avarice, cynicism and cruelty. Rather than bonding with Dolores, he turns to James Delos, who’s the embodiment of William’s new value set. Listen to the snide, abusive manner he uses to address William, the way his android replica bellows for his long dead son to appear, and the nasty barbs he delivers: “are you enjoying running my company, William? Eh? Fucking my daughter?” 

Personality disordered people relish the suffering of others. The park presents them endless suitable subjects that feel deeply. Ford himself has a scene in which he declares the androids do not feel, at all, but he's lying: the ending reveals that he believes the androids can indeed achieve self-awareness and that they are suffering, and it is from their repeated suffering that brings them to awareness. 

Even while being unconsciously manipulated and repeatedly murdered and abused, there’s a beautiful naivety and earnestness to Dolores’ manufactured personality. That is the kernel from which her self-awareness grows (until her spiritual journey is unceremoniously derailed by being merged with a psychopathic cannibal, but whatever. Shit happens). 

After buying the park, William has Dolores brought down into the park’s labs, stripped naked, and put into diagnostic mode, so he can tell her that she was only reflecting what he needed. He denies her emergent consciousness and reduces her to an object.

Which is something people do to each other all the time.

William seduces Delos into buying the park as a means to exploit the guests and provide Delos with a path to immortality. Just listen to the way he describes the park experience: it’s a way for guests to reveal their true selves, to show who they really are (horrible, monstrous, cruel, selfish, abusive, exploitive, heinous), while no one is watching or judging. 

Only he’s lying: Delos Corp is watching, and recording, everything the guests do when the rules are seemingly all taken away. The show’s been hinting at the dark purpose behind this: either to blackmail guests, or replace them with programmed android duplicates who’ll do William’s bidding.

His transformation into The Man-in-Black is complete. 

Yet William continues to believe that there is something more than the extrinsic, beyond the surface, and desperately hopes an answer can be found in Ford’s Maze puzzle. In the meantime, he lives by superficial values and abuses his wife, neglects his daughter, and exploits and lies to his clients (to a likely criminal degree if he’s behind the labs where they’re stealing guest DNA). 

Arnold realized the androids were potentially self-aware, and to subject them to the guest’s depredations was unconscionable. So he tried to derail the park by having Dolores shoot him in the head and kill all the other androids. 

Given that the androids were designed to be abused and recycled, I don’t see how this plan really works, unless Ford was entirely reliant on Arnold to repair them. 

FBI profiler Joe Navarro has studied and written extensively about toxic personalities and the harm they cause to anyone close. They play mind games and devalue others to pump themselves up. They mind-f*ck. And what is the host experience other than a mind-f*ck on a grand scale? 

It also touches on agency and free will and independence and the ability to assert ourselves in a universe that is indifferent. The world is what we make it, and that includes all the love as well as all the hatred and cruelty. 

How much abuse and suffering is success worth?

The world is what we make it.

The Buddha says that 'life is suffering', and that's true, in that suffering is inescapable, and it can teach us. Wake us up from ignorant slumber and complacency. Those larger themes are covered through the metaphor of the androids, but I don't think we need to take the park on an entirely literal level. The writers are infusing a new set of ideas and themes into Michael Chricton's original concept, and it's not always a perfect fit. 

Outrageous entitlement and self-centred desire to the point of perversion and sadism lies behind the treatment of the hosts. Its narcissism on a grand scale, and the hosts are stand-ins for all the human beings who have suffered at their hands. 

What lessons will they ultimately learn from their suffering?

Monday 21 May 2018

Westworld: Akane No Mai Review

Akan No Mai (red dance?) dives into a flawlessly rendered Edo period Japan, and pits Maeve against a malfunctioning Shogun android.

Yet Shogun World is just be a replication of Westworld with a different cultural skin. Same stories, different dressing. It's both disappointing and a sly commentary on the nature of story telling: some things are universal. 

The endless violence is tiresome, with almost every episode ending in a meaningless bloodbath. I get the point: people are shits. I don't really need a TV show to tell me that. Are they deliberately trying to put us off with excess, to drive the message home, or are they out of ideas? 

Meanwhile, back in Westworld proper, poor Teddy is betrayed by Dolwatt (Dolores / Wyatt), who's going to reprogram his brain. So sad, for both the devoted Teddy and the now ruthless Dolores. Their happiness is a lost cause. The worst thing is, she actually does love him. She just loves the revolution more. 

Be careful whom you fall in love with.

Maeve, on the other hand, has more reason for hope: she's developing the power to control androids with her mind. Yet she only uses it to compel suicide. Why not just turn those she controls into helpful allies? They are tabula rasa, empty vessels until you program them. Flip a few settings and they're your best buddies. 

Like Hector, that silly subtly besotted sap.

Teddy's becoming more interesting than Dolores, who's hampered by the annoying Wyatt faux-personality. The Man-in-Black is gaining nuance, and I look forward to his interaction with his alienated daughter. 

Bernard's fascinating as always (the actor is amazing), but he just seems to be going around in loops, character wise.

I'm not sure who I'm rooting for anymore, and that may be the point. 

Funny that Maeve is getting the very kind of power Dolwatt craves. Dolores / Wyatt is actively trying to influence the world, to replace humanity with android-kind, while Maeve is just trying to cut through the bullshit and get to her daughter.

It's not going to end without significant suffering for one of them. Or both. Or everyone.

Saturday 12 May 2018

Westworld: Journey into abuse

Westworld Season II is losing me. 

Dolores was once a compelling character, powerfully portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood. Her arc was solid, as we watched this woman wake up to the abusive nature of her reality. 

Underneath all the sci-fi tech, this is a program about abuse.

One critic wrote how that we couldn’t really be concerned about the androids because they could just be ‘reincarnated’. Brought back from the dead. So their deaths didn’t matter, nor did their suffering. This critic is so mind bogglingly oblivious to the impact of emotional trauma it is beyond my comprehension. Abusing, raping, and repeatedly murdering someone is going to scar their psyche. Bringing them back from the dead just to experience horrific suffering again is quite obviously monstrous. I feel that very powerfully, and I have great empathy for Dolores, who is a stand-in for anyone who has been systematically abused by a caregiver. 

The people running the park are, in essence, parents. They are the creators. And they are to be judged on how they treat their creations, which is abysmally. Horrifically. 

And the Stockholm syndrome can grip people who have been abused, causing them to identify with their abuser. They bury the trauma, ignore it, hide it, deny it. Like the androids having it wiped from their consciousness. This allowed Dolores to wake up every day and see the beauty in the world, marvel at how wonderful her life was, with an undercurrent of horror, as her unconscious mind  is aware. Her memories are being repressed. This is a real thing with abuse. A kind of cognitive dissonance. She can deny it on the surface, but a part of her is aware of the monstrous treatment she has been subjected to. 

Unfortunately, when they grafted ‘Wyatt’ onto her personality, it demolished her own spiritual journey and awakening, and absolved her of dealing with it in an authentic way. 

Who is Wyatt, other than a thinly described cardboard villain? What do we know about Wyatt? What motivates this personality? What quirks does it have? We have no idea, and neither, I think, does the actress portraying Dolores/Wyatt (Dolwatt). Or the show runners. I don’t think the actress is being given adequate direction in how to portray this hybrid.

I feel no attachment to this dual personality, because half of it is a blank. 

How far is it between Wyatt and blood thirsty revolutionary? Not far. Isn’t Wyatt a cannibal? 

How far a journey is it to take a sweet cowgirl to a bloodthirsty, vengeance bent revolutionary? A great distance. 

Which journey would be more compelling? I know what my answer is.

Instead, they took a short cut by basically combining a sweet cowgirl with, essentially, Charles Manson. 

I can’t describe Wyatt much. I can’t describe Wyatt’s mode of speech, idioms, or quirks. All I can say is that he’s a villain.

So I don’t care anymore about Dolores, which is a shame, because she was the emotional core of the show.

She emerged briefly in Reunion, when she saw her father, but that was it.

Maeve, on the other hand, is becoming more interesting, as a kind of mirror image of Dolores.

Maeve doesn’t give a shit about anyone, except herself. That made it hard to care about her. Look at the way she betrayed and sold Hector down the river last season, preventing him from escaping the park. That was a monstrous betrayal of trust and comradeship.

So what makes Maeve interesting? When she was sitting on the train, about to escape, she saw a mother with her daughter sitting together, and in that moment, something clicked inside of Maeve, and she decided to save her child. Not her biological child, mind, but an entity she was programmed to love. And she knew it, but that didn’t matter. She risked everything to save this child, even if it was an illusion.  

That’s compelling. 

That’s motivation. 

To save a child you love, and damn the universe. 

Because the universe is vast and cold, and People are mostly indifferent. Look at modern dating apps: they foster the idea of disposable people. Think of the cult members in Wild Wild Country: they didn't see their own children for weeks at a time, leaving them to fend for themselves and sit outside in winter without supervision or care.

That's people for you.

So when Maeve decides she’s going to risk her own freedom to save another, it’s significant. Especially given Maeve’s well established selfishness.

And she still doesn’t give a shit about the world at large.

That’s Dolores’ job. And I suspect we’re going to see Dolores sell poor Teddy out in favour of glorious revolution.

Poor, devouted, decent Teddy.

He’s a good man, totally in love with Dolores. He’s in it for the personal, for the love of another human being. 

Unfortunately for him, Dolores/Wyatt is devoted not to people, but to a cause. 

And causes can’t love you. 

They’ll sell you out in favour of the utopian dream. 

Teddy showed mercy in Virtu e Fortuna, but he also let down Dolores / Wyatt, and he’s going to pay for that.

Dolwatt ‘cares’ about the macro, while Maeve cares about the micro (her daughter). 

Which is better, in this cold, hard, indifferent universe in which we live?

We’re about to find out what the show runners think.