Vas' reviews and other stuff2018-08-25

Westworld: the western world can’t write women

Westworld, the TV series, spawned October of 2016 and outdid the original in every respect. It was the Game of Thrones of robots. It sported strong, independent gynoid protagonists who don’t need no clients, timeline fuckery, face-heel turns, heel-face turns, and a surprising lack of underage sex bo— I mean, youthful maidens. Two years later, can the second season deliver something as fresh and exciting? Can it take the series in new directions? Can it give fapping fodder to lolicons? But above all, can it write women? Trigger warning: yes / yes / no / no.

You can argue that the first season didn’t need a sequel. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It ends with almost every character having completed their hero arc, showing us what we needed to see, and kills off major ones; although obviously there are things to be told regarding the robot revolution, these are best left to our imagination, as the series has achieved its emotional climax, and what remains needs not be said. But this is Hollywood so of course we need to milk every franchise for all it’s got until we’re beating a horse so dead it’s the oil ExxonMobil’s fracking out.

The immediate obstacle is that two of the most important characters, and also the driving forces of the plot, were seemingly dead. Worry not, because William’s still got it, and Ford manages to step back in, both in spirit and… more direct ways. We can debate until the end of the universe over how much of an arse-pull that is, but nevertheless at least one of them had to survive to keep it interesting: these two carry with them many secrets to the plot and the backstory, and by dying these would be lost with them.

Personally, I would have preferred for Ford to have remained dead for good, so that the only “presence” of him remaining would be through his final game, to be decoded by the rest of the cast. Overall I think the gaming aspect of the series is very compelling—the maze riddle was one of the most interesting elements of the first season—and by digitally resurrecting, this makes exposition more in your face and uninteresting, and also removes some of the significance of his death, as it has less finality.

This is a problem many characters have in the second season. In some instances they appear antidiametric to what they were supposed to be in the first season. Ford spent his entire life building a park, and later trying to manifest self-awareness in androids; in the second season, he aims for the destruction of his creation, actively overrides many hosts’ decisions, and even argues directly against free will. Dolores struggles to find her inner voice; in the second season, she’s imprisoned by a rigid ideology and mind controls or edits hosts close to her, becoming what she hates. Maeve tries to find a balance between her programming/family life and independence/power, and ends up in the worst of all worlds.

At some point this stops coming across as dramatic or symbolic, and transmutes into a “fuck you”. While the first season explored the emergence of self-awareness and free will, the second tries to explore structuralism versus existentialism—basically what Evangelion did, but much worse. Instead of discussing those issues, it alludes to them, and I need to dig into them with my pre-existing education in order to read things into the series that I wouldn’t have otherwise; it isn’t so much food for thought, as it is me making motions with my jaw and imagining there’s food in it.

If you make even the slightest attempt to read between the lines, the plot ends up arguing directly that there is no such thing as free will, even though it pretends it does, siding convincingly over for structuralism. This has the most major implications for Dolores, who stands for the position that there is no value to be found in an unfree condition. I can pretend there’s some deep conversation going on between her and Bernard/Maeve from a utilitarian basis, i.e. that pain and pleasure hold meaning despite being programmed in, but this is entirely my own projection. The more realistic interpretation is that the series is incoherent.

This incoherence is most evident in the last episode, with Dolores (and the plot) arguing that the robots are destined to win against mankind, and minutes later that they’ll probably die. With Dolores rejecting and then accepting a virtual world. With mankind themselves being slaves to their programming, even though the hosts are too. With the hosts having superior virtues, but no one ever discussing patching in improvements for regular humans, or how they came up with such virtuous hosts to begin with. Truly, if humanity is so depraved and so beyond salvation, how do you explain works of genuine beauty? No one does, because no one ever talks.

A lot of characters devolve into memes. Bernard ends up spending the entire season in a state of confusion, acting, talking, and moving slow. The plot tries to offer justifications for it, but internal reasoning aside, it becomes tiresome to watch. But by far the worst are Dolores and Maeve. Dolores was never a particularly interesting character; she was a subversion of the damsel in distress trope, and would have needed a lot of work to be elevated to a main character. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen, and Dolores remains one-dimensional, except that instead of a damsel in distress, she’s an one-dimensional psychotic bitch leader.

Similarly, Maeve spends most of the season showing off how powerful she is, at some point even receiving power-ups like you’d expect from a shōnen series, except that even shōnen tend to have some emotional significance to power-ups. Instead Maeve’s feel like she literally gained too many arbitrary experience points and decided to level up for new perks. The worst offender is the shogunate arc, which is blatant filler, and it seems as if it only existed so we could see a black chick wielding a katana and being a telepath.

It isn’t as if these characters don’t have opportunities to redeem themselves. After brainwashing Teddy to death, Dolores had the opportunity to realise the errors of her ways, but doesn’t; she doubles down instead. Maeve has a subplot regarding her daughter, which grants great depth to her character, contrasting between her tough exterior and her soft interior, but ends up learning nothing from her journey to empowerment, diving head first into a situation while forsaking her equipment, friends, and her own fucking brain, I dunno.

Maeve represents structuralism, and Dolores existentialism, and both of them are absolutely cringeworthy to listen to. Every time they open their mouths, it’s yet another grrl power spiel. By contrast, William, Ford, and Bernard are who are driving the plot forward. They were already fairly complete characters, but in this season it’s taken up to 11. We see more of William’s schemes in the outside world, adding even more intrigue to his character, and then we have the games of Ford’s making, and the memory issues of Bernard, which drive the series forward for some time, before they become tiresome.

And then we have Akecheta, whose mere existence is a “fuck you” to Dolores. See, Dolores never actually achieves anything in the plot. She’s given things; by Arnold, by William, by Bernard, by Ford himself. Akecheta, during episode 7—arguably the best episode—lives out the same heroic journey as Dolores, but instead he earns it through introspection and sheer effort, with superior symbolism and direction. The superiority of his achievements almost invalidates the entire first season; but of course Maeve has to telepathically step in and speak through him in order to prove she’s still relevant. You go girl. Kill yourself.

I think you’re noticing patterns here. It’s almost as if the series has two sets of writers; one half wants to live out their feminist power fantasy through Dolores and Maeve—the grrl power club. And the rest of them are the big boys’ club, who actually drive the plot forward. Westworld is supposed to be a progressive series, but the main reason why people watch it ends up being William, who is by far and away the best character, with nobody else even coming close. He’s the person who acts the most like a normal, relatable, well-rounded human. I tried—I want to like Dolores and Maeve, but I can’t. Is the series trying to argue that women are fucking useless children and that misogyny is the only sensible, egalitarian option? Hmm… 🤔

Overall, the series has too many messages, some of which could be entire series on their own right. Their concentration and how they’re glossed over makes it seem like the writers were throwing shit at the wall and trying to see what sticks. Couple this with flip flopping all over the place and you have a serious issue with consistency. This is true for the writing and messages and the episodes themselves; you have masterpieces like episode 7 in the same series as the shogunate arc, which is trash tier and shouldn’t even exist.

When the series sticks to what it’s good at—world-building, cowboys, the stories of the people in it, men—it’s great. When it tries tackling bigger, more abstract things; when it tries delving into other theme parks; when it tries proving to us how strong and independent their vagina-people are, it falls flat on its face. This is the nail on the coffin of western writers and female characters for me. Whereas east Asian cultures can churn out likeable waifus by the kilo, the west cannot escape the trappings of its hollow, one-dimensional empowerment, producing cringeworthy power fantasies clashing heavily with the world around them. A world where men can be as risky, controversial, and well-developed as they want—ending up characters we want to see—and women are tacked on as an afterthought as if to prove something. Because they’re Mary Sues. Because women are children.

Final Verdict: 7/10