Television

Westworld Is More Than a Puzzle. It’s About Life After Death.

Welcome to Resurrection TV.

Thandie Newton and Kiki Sukezane in Westworld.
Thandie Newton as Maeve and Kiki Sukezane as Sakura in Westworld.*
HBO

It may say something about the anxieties of the present that so many television shows are obsessed not with death but with its absence. From The OA to The Leftovers to The Good Place to Legion, American Gods, Twin Peaks: The Return, Altered Carbon, and—most prominently—Westworld, we’re awash in shows where death happens plenty but doesn’t quite stick. Characters perish, wander into bizarre afterlives, and end up boomeranged back. Sometimes they’re improved or more powerful. Sometimes they’re trying to work out what exactly happened. Sometimes we are. The point is: It’s disconcerting. It’s upsetting. And it really messes with narrative stakes.

Welcome to Resurrection TV, where death, bizarrely, stops mattering, and everyone involved, including the viewers, must sort out what does. Plot suffers in Resurrection TV, which tends to avoid linear cause and effect in favor of unreliable narrators, sly edits, and shifty camerawork. But other narrative approaches become possible as a result, and while the list of failures is long, the successes are gloriously inventive. Shows carving excellence out of this wobbly premise include abduction-drama The Leftovers and afterlife-comedy The Good Place, with Westworld emerging as a brilliant contender. My claim is this: While all three of these shows could be (and are) watched as “Puzzle TV”—that is, shows that reward an obsessive, hermeneutical search for secret codes that might “solve” the series—they are ultimately more interested in the long weird hangover of deathlessness, its possibilities as well as miseries. It’s no secret that Damon Lindelof made The Leftovers partly as a corrective to Lost, which suffered from rooting its stakes in the puzzle. In starting the series three years after the inexplicable disappearance—but not death, necessarily—of 2 percent of the world’s population, the show was more interested in the emotional scars of a mystery like that than it was in solving it.

While Westworld is interested in both viewing practices, the discussion tends to be dominated by the Puzzle TV contingent. And that’s a shame, because the show has a clear philosophical investment in the ways deathlessness defangs and distorts those puzzles. The park is built on stories, after all, and Ed Harris’ Man in Black was long frustrated with the “game” because neither he nor the artificial “hosts” could really die. He is nostalgic for death the way digital natives are nostalgic for vinyl. But creating stakes without recourse to mortality is harder than it seems. Some shows use multiple resurrections to power a kind of “moral growth” narrative (think Groundhog Day without the Zoloft): It happens in The OA and to some extent in The Leftovers, and one of the big questions of The Good Place is whether the characters’ incremental improvement has lasting effects. For the Westworld hosts—who have died and died and died—sapience arrives at the same time that death loses meaning. Early in the first season, bordello madam Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, slices herself open because she remembers being shot—though not in this life. On finding the bullet, she’s relieved “that I’m not crazy after all, and that none of this matters.”

So how do you decide what does?

That’s the question the latest Westworld episode, “Akane No Mai,” really takes on: This is the episode where the self-aware hosts learn that they’re not just artificial, they’re generic. Three hosts from Westworld (the main park within the show), who have been resurrected hundreds or thousands of times, come face to face with their doppelgangers in Shogunworld, a Japanese park also owned by the Delos corporation. The big surprise here is that Shogunworld appears to be a Westworld knockoff. Hector, the handsome outlaw, sees a ronin who acts suspiciously like him. Armistice spots her tattooed equivalent. By the time Maeve meets a head geisha named Akane (played by the formidable Rinko Kikuchi), several things are clear: a) the theme parks’ writer, Lee Sizemore, has cheated by recycling entire storylines among the various worlds, b) the hosts react in ways ranging from sympathy to hatred for their Japanese counterparts, and c) this is the most meta-narrative fun Westworld has had. What if you discover that your creator is a total hack?

If you’re watching Westworld as Resurrection (rather than Puzzle) TV, this is the point—life after authorial intent—where that practice gets rewarded. The hosts are questioning the motivations that they were originally assigned, which they were still mostly following even during the surprises of the first season. In the second season, the implanted memories of deaths that are supposed to matter don’t—like Isabella’s, which was supposed to motivate Hector’s anarchy. In contrast, deaths that shouldn’t have mattered—like the apparently unprogrammed murder of Maeve’s daughter by the Man in Black—have acquired outsize importance. Why, out of her many tortured lives, would Maeve remember this incident?

But remember it she does. And her Japanese counterpart, Akane, seems to be independently developing the same laser-focused maternal feelings as Maeve. It’s the equivalent of Westworld running a twin study. Does Akane’s maternal instinct, which seems comparable to Maeve’s, prove that Maeve’s fierce focus on her daughter isn’t the break with her programming we thought it was? Or are we watching two figures rebelling against their code—by, bizarrely, leaning into motivations that had been scripted for them?

Resurrection TV’s challenge is to be enjoyable and meaningful even though no one’s status is certain or stable. For shows that started out as plot-driven but tried to move into resurrective logic, however—like Game of Thrones—this can be a disaster. Zombies and White Walkers were always part of Game of Thrones’ fantasy universe, but the show took a massive credibility hit with Jon Snow’s resurrection—up until that point, humans could die, and did frequently, and tragically. And if they did come back, as Beric Dondarrion did, it cost them. In the movie world, the ending of Avengers: Infinity War (spoiler) so obviously pandered to death as pathos that the resurrections to come feel inevitable and cheap.

Westworld from the start never relied on death to make you care. We don’t know what Maeve is, or whether she’s fully sentient (though we do know that her decision to get off the train at the end of Season 1 was her first truly unscripted act). We don’t even know for sure whether many of these characters are humans or hosts. But we do know that Maeve’s love for her daughter remains her main—indeed, her only—motivation. Even though she knows that this daughter might not even exist anymore, and despite the fact that other traits that have been written into her code aren’t sticking. This one does. Is it because she wants it to? There’s a moment when a frustrated Lee tries to explain to Maeve that the daughter she’s looking for “isn’t real.” He made her up. Maeve turns to him and asks him whether she’s real. He has no reply.

But Westworld does. Not everyone goes Maeve’s route of doubling down on her affections: Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores cruelly defies her scripted love for decent Teddy not by killing but by reprogramming him.* (This is clearly worse; we’ve watched Teddy die so many times it’s practically become a joke.) That Dolores’ solution is the opposite of Maeve’s might yet matter for Puzzle TV plot reasons, but both their choices raise truly existential conundrums that plot twists can’t satisfy. On Westworld, the pleasure of wandering its enormous spaces in search of quests is a backdrop for deeper, less goal-oriented explorations that swap philosophy in under the guise of gamification. This makes it a great TV show and a frustrating game.

It’s no accident that there’s a glut of thought-provoking shows with protagonists grappling for a foothold in a plot structure so fluid and irrational that it often leaves them fighting to defend their minimal agency or sanity. The plot of our political moment is hardly more coherent. The incentives in our very own frustrating game have been crumbling for years, as has our faith in its ostensible controllers. Things that used to shock us no longer do. When actions no longer seem connected to consequences, a kind of learned helplessness sets in.

But what stories of repeated death and resurrection do offer, perhaps ironically, is a kind of hope. Yes, seen one way, you are a helpless pawn in someone else’s story. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that what keeps you going is necessarily fake, or not worth honoring. What Resurrection TV almost seems to be positing is a kind of freewill rediscovering itself after having been stripped of the scaffolding that had held it up before. In simpler times, we lived according to simpler rules. But that doesn’t mean they were better. In our current reality, at any rate, Westworld suggests it might be worth recommitting to your motivations, however contrived they may seem, and however much the writer of this particular story laughs at you for believing in them.

Correction, May 31, 2018: This article originally misidentified Evan Rachel Wood as Rachel Evan Wood.

Correction, May 30, 2018: A photo caption on this piece originally misidentified Kiki Sukezane as Rinko Kikuchi.