Author: Amy C. Chambers
Westworld was my favourite series of 2016. It presented a rich science fiction future that managed to be fresh and exciting despite being
a remake based upon a 1973 movie by the same title. It had and continues to have lots of opportunities for developing exciting and prescient narrative that can be explored in what I hope will be a long running series. I was mesmerised from the opening credits, which I wrote about here. Westworld played around with time and I will have to rewatch all ten episodes as I attempt to distinguish between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, and past, present and/or future.
**The following post contains spoilers**
In the Westworld finale it was eventually confirmed that the story arc of the first season of Westworld was being told across multiple timelines. Age and aging are central to this method of storytelling. Whereas William’s aging masks his identity (Ed Harris), Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) transhistorical nature (eternal youth) allows her character to move between pasts, presents, and futures. She is part of the history of the park, she has a history, but lacks historical agency until she solves the puzzle that allows her to access her memories and lived experiences. Within a single episode Dolores can seamlessly move between her various storylines over a 35-year period (since the opening of the park). Although the multiple timeline was a theory that was discussed at great length across the large online fan community (mostly in discussions on Reddit – go on, fall into the rabbit hole) it was a surprising revelation for many viewers and conformation for those who had suspected it. It is something that makes the show eminently rewatchable as viewers (players?) attempt to fit together all of the parts of the puzzle.
Westworld is set in an imagined near-future where the rich are even richer with those ‘vacationing’ at the theme park spending at least $40,000 a day in a storyworld cycle that probably lasts at least a week (and up to a month). The absurd expense (even if we take future inflation into consideration) suggests a reasonably large elite wealthy class that can afford to play in this interactive narrative world. Conversations and incidents throughout the series indicate that the world outside the park (we never see it) has solved extreme poverty and cured diseases (post-scarcity/post-disease), but it is clear that institutional inequality (gender/race/class/age) is still a major problem. Westworld presents a post-scarcity future but one where capitalism is still thriving – despite their utopian roots SF post-scarcity societies are often defined by their inequalities and the inability to allow everyone to benefit from major technological changes and advances (consider the restrictive access to medical technologies in Elysium).
Escaping the park is Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) mission and young William’s (Jimmi Simpson) hope for a future with Dolores. But this imagined future outside of the park is difficult to envision as neither the audience nor the hosts know what exists outside of Westworld. We know Westworld is a space of escape for the wealthy – but what is it that they are vacationing from, and what has happened on future Earth? Is the near (ish) future presented in Westworld off-world – as imagined in texts like Blade Runner and Elysium. There is a suggestion that this future world (outside the park) is devoid of any living creatures that are not human – in Westworld even the animals are artificial – is this because they are all extinct? Westworld offers an escape at a price, and perhaps rather than using biodome technology to protect ecology (eco-future) as seen in the massive geodesic domes in Silent Running the protective bubble covering Westworld is used is a means of preserving an imagined past where fantasies of imperial and institutionalised inequality can be enacted. The staff (from upper-level management down to technicians/‘butchers’) live at the park and have to rotate off-(West)world for days off/vacations, further suggesting that Westworld is not of this world. When guests get to the end of their stay they must go to the ‘Mesa Gold decompression chamber’, which allows them time to disengage from the park and readjust to the ‘real’ world after they have lived out their violent delights – but this could also mean that it allows for literal decompression because Westworld might not be in a place that humans can normally survive in (Mars, outer space, or even under the sea).
Westworld re/imagines a past – a version of the c.19th century American Old West filtered through Westerns and revisionings of the myths and histories of the era. It is a remembered future – the park is a future world that is based upon memories, histories, and imaginaries of the Old West. The Western movie genre – one the key reference point for the both the park’s and the series’ creators – is often defined in relation to a binary of some kind, e.g. garden/desert, tamed/wild, white hat/black hat, lawmen/outlaws, Americans/Indian. Many classic westerns were also structured around a stock narratives (like many of those played out in the park) that resolved with shoot outs that sorted to the heroes from the villains. Characters like Logan (Ben Barnes) endeavour to avoid these derivative binary narratives in search of more complex stories with trophies and Easter eggs such as El Lazo’s tequila (the best alcohol in the park). At Westworld the binaries are between human and non-human, cognisant and non-cognisant, old and young, past and present, and real and imagined – alongside the binaristic tropes of the Western genre.
One of the most interesting ways that Westworld merges together imagined pasts, presents, and future is in the show’s soundtrack. The diegetic music often played by the brothel/saloon’s player piano is nostalgic for the viewer, for me the use of Radiohead songs (e.g. ‘No Surprises‘, 1997) linked the show with my teenage years. But at the same time these contemporary tracks are framed as old/nostalgic as they are played in the slightly out-of-tune and mechanical style of player pianos and Old West saloon piano music that is synonymous with the Western. The soundtrack features reimagined modern music alongside classical tracks and ragtime tunes (e.g. Claude Debussey’s ‘Clair de Lune‘ and Scott Joplin’s ‘Peacherine Rag‘). The music rolls in the background of scenes simultaneously invoking the past of America (an onscreen imagined one) and the memories of the audience watching (who recognise the tunes despite their new/old world context), whilst also suggesting that in this future these near-past songs (e.g. Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’) may be so old for the guests experiencing Westworld that they are indistinguishable from the music of a real/reel Old West saloon.
‘Back to Black’: “We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times. You go back to her and I go back to black.”
According to showrunner Jonathan Nolan the player piano is a touchstone image for the show – it appears in the title sequence (take a look at my discussion of the opening credits here) and throughout the scenes set in the saloon. The mechanical music is also woven into the incidental music that plays across the show. It is a reference to and inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s speculative fiction Player Piano (1952) that describes a near-future society that is mechanised to such an extent that human labourers are no longer required. Show composer Ramin Djawadi (composer, Game of Thrones – Westworld and Westeros!) insisted on using and recording from a pianola – the music had to be transcribed and mechanised. The digital files were converted into perforated paper rolls that were then read by the player piano and recorded. As Djawadi remarks: “It’s got a robotic harshness to it which is very distinctive. When a human plays it, the dynamics are modified. But when the player piano hits a note, it’s always the same.” These remembered and recognisable melodies all add the sense that this has all happened before, and that the hosts and indeed Westworld as a whole are playing out already repeated and repeatable scripted narratives that they do not control.
The finale answered many questions and/or confirmed fan theories but there is still lots of scope for Westworld to explore more about the nature of the past, present, and imagined futures. Will the next season venture into the outside world, or will the hosts chose to stay in the reality that was created for them. We don’t get the next season until at least 2018 so there is plenty of time to meticulously rewatch season one and work through all of those fan theories!
A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Imagining Pasts & Futures. That research blog is part of the Imagining Pasts and Futures research cluster, which is based in sociology at Newcastle University where Amy is based as a researcher on the Prospecting Futures project.