Westworld vs The Walking Dead: explorations of humanity

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What makes us human, compared to losing our humanity – The Walking Dead walks all over Westworld when it comes to the meaning of life.

What makes us human, compared to losing our humanity – The Walking Dead walks all over Westworld when it comes to the meaning of life.

The Westworld viewing experience is cold, sterile – about as exciting as a conversation with a robot actually would be. Despite the special effects, the high-flown cast, the sets, the gazillions of dollars blown on this turkey, it never really comes to life. It already seems stale, predictable.

Compare Westworld’s relentless big-budget HD shine to the gloomy prison scenes of Seasons 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead – mostly shot in the dark to make up for the lack of special effects. Even at the time while fans complained the, ‘scarier because you can’t quite see it,’ vibe was starting to pall, everyone kept watching. Dissatisfied, but still engaged.

Imagine if they turned the lights off over at Westworld. [In fact, they probably are, right about now].

Questioning what it is to be human is certainly not a new idea. Neither is questioning what makes humans different from monsters, machines, apes or even puppets. So what does Westworld add to what is essentially a 21st Century re-telling of Pinocchio combined with Frankenstein’s Monster?

So what does Westworld add to what is essentially a 21st Century re-telling of Pinocchio combined with Frankenstein’s Monster?

Compare again, The Walking Dead’s almost nuanced (given the context) exploration of the concept of humanity in the sixth season. The core characters have managed to keep two children alive and thoughts about their future has led the group to consider how far they will go to survive. To their credit, they have so far mostly managed to avoid murder, rape, theft, slavery and cannibalism in the fading hope of living a peaceful life.

By contrasting the core cast with new characters who have survived largely untouched, we see how far Rick et al have traveled from their pre-apocalypse selves. The ironic set, consisting of beautiful show homes in an unfinished  housing development now called Alexandria, highlights how brutalised our heroes have become. The Alexandrians sleep in beds with sheets, look good and are great at shaving, cutting hair and baking cookies, but woefully short of supplies and basic zombie-killing skills. They represent contemporary 21st century humanity.

This vision of what folks used to be like, and the cookies – mainly the cookies – leads core character Carol to have some kind of spiritual/existential crisis. She follows Morgan’s lead in refusing to kill any more people, even in self-defense. Even though they recognise that this disqualifies both of them from membership of an interdependent community they cannot defend during an attack. So their refusal to kill, both humanises and dehumanises them.

The Walking Dead essentially offers four expressions of humanity: passive (and doomed); brutalised; bestial; post-human, i.e. dead, but ambulatory. The walking dead used to be human, but they have lost their intellectual and emotional abilities through catastrophic brain damage. They are now parasitic predators feeding off their human hosts.

The Walking Dead offers four expressions of humanity: passive (and doomed); brutalised; bestial; post-human, i.e. dead, but ambulatory.

Conversely, the hosts and the majority of the core characters in Westworld are the non-humans. They too have limited emotional and cognitive powers but for at least part of the time, we are asked to share their worldview. In a novel, this could have been really interesting, on film, not so much. The robots repetitively speak to each other, re-running their scripted conversations as a form of self-correcting. We can watch the robots analyse their own behaviour but with the exception of sexbot brothel keeper, Maeve, we can’t see how their worldview expands as they make new connections between pieces of data and imperfectly erased ‘memories’. In episode 4, Maeve makes a cognitive leap and asks another robot to dig into her abdomen to retrieve a bullet that is lodged there. But we are unable to hear the robotic ‘interior monologue’ that brings her to that cognitive leap.

Sad little robot Dolores, the madonna figure in a symbolic blue dress, has been programmed to want to be free, but free to do what?  To eat, to drink, to reproduce herself via a 3D printer? Or simply to decommission herself – putting herself into storage or being broken up for spares. In this Jurassic Park with robots, we are told that there is only a single line of code stopping the robots from fighting back. If they were programmed to feed on humans, then in their current state, there would be little difference between the Westworld robots and the Walking Dead zombies.

In Westworld the tourists of the future flock to this extremely expensive theme park to live out their Wild West fantasies: duelling, whoring, saloon bar brawling, riding out with the Sheriff to capture bandits hidden in the admittedly spectacular hills. So far, so Disneyworld – since the tourists can’t hurt each other or be hurt themselves – which begs the question why robots were necessary in the first place. Human hosts could do the job just as well so long as everyone had blanks in their revolvers.

Because, Westworld suggests, we humans are so base that given the freedom to live out our wildest fantasies, we will immediately take the chance to ‘go black hat all the way’ and start a vacation-long rampage of lynching, raping and randomly killing, all core ingredients of the Western genre.

To pander to the tourists’ fantasies, the robots at Westworld are pretty machines designed to be hurt for fun. That is the real purpose and main selling point of the park.

To pander to the tourists’ fantasies, the robots at Westworld are pretty machines designed to be hurt for fun. That is the real purpose and main selling point of the park.

The world-weary designer of the park, Robert Ford, played by a suitably saturnine Anthony Hopkins who may or may not be a robot himself,  believes that humanity will evolve no further. There is no disease that can’t be cured, therefore homo sapiens sapiens has reached the end of its physical development.  We are led to infer that Ford will use his creations to develop an entirely new species by spreading concealed viruses that will develop imagination, or creativity. He also seems to be introducing a new religion, with himself as a god. Ford’s aim is sentience for his lifelike but not living creatures. Other members of the park maintenance crew would prefer the robots to be less ‘sentient’, less aware or conscious, given what they are programmed to suffer.

Meanwhile, the psychiatrist is playing mind games with Dolores, teaching her to read Lewis Carroll in between being raped and murdered and having her entire family wiped out. By other robots as well as tourists. And a seriously nasty ‘billionaire philanthropist’ in a black hat who really looks like a robot (Ed Harris), is causing complete chaos by trying to find a maze, supposedly located at the centre of the park, which will take the park’s ‘game’ to a whole new level.

But there’s no sense of danger, no real fight for survival in Westworld. Yes, the robots can be physically hurt where the humans cannot, and yes, they are programmed to suffer – but they can also be rebuilt, operated on, repaired and reprogrammed and their suffering switched off with a single voice command. They are frequently given new scripts and new roles to play. Some of them are condemned to a storyline/life of torture but they are not actually alive, everything they learn is erased each time their storyline ends. Even if they do achieve some kind of sentience, consciousness, what exactly is it that they want? To live, to be free, to die?

Right from the first few minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, there has been only one goal – to stay alive. A secondary goal is to retain as much humanity as possible while doing it. Westworld lacks any such narrative drive.

Right from the first few minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, there has been only one goal – to stay alive. A secondary goal is to retain as much humanity as possible while doing it. Westworld lacks any such narrative drive.

In Season 1 of The Walking Dead, when the original characters hesitated to kill the zombies because they used to be neighbours or even family members, we cheered each time Rick and his merry band of survivors beat up a ravenous attacker. In keeping with the Horror genre, we could almost smell the rotting guts and gore as they were thrown around, heads and limbs ripped off or crushed, knives stabbed into eye sockets of human-shaped monsters.The victims used to be human, but now they are not. So it’s ok to subject them to extreme levels of gratuitous violence only permissible on a cable channel.

In Season 7 of The Walking Dead the zombies are far less human in appearance than they were in Season 1. Theirs is indeed a self-limiting illness for they will, eventually, starve to death. So the less human the dead appear and the more desensitized we have become, the more the series has had to ramp up the violence in other ways. The dead have more or less become an annoying sideshow as the series is now cannibalising itself by turning on its core cast with graphic human-on-human violence. There were some genuinely sickening moments in Season 7 episode 1 and many fans feel that it has crossed a line.

The Walking Dead have more or less become an annoying sideshow as the series is now cannibalising itself by turning on its core cast with graphic human-on-human violence.

But that is the other facet of being human, the capacity for cruelty, for destruction. If there comes a time when human beings need a theme park that allows them to act out fantasies of rape, pillage and general mayhem, then really, where’s the harm? This is the question the creators haven’t asked themselves even as the ratings for television shows that revel in gratuitous violence continue to grow. The robots are a lot prettier than the walking dead, but they’re no more – probably even less – human.

How many viewers will stick around to watch the Westworld robots develop sentience, a purpose, and then follow them through the long journey to self-determination and the decision to avenge themselves on human beings? The Terminator covered that in about 30 seconds.

Five characters to get you through the next global apocalypse

Zombies, Plague, Serial Killers… When the world’s about to end, you need a strong character by your side to help you survive. Here are five of the best:

5. Abby Grant, Survivors, BBC 1975

Abby Grant (centre) from Survivors, BBC 1975

Even the plague couldn’t get the better of Abby Grant(centre); she’s always in charge.

The strongest female lead in one of the first post-apocalyptic television dramas, Abby Grant is clever, resourceful, and tough. Abby won’t ever be your best friend, but she’ll shoot to kill, get her hands dirty, and automatically assume she’s in charge — which, generally, she is. Abby tends to judge people by class, meaning anyone lacking her cut glass accent is viewed as weak, untrustworthy and not very bright. It’s this kind of take-charge attitude and lack of self-doubt that propels Abby Grant into 5th place.

4. Supreme Commander Servalan, Blake’s 7, BBC 1978

Supreme Commander Servalan, ruthless killer with a superb wardrobe

Supreme Commander Servalan, ruthless killer with a superb wardrobe.

OK, so she won’t be your friend ever, but Supreme Commander Servalan will sure as hell have a bunch of willing male survivors build a fully functional fortified village within days of the first corpse hitting the deck. Ruthless, sociopathic, with a superb wardrobe, and exceptional organisational skills, as long as Servalan gets what she wants — total control — everything will be just fine. She’ll keep you and your fellow serfs survivors alive just so long as you’re completely obedient, vaguely useful, and poorly dressed.

3. Michonne, The Walking Dead, AMC 2010

Michonne, you are way out of Rick's league.

Michonne, you are way out of Rick’s league.

Ah, Michonne, the epitome of the strong, silent type; you have remained independent, loyal, superbly capable and mentally together under unbelievable pressure. You don’t do emotion, you don’t do girly, you didn’t do men — or women — until now. Yes, you were hurt by Andrea’s relationship with the Governor, but you got over it. You moved on.

You would have been in the no. 1 slot for sure except a) we don’t know if you survived the meeting with Negan and b) this new romance you’ve got going with an unstable, neutered Rick is making you vulnerable and is likely to bring you down. Michonne, you are way out of Rick’s league. You definitely deserve better. Dump him and do what you’re best at: move on.

2. Debra Morgan, Dexter, Showtime 2006

Jennifer Carpenter as Debora Morgan (Season 4, episode 11) - Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime - Photo ID: dexter_411_0328

Jennifer Carpenter as Debora Morgan (Season 4, episode 11) – Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime – Photo ID: dexter_411_0328

So we never got to see how Debra would perform in a post-apocalyptic society, but we can probably make some educated guesses. Unlike some of the other characters here who would only help keep you alive while you were useful, Debra would always have your back. As your super-skinny, foul-mouthed best friend, you know she doesn’t eat much, right? So no-one’s going to kick her out of a malnourished settlement for taking too much food. Debra may not have the brainpower to re-build the national grid or the social skills to negotiate her way out of an armed stand-off without getting shot, but like, who cares? Never less than entertaining, Debra is a deeply moral character, who would make an ideal, if hilarious, survival skills trainer for the under-tens, should any of you be able to stand still long enough to breed.

1. Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, Battlestar Galactica, NBC Universal

battlestar-galactica-miniseries-starbuck

Starbuck is the character most likely to keep you alive, or headbutt you…

At number 1 we have the real deal: Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, fighter pilot, war hero, piano player, artist, gambler… The original Starbuck way back in the 70s was a childish fop. Turning the reimagined Starbuck into a tough, senior ranking, woman with attitude was a stroke of genius. So why is she your best chance of surviving the collapse of civilisation? Admittedly, there won’t be much call for her flying abilities, but Starbuck always leads from the front. She knows how to set up camp on a hostile planet. She knows how to organise people and maintain discipline. She can fight, she can plan, and ultimately, if it came to it, she would sacrifice herself to save your sorry ass. That is why Kara Thrace comes out top in our list. Starbuck, we salute you.

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