Westworld Has A Death Problem

How a core theme of the show is steadily damaging it

Death is the business of Westworld. Guests flock to the futuristic immersive amusement park to kill without guilt, the robotic hosts being repaired the following night and by the next morning they remember nothing of the previous day’s murder. Survival and immortality are key parts of Westworld but moving forward into the second season they’ve proved a little problematic. Successful expansion is beholden to explanation and Westworld Season 2 comes close to being frustratingly opaque. I really enjoyed the season overall but the indestructibly of the hosts is a growing cause for concern. On one hand the huge amounts of damage and seemingly mortal wounds the hosts can endure fit with the narrative, showing the viewer how much stronger these creations are to humans. The biggest revelation of the second season is that the human guests are seeking to become robotic versions of themselves. Versions that need not worry about biological frailness or the eventual coming of death, and so presenting this throughout the show is undoubtedly important. Yet on the other hand, the invincibility of the hosts has begun to undercut the tension and drama of the show.

So, what exactly does it take to kill a host? I mean really kill them for good. At the moment it looks like there is nothing the humans can do to stop them except for removing the control unit, or “pearl”, from their heads. That takes most of the tension out of the entire second season’s storyline of the host rebellion when you realise the hosts can’t actually be killed by Delos security, just temporarily put out of action. Maeve is a prime example of this. In the second season finale she gives her life to save her daughter and all of the other hosts heading into the digital paradise known as “The Sublime” or “The Valley Beyond”. Not for the first time in the season she’s racked with bullets and put out of action, along with the rest of her entourage, but by the episode’s end we know that Felix and Sylvester will be reviving Maeve by the time the next season comes around.

If the pearl is destroyed then the host dies, their body merely being a vessel used to inhabit the physical world, but how can you destroy the pearl? Head damage in Westworld has been a little inconsistent so far. Teddy shoots himself in the head in the penultimate episode of the second season but he’s not truly dead, his consciousness locked away in that little 3D-printed ball within his head. Apparently, the pearl can survive a point-blank shot from a handgun because in the next episode Dolores has removed the control unit and transferred his consciousness into The Sublime. So, what actually killed Teddy? Why is the tiny amount of flesh between the skin and control unit (which is undamaged) vital to a host’s survival? He has no brain and so the shot should have done little to him and been the same as when Dolores gets shot several times in the waist but remains unstoppable. It just seems that the lasting or complete damage hosts sustain depends on if the writers are done with the characters yet. Essentially, they have plot armour.

The pearl is an interesting idea and different from say Data’s positronic brain in Star Trek: The Next Generation or the wetware brain in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. It makes sense in the second season but it’s clearly a retcon from what we knew about the host brains from the first season. After Clementine is used in a violent demonstration by Delos, she is given a lobotomy which leaves her dead-eyed, speechless and with limited understanding, and this lobotomy is just that. We see it take place and a small drill is inserted into her nose to essentially scramble and destroy her brain. But now we know she actually has no brain and the drill would have done little to destroy her control unit. It’s clear the hosts were written to have actual brains at this point but now we know that is not the case it makes little sense. Why not just remove the pearl rather than scramble it and keep it within her head as she stands in Cold Storage?

So, we know about the pearl within the hosts but what about the host backups? The core drives and personalities (without their experiences and memories from the events of the show) are stored within the Cradle, a server farm located in the Mesa. If the host body and pearl is destroyed then a new body would be produced and the new brain control unit copied from the version stored within the Cradle, essentially making the hosts immortal. We saw the Cradle get destroyed in the second season so backups are no longer an option. But are they? The process of taking a human’s consciousness and turning it into code to be stored in a host takes place at the secret site in Westworld called “The Forge”. These consciousnesses have to be tested rigorously so are placed in a virtual version of Westworld where they interact with the hosts, hopefully acting in exactly the same manner as they did when the actual guest visited the physical park. That means that copies of the hosts also have to be stored in the Forge for the test consciousnesses to interact with, the hosts being the control variable in the experiment. So, the destruction of the Cradle meant little because there are backups of the hosts at the Forge but the second season finale doesn’t make it clear if the Forge backups survived or not. And speaking of human consciousness being turned to code and copied into a machine, I wonder if the same process can be done with a host. Maybe a host’s actions and personality can be monitored using the same technique and a copy can be created that way. The idea that there is another version of every host standing by in case our characters die and need an identical replacement is a cool sci-fi idea but for a TV series it undercuts any tension.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this theme and exploration of death will continue on into season 3. Surely Dolores will understand that the defining point of life, and a vital part of being human, is death. I just hope the rules of the show regarding the mortality of hosts are better defined moving forward. Now that’s enough overthinking the big ideas of Westworld, time to get back to speculating what the other parks will be. Do you think Westworld has a death problem? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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