HBO’s new television series, Westworld, has generated enormous buzz since its premiere only two weeks ago. The show, an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi western of the same name, feels like this fall’s Stranger Things, given its quick rise to fame. Yet I can’t help but wonder: Are we watching Westworld the right way? Or are we doing it all wrong?
I was a week late to Westworld, which in the digital age actually is a cause for anxiety. I mean, how can a person remain decent and cultured while being six days behind on the newest series from a major television network?
But after catching up, and upon wading through the chatter around the show, I didn’t see and hear what I thought I would—you know, articles and podcasts exploring the existential and ethical questions being raised by the story, or just how nice it is to see Evan Rachel Wood back in a fitting lead role.
On the contrary, following the pilot, my wife jumped into a text exchange with some friends who were having an exciting back-and-forth about “theories.” When she mentioned the exchange to me, I was confused. “Theories”? With my imagination captivated by humanity’s flawed attempts at Eden, and my head lost in philosophy, I couldn’t understand why anyone was thinking about “theories.”
I started paying attention on the internet, only to find a whole series of pieces, big and small, regarding not only fan theories but critical theories on Westworld. It was like Lost all over again. And back then, wasn’t it the fans wrapped up in “theories” who were ultimately disappointed when they found out that Lost wasn’t really concerned with answering the thousands of questions it had raised—that it was less a heady show about theology and science and more an emotional show about its characters and the human experience?
What we’re seeing with Westworld, and likely will continue to see in the weeks ahead, is representative of a larger trend in our culture. Despite living in a postmodern world, we remain children of the Enlightenment—especially when it comes to film.
In other words, the way we interact with art and entertainment is deeply rooted in a modern way of life. We are, as philosopher Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age, buffered selves operating in a disenchanted world. We are individualistic, rational beings who exist and function as if there were nothing beyond the surface of this world, as if everything could be explained away by logic and reason.
Examining absurd theories around Mad Men and True Detective, Julia Yost characterizes this phenomenon as a shift from the aesthetic to the forensic: “Everything on screen and soundtrack is a clue, and the viewer’s challenge is to suss out the secrets encoded by the creators’ choices in writing, casting, wardrobe, and art direction. If this is the new way of watching, then every prestige drama is now a detective series—for what reasons, and with what consequences, will soon be seen.”
Given the scientific nature of our modern minds, our engagement with the arts is no longer guided by emotion and imagination, but by reason. It’s why we walk away from a show like Westworld concerned with and moved by logos—“theories”—rather than ethos and pathos.
This methodical, forensic approach to film, however, is no trivial artifact of our times. It’s actually a problem. When we watch and talk about television shows and movies this way, we treat them as if they were merely puzzles to be put together, mysteries to be solved, data to be sorted. In this, we diminish and undercut both the art and the artist. We miss what they want to say and do to us as viewers. We miss transcendence. We miss the mystery.
We miss the whole thing.
David Roark is a creative director and culture writer based in Dallas.
Photo credit: HBO