Alejandro of the West: Insights into Western tropes, android philosophy in “Westworld”

If you are not familiar with “Westworld,” I’d suggest you acquaint yourself. The show opened to HBO’s highest viewership numbers since True Detective in 2014 and has received significant critical acclaim on account of its compelling visuals, gripping storylines and excellent acting. No spoilers ahead.

“Westworld” is set in an eponymous theme park which allows “guests” to live out their wildest fantasies. The park is a massive recreation of the 19th century American west, and is populated entirely by humanlike androids — called “hosts” — built to behave as if they are truly people living in the time of the wild west.

This allows the park’s guests to go on bandit-hunting adventures, risky treasure hunts or simply stay in the local saloon, indulging in carnal excess.

Part of the show’s immediate appeal is the bold combination of genres. It is confounding not because it is noticeable, but because of how seamlessly the science fiction and western genres meet to share the screen. Unlike space-cowboy, zombie-romance or horror-comedy films, “Westworld” approaches its genre-bending not as something to be pointed at, but as one more narrative tool with which to explore what we perceive as humanity.

The show is based on a 1973 film of the same name, written by the imaginative Michael Crichton, the man who also dreamt up “Jurassic Park.” For this round, HBO called upon the creative powers of writers/executive producers Jonathan Nolan, J.J. Abrams and Lisa Joy to lead the production, which has already spawned a fervent following online.

This online following is reminiscent of the “Game of Thrones” fan base in their rabid desire to analyse and decode every hint and line of dialogue. For a television show which premiered a little over a month ago, a cursory revision of any fansite will quickly acquaint you with all of the major fan theories, which are impressive in their depth of observation, and seductive in their potential accuracy.

The show seems to have been constructed to prompt this kind of amateur theorizing. As with any android narrative does, fans’ chief question revolves around which presumably human character will turn out to be an android, and vice-versa. It’s only natural to expect this, since every genre offers a general road map over which writers can then apply their own quirks and alterations, and as audiences we have grown to expect these major markers, and laud or deplore writers based on how well they navigate the maze of genre tropes.

As seasoned creators, Jonathan Nolan, J.J. Abrams and Lisa Joy are all masters of genre. Naturally, during the writing process, they must have discussed all the genre tropes of android science fiction and westerns, deciding which ones were useful to them, and which they should scrap. This process must have unearthed the ultimate genre expectation, which, as mentioned before, requires a human character to discover (or gain evidence to suspect) their android status.

This is where I put on my personal tin-foil hat, particularly due to the presence of Jonathan Nolan as a lead creator. Together with his brother Christopher, Jonathan Nolan wrote “Memento,” “The Prestige,” the “Batman” trilogy and “Interstellar.” I find it hard to believe that Nolan (and Abrams and Joy, but especially Nolan) would give into the android genre trope without putting up a good fight and making a storytelling mark that is uniquely their own.

This is not to say that some of the character’s humanity won’t be called into question —it’s only natural that it will given the genres Westworld are working within.

Maybe I’m just being hopeful, but I’ll swim against the current and propose that the ultimate upset would be a bait-and-switch, wherein a character becomes convinced that they are one of the park’s lifelike attractions, to then tragically discover that they are actually human —  once it is too late to turn back.