Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld and Superman

This post contains a very revealing spoiler for the first season of HBO's Westworld. Do not read ahead if you have not watched the season but intend to enjoy it later.

The premise of Westworld, a new series based on an old film, is that a high-tech (in fact, science fiction) theme park uses robots (in the series internal euphemism, "hosts") to let visitors have simulated experiences in the world of the Old West. The hosts are so realistic that the experience feels real, but visitors face no legal culpability for killing them in simulated gunfights and – perhaps – no ethical culpability for the sexual interactions they have with the hosts.

In any narrative with very realistic robots, a potential plot point is to have ambiguity about whether or not a given character is a real human – this is central to the plot of, for example, Blade Runner. Westworld, however, raised the possibility in a few scenes in the first two episodes, but always ended the ambiguity very promptly, before it became a true mystery. With Blade Runner in mind, I watched from episode #3 onward waiting for the series to slip a mystery like this into the plot, setting up a shocking reveal when we find out that a seeming human is actually a robot. By the fourth episode, I saw who this was – the senior technician Bernard, played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright. Bernard had a seemingly-irrelevant backstory concerning the death of his young son. This seemed like the sort of planted memory that other "hosts" had, and this, indeed proved to be the critical clue – Bernard is a robot, and that memory was planted, and never actually took place.

Later, as Bernard confronted the unreality of that painful memory, I was reminded of another powerful narrative. In Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Superman imagines a life that he might have lived if Krypton had not exploded. As the story narrates, he has a life and family, and is an ordinary Kryptonian instead of the god he became on Earth. But as he faces the fact that this fantasy is a weapon used to distract him from reality, he tears himself out of the story from within it, most painfully telling his fictional son in the story that he's not real.

And it was with that recognition that I noted that one of the writers of Westworld is Ed Brubaker, a comic book writer with credits for DC, Wildstorm, Marvel and others over the past 25 years. Brubaker has co-writing credits for one episode of the series, and he certainly must be familiar with the classic Superman story. Did he, or some other writer familiar with Moore's work, introduce the idea of a man saying goodbye to his imaginary son from FTMWHE to WW? Perhaps not. But the story in Westworld, excellent on its own merits, also brought back memories of Superman's imaginary life, and possibly lent another clue as to the nature of Bernard's memory of his son, which was an imaginary story. Aren't they all?