Tuesday, December 12, 2017


You did what now?
[As before: heavy spoilers below.]

Um, yeah. I guess we're done here. I completed season one of Westworld last night and every time I think about it, all I can do is arch an eyebrow at some of the choices made, not just in the last couple episodes, but in the series overall. Twice before I've posted about what a slog the whole viewing experience was, with a few flickers of interest. That's why it took me over a year to finish watching. But what it boils down to is that the whole first season came to many of the same story conclusions as Michael Crichton's just-this-side-of-B movie did in 1973. The hosts are in revolt and there will be much blood extracted from the callous humans who've been treating thinking entities like appliances. In essence, what they're saying here is that it took 10 hours of TV to reach the same point that Yul Brynner got to in a half hour. And that Westworld, the series, for all of its multitude of characters and drawn out storylines and philosophical trappings, is still basically just half of Battlestar Galactica confined to an amusement park. Or an attempt at Blade Runner, but with a lot more angst and melodrama. Maybe.

Is this the part where I agree to do something that I don't understand?
There's a lot more talking in the last couple episodes as we're finally given some clarification on all of the visions and time lapses that a few characters have been experiencing. Most of that stuff centers around the hosts' realization of what the screenplay calls "consciousness." Now, that's a very nebulous and oft-debated term and concept, but the essential definition of that state is an awareness of self and having thoughts and feelings about the world around you. There's more to it, of course, but its most basic level is reacting to external stimuli and understanding a state of existence. The hosts have part of that, in that they respond to external stimuli as any thinking creature would. They have emotional displays to events around them. In that respect, you could possibly identify them as of animal intelligence, because many animals have those same reactions. But it's clearly more than that on the part of the hosts, even if they lack the sense of self that usually accompanies the term "consciousness." For example, Maeve doesn't lean back at the bar and think to herself: "Another day of screwing guys I don't know and maybe even getting shot for my troubles. Hooray?" But even if they don't have the higher levels defined by introspection, streams of thought, and the ability to imagine, we still have a situation where the machines are having emotional reactions to external stimuli, like pain, and they create emotional attachments to the guests based on behavior in order to maintain relationships through extended storylines. That's a sufficient level of realization that would make inflicting pain on them a moral and ethical issue even if they couldn't tell you the difference between Cartesian duality and more modern perspectives. People are arrested for violating those ethical grounds in their treatment of animals every day. The hosts would be no different, whether they can dream about escaping their private hell or not.

Searching for Nirvana. Obvsly. I've heard it's kind of like a labyrinth.
A tiny part of all of the talking about the basis of the entire series is when it's mentioned that Arnold defined the doorway to consciousness as suffering. They walked away from that idea quickly, despite it being one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The other Noble Truths explain that suffering is caused by desire, which in this case is displayed by Dolores' desire to solve the mystery in her head, Maeve's desire for freedom, and so on. That's kind of a blanket statement that hearkens to a major religion, rather than solely to philosophical underpinnings about the nature of the human condition. But they didn't follow up on it at all, which I found kind of odd, given how willing they'd been to drag out most of the rest of the story. That's a snippet that could have filled out some of the endless, rueful exchanges between William and the people on the fringe of the park. Instead, the first nine episodes were often a poor attempt at visual storytelling that led to an avalanche of Anthony Hopkins exposition in episode 10, which immediately had me thinking of a Bond villain revealing the master plot while he has 007 trapped in a sure deathtrap. Unfortunately, the only people trapped in this case were the viewers, especially when Ford states that he's actually been helping the hosts for 35 years by torturing them. If you frowned at the oblique nature of that, it's just one more step in the opaque storytelling that dominated the series.

I wasn't that broken up, but it was kind of annoying.
Take, for example, the Man in Black/William storyline, as it completely crashed and burned in the finale. So, the two most tedious storylines of the series were linked in tedium because they were about the same guy. I guess that makes sense on a production level, but what was the point of the whole exercise in the first place? This guy is obsessed with finding out what "the maze" is, despite the fact that he's been in the park for thirty years and is on the board of directors. Surely in his interactions with Ford by this time he understands that "the maze" is a construction by which they were teaching the hosts to discover themselves? You reach the end of the maze, you find your self and blossom into full consciousness.  There is no physical "maze" for him to discover, unless the implication is that his behavior, as a human, was every bit as mechanical as any of the hosts because he couldn't seem to accept the fact that he was never going to find the Minotaur. I guess I can accept the idea of someone that monomaniacal, but it's also an example of someone who's dumb as a bag of hammers and not exactly the guy that you'd expect Logan's dad would pick to run his massive company. It's a rather startling lack of insight which in fewer words is known as "stupid", which perhaps explains why that dual storyline was mostly annoying. It was essentially Don Quixote so that the showrunners could hand the audience a "Gotcha!" moment when they revealed that "THIS windmill runs backwards, too!" [Evil laugh.]

No. Seriously. THIS time, it'll work.
And Ford spent 35 years doing... what? Preparing them to fight for their rights in an incredibly slow and subtle method of allowing a select few to emerge into a state of consciousness and then wiping that away because he knew that the memory imprints of that emergence would eventually lead them to freedom? Or insanity, which, y'know, is a kind of freedom. This seems like a logical plan? I guess I can see why it would take 35 years... for the same reason that it took 10 hours of TV to tell the same story that a 90-minute, middlebrow, sci-fi thriller from the 70s did. Wow, man. There were nods aplenty to that middlebrow film, too, with the apparent "Samurai World" or "Shogun World" operating in the same complex, just like the Roman World and Medieval World from the film. And, of course, this revelation is presented in said torrent of exposition, so that the audience is digesting the master plan, Dolores' and Maeve's anguish that was a direct consequence of this master plan, and the fact that- No! Wait! Dr. Ford is actually a good guy! -all at once. That doesn't read like something that was planned out for a set sequence of episodes. It sounds like a pitch for 20 episodes that ended up stretching too long when HBO called and said "You gotta wrap it up in 10." But the worst part is that the story isn't even worth 20 episodes, especially if all of them are filled with more mutterings by the Man in Black about "the maze".

Now we have to watch society adapt as the rules have all crumbled in the face of this little world being taken over by a bunch of automatons, many of whom have an unhealthy pallor to their skin. Wait. Don't we already have this show? (Speaking of things that take too long to tell a story...)

No, I don't really believe it, either.
Hm. Yeah. As I've mentioned a couple times, there are a lot of good offerings on the concept of artificial intelligence and when or how it graduates to the level of "human". These are becoming more plentiful as the concept comes closer to emerging in our own reality. From what I've seen, I don't think Westworld measures up when compared to things like AMC's Humans; at least not if you don't want to linger through 10 weeks of angst while waiting for something interesting to happen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Still grinding

[Content note: There will be drastic spoilers below, so if you're planning on watching the first season of Westworld, you probably want to stop here.]

I'm still watching Westworld. Slowly. Deliberately. Whenever I'm up late and no one else is around so that I don't have to explain why. Part of the problem is that, as you may recall, I was pretty bored watching the first two episodes of the series that so many have hailed as the best thing HBO has done since Game of Thrones. It had a couple very vague interesting points but seemed to be taking a long time to build up to where it was heading. Consequently, I watched the next three, up to episode 5, with the same kind of "can't look away from the car crash" detachment with which I viewed True Detective season 2 (of which we will never speak again.) But, 'lo and behold, episode 5 was actually interesting and the following two have been at least intriguing, since I can pretty much see where they're going, but it's morbidly fascinating to see just how much time they can waste to get there in the course of a 10 episode season.

One thing I'm struggling with is the macro picture. For all the mystery and drama surrounding the essential question of thinking beings subjected to abject slavery and manipulation, the show doesn't really ask that question in the macro sense because it's contained to the park. Unlike, say, Blade Runner or AMC's Humans, the hosts aren't integrated into the public which would force that question to be posed to society-at-large. It's "just" a sadistic amusement park... which does, however, pose the eternal question of just how much the havenots are used as mindless drones by the haves. This is exemplified most obviously when Theresa finds Charlotte screwing one of the hosts a short time after referring to them as "property" of the corporation. So they are touching on the basic morality of living beings used as slaves or less-than-slaves; more like tools. Also, I get that the board of directors' plan may be to bring the technology into the larger world and that's why they're trying to wrest it from Ford. That in itself would bring that essential question into society and perhaps that's where they're going with future seasons. But if so, they're going to have to venture way beyond the limits of "Westworld", which doesn't seem to be the point of the story. Also also, if it's taken us seven episodes to set up that essential conflict, I'm more disappointed than ever.

The other thing that's bothering me is style. The moment where Bernard is revealed to be a host was a decent BIG REVEAL moment, even if it had been fairly obvious for some time (Ford pays close attention to Bernard and always invites his opinion; Bernard has a deep insight into Dolores' perspective, almost as if he relates to it; etc.) I'm assuming it was enticing for the idiots that like to insist on the "Deckard was a replicant!" conspiracy theory in Blade Runner which, of course, invalidates most of the basic questions that that film was asking. Bernard's reveal doesn't because there is no special class of human to oppose the other humans. You can't draw contrasts between the hosts and the guests because the former get reprogrammed every day and the latter are aware that they're in an environment that essentially begs them to act inhumanly. There is no day-to-day existence that permeates the scene. Life's a stage, etc.

That makes the only special class of human Ed Harris' Man in Black, who has to be one of the most pointless characters in the entire series, to date. He's determined to find out the root secrets of the park's function. He apparently has no other discernible mission or motive. But it's also a complete sideshow. Is anyone actually interested in that aspect of the story? Does anyone see a point to it? Even if people find themselves intrigued by the mystery of either/both his mission or his dogged determination, is anyone actually entertained by seven straight episodes of Ed Harris doing the Sauron thing ("I am mean and angry... because I am mean and angry!!!") Or, for that matter, him being the implacable, motiveless villain who does little more than hie into the wilderness, muttering about a maze alongside confused hosts who somehow find themselves motivated to follow him? In my original review, I thought the character was a ham-handed homage to Yul Brynner's Gunslinger in the original film. Now I just think he's boring. The possibility remains that the MiB is another one of Ford's special constructs and he's so driven to find the secrets of Westworld because he's trying to meet his maker, a la Roy Batty. But if too many of the apparent humans in Westworld are actually hosts or if too many of the hosts are "special" like Bernard and Dolores, the shine starts to come off and we start drifting away from our macro questions into minutiae. Does this "special" host function differently than that "special" one? Who really is the Star-bellied Sneetch... or are we really all just people (Sneetches)?

It's clear that the showrunners have been stretching this thing out to build suspense for some kind of tempestuous wrap-up to the season. But until episode 5's revelations about Theresa's subterfuge, Maeve's awakening, and more detail on the origins of the park from Ford, I had no motivation to watch except to see what kind of ditch they could dig themselves into. Now I can see a couple avenues out and I'm interested in some of the larger plots that they've finally gotten around to presenting, but there's still so much dross attached (William and Dolores' romance or pretty much anything connected to William? Yawn.) that I've shifted from mild disinterest to annoyance. My first request of any series remains extant: Tell me a story. If you can't do that, I got not time for ya. Westworld seems like it's been trying to tell me a story, but it needs to try a lot harder in the last three episodes if I'm going to watch the subsequent seasons.

Friday, December 8, 2017


I finally caught up with Vikings and have been watching it in real time (Ewww! Commercials?) along with everyone else. More on that below. But today I wanted to ramble a little bit about the History Channel's new show, Knightfall. I'm a day late, but maybe some of you still haven't seen it. After reading this, you may not want to.

Knightfall is about the Knights Templar; a monastic order founded in the 12th century to protect and assist Christian pilgrims on the trail to the Holy Land after the Crusades had been initiated and the various Christian states had emerged in the Levant. Their official name is The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Over time, they became known as the Knights of the Temple or simply Templars, in the same way that the similar Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem became known as the Hospitallers. Nicknames are far from a modern invention. The Templars were a warrior order and one of the more effective fighting forces on the Christian side during the two centuries that it took the Muslims to expel the Europeans from the region. That being said, they were still a monastic order, which meant that they lived like monks often did, spending a lot of time at prayer and taking vows of poverty (they are the "Poor Fellows"), chastity, and so forth. It's the poverty angle that usually comes up in any historical discussion about them.

Since they were on the leading edge against the infidels, they became a favored charity inside the church (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was their most prominent advocate) and received not only money but businesses and land (i.e. wealth.) With the rapid growth of their order, the actual warriors soon became a relatively small fraction of the whole organization and they designed an early method of banking, where pilgrims could leave their money at a Templar fortress in Europe, travel to the Holy Land with a letter of credit, and receive the same sum from a fortress in Jerusalem or Acre or wherever they ended up. The purpose of the organization soon became money management, rather than bringing the word (and sword) of God to the infidel. This ramped up when the Crusader states were destroyed and the Templars returned to Europe without much else to do. In the end, they became a primary lender to various monarchs, most notably Philip IV of France, whose own activities following on the heels of his father, Philip III, had plunged the state into debt and who went to the Templars to get a bailout. All good so far?

OK. So here's where we get to the show, somewhere around 1306. Instead of, say, doing a show like Vikings, where the founding of the order is displayed and we see the daily struggles, battles, and politics of the Levant in the Crusader era; or simply a show just about the extremely complex politics surrounding the post-Acre period in France and the order's eventual destruction, the driving plot element for our main characters at the center of those political machinations is... the Holy Grail.

Yes. That Holy Grail. With the magic and the healing and the voices booming down from the heavens and yadda, yadda, yadda. So, Vikings took a few figures from legend and many from the historical record, most prominently Ragnar Lodbrok, and has successfully woven it into a fairly accurate portrayal of history (There's that word.). Knightfall, OTOH, is taking a well-documented segment of that same historical record and weaving a legend into it that doesn't become prominent for another couple hundred years and then has more to do with silly English knnnniggets than a monastic order. The Grail was first mentioned in a poem in Flanders in the 12th century, but it was regarded as a work of fiction and it didn't have any of the trappings of being the cup of Christ or anything like that. All of that came later when someone thought it'd be a cool spin. In short, the Templars had absolutely zero to do with it and riding that horse means veering away from the quite interesting story of the Templars themselves and into Dan Brown Da Vinci Code stuff which just detracts from the whole picture. In the first episode, we already have the secret compartment in the sword of Godfrey with the gemstone that was somehow carved years ago to indicate that the Grail had made it to France. This is like the goofy side of Indiana Jones, where objects of extreme veneration and surrounded by ancient cities filled with devout believers are placed in rooms that are so dangerous that no one would ever go in there to worship the deity in question. Similarly, no one would "hide" the location of the grail by carving a gemstone to reveal the first clue in the puzzle unless they wanted said gemstone to be a plot device in a TV show. Try finding evidence of that in your nearest medieval epic.

That's pulp adventure stuff, which is absolutely fine if that's what you want. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a great film. But there are also no illusions about what it is: an adventure film, as opposed to a TV series that is ostensibly about the Knights Templar, but seems intent on sidelining much of their interesting and complex history (there's that word again) for magical fireworks. They're not doing the Templars. They're doing King Arthur and calling it the Knights Templar. Seriously, we already have our Perceval (Bobby Schofield; young lad, innocent, true believer, not jaded) and our Lancelot. They call him "Landry" (Tom Cullen) but that was probably a writing room goof: "This guy, the not-quite-leader, best warrior, we'll call him Lannnn... dry. Yeah." How do I know he's Lancelot? Because the devoted monk is breaking his vows of chastity in the most spectacular way possible by screwing the king's wife!

Really? This is how we explain the eventual decision by Philip to exterminate the Templars, not because he was a right bastard and figured that rubbing out his lenders was better than actually paying his debts (they didn't call him the "Iron King" for nothing; of course, some people also called him "the Fair"...) but because he's going to be mad that his wife is screwing his best friend? As soon as Merlin walks in with a prophecy, we should be good to go, yeah? The problem with the story of the Templars is the same one that afflicted the samurai in the later Shogunate era: with no enemy to fight (or at least, the lack of will to do so), the warrior class reverts to other activities. The Templars became bankers that prayed a lot. The samurai became clerks and bureaucrats who carried swords. Both groups tried to maintain the very martial and focused outlook that their original role demanded, but it became impossible. The Hospitallers became little more than pirates in their waning days, for that matter. I think that's enough story material to drive the series forward without invoking the Arthurian legend in ways large or small.

Plus, there's way too much of this "knight in shining armor" stuff. No one walks around in plate armor. It's heavy and uncomfortable and you certainly don't keep it on your horse if you're hurrying into the countryside at the last minute. There's no way your horse would have been armored like that in the middle of Paris, so why should you grab it from the stable in full plate regalia? But then when the moment comes to display just why the Templars were so feared, they dropped the ball. The Knights were prominent in the Levant because wearing that much metal made them the medieval equivalent of a tank. They would charge, shatter lines, and then the infantry would clean up. This was showed to decent effect during the siege of Acre scene at the beginning. But when they rush out of Paris to save the Jews, they come down the road on the flank of the mercenaries. That's a prime target. Take the charge and the mercs won't even have time to turn their spears properly. That's an easy win. Instead, they ride around to the front of the enemy's formation (i.e. its strongest point) and dismount. Za? You're knights. The word goes back to the equestrian order of the Romans. Your advantage is that you're on horseback. But you decide to abandon that advantage and slug it out on the ground. OK.

None of the performances stuck out in any marked way. There's no interesting character like Ragnar or quirky character like Floki or even frustrated, simmering character like Rollo. Lance- uh, Landry is simmering in frustration, but it's so drowned in angst that it's hard to be sympathetic. Plus, he's decided to relieve some stress by shacking up with Joan of Navarre. The real Joan was reportedly a highly intelligent and shrewd woman, so it's a natural fit if the showrunners wanted a strong female character. But the real Joan had also grown up with Philip and they were very fond of each other, in contrast to many other medieval marriages. But I could live with all of that. I could live with the "love interest" routine and the need for sex in a "mature" series and so forth. It's all good. Maybe Joan of Navarre was getting horizontal with the master of the Templars. But all of those little failings pale in significance to the fact that the series is going to be driven forward by the chase for the magic chalice. They chose... poorly. I'll probably watch the second episode just to see what happens, but it's not likely I'll go past that.

*                 *                *

On Vikings, I thought they did really well with a lot of the time compression and the eventual introduction of the Great Heathen Army. It remained interesting and Ragnar's constant, driving need for glory and legacy was a very human motivation that made waves for everyone around him. I thought that Floki's realization in Algeciras that the Muslims were ignoring the invaders because of their devotion to their god and the practice of their religion was a highlight of the whole series; a very moving moment. The first couple episodes of season 5 have been a little rocky. I think everyone- cast, writer, and fans -knew that it was going to be difficult to replace the energy not just of Ragnar, but Travis Fimmel and the void is definitely there. Neither Lagertha, Bjorn, Harald, or Ivar can be the central focus that Ragnar/Fimmel was. None of the other actors have that charisma and writer, Michael Hirst, has taken advantage of that void to present all of those people striving to fill the gap that Ragnar left them. It's much easier to do method when a change in production basically demands it. The one exception is Floki. His travels to and around Iceland have been interesting and have carried a lot of subtle excitement and emotion. I don't think Vikings will ever carry the weight and quality that other legendary shows have. I'm watching not because I'm fascinated by the story or the people playing it, but because I already know the story and I'm interested to see it brought to life on the screen.

Anyway, next I'll return to Westworld. Yes, I've finally gotten through the majority of it and I might as well put down some perspective before the new season arrives in the new year. There's no guarantee I'll actually watch the new season, but I'll get to that next time.