‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

The Implausible Immigrants Of ‘The Night Of’

In HBO’s The Night Of a young Pakistani-American, Nasir Khan, has a bad night out: he ‘borrows’ his father’s cab for a joyride, picks up a mysterious and beautiful stranger, parties with her, and wakes up in her apartment to find her dead, and himself accused of murder. Things look bad, very bad. And so we’re off, probing into the subterranean nooks and crannies of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, on the ‘outside,’ his stunned and bemused parents, convinced of his innocence–remain stunned and bemused, fumbling about, accepting help as and when it is given to them by strangers. This depiction of their plight and their reaction to it reveal this show’s understanding of immigrant life to be a very superficial one.

Immigrants don’t sit around, waiting for help to fall into their laps. The fact that they left their homelands to seek a better life is a prima facie indication they don’t do so. Here is what a pair of real-life Mr. and Mrs. Khans, living in the US for long enough for their son to have been born and brought up here, would have done had their son been picked up by the police and thrown behind bars: they would have started working the phones, calling every single one of their friends and family members who could help. They would have put the word out; they would have hustled, desperately and frantically, in a  manner quite familiar to them. The would have worked every ‘angle’ available to them. Perhaps a friend knows a friend who knows a criminal lawyer (“Let me call Hanif, his friend Syed used to work with a lawyer once”); perhaps someone knows a local Congressman who could help (“Do you think we should call Rizwan to see if he can put in a good word for us?”).  The Khans are shown living in Queens; their precise neighborhood is never named, but one can guess the show’s makers had Jackson Heights–where a large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community resides–in mind. If the Khans had been living there for any length of time, they would have built up, as all immigrants do, a rich network of connections who would have enabled and facilitated many aspects of their life in New York City. Nasir’s father, Mr. Khan, is shown as being successful enough to have a part-share in a cab; he did not get to that point without: a) displaying considerable drive and b) cultivating partnerships and relationships.

Leaving an old life in one’s home and starting a new one elsewhere take energy and initiative, the kind conspicuously absent in The Night Of’s depiction of an immigrant family’s responses to a personal catastrophe. The networks of ‘connections’ and ‘contacts’ immigrants rely on to replace the comfortable social structures of the past are what make their lives in this new land possible; an immigrant who did not instinctively rely on such forms of aid, and who did not display sufficient initiative to draw on them, would not last too long in this unforgiving land. Mr. and Mrs. Khan do a good job of looking like shocked parents; they don’t do such a good job of looking like immigrant parents who have brought up their child away from ‘home. ‘

True Detective: Eight Points of Contention

I finished watching True Detective last night. I found the finale deeply disappointing but I can’t say that I was surprised; the show had seemed incapable, over the last few episodes, of sustaining the portentousness it had built up in the first three or so installments. I still think the show was outstanding, but I don’t think it delivered on the promises it held out as it began (and it especially did not capture the tragic mood of the haunting title sequence; see #1 below.)

Here are some observations, in no particular order, that attempt to sustain that claim:

1. I understood True Detective to not be a murder mystery but rather a tragedy about two deeply flawed men; given that, the ending was hokey and cliched, descending into Hollywood-style redemption, sweetness and light. The finale should have ended with the ‘final showdown’ in Carcosa. This failure was made even more acute with the contrast provided by the opening few minutes of ‘Form and Void‘, which were absolutely chilling and showed True Detective at its best.

2. There was a brooding Gothic atmosphere in the first four episodes that faded away in the last four; from the moment the show jumped to 2002, it lost its distinctive mood and became more conventional.

3. Matthew McConaughey‘s acting intensity started to diminish; I think he was struggling with maintaining the Cohle facade and the strains of that showed in the last couple of episodes. By the end, even his make-up mask seemed like it was fading and slipping.

4. The show’s template was a little well-worn: angry, violent, male detectives, serial killers, female victims, abusive families, small-town USA as locale for horror. (I hope that in its forthcoming seasons we see interesting and distinctive variations on these, including some different periods as well.)

5. Cohle‘s invocation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–among others–was well-done in parts, but also felt forced at times.

6. Disappointingly, nothing was ever made of Audrey Hart‘s drawings; this was a strange red herring to throw into the mix. Especially because Mart Hart consistently showed himself to be such an unhinged, violent protector of his female ‘property’: his assaults on Lisa‘s date, Cohle, Audrey’s boyfriends.

7.  The epic six-minute gunbattle in ‘Who Goes There?‘ A wonderful, dramatic, action-packed sequence that wasn’t all that consequential in the ‘resolution’ of the plot. It didn’t have to be; but it would have been nice to have had that scene invested with a greater importance.

8. The detective work that Marty puts on show in the season finale could have made more appearances; all too often, the clues that came Hart and Cohle’s way were all too easily obtained. Two classic instances of this: a) Charlie Lange provides valuable clues on three separate occasions; each time, he is abruptly drafted in to provide these and then shunted out, his task of providing momentum to the show’s narrative accomplished b) we are asked to believe that a geriatric lady, living in an old-folks residence, not only remembers a paintjob from many years ago, but also the color of the paint used, and a distinctive facial feature on one of the painters.

In the end, True Detective was still a very good television show, but the promise it held out initially wasn’t realized.

Marty Hart Comes Undone

The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective–“Who Goes There”–is justifiably famous for director Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s epic six-minute tracking take of a gun battle gone spectacularly, violently wrong. There is another scene in the episode that should be just as famous: Marty Hart‘s epic, rage and profanity-filled meltdown on finding out his wife Maggie has left him (after his paramour Lisa Tragnetti has ratted him out to her.)

A recap: Hart comes home to find packed suitcases and a note waiting for him. He reads the note–with no voiceover for the viewer–his face contorted by shock, anger, and fear. He then calls Lisa to find out if his worst fears are true. The next couple of minutes are absolutely terrifying.

Marty’s conversation with Lisa is as horrifying as it is because we witness the shocking transformation of two humans–formerly bound by sexual intimacy and shared confidences–into creatures possessed by a seemingly boundless mutual hatred. Hart is forced to channel his anger through an impersonal instrument, the phone, but it is visibly and viscerally present in his expressions, his bulging veins, his reddened visage, his clenched teeth; it is the closest I’ve seen a human being come to embodying a controlled detonation.

Marty’s anger is especially frightening because we know it is animated by fear. To Marty, Lisa has transformed herself into something dangerous and vicious; she is capable of great damage and harm; she has suddenly revealed a power once hidden; she is unafraid to use it. Marty is terrified by her, petrified by the knowledge he has consorted with such a monster. She is now beyond the control he thought he exerted over her; their past intimacy now appears as mere prelude for this betrayal. Marty is floundering; he has had the wind knocked out of him by Lisa; through his rage, he attempts to find a grounding in a bewildering new world.

But most frighteningly of all, Marty’s rage is impotent. He cannot shovel sand back into the hourglass; he cannot roll back Lisa’s communique; he cannot undo his affair; he cannot even bring Maggie to the phone. He rages and rages, not just at Lisa, but at himself, at the arrangements of this universe that place the past out of reach, that expose us again and again to such terrible finality. He can curse and commit himself to the deadliest of acts, but only for the future. The past is done and dusted.

Our daily composure is commonly understood as an elaborate construction, a holding back of the forces that fray us around the edges and threaten to pull us apart; it is often unable to resist the various insults sent its way. At those moments, we ‘lose our shit’, we come undone; we slump, the accumulated tension too great to bear. Watching another’s decay thus is frightening because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility; it tells us we may suffer a similar fate, unable to take refuge behind our daily facade of normalcy.

Game of Thrones AKA The Widow’s Revenge

I quite enjoy HBO’s Game of Thrones and after accounting for all the sex and violence have often wondered why I find it so entertaining; I’m not inclined toward the fantasy genre under normal circumstances and do not think I had read any of its productions before Game of Thrones. (That has changed; I have now read the first novel of George Martin‘s epic series).

Daniel Mendelsohn provides an answer of sorts, beginning with:

This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.

And concluding:

Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.

Quite correctly, Mendelsohn’s central reason for regarding Game of Thrones as a ‘feminist epic’ is the position it accords to Daenerys Targaryen (and to a lesser extent to Arya Stark). Her struggle for power, wherein she will challenge men for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms is an often dominant plot line. She might be assisted by men, she might take advice from them, but she remains her own boss (and as Ser Jorah Mormont often finds out, she is not shy about letting him know this fact); all too often, she commands and rules them.  She is not shackled and dependent on male sexuality: 

The pubescent Dany…is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden.

Mention of her dead husband, the Dothraki chieftain Khal Drogo, serves as a reminder that a crucial component in realizing Martin’s feminist vision in Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ status as a widow.

The widow, of course, is the archetypal weakened and destitute woman: she lacks a male guardian, protector, provider, and lover. She is incomplete in many ways. For instance, she lacks that which will realize her motherhood–her sole raison d’etre–a father for her children. From now on, she can only be a dependent, cast out to the not-so-tender mercies of other men, or the sympathies of her own family. The loss of her husband has marked her out as a singular unfortunate; the more superstitious might regard her as the bearer of misfortune for her husband, and seek to consign her to the margins of our world where she may infect us no more. Those women who know the standing of widows in a society like the Dothraki–and many of ours have approximated theirs in the past and sometimes even in the present–may find any inner resolve crumble when confronted with a fate as terrible as that which befell Khal Drogo. But not Daenerys Targaryen. Her mighty man–it is no coincidence that Martin made him the epitome of rugged, virile strength–is brought to his knees by a witch’s sorcery, but this loss, while tragic, does not detract her from her quest.

It is the refusal to embrace the Dothraki widow’s fate that makes Daenerys the strong woman that she is, and that allows Martin to give his epic a feminist hue.

David Simon is a Little Too Proprietary About The Wire

David Simon has made some waves recently in a series of interviews regarding the Wire (here; here; and here), viewer’s relationships to it (and its characters). I’m not going to repeat or reproduce Simon’s remarks here; please do chase down the links. But in a nutshell: Simon (was) is unhappy about the ‘pop’ understanding of the Wire that seems to have made its way into our broader culture, a function, he thinks of its late uptake by a whole viewer demographic that wasn’t around when the show was struggling with ratings, an understanding that is obsessed about characters rather than the overarching theme or narrative, and that ‘misunderstands’ the show.

Simon’s remarks are peculiar for several reasons. For one, there is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae. I hate to break the news to Simon, but once the show was made and released, any kind of control that he might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

What if, during the fourth season,  a fierce Diane RavitchMichelle Rhee-type debate had been  dominating airwaves elsewhere? Wouldn’t viewers of the Wire have had a very different interpretation of the show’s characters and action in that period? Is this something Simon could control or even cater for in his writing and direction? What if California and Washington had legalized marijuana during the third season? Would that not have affected viewers’ understandings of that season’s themes? This co-construction of meaning is a well-established trope in our understanding of how artworks acquire and establish traction. Simon might have had a vision and meaning for the show but having decided to give it to  viewers he must realize the work isn’t his anymore in any meaningful sense of the word.

The other peculiar point in Simon’s interview is his insistence that the Wire is a long-form story, that it is a coherent whole, and that it be understood as such and that the episodic reaction to it so typical of the long-running series relationship with its fans, gets it wrong. But Simon chose to work in a particular medium that afforded him freedom for lengthy development of character and plot.  The periodic release of the episodes meant–just as above–that their meaning was always going to be constructed over a period of time, subject always to those sort of short-term reactions typical of the television show. Why would Simon be surprised or upset by this? The Wire was the best television show ever and a great story. But those that watched also made it.

Side note: Much as I liked the Wire, I think Simon needs a reality check if he thinks his work was nothing but gritty realism (not that he ever makes any such claim in those interviews above but there is a kind of insistence on his having provided a social documentary). McNulty is a cliché in some ways; Omar, no matter how fascinating a character, is an implausible one; the drug markets in season three were ridiculous; the fifth season’s McNulty-creation of the serial killer was by far some of the most contrived story-telling I’ve ever seen. Simon might think he had transcended every single genre in making the Wire but he didn’t.