The ethics of ‘Westworld’: Those who fail to heed stories are doomed to recreate them

You can’t escape the player piano, not anywhere in Westworld, not even in the opening credits of this sci-fi HBO series. Plinky-plunk piano plays over swelling strings as robot arms 3-D print muscles onto a human skeleton and a horse canters as if in an Eadweard Muybridge’s motion-study film. Optic white polymer hands press a piano’s keys; the 3-D printer completes a woman’s face; the woman rides the motion-study horse; the frame opens to a creamy paper peppered with holes, filling the screen. A circular whorl of inscrutable information, the roll spools on the player piano; and skeletal hands lifting from the keys, the piano plays itself.

Nothing about Westworld is simple to describe. Loosely based upon the 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, HBO’s Westworld explores multiple worlds surrounding an immersive Wild West theme park that features A.I. robots, or “hosts” in the parlance of the show. You get the theme park itself—the titular Westworld that recreates a thick brocade of western narratives for its moneyed guests—and you get the designers of the Westworld experience, the people who create the storylines and program the A.I. robots. Relentlessly repetitive, Westworld is a show that’s an intentional mindfuck; it’s sweet mental candy for people who find pleasure in the untangling of puzzles. Westworld’s show-runners number both Jonathan Nolan, writer-producer of Person of Interest and Memento, and J.J. Abrams, the man behind Lost and Fringe, so you know this much is true: What you’re seeing is rarely what you think it is.

In the Westworld cosmos, the player piano isn’t just a dumb instrument — it’s a character. You get the player piano in the credits, and as you’d expect, its music jingles in the background of the cliché saloon. Like a quaint anachronism, the player piano appears in the modern day office of the Robert Ford, Westworld’s founder played by Anthony Hopkins. At first glance, the player piano functions like a reassuring symbol of cultural expectation. It’s the music box sound of 60s TV shows like Gunsmoke or Bonanza, or even Deadwood, an HBO series whose bleached Western bones seem to have been picked clean in the making of Westworld.

In this vertiginous context, the player piano isn’t innocent. It toys with your expectations, tinkling out versions of NIN’s “Something I Can Never Have,” Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” Unpack these choices and you get more than a delicious nugget of mindfuckery; you get a discomfiting juxtaposition of old-timey sound capturing contemporary standards in Lucite amber. Like fake plastic trees, Westworld acts as an echo of the real, and it slides with a disturbing Doppler effect of doppelgängerland as it recedes into the cognitive black.

The player piano gets a lot of airtime. The camera lingers on its white paper cylinder, the tiny wormholes of information that tell the piano which notes to play, and this image seems like a fairly straightforward visual metaphor. Just as the hosts are programmed to run in predefined narratives, so too does the piano play only what it’s told to play, an endless loop of predetermined notes, a tinkling diegetic accompaniment to the scene’s action.

But here’s the thing: Not even the piano is just piano in Westworld. Look at its history, and you see the player piano is a kissing cousin to Westworld’s hosts. A descendent of automated looms in the nineteenth century, the player piano’s information rests in its paper rolls, and these roles are themselves ancestors of the modest paper punched tape that fed computers their information through the 1970s. Several generations later, Westworld intimates, that computer has sprouted arms and legs, human skin, working genitalia, and the ability to whisper, “You’re new. Not much of a rind on you.”

In its constant return to the player piano, Westworld seems to be asking one seminal question: What separates the player piano from the A.I. hosts? Both are there for the delectation of Westworld’s guests (and ours too, of course). Both act out nostalgic desires that were created by consuming preexisting media, namely television shows. Both the player piano and the hosts are machines, and both exist to be played with, however destructively. “These violent delights have violent ends,” goes the Shakespeare refrain that zings through Westworld’s episodes, but it’s an HBO show, after all, so pleasurable violence is the same as it ever was. The tension between Westworld and its makers seems to want to flatten the hosts and the piano into interchangeable tech, just playthings for humans, until their brutal death.

Westworld’s robotic hosts, however, aren’t having it—and, really, if they were docile actors, there’d be no drama. The park’s appeal is that it’s virtually impossible to differentiate humans from hosts (and, as the show unfolds, this impossibility is part of viewers’ joy as well), and at the core of each host is his or her “cornerstone,” a defining moment in every host’s life that organizes his or her unique identity. We humans would call a moment like this a “memory,” a strange term to use for pre-programmed backstory. Yet as a programming update allows for hosts to recollect vestiges of previous experiences, memory becomes an issue at Westworld, particularly as those memories are almost exclusively traumatic.

Like many HBO dramas (Game of Thrones most notably but also The Sopranos), trauma animates Westworld’s narratives. All of the theme park’s hosts are sexually available, but only the female hosts are raped, at least as far as we witness. Farmer’s daughter Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is Westworld’s oldest host, and the series opens with a scene of her sexual assault by the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris. The assault we see is not Dolores’ first, and eventually she remembers, and eventually she takes action. Trauma becomes the galvanizing force in Westworld, those shreds of repressed memory that gain shape and grow heft with repetition. Memory is the feature that is the bug, and as Dolores and the other hosts remember, they gain autonomy.

But Westworld’s just a story, right? A Sunday night treat to get us through to the next season of Game of Thrones, Westworld is merely improbable confection of complex proportions, but we need to take seriously—or is it? The show exalts in its own loopiness—the can that drops from Dolores’ hand as she slips it into her saddlebag, the impeccably timed stealing of the safe, the hosts’ predictive text that fills in their cognitive blanks. Westworld is structured like the rolls on the player piano, endless and circular, but this infinite looping of narratives, of action, of predictable human behavior brings to mind a refrain from another cyborg show. “Everything has happened before and will happen again,” Battlestar Galactica told us, repeatedly. Stories, the robots tell us, matter, and those who fail to heed stories are doomed to recreate them. The player piano plinks out its tune, but will future humans listen?