A riff on the Westworld pilot, “The Original”


Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agape howls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.

Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episodeThe motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.

You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).

Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.

For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).


The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!

But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).

Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.

But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?

As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular).  I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).

And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?

In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).

If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.


Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!

The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.

Nightmare trip Seinfeld (“The Handicap Spot” S04E22)

Orson Welles’ Sketch Book

Raconteur Orson Welles riffs on a number of subjects in these short commentaries, which originally aired on the BBC in 1955. Topics include earthquakes, curses, police work, negative reviews, Martians, magic, etc.

Karl Marx hadn’t seen anything yet (Calvin and Hobbes)


The Dr. Katz Thanksgiving Episode

Cheever holds my attention more than any other writer (Matthew Weiner)


Who are your favorite writers?


I don’t make lists or rank writers. I can only say which ones are relevant to me. Salinger holds my attention, Yates holds my attention. John O’Hara doesn’t, I don’t know why—it’s the same environment, but he doesn’t. Cheever holds my attention more than any other writer. He is in every aspect of Mad Men, starting with the fact that Don lives in Ossining on Bullet Park Road—the children are ignored, people have talents they can’t capitalize on, everyone is selfish to some degree or in some kind of delusion. I have to say, Cheever’s stories work like TV episodes, where you don’t get to repeat information about the characters. He grabs you from the beginning.

Poems have always held my attention, but they’re denser and smaller. It’s funny because poetry is considered harder to read. It wasn’t harder for me. Close reading, that is. Milton, Chaucer, Dante—I could handle those for some reason, but not fiction. From ninth grade on, I wrote poetry compulsively, and pushed myself to do iambic pentameter and rhymes because free verse was cheating—anybody could do that. But I was such a terrible student. I couldn’t sustain anything.

Fascinating interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner in The Paris Review. I would’ve predicted the Yates and the Cheever (and Updike too, whom he doesn’t name), but not the poetry (Weiner goes on to detail his years writing poetry). My wife and I have been, uh, binge watching I think is the phrase the kids are supposed to be saying, although I don’t think the kids say it, I think culture reporters made it up—anyway, my wife and I watched the first season of Mad Men this week (hadn’t watched nary a rerun since it aired). It holds up pretty well, despite some soapy moments, cliches, and broad strokes.

Italo Calvino Profiled on the BBC TV Show Book Mark in 1985

A Rambling Riff on True Detective

1. So usually after I watch the newest episode of True Detective—this week, that means episode five, “The Secret Fate of All Life”—usually I rewatch the episode and then want to write about it and feel stymied. Last week, I had to (was compelled to) rewatch “Who Goes There” immediately after the first viewing.

This is a long lead up to saying, basically, that I haven’t gotten to rewatching “The Secret Fate of All Life” yet, because this episode compelled me to go back to the beginning, to start from “The Long Bright Dark.”

2. So some quick thoughts on “Secret Fate” (with the caveat that I haven’t rewatched it, along with the caveat that these riffs are written to an audience which has already watched the show):

3. The major theme of “Secret Fate” is time. This episode argues that time is an illusion (just as earlier episodes argued that identity is an illusion)—that time is a trick of perception. Continue reading “A Rambling Riff on True Detective”

“A Dream About Being A Person” | Another Riff on True Detective

1. I’ve watched each of the first four episodes of the first season of True Detective at least twice now—compelled to do so, staying up later than I should have to do so.

2. Everything that follows is full of spoilers, although I won’t be discussing the plot heavily. Fair warning, okay? Also: The video clips in this riff are NSFW.

3. I wrote about True Detective after its first episode “The Long Bright Dark” zapped me with its philosophical dialogue and heavy tone. In particular, I was taken—am taken, like most viewers of the show, I suspect—with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a nihilist who intuits the illusory structure of consciousness.

4. “The Long Bright Dark” is one of the best first episodes of a TV show I’ve ever seen, its slow burn pointing toward a payoff that the fourth and most recent episode has already delivered (the climax of that episode (the so fucking-climactic climax), midway through the season, must surely be balanced (imbalanced) with some other, different climax in the season’s second half). I’ll admit though to a slight—very slight—disappointment in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” which feels at times overstuffed, as the showmakers compress so many of the plot points and back story that will propel the rest of the narrative.

5. “Seeing Things,” as its title implies, examines the ways that perspective (and blindness) inform our sense of identity. After four years as an undercover narco, Cohle experiences hallucinations—but he’s keenly aware of his hallucinations—he sees that what he sees is an illusion, but he also sees that what he sees is no less real, in a sense, for all its unreality. Cohle contrasts strongly here with Hart, who sees himself as a family man, a patriarch, a good guy—but he’s a philanderer and a bully. Even when confronted with his young daughter’s interest in aberrant sexual scenarios, his impulse is to look away. Hart’s paternalistic horror at finding an underage girl working in a sylvan brothel is contrary to Cohle’s intuition that the girl’s circumstances might be improved under the care of the madame. For Cohle, identity is always destabilized, an hallucination.

6. In one of the scenes set in 2012—the interrogation scenes–

–(Have I failed to discuss this structure? I have failed. I am sorry. Look, clearly the two detectives—one a rookie, green, callow, both black—clearly this pair, an othered version of Rust and Hart, seem intent to jam Cohle up, pin the 2012 murder on him. But Cohle knows that, knew it before he walked into the room. When he cuts the top off of his empty Lone Star tallboy and uses it as an ad hoc urinal, how else am I to read this, gentle reader, other than a territorial pissing?—he knows this terrain. He marks it—both with his piss (abject essence) and the weird little totem he sculpts from the aluminum scrap. Where was I? Oh).–

7. In one of the scenes set in 2012, Cohle, asked why he wanted to move from narcotics to homicide, paraphrases 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (Significantly, Cohle suspends the ultimate referent of that body, Christ). Asked what the verse might mean, Cohle says, “I was just trying to stay part of the body.” The body here—any body, all bodies (as the verse promises)—is an abject body, figured in the body of the victim that initiates the series, which thematically doubles the body of Cohle’s dead daughter. The verse promises that an individual can, via his or her (abject) body, find an identity.

8. But staying part of the body is hard, especially when the body is so goddamn stupid. The opening scenes of episode three, “The Locked Room,” seem to respond directly to Cohle’s biblical citation:

The scene also repeats the conversation Cohle and Rust have about identity in the first episode; again, Hart rejects Cohle, who seeks to reveal “our mutual illusions.”

9. The phrase “our mutual illusions” comes in the final climactic monologue of “The Locked Room,” where Cohle, in prose that could have come straight from Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, posits human existence as wholly abject, “a jury rig of presumption and dumb will . . . it was all . . . a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person”:

10. (As I wedged a Cormac McCarthy reference into point 9, I may as well wedge another one in here: The second episode of True Detective pretty much wholesale lifts the scene in No Country where Sheriff Ed Tom and his sheriff friend lament that folks don’t say “Yes sir” and “No ma’am” anymore).

11. If “The Locked Room” slowed the pace of True Detective, returned some of the moodiness and philosophy to this police procedural, then episode four, “Who Goes There,” synthesizes everything that’s come before it into a throttling, thrilling climax.

We see Hart fall low, fall apart; for the first time, he has to recognize what he has been hitherto unwilling to recognize—namely, his own blindness, his own pride. His entire identity has been wrapped up in the idea that he is a father and a law man, but his approach to both of these roles has been dishonest—he’s a cheater, an absent father, and a bully. But flashing his badge doesn’t get him that far in “Who Goes There.”

For Cohle, identity is fluid, discontinuous, and unstable. When he goes “undercover” as “Crash,” connecting back with a motorcycle gang in the hopes of finding the suspect in the murder case, he doesn’t put on a mask so much as he simply becomes a different version of himself (which is the same version).

The end of the episode plunges into a nightworld operating on Lynchian logic; to call it dark would be an understatement, and Hart, despite all his macho posturing, is unsteady here, stumbling even. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Hart sees that he cannot see.

12. The final moments of “Who Goes There” coalesce in a strange costume drama (Cohle as Crash in biker garb; the biker gang leering and lurid in cop blues). We’ve moved from the swampy, indeterminate bayou into the concrete box of the projects. No easy exit, but the terrain is somehow just as malleable for Agent Crash Cohle, who doesn’t so much command the screen as navigate it. The last shot of the episode is an uninterrupted slow burn that boils over, seers with a volitional energy that I haven’t seen on film since Children of Men. The scene reaches its end, the partners make their getaway from the scene of the crime, and the camera—via a helicopter shot—rises above the fray, its eye the eye of god, an impossible, inhuman perspective that surveys the whole indiscriminate mess: Seeing:

RIP James Gandolfini


RIP James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

RIP to James Gandolfini, who brought sensitivity and depth to the roles he played. I don’t think The Sopranos could have existed without him. He made me laugh and cry so often in that role, never more than at the end of The Sopranos, where I experienced what I could only describe as catharsis.

Game of Thrones, 1995 Style

(More–Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead—at AV Club)

Shellac Was on Some Animal Planet Show a Few Years Ago

I’m sure that all kinds of music blogs already posted this one. Sorry. Too weird.

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” — The Simpsons

Anthony Burgess (and Others) on Charles Dickens

“Oh My God, It’s So Juicy!”

John Fahey Plays “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” & “Spanish Two Step” (Live in 1981)

1989 Matt Groening Profile in Mother Jones

From the December, 1989 issue of Mother Jones: