Underlying all the Westworld hype of the past month was the presupposition—which attends most Nolan-affiliated projects—that the show would be Deep. We were led to expect a story both entertaining and substantial, with sex robots and metaphysical quandaries.
And showrunners Jonathan “Brother of Christopher” Nolan and Lisa Joy admit to overt philosophizing. In an interview with Esquire, Joy acknowledges that, by telling a story in which robots question the nature of their reality, she and Nolan hoped to get us the audience questioning the nature of our reality. In the same interview, Nolan drops that bomb that the show incorporates “big ideas.”
Predictably, those big ideas don’t amount to much in the first episode. Jonathan Nolan tends to be more smoke than fire when it comes to imbuing his work with philosophical depth (see: Interstellar), and as for the first episode of Westworld, the Guardian’s analysis of the show’s trailer still applies: “You could easily be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was created by a first-year philosophy student who’s just got stoned for the first time.”
See, using artificially intelligent robots to explore questions of consciousness is a trope at least as old as 2001: A Space Odyssey. That doesn’t mean the ethics of AI aren’t worth continued exploration (and Ex Machina handled the subject rather well). It’s just that the Westworld premiere doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the table.
Except for a brief moment in the opening credits.
The intro is beautiful, if stylistically commonplace. Human and animal forms are 3D printed by machines that weave muscle fibers like a spiders’ web. Three times in the sequence, we see a pair of robotic hands playing a piano.
In the first two instances, the shot serves the sole purpose of showing off Westworld’s robotic creations, emphasizing just how lifelike these machines are. But then there’s a little twist. In the third shot the hands lift from the keyboard, and the keys continue to rise and fall to the music.
On the surface, it’s a cute ah-ha moment—a player piano!—but the gesture suggests a perplexing philosophical idea: that cause and effect are bullshit.
David Hume famously pointed out that we can’t actually prove causation—we just observe what consistently looks like causation. Further, the idea that cause and effect are bunk goes hand in hand with the idea that time is an illusion (or, yeah, yeah, a flat circle). If time and space are just a big unchanging block of 4-dimensional spacetime (you don’t have to pretend to understand that) and there’s no such things as past and future, then a finger touching a piano key cannot be said to “cause” the key to depress.
Now, full disclosure, I’m no philosopher (I took a handful of undergrad courses and can name-drop Descartes like nobody’s business, but besides that, I’m basically worthless), but that subtle moment in the Westworld intro implies a possibility about the nature of reality that’s WAY more compelling than Anthony Hopkins growling something about meeting your maker.
Maybe this is attributing the show more philosophical nuance than Nolan deserves credit for, but given that the player piano is the pilot’s second most frequently recurring image (after flies crawling on people’s eyes), it’s obviously a significant symbol. And as a symbol—of the dubiousness of causality or otherwise—it’s the most promising suggestion that this show could be, well, kinda Deep.