When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? Westworld, The Walking Dead & Encroaching Dystopia

When did we become the bad guys?

When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective *we* referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.

We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.

Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more. Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are *not* the heroes of this story.

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Game of Thrones – ‘The Pointy End’

VARYS: Ah, the children. It’s always the innocents.

One of the interesting aspects of ‘You Win or You Die’, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones. ‘The Pointy End’ redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

Martin is, of course, the creative force behind this entire mythological world. As writer of A Song of Ice and Fire, he has devoted over the last twenty years of his life to the vast, sprawling narrative which began in A Game of Thrones in 1996 and will likely conclude with A Dream of Spring sometime, you would hope, before the Sun exhausts its fuel and the Earth crumbles to dust. Martin is a notoriously slow writer, even for someone putting together such a magnum opus at this – a short A Song of Ice and Fire novel tends to run at around 600-700 pages. Indeed one of the reasons Martin didn’t write an episode of the TV series after Season 4 is precisely because fans were hounding him, day and night, to finish The Winds of Winter, reputedly the penultimate book, which as of writing still remains to be published.

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Black Mirror Season 4 – A Unified Theory

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

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Game of Thrones – (Series Overview + Reviews)

Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke the mould.

George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.

Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter A Song of Ice and Fire novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing A Song of Ice and Fire as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than The Lord of the Rings, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.

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The Sense of no Ending: The Walking Dead and sticking the landing

Let me preface this piece with a confession: I haven’t watched The Walking Dead in at least five years. My relationship with the show ended following the lacklustre conclusion to the third season. Many people have suggested the fourth is the best so perhaps the joke’s on me, but here’s the reason I never came back: I just couldn’t cope with the nihilism. If there is a TV show built on a deeper sense of profound doom than the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic, it’s doing a very good job of hiding itself.

The Walking Dead has, from the very beginning, been predicated on the fact there will be no happy ending. The zombies will never be eradicated. The world will never be saved, the virus never cured. The survivors will spend the rest of their lives fighting impossible odds only to one day die, either naturally or horrifically. No light exists at the end of this tunnel. Bleak, huh? Bleak and, for many, alienating. The Walking Dead is shedding viewers by the episode as it’s Eighth Season airs in the US. Many have suggested the rot has been setting in for the last couple of seasons, for several reasons (stand up, Negan). It feels like a show approaching its death throes which is ironic, because The Walking Dead refuses to end in kind of conventional sense.

Endings are fascinating to me. Endings are where the power lies in storytelling, no matter whether you’re dealing with a TV show, movie, book, video game, anything with a narrative structure. You’ll hear many fiction writers talk about how they’ve figured out their conclusion before anything else, novelists in particular. That’s a much harder maxim for television writers to follow given the mercurial nature of the business. Movies are able more conclusively to craft an ending if they are telling a contained story but now almost every cinematic experience ends with the promise of a follow up, whether a straight sequel or a cinematic franchise. The solitary, told story experience is one to be cherished, in whatever form of media.

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