Westworld Season 1
(HBO, created for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on the film by Michael Crichton)
If you have not seen Season 1 of Westworld DO NOT read further. This article contains very detailed spoilers.
Back in 2014 when Spike Jonze’s Her was in theaters, I remember seeing a very awkward interview between Jonze and a reporter on BBC Newsnight. The reporter begins the segment describing the film as being about humanity falling in love with technology. It’s obvious Jonze doesn’t agree with this analysis and attempts to explain his view of the film about any romantic relationship and how often one partner can grow in ways that cause them to fall out of love while the remaining partner has not grown past the love yet. The film is about that emotional dissonance people in dying relationships experience told through a fantastical lens. That’s how I’ve felt reading a lot of pop reviews and analyses of Westworld. The focus is either on the mystery behind everything or seeing it as being about the singularity and advanced artificial intelligence. Westworld is a show that has futuristic technology, but it is not about technology, not about human progress in material terms. It’s a series about self-discovery and the journey inward.
The bicameral mind was an idea developed by Julian Jaynes and published in 1976. He believed early humans had divided cognition which led to the assumption of God when in fact we were speaking with ourselves. Auditory verbal hallucinations resulted in the creation of deities and spirits. Jaynes stated that the modern concept of Consciousness developed around 3,000 years ago which led to introspection and the idea of an inner self. Jaynes compared the psychology of the Old and New Testaments, with the New eschewing legalism for a more human-centered concept of spirituality. There’s no consensus on what causes schizophrenia, this could be a vestige of the early bicameral mind, he theorized. Jayne’s ideas have been routinely shot down as having no scientific footing, one of the main arguments being that language emerged before his timing and that internal consciousness would have had to have existed for language’s development. While Jaynes might have been at something or completely off, the theory is important to understanding what Westworld is attempting to say about our relationship to ourselves and our spirit.
In the final moments of Westworld’s first season, we have two characters, Dolores and Maeve seemingly developing autonomy outside of their creator’s wishes. Throughout the ten episodes, both they and other hosts in the park have experienced contact with an external entity and we’ve been led to believe this is Arnold, the deceased creator of the park. Dolores, through prompting by the park’s co-creator, Ford is brought to the “center of the maze” and finds that the voice she believes to be Arnold’s is supposedly her own inner consciousness developing where once there was none. Dolores then goes on to assassinate Ford, an act the man himself had implied he wanted to be done as part of his creations’ ascendancy. The question then is, did Dolores kill Ford by her own choice or was this yet again another program?
A bit earlier, Maeve, a host who had coerced human technicians into aiding her escape from the facility, learned her entire plan to recruit fellow hosts and stage an escape had been programmed into her. Her entire journey of self-awareness and autonomy was now just the bidding of the masters she had been trying to escape. Maeve angrily tries to reject this and continues on her path to the last train out of Westworld. As she is about to depart, Maeve is reminded of the daughter in her memories, a daughter that logic tells her was just another host and no real relation to her, but the memory and the emotions connected to this child force her to disembark, an act that is truly breaking her programming. I believe Maeve has indeed broken from her programming with this act of humanity while Dolores is still in the process of evolving.
We are William. The audience, unsatisfied with the story we are given, petulant and entitled, believing that nihilistic, destructive behavior toward this former object of our love is warranted. How could it end like that? They didn’t explain what it meant! They were just making it up as they went! I wasted hours of my life on this stupid thing! It’s no coincidence that J.J. Abrams was the producer of Westworld, a creator who has been the bullseye of endless online hate towards his work. William is us in that he sees himself as the protagonist of this story. Why? Because he paid to be, I guess? Humanity does an excellent job of elevating the material Self over the internal Self, but more on that a little later. William is continually told that The Maze is not for him, yet he never listens and believes he is entitled to the Maze and this abstract finality he thinks he was promised.
This season was full of meta-commentary about creators, their creations, and how the audience can override the artistic vision for “what sells.” Loops are those conventional narrative formulas and tropes that are trotted out time and time again because they knew the audience will mindlessly eat it up. Shallow mysteries are strung out, diverting the audience’s attention from thinking about the emotions and psyche of characters or using this as a moment of self-reflection. Ford sums it up in his final speech to the board of directors, but actually to the viewing audience:
“I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. For my pains, I got this, a prison of our own sins. You can’t change, or don’t want to change, because you’re only human after all.”
I believe we must step back even further to see what Westworld is trying to tell us about ourselves. The show makes no bones about saying how we consume life is equally important to what aspects of life you consume. The visitors to Westworld, from the arrogant Logan to the faux-noble William, consume life from the point of view of entitlement and expectation. People are continually unsatisfied with life yet never contemplate what they have done to make it such an unfulfilling experience. I go back to that old dictum of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Unlike the guests, the awakened hosts have keyed into the central element of life that must be tackled: Suffering. Suffering is essential for growth, but that growth is contingent on learning how to overcome your suffering.
Life cannot exist without suffering and how you deal with it determines the trajectory of your future. You can become consumed with hatred and seek to lash out and destroy those who caused your suffering, you can submit to the suffering and passively take it, or you can seek out some way in the middle. Westworld makes no formal judgment about that choice, at least not yet. Dolores chooses, apparently, to stand up against the architects of her suffering, Arnold chooses to die rather than continue living to feel his suffering, William believes life is nothing but suffering and accepts taking it while giving it back.
There’s a lot more that can be said about Westworld, and this is just scratching the surface. The series was co-created by Jonathan Nolan, writer of pretty much every Christopher Nolan film and, as I saw someone say this week, he is able to write about complex ideas and respect that the audience can understand. In future, it would be interesting to look at a lot of the dual relationships in the series (Dolores/Maeve, Logan/William, William/Ford, William/Teddy, Teddy/Dolores, etc.) and explore what these dualities are saying about audiences, creators, and art.