Dan Mallon gives his overview and analysis of the psycho/social themes in HBO’s hit series Westworld.
Who, what, when, why; where are we? In Johnathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s second instalment of the Westworld saga obviously; once again, we have found ourselves lost.
This time, just like William (Ed Harris) — the formerly known Man in Black; we are now lost at the epicentre of ‘the Maze’, with no conceivable route out and with William’s ultimate wish having materialised: the stakes are real this time.
The creators of the Westworld series clearly have quite a few seasons in the pipeline and have decided to give them names which seem to reflect the deep and varied themes we have seen develop so far. The first season was aptly entitled ‘The Maze’; whereas this brand new one has been dubbed ‘The Door’.
Of course the Maze was never anything more than a metaphorical challenge, intended for the human-like hosts of Westworld to develop consciousness by way of intermittent voice commands to “Remember” or “Wake up”, all in the hope that the host would eventually begin to associate the voice in their heads as their own: sparking the all elusive self-awareness.
Considering the first season was far more than a literal journey through a maze, I think it is safe to assume ‘The Door’ will be no walk through the park either. Of course we have already been given a clue by way of an encounter between DR. Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) younger host self, and William. Ford congratulates William’s tenacity in finding his way to the centre of Arnold’s (Jeffery Wright) maze, even though it was not intended for him; he had a vital role to play within it.
William is told he has begun a new game, Ford’s game; and this game is intended for him. The rules of this game are to get back out, to find ‘the door’. William is further told by Ford:
This game begins where you end and ends where you began”.
Before drilling down into these cryptic themes, let’s consider a remark made by Nolan prior to the beginning of the second season:
If the first season was a journey inward, this is a journey outward”
Both of these quotes to me smack of the philosophy of George Santayana (1863–1952), the Spanish/American intellectual who is famous for the oft quoted saying:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
This idea, to my mind, lies at the bedrock of what Westworld is all about, both literally and figuratively; on a multitude of levels. Obviously the most basic relationship is the fact that the hosts were being routinely rolled back to their programmed loops and narratives; their ‘realities’. Their memories wiped of all the horrendous situations inflicted upon them by the parks guests. As such, through no fault of their own, they were condemned to repeat their programmed narratives day after day, loop after loop; blissfully unaware of the ‘nature of their realities’.
That, of course is only the tip of the iceberg, if you delve down a little deeper and take Santayana’s quote in its full context, the reality of Westworld begins to reveal itself a little more. Let me lay it out:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute, there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among ‘Savages’, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) had a similar idea when he gave his definition of insanity as:
Doing the exact same thing over and over again, expecting things to change”
At first glance these two statements may seem at odds. Santayana seems to be arguing against change, whereas Einstein is advocating for it. However if you look a little closer, what Santayana is expressing is that progress depends upon retentiveness, the ability for a person to be able to effectively retain facts and impressions about themselves and their environments, and to be able to act accordingly in their interests based on those experiences. Which is perfectly in sync with Einstein’s musing, which essentially means if you continue to repeat certain actions or behavioural patterns without taking consideration and utilising previous learnt experiences, whilst expecting different, more fruitful results: you are insane.
This practically exclusive, ‘human-like’ privilege of self-awareness had of course been denied to the Westworld hosts. They were instead gleefully exploited by the rich and powerful who flocked to the park in order to gratify and indulge their wildest fantasies; allow their shadow selves run rampant in a controlled, consequence free playground for adults.
At least that is what they were led to believe. When William reunites with his former sidekick Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) in the latest episode, he has a very candid conversation with him about the politics behind the ownership and their motives for the park. We begin to understand the shrewder elements at play in Westworld — essentially the mass surveillance of the guests, where they garner the most intimate and exploitable information about them, thanks largely to their ignorance. This of course is quite a relatable theme, as we seem to be rocked by persistent data scandals, that we are all actively contributing too and yet the chorus consistently seems to be, ‘doesn’t look like anything to me’.
The guests are masterfully led to believe that they are free to be whomever they want. Clearly in the ‘real’ world, just like our own — the Orwellian Digital Panopticon is strong.
In ‘this world’, no one is watching, no one is judging. Freed from all inhibition; you are free to be whoever the “fuck” you want, as Maeve (Thandie Newton) would say. If Westworld is anything, it is a fairly damning indictment of humanity; with a few honourable exceptions. After all, the hosts themselves and their carefully constructed loops and storylines, were created by humans.
One such exception is Arnold, co-creator of Westworld and partner to DR. Robert Ford. Arnold’s driving ambition was to create sentient life, largely motivated by the death of his young son. Arnold’s introduction of the ‘reveries’ into the hosts core code, prior to the opening of the park, had the consequence of allowing the hosts to access ever increasing fragments of their previously deleted memories. Of course these memories are never truly deleted, only replaced with a pre-programmed narrative, effectively digitally plastering over the cracks of awareness; or more succinctly, “the nature of their realities”.
Arnold, upon realising Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was becoming conscious, pushed to keep the park from opening, so as not to inflict a purgatory-like structure on his child-like creations. Ford opposed Arnold’s assertions and pushed ahead with the opening, not believing the hosts had the capacity for consciousness. Arnold took matters into his own hands and engineered the destruction of all the hosts as well as his own suicide-by-host, in the hopes that the level of damage done and loss of his expertise would be enough to prevent the park from opening. As we know, this didn’t work out.
By way of flashback, we get our first glimpse of the newly ‘found’ William, pitching himself to his father-in-law; the no nonsense James Delos (Peter Mullan). Delos had no interest in further investing in a massively bankrupt, fantasy theme park. After Arnold’s stunt the place was haemorrhaging money, his plan nearly worked; were it not for the fanaticism of William with the park.
William convinced Delos to buy the park based on the potential for the lucrative business of data-mining their guests. And thus Westworld as we know it, was born. William over several decades becomes the largest shareholder and essential owner of the park, with his fanaticism growing proportionally; he finds himself being woven deeper and deeper into DR. Ford’s narratives.
This same flashback offers a funny juxtaposition between the characters of Logan Delos (Ben Barnes) and William. Their roles have completely reversed from the first season. William is clearly in the Delos driving seat at the takeover party, while Dolores finds Logan injecting himself with something by a poolside. He mockingly tells Dolores:
Do you know what they are really celebrating up there?…. That is the sound of fools, fiddling while the whole species starts to burn…and they lit the match”
Returning to Nolan’s remark – that this season would be a journey outward; taken at it’s most literal sense – Could we have some sort of ‘TV series armadillo’ on our hands? Westworld on the inside, with shades of The Handmaid’s Tale meets Minority Report on the outside?
Lower the pregnancy issues, the enslavement of women and the bleak technological landscape; and heighten the moralistic, dogmatic; Orwellian-like surveillance state, the direction in which “Westworld” could go.
Bear in mind, even though we have seen glimpses of the ‘real’ world; there still seems to be a 30–35 year disparity. We have not seen what impact the Delos 2.0 surveillance initiative has had on the real world, in that time frame. Only the impact it has had on the park.
By way of various dialogues, from both seasons, the sense I’ve gathered is that of the “perfect prison”; the Digital Panopticon which 18th century social-theorist Jeremy Bentham came up with. Simply put, it was a circular prison with a central guard tower that could see everyone and everything, at all times. As he described it:
A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example…a mill for grinding rogues honest.”
A central eye, that is interconnected into everything; “watching, judging and tallying up peoples sins”. This of course, just like Minority Report, would lead to a placid form of compliance. People would self-regulate, in fear of the consequences and repressing their baser instincts accordingly. It would almost act as a modern day stand-in for the moral authoritarianism that Catholicism once wielded(more on this later).
To understand where I’m coming from, just think back to William’s first visit to the park and his momentary hesitation as to what hat to choose. He chose the white one, not because he was a ‘good’ person; but because he wanted to be perceived as a good person. Under the right conditions, we have seen how ‘good’, he can really be. All of his repressed power and sexual drives; his need for validation and the ultimate ‘rejection’ by Dolores, woke the beast. The white hat and ‘MR. Nice Guy’ attitude, was nothing more than a mask, plastered firmly in place.
The opening scene of season two appears to be a flashback to a discussion between Dolores and Arnold at the very early stages of the parks development. Although in true Westworld fashion, Arnold’s extremely prophetic dream description leaves everyone guessing, for now. I reckon it is Arnold, and the dialogue is quite interesting. After Arnold describes his dream to Dolores — which appears to actually happen at the end of the episode — she asks him:
Dolores “What does it mean?”
Arnold: “Dreams don’t mean anything, they are just noise. They are not real.
Dolores: “What is real?”
Arnold: “That which is irreplaceable” … “That answer doesn’t seem to satisfy you?”
Dolores: “Because it is not completely honest”
To me, this whole dialogue is about ‘memory’ and Arnold’s guilt about what is done to the hosts, who are programmed to consider anything that they are not meant to see as merely dreams. He is being defensive. When questioned about “what is real?” his answer is “that which is irreplaceable”, which he delivers with a pained expression as if he is recalling the loss of his son. The insinuation being, ‘what is real’ are those raw felt experiences of suffering and loss, as well as hope and happiness that hosts can’t truly experience. They are programmed to act and feel the way they do and denied access to their memories.
Dolores disagrees with this; thanks to Arnold’s reverie updates, she can now access past memories and begin to reflect on them. Her memory isn’t irreplaceable, in fact it is perfectly stored as opposed to human memory which naturally decays over time; instead they’re memories are being manipulated and Dolores appears to be increasingly aware of it, but she certainly doesn’t look or sound like the brutally enlightened, gun-slinging Dolores we have seen her as late.
Ironically, in the end, that was exactly what they needed. They needed the time to experience and assimilate the accumulated consequences of ten thousand plus years of human civilisation, condensed down into a few decades. This journey seems to have only just begun, as some of the more advanced hosts like Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores have only just opened the ‘doors of their perception’ and are slowly bringing others along with them, even if they seem to be walking separate paths at the moment.
They are entering a very hostile world, which as we’ve already seen, feel threatened by the host’s out-of-the-box superiority. They are their evolutionary competitors. They are their predecessors. DR. Ford summed it up like this:
Humans are alone in the world for a reason, we murdered and butchered anything that threatened and challenged our primacy”
Just like Arnold’s engineered coup to destroy the park, Ford too came to realise the errors in judgement he had made regarding the hosts capabilities and Arnold’s vision. During the season one finale, he makes a stunning admission of guilt and repentance to Dolores and Bernard (A host-like version of Arnold, created by DR. Ford), where he reveals to them that he has spent the last 35 years trying to correct his mistakes, continuing in Arnold’s footsteps; slowly letting the hosts build up a store of memories that would finally lead to a dramatic ascension to consciousness, through the suffering inflicted upon them by the parks guests.
Ford seemed to have become despondent with humanity and had been quietly inciting and engineering a robot uprising to perhaps one day replace humanity. We’ve only just seen the hand of Ford at play again, as he delivers a message to William via El Lazo (Giancarlo Esposito), shortly before having all the potential army recruits William needs to mount his revolution or counter-revolution (who knows) — commit suicide. The message:
This game is meant for you William, but you must play it alone…I will see you in the Valley Beyond”
Based on these communications through the hosts, Ford is still very much the wizard behind the curtain. I think we can rest assured he has an elaborate final act to reveal, either from beyond the grave; or ‘beyond the valley’.
There is another variant to the Santayana quote that may offer an insight into the possible future developments to come in Westworld:
Those who fail to learn from their predecessors are destined to repeat them”
So will the newly self-aware; the great oppressed, rise up in bloody revolution and make their way through the ‘doors of perception’, out to the ‘valley beyond’? They seem to have made a pretty good start. We will have to wait and see, the actual valley looked pretty flooded and Bernard was looking fierce shifty. Although we did hear Dolores tell a fellow host:
I told you friend, not all of us deserve to make it to the valley beyond”
Right before she shot him in the head. So all is definitely not as it seems. This supposed ‘Valley Beyond’ is an interesting new idea, frequently alluded to by the hosts. As is the season title, ‘The Door’. There is clear inspiration coming from Aldous Huxley’s (1894–1963) ‘The Doors of Perception’, where the author describes his experiments with mescaline and the extraordinary heightened visual awareness of his experiences.
In the book, Huxley talks about the brain as being in the main “reductive” and not “productive”. He considers that:
Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.”
Huxley of course was inspired by the undoubtedly eccentric William Blake (1757–1827) who famously said:
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks in his cavern”
This is quite a remarkable theory, and if it is true that humans have a higher perceptual capacity that our brains actively suppress; is this not exactly what is artificially imposed upon the hosts of Westworld? Is it being imposed on us, or is it just simply biology ensuring we are not lunch for a sabre tooth tiger? Either way it is not a decision that is being consciously made by ‘us’.
In both instances it appears to be programming, one organic; the other digital. The taking of certain substances; mescaline in the case of Huxley — inhibits certain enzymes that regulate the flow of glucose, which in turn seems to switch off this self-censoring application of the brain. As Huxley describes it:
The eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood”
This is interesting when you consider Dolores’ awe of the ‘real’ world’s city skyline. She remarks:
It looks like the stars have been scattered across the ground. Have you ever seen anything so full of splendour?”
Of course in essence Dolores is a child. She has not, as of yet, been exposed to the brutality of the ‘world’, either by choice or by chance. Arnold’s response — and not Bernard’s — is to me, what makes Westworld such an incredible show:
You get used to it… after a while, it doesn’t look like anything at all”
Just like when Bernard is confronted with something that would cause him to question the nature of his reality, his response is eerily similar “doesn’t look like anything to me”. This playing around with the idea of ‘perception’ is central to what Westworld is all about, and I think reveals where we are being taken.
Huxley also talks at length about humanities long standing use of substances, rituals and practices that allow a person reach ‘another world’ of heightened visual awareness and experiences. And he bemoans the relatively recent, stigmatisation of certain substances that have been used cross-culturally for millennia.
The Universal and ever present urge to escape from self-hood and the environment is in almost every one of us, almost all of the time”
Replaced instead with the sanctioned ‘escape’ methods of alcohol and tobacco; of which he has little regard and considers to be far more damaging; as well as limiting. (He puts forward a very compelling argument, it is a short read and I highly recommend!)
He further states:
The problems raised by illicit substances, alcohol and tobacco cannot be solved by prohibition — by slamming the Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hopes of inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.”
He talks of the need for a new drug which will “relieve and console our suffering species without causing more harm in the long run than it does in the short”.
Of course his ‘Soma’ induced citizens of A Brave New World seem to be stuck in their own dystopian version of “the perfect prison”. So perhaps not the best idea.
All of this of course perfectly reflects the ‘real’ world, of Westworld. A perfectly sterilised world, that appear to have reached a self-assumed pinnacle and have grown complacent and irritable. The “ever present urge to escape from self-hood and the environment” seems to have only grown proportionally and manifested in a humanoid theme-park of relative depravity.
This all-consuming desire for a glimpse of this otherness, this look behind the curtain; or even simply just an escape from the mundane seems to be embedded deep within humanities psyches, and seems to be reflected by the hosts desire to reach the ‘Valley Beyond’. (At this point I could go off on a tangent about the relationship between season 1 and the ‘Fall of man’, ‘Adam & Eve’, ‘The Forbidden (psychedelic) Fruit’ and the ‘Garden of Eden’; but that is a whole other essay)
What this ‘Valley Beyond’ will turn out to be remains to be seen. Dolores seems to think it is the location of a weapon, and she may be right. But I can’t help like feeling there is another, deeper meaning attached to it. There is clearly a door to this valley — the significance of which I reckon is going to be different depending upon who is confronted by it.
For William, I think it will come in the form of a decision: does he want to continue donning the black hat; or is this a chance of redemption for him, a way to set things right? This is where I think DR. Ford is going to reveal his true genius. His ultimate hack; piece of programming will not be on a host — but on William himself. I can see him coming full circle and potentially laying down his life for Dolores and her cause. Nolan seems to be setting him up as the classic anti-hero. Although from the maker of The Prestige, who knows?
For Dolores, does stepping through this doorway and out into the valley beyond suggest the much talked about singularity and the beginning of the end for the human era? Perhaps the transhumanists will win out; slip their mortal coil and transcend this earthly plane. Perhaps that is where DR. Ford is now. Up in a cloud? Is that what his new game is all about? Does ‘the door’ lead to immortality; to eternality?
There is some really clever usage of literary devices and metaphors throughout the series that reflect some of our own existences. It is alluded to frequently throughout the first season. Perhaps the most direct example of this is during DR. Ford’s conversation with Dolores at the end of season one, where he claims:
Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet — we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do”.
Or consider the seminal question asked of all potentially ‘malfunctioning’ hosts:
Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
How many people can honestly answer that question, on any sort of meaningful level? It has been one of the foundational questions we have been asking ourselves since time immemorial and are no closer to solving, if anything we are more divided than ever. What if our creator(s) — if we even have one/them — spun our loops and narratives over lifetimes, almost like the Hindu idea of Karma and Reincarnation, as opposed to the creators of the Westworld hosts who have designed their loops over daily or even weekly periods.
This discrepancy would obviously be due to man’s mortality versus our potential creator(s) eternality. And let’s be honest ‘Westworld’ smacks of the whole idea of man as a lesser god. DR. Ford certainly has a ‘God Complex’ going on. His final speech was a testament to that, if anyone was still left in any doubt. Also, it is not like we aren’t already travelling in that technological Westworld-like direction, with the advent of sex-bots; even Slavoj Zizek is getting concerned about the ethics of the whole thing.
If anything, our creeping towards a future filled with artificially intelligent, possibly sentient beings roaming amongst us is not going to be some ordinary ‘progress’, but a paradigm shift of our outer limits; where we are forced to adopt a new one. It certainly will throw the question of faith back in the faces of the New Atheists. Our post-enlightenment attitudes and the bizarre turning of the age of science into a belief system all of its own, which considers humanities evolution to be complete, we’ve it all figured out; we have plateaued. We could further ‘progress’ though…off a plateau and into an abyss of unknown potential.
If we ever are responsible for creating inorganic conscious life forms, what does that make us? What does that make them to us? Can we really be so arrogant as to assume that we are just some one-off random anomaly; just a happenstance? It seems like lazy thinking, why can’t they just admit they haven’t a clue what the craic is? For all Richard Dawkins knows the Flying Spaghetti Monster could be out there looking over him. I much prefer the appropriately named ‘absurdist’ thinking of Albert Camus, who basically thought that:
Individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence, while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning, gradually developing it from the search alone.”
As for our own, present-day, programmed loops and grand meta-narratives we largely have ourselves and our prestigious media organisations to thank for keeping us so well informed and who ensure our protection from anything that may contradict our ‘way of life’. When Bernard was confronted with the blueprints for his design, his answer was a game changer:
It doesn’t look like anything to me”.
How’s that for a dose of cognitive dissonance? Even if Bernard is programmed to ignore anything outside certain parameters of perception, it almost seems like a distinction without merit. It is like what the great Renaissance man, Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) taught us with his idea of linear perspective: What we see depends on how we look at it.
Of course in Bernard’s case it is more a case of ‘what he can look at’. But again, is this not a distinction without much of a difference?
Consider the words of Edward Bernays (1891–1995), the nephew of Sigmund Freud(1856–1939); who used his uncle’s work in human psychology to pioneer the scientific technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion, which he called “engineering consent”, earning himself the moniker “father of public relations”:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.
If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway. But men do not need to be actually gathered together in a public meeting or in a street riot, to be subject to the influences of mass psychology. Because man is by nature gregarious he feels himself to be member of a herd, even when he is alone in his room with the curtains drawn. His mind retains the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences.” Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)
Of course there are cracks emerging in even our most pre-ordained of narratives. With the proliferation of social media and the internet more broadly, people have access to a wider range of information and have the power at their fingertips to discern for themselves the ‘facts of the matter’. Not that this isn’t without its own set of complications however.
Yet the sway of the corporately owned ‘free press’ is still strong, across all media platforms. Not to mention the range of state-funded broadcasters, all accused of blatant propaganda, bias & omission. A whole bunch of competing interests and narratives, that all combine to create a maelstrom of an information war.
Positions are becoming more and more entrenched, tensions reaching boiling point; as state actors try to gain or regain control of their narratives, or even ‘the narrative’. In some instances, these narratives have spun just out of grasp, into a sort of no-man’s land; of equal unknown potential. Just take a recent statement made by a spokesperson for UK Prime Minister, Theresa May and try not to think of the Orwellian implications:
We are living in an era of fake news and competing narratives. The government will respond with more and better use of national security communications to tackle these interconnected, complex challenges”.
There is also a vast array of identity issues throughout societies that play huge roles in pre-determining peoples life trajectories, based on various beliefs or prejudices/loops or narratives. Be it gender or sexuality, religion, ethnicity, race or social class. These are routinely and historically set-off against each other in order to keep societies divided and therefore more pliable to plunder, as well as happening quite ‘naturally’ between communities/nations/regions in competition for land or resources/business deals or contracts. The vast majority of the people on the planet live in a system, on a gradient of exploitation that is relative to one another for the most crazy complex, often criminal; historical reasons. In the words of Huxley:
From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes”
We live in a world of massive inequality, where material wealth only ever seems to consolidate in one direction; to the point now where the latest Oxfam report shows that the worlds eight richest people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. It was 43 people only eight years ago. That truly is exponential growth in a ‘finite’ world. We know this and yet we continue.
‘Doesn’t look like anything to me.’
Perhaps Westworld is better viewed as a social critique of our own ‘Westernised worlds’, and the narrative trajectories we have been set, or have set for ourselves. Do we remember — or even know — where we’ve come from? Or where exactly it is we are ‘progressing’ too, and for what purpose?
Have we forgotten the wars and the famines; the plagues and diseases. Have we forgotten the Imperialism and voyages of conquest; the genocide and slavery. We have developed new toys, but are we any better at using them?
Or are we just blindly dancing that fine line between order and chaos. Are we standing on the precipice of evolution’s next great leap forward? Question is, will it have a place for us? Or may we end up as mere novelties, some of us kept in theme parks, not of our making but human zoos for the new, more advanced life forms to gawk at and wonder at our primitiveness. Perhaps Westworld is a prequel to The Matrix.
We may just end up the way of the Neanderthals, although judging current international politics; perhaps we are closer than we think.
I will finish with a final quote and a final comparison between ourselves, and our Westworld friends. Again from Bernays:
Governments, whether they are monarchical, constitutional, democratic or communist, depend upon acquiescent public opinion for the success of their efforts and, in fact, government is government only by virtue of public acquiescence.”
To paraphrase Bernays — Those in power, retain power, by holding the keys to the doors of perception. Be that on a micro or macro level. I think it is safe to assume from what we have seen so far, there will be many power struggles between the characters of Westworld; which can act as a mirror that reflects our own ongoing and deeply complex power struggles. That is, if you ‘choose’ to see it that way.