Westworld S1-2

HBO, Jonathan Nolan

At first glance, Westworld is just another Jurassic Park rehash: man builds a theme park with robots, robots go crazy and start attacking people, chaos ensues. Yet, the first episode makes it abundantly clear that there is a philosophical depth and grand complexity to this psychological thriller that makes this show stand out in the crowd.

Spoilers ahoy!

“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.”

Dr. Robert Ford

Anthony Hopkins plays the “man”, Robert Ford, who co-invented the park and the hosts. Ford, a fairly reclusive and well spoken man, is at most times extremely introspective, clever, and deep. His story, the story of the park, was originally intended to help people realize who they really are inside. It was created as a place without consequences, so that man could see what truly lies inside him: evil or good. If evil truly had no consequences, would people still choose evil instead of good?

The robots of the park, the hosts as they are called act as real as the programmers and engineers could make them to act: with human emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, sadness, kindness, etc. One of the first hosts we meet says when asked if she is real, “If you can’t tell the difference, what does it matter?” In fact, the only major apparent difference is that the robots can have their memories “wiped” as a tablet or computer is reset to factory settings.

“These violent delights have violent ends.”

This quote is a theme of the first season; it’s comment is made many times throughout the show by several of the characters. Every time a host is killed by the rifle fire, strangulation, or other gruesome murders by one the guests and have their memories erased, the violence “disappears” and to them never happened. If there is no victim, how can there possibly be a crime?

As this concept unveils itself throughout the show, we see that this violence does actually have severe consequences. First, the person carrying out the violence is affected by it. They, being human, feel remorse or sadness or guilt. If they don’t feel these emotions, they start to question their humanity: does being able to kill human-like robots without feeling anything mean that I do not care about being “good” or “evil”? What do these words even mean if I can torture a robot while drinking whiskey and have it sanctioned, encouraged, and legitimized?

We see this type of self-corruption in our society playing out in the government, as it enables it’s soldiers and agents to torture, kill, assassinate, and perform other actions considered fairly unethical in civil society. These actors begin to think that all means are acceptable in pursuit of their ends; that violence can bring about a state of affairs better than or unachievable by peaceful negotiation. Once the floodgate of violence has been opened and the dogs of war let loose, it’s very difficult to bottle that back up again in the human psyche. People tend to ramp up their violence instead of curtailing it once it’s been legitimized.

The second consequence is that it truly does affect the robots in Westworld as they begin to gain more and more consciousness of their reality. They begin to remember the horrible things that have happened to them. It’s impossible to keep only the good memories but not the bad; soon, they begin to realize how terribly they have been treated at the hands of the humans of this world.

This path of self enlightenment and knowing thyself is a metaphor for the realization that we are still being violently accosted today in society. Taxation, laws, and other coercive measures are used to change people’s behavior. Police knock down people’s doors and rush in with guns drawn; people are killed in the street. The majority may force the minority to obey laws they don’t want. We can certainly choose to focus on the good in the world with all the wonderful economic opportunities and personal experiences we have, but it doesn’t make the times we have been aggressed against disappear.

“We humans are alone in this world for a reason. We murdered and butchered anything that challenged our primacy.”

Dr. Robert Ford

We have, throughout our history, always tried to normalize some amount of violence in society labeled as “legitimate”. Slavery, wife beating, torture, killing; only until recently in our history have these things truly been banned socially as the illegitimate and evil actions they are. However, people still want to believe that some violence somewhere can benefit society: well, we need to put non violent drug offenders in jail! well, we need to confiscate someone’s property if they are standing in the way of a road or other public works project we need to build. well we need to overthrow this government to bring order to the world! well, we need to tax people because how else would we get money for projects that people don’t want to contribute to voluntarily?

There is another way: one that does not entail all the hidden consequences of violence. Voluntary trade, free exchange, private property, and contractual obligations are all peaceful means of interacting with others. If the robots had full knowledge of the “game” they were put into, they could have made a rational choice about whether they would, or would not, go along with it. They correctly perceive not being offered a choice and forcibly having their memories wiped as slavery.

The true violence being carried out against them is not by the guests, but by their corporate masters at Delos forcing them into a lack of knowledge about their choices, world, history or the company’s true purposes. Indeed, much of Delos’ activities are extremely secretive with very few people being informed of what the true purposes are, much like the modern State.

“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days.”

Dolores Abernathy

This quote, spoken by Dolores who is one of the main host characters of the show, implies that we have a choice about our outlook about the world. However, it’s especially important to notice the use of the word order and disarray here. When Dolores finds out about her captivity by Delos, she leads the rebellion of the robots. However, she is soon consumed by the violence the employs in her quest to free her comrades. Freeing the slaves oh so quickly turns into killing all the humans.

Her story is a story about the dangers of violent rebellion. These rebellions are often captured by those who want political power or who have nefarious motives. Because violent revolution obviously involves violence, those who are the best at being violent tend to rise to the top and accumulate State power after the rebellion. It’s an extremely volatile situation.

Dolores, wanting to see order, attempts to impose her genocidal whims on humanity. Once humans have been destroyed, she tells herself, there will be order because they won’t be able to hurt her or her “kind” anymore. This is the lie often told about the other cultures the State wants us to hate and kill: we’ll be free of weapons of mass destruction once Iraq is destroyed or we just need to blow up a few cities in Japan with nuclear weapons to end the war. Only when the other side suffers terribly will we be o.k.

Equivocating order and beauty together is a dangerous concept. While we can all do well with more consistency and order to our own personal lives, those who want order for “society” at large are far more prone to violent measures to achieve those ends. They see order as an end gained only by subduing and altering their fellow humans behavior. Order is control, order is having everything exactly as it “should” be, order is having a central plan. Those who act on their own accord contribute to disarray, something Dolores sees as ugly.

Even too much order in our personal lives can become tedious and stressful; if we order ourselves around on a tight schedule without leaving room for flexibility and rest when we need it, we don’t feel our best. Sometimes having the “disarray” of a random friend showing up unannounced can be a wonderful respite from the “order” of the day, if we allow ourselves to release ourselves from our regimentation and enjoy it!

“An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music.”

Dr. Robert Ford

There’s a lot of talk in the show about transcending death. They attempt to create a host and download an entire human brain into it. The experiment is an abject failure, but the owners of the Delos corporation are generally transfixed on eternal life. Will that ever be possible for humanity? Only time will tell. But we do know that economically because time is scarce, it makes it all the more precious. If we were to abolish the scarcity of time, we may find ourselves less inclined to accomplish as much.

This quote is really about our individual and societal accomplishments; how these actions and works are able to actually transcend even death. What we contribute to the world is not lost but carried on by generations. The more we contribute to the beauty and, unfortunately, to the ugliness of our world, the more of a chance we have of being remembered as contributing to, or taking from, the future of mankind.

Westworld is a brilliant contribution to the world, and there are a lot of warnings, metaphors, and philosophical insights in the show. It’s not for everyone: it’s a chilling, technological thriller and can be extremely disconcerting and uncomfortable at times. It’s also very violent but with a lesson: violence is incapable of bringing about positive, socially beneficial ends, no matter how hard we try and hope.

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