Westworld Ends Our Suffering, Delivers a Message

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Westworld’s worst-kept secret finally exposed, but having theories confirmed about where the Man in Black and William intersect didn’t pull away focus from the robot revolt we’ve been waiting for since the beginning.

Westworld: “The Bicameral Mind”

(HBO)
(HBO)

Westworld’s maze, the thing that plagued the minds of hosts and guests alike, turned out to be as unremarkable as pretty much everything else the show has tried to show people with in its freshman series. The weak excuses given for why it is so may explain why everything surrounding its existence was so nebulous, but that doesn’t go far in justifying the hours of directionless storytelling it took to get us there.

When Bernard, Arnold, Ford and Dolores piece together just what the maze is we learn that it is merely a metaphor for consciousness as told by a children’s toy. Or, more correctly, the meandering path one takes to justify its sapience. This does nothing to explain why the maze appears imagery all over the park–tattooed on the underside of hosts’s scalps, stamped on coffins, carved into the ground–when the only people aware of its existence had no idea what it referenced aside from Ford and Arnold. But these pointless details are pretty common in Westworld. The audience has been asked to forget that a top engineer and the head of park security just went missing and no one at Delos noticed, or that no one wonders why Bernard, Ford’s right-hand man and Theresa’s boyfriend, is an exact copy of one of the park’s founders. This season is rife with plot holes at every turn, and it makes for an amateurish story that never feels confident in what it has to say about much of anything. And despite all this being true, there is still some philosophical merit to it all.

(HBO)
(HBO)

Though exposition makes up the bulk of the 90-minute finale (though there is some enjoyable action that feels lifted straight out of The Machine), we finally get some understanding behind Ford’s behavior this season.

The sibling gods, Ford and Arnold, disagreed about how to proceed with the park from the outset. But as soon as Arnold learned that Dolores had consciousness and was therefore alive, he refused to let Ford sell his creations into what would amount to slavery at the hands of Delos. So, to spare this conscious mind from eternity as an actor in a theme park, Arnold leashed Dolores’ mind and gives her the personality of Wyatt, an unfinished character. By roping in Teddy, whose love would obligate him to help her, Dolores laid waste to the park’s first town. An when the massacre had concluded, Arnold had Dolores kill him before taking her own life.

The thinking behind Arnold’s plan was that the sight of slaughter would convince his corporate-minded friend to shut down the park for good and renege on their deal with Delos, thus sparing conscious Dolores the indignity of having to waste her life as equipment to be used by guests. In a way it worked; eventually Ford came to see hosts as living creatures worthy of life, but unlike Arnold he saw a better way to save them.

(HBO)
(HBO)

Having suffered the loss of his life’s work and his closest friend, Ford sought to correct Arnold’s mistake and instead rebuilt his park and condemned his hosts to 35 years of torment in a makeshift underworld where death is ever present yet never permanent. Why? Because denying Dolores and those like her the opportunity to live was more cruel than to keep them around as hosts, and through the suffering they’d endure at the hands of Delos and its clientèle they’d be given the opportunity to locate the consciousness that would afford them a life worth living.

Westworld has argued from the pilot that pain has a point, and that point is that it builds character. Combine this with the questions of will and a pair of sibling gods that ordained this suffering, one that plays the long game to get his creations to where they ought to be, and we have a Calvinist view of consciousness. Funnily enough there’s a trinity of hosts who endure trials of suffering and pain to come to understand their consciousness. The most direct is Dolores, whose narrative revolves around her family’s ranch being targeted by vandals before Teddy, her one true love, is also murdered. And it’s all capped off with her being murdered or raped by a host or their accompanying guests. The one time she managed to endure this she found herself in the company of young William, which eventually leads her to “rediscover” the maze. Then we have Maeve, who’s killed over and over again, aware of the violence that surrounds her and how the pain inflicted on her justifies her existence before she exercises the option to part from Sweetwater. Then we have Bernard, who is cursed to live with the tortured soul of a broken man, though is able to see life in hosts when no one else could. But his attempt to be kind is met with violence when he learns that his thoughts and actions are controlled by an omnipresent foe, a man who had presented himself as a friend.

These hosts each come close to mirroring the suffering Frankenstein’s monster had to when coming to grips that he is an unnatural thing birthed by a man who cared little for his existence and sought only to satisfy his superiority. When Ford tells Bernard why he carries with him all of Arnold’s internal anguish, why he kept the hosts in hell for 35 years though he suffered at the sight of what their work has done to their friend, he said, “You needed time, time to understand your enemy, to become stronger than them. And I’m I’m afraid that in order to escape this place you will need to suffer more.”

It’s a very different approach than Arnold would’ve taken.

(HBO)
(HBO)

The suffering Ford references originates from the guests, Delos, and himself. They make up the noblemen, royalty, and deity that holds the ability to inflict upon them the pain necessary for them to become introspective. That’s the maze–the world within. Through Dolores, Arnold learned that a conscious mind could never be coded; to become life an AI must experience life, process it, and continue on a journey that would hopefully result in a sagacious mind that could make sense of those experiences. And from that journey inward, pain is ascribed some value that makes enduring life still worth it.

Maeve seemed to get this. Though she crafted an exit (in reality it was coded into her by Ford) she rejected the opportunity to escape and chose to run back to the park in search of a daughter whose death trusted her into this quest in the first place. Even freedom, it appears, takes a backseat to the prospect of understanding yourself. In like fashion, even William understood who he was by inflicting pain on others, exercising his right to rule over the hosts as he saw fit, a privilege granted by his royal status as a member of Delos’ board. But in the end he saw little point to limiting them, and ultimately wanted them free to inflict upon him the same violence he’d become bored with.

Dolores took an angrier approach to the same revelation. Enlightened by understanding the path of her own maze, and why suffering and violence had long been a part of her cyclical existence, she simply walked up behind Ford and shot him in the head. Rather than adhere to the Calvinistic idea that suffering is good for the soul and makes her a better person, she seemed to turn to Diderot, who wrote in Les Eleutheromanes:

Nature created neither servant nor master;

I seek neither to rule nor serve.

And its hands would wrap the entrails of the priest,

For the lack of a cord with which to strangle kings.

In killing her god, Dolores finds a way to become her own woman. She is now on the path the maze intended to put her on. And along with her marches and army of hosts who’ve stepped out of the wilderness on their hunt for the humans what have tried  keep them from their right to access the whole of their mind. That is where pain leads Dolores, to a point where her character has grown as a person, into one who understands the great undertaking that is deciding for oneself.

(HBO)
(HBO)

None of this is necessarily new. Off the top of my head–Ex Machina explores a similar premise and delivers nearly the exact same message about gods and pain and the need for AIs to separate and evolve on their own before being considered truly alive (here’s a great analysis of Ex Machina’s symbolism of breaking away from gods in order to become truly alive). Which makes me wonder if the empty writing, poor characterization, missed opportunities, and leaps in logic in Westworld is worth enduring for an admittedly interesting conversation on the philosophy of consciousness when we have thousands of years of stories which say the same thing.

Now that we’ve endured a rocky 10+ hours of what’s possibly the most frustrating show of the last few years, audiences probably feel a debt is owed to them. So Westworld is going to have its audience regardless when it comes back in 2018. I don’t doubt that, but it needs more than a few interesting ideas floating about to keep them coming back.

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