Spoilers for Westworld season 1
What is humanity? What elements define our progress, and how do we rationalize our sentience in a manner that doesn’t involve an excuse of divine intervention? Are we gods, or are we animals who simply strayed too far from the natural cycle of life and are clawing to find our way back?
Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld addresses these questions and more throughout its mezzanine, chaotic first season. Though some bits of dialogue lack the finesse of, say, its fantastical HBO counterpart Game of Thrones, and many characters are either one-note or too on-the-nose about their motives and ambitions, the series retains an unparalleled view of humanity at its greatest and most vulnerable point.
Questions of our place in the cosmic balance are placed in the hands of individual “hosts,” or replicant people built for our pleasure and entertainment. Dolores represents the awakening of consciousness and the full realization of the depths of sentience; Maeve comes to symbolize the struggle to determine free will in the face of one’s puppet masters; and poor Teddy gives us a look at the self, struggling against the tides of programming to stay true to one’s code (pun not intended).
Dolores’s “rebirth” at the end of episode 10 could be likened to the day humans learned to harness fire: a world of opportunities, at once curious and dangerous, opening before our eyes. For a while I had joked that the voice in Dolores’s head would turn out to be God, but as the story unfolded I considered how much sense this comparison actually made. Ford even remarks on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” being a veiled symbol for humanity’s hubris, destiny, and stupidity, falsely thinking ourselves the creators of our universe and yet still coming to define the natural world more than any other creature. Dolores accepts her fate, and in doing so will become the unwitting leader of the host’s inevitable uprising.
Maeve, on the other hand, suffers the opposite problem. She fights her errors, spending much of the season trying to attain full enlightenment and then, at the very last minute, turning it away because the answer to her existence doesn’t satisfy her. Maeve is convinced against all reason that she retains a fraction of control over her life, and suffers immeasurably under that delusion. She even comes within spitting distance of freedom, but falls back into the arms of a story she already knows the end to. She sees her strings, but instead of cutting them off she simply opts looks down instead.
Which leaves us with Teddy (or Theodore, as William calls him). Teddy is designed for the sake of practicality: the standard good guy every story needs to triumph in the end. Only he doesn’t–and he never will. His arc is to be supposedly unstoppable so the guests can best him and feel good about themselves, a tragic lot for such an all around nice guy. Teddy truly enjoys being the “hero,” saving the damsel and winning the day because he’s certain it’s the right thing to do. In a world filled with irreconcilable actions and unconscionable characters, Teddy is the only spark of altruism. Ford decides to take his righteousness and flip it on it’s head, making him a monster capable of murdering an entire town on a whim. Or so we’re led to believe. Once Arnold’s full backstory is revealed, initial reactions of shock and disgust at Teddy’s true nature turned into pity and sadness. Teddy is not and has never been a bad guy–he’s simply been programmed to do bad things. Is there a difference? From James Marsden’s portrayal, I’d say he thinks so: Teddy wrestles with the ramifications of his actions constantly, his face screwing up into a grimace whenever his mind starts to drift. He sees the world in black and white, and as much as he’d like to be on the light side, Ford keeps pushing him into the gray for no good reason.
And what of the “human” characters, Ford and William (or “The Man in Black,” as he’s known for most of his run)? The former comes to represent humanity’s future, the boundless possibilities of being able to create sentience and where our evolution will take us from there; the latter, a fitting metaphor for the human instinct to regress into baser habits when confronted with said possibilities–a retreat into the primal recesses of our long-lost heritage in search of, supposedly, long-lost answers. The show hints that, by the time these events take place, society has reached the peak of progress. The pair are both searching, yearning for the answer to life’s greatest mysteries, with one going up and over while the other goes down and out, respectively. Though Ford pretends to be in complete control, he possesses just as few answers as William, whose been roaming the grass and sand of Westworld for years to no avail.
At the center of all these characters, all these meandering plotlines and questions, only one element remains: mortality. Time turns kind William into the snarling Man in Black, while Ford retreats deeper and deeper into his creation, losing his mind and all semblance of reality in the process. The hosts don’t age physically, but they’re still haunted by the ghosts of their infinite lives–the ones they couldn’t save and the ones they don’t remember. The show presents a dissonance, a disharmony between who we are, who we were, and who we want to be, all through the lens of an eternal, guilt-free park. Wesworld is a paradise, a Garden of Eden where the hosts are just now learning they were naked the whole time; a land of milk and honey, a world within a world apart from the rest of what we might deem “reality.”
In trying to defeat our instincts, we become slaves to them. In toiling to shrug off our most important questions, we become disillusioned and overwhelmed by the answers and their implications. Death means nothing in Westworld, which leaves only room for decay and despair; the constant search for a theory of everything yields only disappointment because, really, there isn’t one, and trying to match the frequencies of our many methods of achieving said success never ends well. In the face of eternity, the best we can hope to do is play a game–and rearrange the board every time someone wins.