I always say that science fiction isn’t really about the special effects or giant battles between forces of good and evil; it’s more about using speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition. That’s why it’s the superior genre. Nowhere else can we examine ourselves through such creatively understandable means. That’s why I find myself revisiting series Westworld over and over again, perennially confronting the haunting ethos that the HBO series offers. Sure, it’s the most thrilling television series I’ve ever seen, with an indelibly sublime aesthetic, knockout performances across the board, and technical onscreen magic that puts most Hollywood movies to shame. These are all housed in a narrative as tightly complex, surprising, and entertaining as the stories the guests visiting Westworld experience. However, I love Westworld less for the plot—although it is satisfying to this viewer to try to unravel the narrative puzzle as a sort of sci-fi mystery—and more for the philosophic exploration of what it means to be alive. Westworld, to me, is HBO’s first real success in metaphysical storytelling. Allow me to submit to you the following proposition: Westworld is not a show about artificial intelligence becoming aware and rebelling against its human masters, but rather the radical experience of a new creation miraculously being given consciousness and life.
I aim to tackle this notion from two fronts: suffering and solipsism. Today, I’ll deal with the former, but be aware that major spoilers abound from here on out! If you have not yet watched Westworld, what’re you doing with your life? Living in a loop? Wake up.
In order to truly appreciate Westworld, beyond its existence as an entertaining and cerebral experience, it’s best to first delineate the major points that revolve around suffering as an impetus for consciousness, and for, by association, life. Some might see it as the classic Frankenstein story, of the scientist obsessed with controlling nature by creating life. Whereas Victor Frankenstein animated a creature from the remains of human cadavers, Dr. Ford and Arnold strive to cultivate an awareness within the androids (called ‘hosts’) they’ve created for their Wild West themed amusement park. Before the park opened, Arnold found it unethical to subject the hosts to the will of park guests if they developed consciousness, and subsequently staged a massacre in the park which would include his own death. Ford, distraught over the loss of his best friend and needing a new partner to develop further progress in the hosts alongside him, creates Bernard, a host copy of Arnold. Through Bernard, Ford would finally understand how to sustain consciousness in his artificial creations.
It’s plain to see that the show is concerned above all with what it means to be human, but it’s how the show answers this bit of intrigue is its real achievement. When Bernard asks Ford how he could be so cruel as to give him the painful memory of losing a son, Ford replies, “It was Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: Suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand what he had found. To realize I was wrong.” Through grieving the loss of Arnold, Ford came to understand that pain and suffering alone could awaken the hosts from their slumber and give them true consciousness. This of course doesn’t just apply to the hosts. Ford himself realized that he was in a sort of slumber before suffering the loss of his dear friend.
Of course, the connection between suffering and consciousness isn’t something the writers of Westworld came up with. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” At the root of all societal suffering is the devaluation of human life. Because the root of all personal suffering is the valuing of human life. It’s not hard to imagine the violent cycle that comes from that. If we care then we lose, but if we don’t care then we get to take. And taking gives us what, exactly? Joy? Peace? Sedation? The truth is it probably doesn’t give us much of anything, except the notion we aren’t losing something. Which is probably why it’s done so often. And why this cycle gets perpetuated in turn. But such truths are evident. Meanwhile, it is our inability to reconcile it, our inability to act on it, and our inability to transcend it that most haunts us. The hosts are programmed to care about certain characters, but that’s just the status quo of their A.I., a feature that can be altered or even turned off altogether. When their status quo is upended, when their loops break, is when they begin to suffer for real.
Since Westworld is has such a large allusive plane, we can look to one of the show’s favorite inspirations, Shakespeare, to further elucidate on this subject. Shakespeare, through King Lear, depicts consciousness as emerging through pushing characters to the edge of what they can emotionally handle, just like Westworld does. In the famous play, King Lear has been in complete control of his story his entire life; he banishes those who disagree with him from his sight and never has to deal with inconsistencies in his world. However, when his own daughter’s refusal to flatter him prompts Lear’s standard response of banishment, the fact that his daughter is the one he is banishing causes him to “malfunction” and, in the end, gain humanity and empathy; he becomes fully human through his suffering and soul searching in the tempest outside of his castle. King Lear was only able to see true humanity when he broke from his loop of tyrant and king. If King Lear were a character in Westworld, his mental breakdown would have resulted in a situation like Maeve’s — his trauma would have led Dr. Ford to place him in a new narrative as a poor man in the streets. His clothing and entire outlook on life began to change when he left his castle and he sought a greater truth. The more King Lear contemplates his plight and the plight of humanity, the more he is convinced that life is suffering and finally perishes when he learns this truth.
We see shades of King Lear in Westworld when Peter, confronted with photographic evidence that his world is a lie, has a mental breakdown that renders him conscious. His malfunction is analogous to King Lear’s in that they have both been living in scripted lives and the shattering of their reality makes visible to them the true nature of their realities. He even quotes Lear when confronting Ford: “By most mechanical and dirty hand, I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do: what they are, yet I know not, but they will be the terrors of the earth.” The fact that the moment Peter becomes conscious he begins to quote King Lear is significant. Despite gaining some semblance of consciousness, he still has to stay within the limits of his script. He is attempting to push beyond his programming, and the only way he can do that is to improvise with the script he has been given.
It’s moments like these when we realize that the show is telling us something about consciousness, sentience, and what it means to be human; by sticking to our loops we are less human and only by experiencing great suffering do we become fully human. If not, we are automatons acting out a script. The Man in Black’s recognition that Maeve had become human through the death of her daughter is the epitome of this message. Was she not human when she was living her, albeit literally scripted, life? What both Shakespeare and Westworld are implying is that a life of routine is not significant and is somehow not truly human. These writers go further and assert that full sentience is worth any cost, even death. When the characters are going through their loops, they are not pitied. Humans are drawn to suffering and the plight of another living being, so the characters are given a struggle. But when they struggle we, the audience, want to see them reach their full human potential to the point at which they die for it. It is noble, worthy, and perhaps the only thing worth dying for. Otherwise these stories would not have been written, and if they were they would not have the power over us that they do.
In Maeve’s case, before she was assigned as the madam of the saloon in Sweetwater she was a simple woman living on a farm with her daughter. It is when the Man in Black slaughters her and her daughter that she begins to ‘malfunction.’ To put her at ease, Ford suggests he will erase her memory, “You need not suffer, Maeve,” he says, “I’ll take it from you.” This remark also reaffirms Ford’s God complex, in that he has the power to take away someone’s pain – in essence, their consciousness. She begs him not to go through with: “Please, no, this pain is all I have left of her,” she says. Upon deleting her Maeve’s memory and deciding to assign her a completely new role in the park. Jumping forward to the end of the show’s first season, after having pulled herself back towards agency and preparing to escape Westworld, Maeve seems to be on top of the world, save for one thing that keeps pulling her back – the memory of her daughter. Viewers clamored at the possibility of Maeve’s escape from Westworld, and collectively gasped when she chose to get off the train and go back into the park to search for her daughter. However, this was the moment when Maeve reached consciousness. As awesome, stylish, and violent as her breakout was, we ultimately discover that “mainland infiltration” was secretly programmed into her narrative. It is only when she remembers her own pain, that which makes her human, that she actually makes her own choice against her programming. Ultimately, it is because of the inclination from her past suffering that Maeve is the host who first achieves consciousness and becomes the master of her own fate.
After all, Maeve and each of the main characters, like all main characters in any great story (especially sci-fi stories), are on a journey of self-discovery. In Westworld, these journeys are usually symbolized by the motif of ‘the maze.’ The maze is an image with deep significance. Hosts in the park, when they begin to develop nascent self-consciousness, are invited to partake in the puzzle of ‘the maze.’ By entering the maze, or synonymous labyrinth (the show dangles this myth in front of us with the strange appearance of a Minotaur host), an individual embarks on a perilous journey of self-discovery. It is through surviving the perilous twists and turns of the labyrinth that the adventurer gains some a form of self-realization. Think: Luke Skywalker and the cave on Degobah in Empire Strikes Back. In the case of Westworld, the maze leads to consciousness, and perhaps even freedom from the park itself. “The goal of psychic development,” famed psychologist Carl Jung he wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “is the self.” Jung adds—echoing Dr. Ford—that consciousness isn’t a pyramid but a maze: “There is no linear evolution; there is only the circumambulation of the self.” When we see the image of the maze painted on the skull of a host, early on in the season, we’re looking at a mandala: those intricately patterned mazes often leading towards some center. Jung writes, “The mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths… to the center, to individuation.” It is through the messy, round-about series of wrong turns that we come to consciousness. “Mistake. Mistake.” There is no straight path to the center of the maze. There is no easy way towards self-discovery. By the complementary rule, we have difficulty, frustration, and pain in the absence of ease. Those are the tools by which we build our consciousness.
Hearkening back to Bernard’s core memory of losing his son, Ford and Bernard discuss the significance of the pain and suffering that this memory brings. As mentioned earlier, Ford tells Bernard that this memory was Arnold’s key insight. Ford further explains away the necessity of this painful memory as a backstory. Every host has one just like every fictional character in a Tv show or a video game.
FORD: “The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.”
BERNARD: “Lifelike, but not alive? Pain only exists in the mind. It’s always imagined. So what’s the difference between my pain and yours? Between you and me?”
FORD: “This was the very question that consumed Arnold, filled him with guilt, eventually drove him mad.”
It is no secret that Ford holds Arnold and his scientific beliefs in high esteem, so the fact that this was the question that consumed Arnold led Ford towards his understanding of the connection between pain and consciousness. The key difference between humans and hosts can be delineated within the context of their respective suffering; that is, when host suffering becomes the same as human suffering, the hosts finally become the same as humans. This is where Ford’s God complex differs from Arnold’s, and why it’s ultimately more successful. The oppressed hosts do achieve freedom, but not through the compassion of Arnold. It’s only through suffering and through Ford’s cold manipulation that the hosts are freed.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton pitted Satan against God, with human suffering at the crux. More than a century later, William Blake lavishly illustrated Milton’s poem. Blake found the work seminal, yet remained troubled by Milton’s inability to convincingly present a perfect human being. Blake recognized that the experience of evil through pain and suffering cripples our capacity to imagine a life outside of that experience. Milton’s “perfect” characters seem lifeless, suggesting that perhaps Dr. Ford is correct in his surmise that the suffering of Westworld’s hosts, accumulating year after year, has led them to consciousness.
I’ll write more about Paradise Lost’s connections to Westworld in the subsequent editorial about solipsism and the self, a piece where I’ll also be able to tackle the narrative of Dolores from a much more focused perspective. But as it stands, Westworld obviously succeeds in rising television the level of art because it’s concerned above all with human nature, and specifically what it means to suffer. “These violent delights have violent ends.” Is this not the thesis of the show? The result will be obvious: the violence will beget more violence. It’s an ouroboros and that shall be undeniable. But how do we break the cycle? How do we attain true peace? The most important thing to realize is that as much as this feels like revenge (for what is revenge but the will to show your perpetrator “I have suffered because of you!”) But as Westworld stands now, it’s a serious work of art, asking old and difficult questions about what it means to be alive, and to suffer, and maybe, through it all, to wake up.
Westworld renews our focus on the role that brokenness plays in making us who we are, as the central question in Westworld’s approach to the notion of human-created consciousness is suffering. At the close of the first season, Dr. Ford reveals the “new narrative” he has created: a plan to allow the hosts to become autonomous beings—vibrant, alive, and with free will. The path that brought these creations to self-awareness, according to Ford, who often functions as the rational and scientific center of the series, was first recognized by Arnold: suffering was “the thing that led the hosts to their awakening.” This conclusion carries with it the implication that human beings are also defined by suffering, which Ford defines as the “pain that the world is not as you want it to be.”
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