When you look at the world, what do you see?
That’s the question the new HBO show, Westworld, is asking of its characters. And since the show is begging us to see its fictional world as a proxy for ours, it’s asking us too.
Do you see the world and believe you have a preordained role in a created order? Is the world primarily there to service your desires for sex, money, power, or advancement? Is the world a bitter disappointment that’s failed to provide meaning? Is it a prison, a paradise, or a plaything? Is the world even real?
Westworld suggests that it is how we see the world that determines if we are the hero or the villain, if we’re wearing the black hat or the white hat. This is heady, philosophical stuff for a series that takes place in an Old West theme park.
Set at an unidentified point in the future, Westworld is about the people who run the park, those who visit it (the guests), and the androids that populate it (the hosts). These androids follow pre-assigned roles given them by their creator (a menacing Anthony Hopkins) and are indistinguishable from humans. They also seem to be gaining self-awareness. And that’s just the beginning, as things get significantly more complicated from there.
Westworld the theme park feels like an expansive Old West universe you could lose yourself in, like a live-action version of the video game Red Dead Redemption. The music, set design, casting, and acting, especially by Evan Rachel Wood as (presumably) the heroine Dolores, is spot on. And while the dialogue is occasionally clunky, the plotting reminds me in all the best ways of Lost. (J.J. Abrams, one of the masterminds behind Lost, is an executive producer here.)
But whereas Lost wore its optimism on its sleeve, Westworld has a darker heart. The impression five episodes in is that, in Westworld, anyone who tries to find meaning is doomed to become the slave of a capricious god or the victim of pure evil.
Whereas Lost wore its optimism on its sleeve, Westworld has a darker heart.
Dolores opens the pilot episode saying, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there’s an order to our days. A purpose.” Yet Dolores’ purpose is to suffer. She is doomed to live the slaughter of her parents over and over again as part of an “adventure” that guests can participate in, either as hero or villain. It’s implied she has been raped multiple times. Each morning her memory is wiped and she wakes again believing that the world is beautiful.
Whereas Dolores sees Westworld as a place of beauty and purpose, the guests see it as their plaything. The park is essentially advertised the way Las Vegas is today: what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. But from the very first episode we see what a pleasure-filled, consequence-free world produces: sadists. The guests unleash the worst of themselves on the hosts and the camera doesn’t flinch. It wants us to feel the pain of the androids programmed to endure it.
And then there’s the Man in Black (played by Ed Harris, with his cold-as-stone blue eyes). The Man in Black is a guest who has gotten tired of the pursuit of pleasure. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has found it to be meaningless. Instead, he believes the heart of Westworld holds a secret, left there by one of the park’s co-creators, and he is willing to commit unspeakable acts in order to find it. Pursuing this truth with a religious fury, he is in some ways the ultimate pharisee: a believer in an absolute truth so abstract, it drives him to despise the world he lives in for not seeing it.
Westworld suggests that believing in a higher purpose, practicing pure hedonism, and blind religious fervor all end in tragedy. So what hope, if any, does the show find? Honestly, it’s too soon to know. I’ve barely alluded to the dozens of twists, turns, and mysteries Westworld has already offered. But if I take Westworld where it is right now, there is one glimmer of hope.
There is a legend, central to the plot, about the park’s co-creator. While the details are vague, it seems he grew to love the androids and despaired of what would happen to them in such a cruel world. And while this co-creator died, somehow he is still shaping and influencing Westworld’s ultimate end. He seems to want to liberate the hosts from slavery and set the oppressed free. The hope in Westworld right now is that this co-creator is also the park’s savior, and that his redemptive purposes are still at work. This is Westworld’s hope. And, of course, it’s our hope too.
So perhaps the most important question for both Westworld and our world isn’t, “How do you see the world?” Instead, we should seek to answer, “Who can save it?”