Westworld, Consciousness, and the Limitations of Selfishness

What’s been most interesting about this first season of Westworld has been the somewhat feminist bent of the thematic elements of the show, whether through refuting the manic pixie dream girl and  the large (and perhaps unintentional) feminist metaphor in the series arc. Now that we’re done with season one and everyone’s written their recaps and first impressions, it’s time to take another look and see if this trend continued.  Obviously, spoilers for season one of Westworld follow after this kick-ass picture of Dolores.

It’s worth a shoutout to two blog articles that really inform the way I’m looking at the show here.

First, Eli Keel’s analysis of season one of  iZombie as an allegory for surviving sexual assault is just amazing. I was already enjoying the show when I read that article, and seeing the additional layer increased my appreciation of the show.  Second, Katharine Trendacosta wrote a great article pointing out that the “mysteries” of Westworld aren’t really the point of the show. Instead, she suggests that the themes of the narrative really are the whole point of the show.

Looking at Westworld with that kind of lens, it’s clear that Dolores’ story in particular is informed by being in – and surviving – an abusive relationship.  (John Cheese’s article on Cracked about living with abuse is a useful read here as well; I’m cribbing a few things from it.) 

While William starts out as a prototypical (although perhaps clueless) “nice guy”, we saw back in E07 that at some level, he still views Dolores as a “thing”. Then just an episode later, that’s reinforced with his “break down” comment. 

All this could simply be written up as the differences between the hosts and “human” guests, but it’s the monologue from The Man In Black (or present-day William, as we now know) where he says:

She pushed me away, told me that my wife’s death was no accident, that she killed herself because of me. Emily said that every day with me had been sheer terror. At any point, I could blow up or collapse like some dark star…
They never saw anything like the man I am in here.
But she knew anyway.
She said if I stacked up all my good deeds, it was just an elegant wall I built to hide what’s inside from everyone, and from myself.

And that’s exactly what we see in the season finale.

Because despite the selling point of the park being to “find out who you really are”, William never does. He attributes the change in his personality to this (where he’s talking about himself in the third person:

[William] Didn’t have an instinct for it. Not at first.
But now, he had a reason to fight.
He was looking for you.
And somewhere along the way, he found he had a taste for it….
William couldn’t find you, Dolores.
But out there, among the dead he found something else himself.

This is what he thinks is his transformation, but once his flashback gets back to Dolores, we see her back in her loop, dropping her can, greeting a new guest as William looks on, stunned that she does not acknowledge him.  The MiB says:

You were as beautiful as the day he met you.
Shining with that same light.
And you were nothing if not true.
I really ought to thank you, Dolores.
You helped me find myself.

Here, while the MiB repeats the same dehumanizing thing he said three episodes earlier, without really acknowledging that this is at the heart of his change, we have a different – and truer – visual narrative.

It’s from this point that William turns from a mostly nice guy (since when is going to any lengths to save your love a bad thing?) into a hateful selfish man who buys up as much of the park as possible and, as we saw back in the first episode, will rape the woman who he professed to love because she didn’t love him back the same way. Nevermind that her memory was literally wiped clean – something every guest to the park is aware of.

It’s at this point that William turns into the petulant entitled child that embodies the worst part – and the main part – of our patriarchal culture. All of William’s professions of caring, of love, boil down to it all needing to be about him.  His later protestations about wanting the hosts to have a chance, to be able to win sometimes, have nothing to do with the well-being of the hosts, and everything to do with William’s own ego.

That’s exactly what the park – and our patriarchal society – is set up to do.

There’s a quote from an interview with Jimmi Simpson (who played young William) in Vanity Fair that is very telling:

I feel like William is a man who has seen the rules very clearly. That’s a lot of people’s mode of getting through life. When you have nothing, you have to abide by other people’s rules, and play their game, and play it well. And then they give you a cookie. I think what he saw [during his Westworld experience] was that playing by the rules to get the cookie actually hadn’t gotten him anywhere.

He goes from following the rules to making the rules, and I think that happens when your heart breaks. You realize, “Holy shit, I have nothing to lose. That didn’t kill me.” Then you start calling the shots. I really related to that, being a person who was in a very long-term relationship and was married and then divorced. There comes a clarity of what’s important. For the narrative, the Man in Black’s realization is pretty dramatic and exciting. But, like mine, it’s very much “Oh, that kind of stuff won’t kill me. I can try a little harder. I can go after what I want more, and I can be myself, and fuck it.”

Simpson’s own rationalization here – just like William’s – uses emotional pain as a rationale and justification for wielding power over other people, and it’s revolting.

I’ve had that kind of pain myself. While I got suicidal, the idea of lashing out to deliberately hurt the person I cared for never have crossed my mind. (I also think the use of “get a cookie” by Simpson is particularly chilling; I hope it’s unintentional.) 

We repeatedly see the humans in the show acting in ultimately patriarchal might-makes-right selfish ways. Even Dr. Ford’s motivations to uplift the hosts is less about their well-being and more about both his own desire for redemption and to strike back at Delos.

In contrast, when the hosts – at least, when not running a loop –  exhibit compassion and caring for each other. Whether it’s Armistice’s sacrifice, Bernard’s tragic efforts, Dolores’ last-second reassurance of Teddy, or Maeve’s getting off the train (thus breaking her own code), they’re all showing concern for others rather than just themselves. 

And that concern is not only when it’s convenient, but even when it might cause them personal harm.

It’s important to note that Dr. Ford gets something wrong (even as he tries to make Bernard feel sorry for him while rationalizing away his actions):

Do you want to know why I really gave you the backstory of your son, Bernard? 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.

But this isn’t really right.  There is a theory that consciousness is about conflict, but it’s about internal conflict, not conflict with other people and not conflicts between desires and reality.

You know, like the conflict between your own desires and doing what’s good for someone else.

Or in other words, the hosts are more conscious than the humans ever were.

I think it’s no accident that our awoken hosts are portrayed by women and people of color, as are the two other characters who seem to have concerns for entities other than themselves: Arnold, and Felix.

And Maeve does mean that as a compliment – and as a slam to the self-centered might-makes-right selfishness of the patriarchal culture that humans are swimming in.

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