It’s been a while since I’ve made a blog entry, and I decided to to shift the focus of my Mental Health and Pop Culture series away from “Game of Thrones,” at least for the moment, to another HBO television series called “Westworld.” Before I researched Westworld, in preparation for this series, it held very little interest for me as I thought it was just a “Western” series. However, I discovered that Westworld is based off of a movie from the 1970s of the same name, and it is actually set in the future, not in the Old West. A word of caution, in order to write this entry, there are spoilers, though I have tried to minimize them where possible.
My goal in this entry is not to introduce, diagnose, and suggest a treatment plan for any of the characters, but rather to delve into the rationale for a place like Westworld to exist. In the series, Westworld is the name of an amusement park or sorts; that is, people who can afford it, can go on an immersive vacation in a controlled environment that emulates the Old West. The Westworld park is inhabited by android-like creations, called “hosts” that are given narrative scripts to follow, and also provided an algorithm to engage in improvisation with the park guests.
The park was created and is run by an engineer named Robert Ford, who often comes to disagreements with the board of directors of the company that owns the park. Everything in the park, not just the humanoid hosts, is artificial and controlled, down to the animals and even to the period weaponry. At face value, Westworld is a place where guests can come to relax or to live out fantasies. However, a stated motivation within the series is that Westworld is a place where guests can let loose and truly be themselves. In that regard, the series, at least in the first season, centers around a few characters, namely Ford, an engineer named Bernard, a park guest named William, a park guest named Logan, a host named Maeve, and the central character, another host named Delores.
At face value, Westworld is like any other amusement park, in that the workers create an environment for guests to have fun. Similar to certain aspects of a Disney or Universal amusement park, Westworld’s guests are able to not-only “ride” attractions so to speak, but become a part of the story as well. In that regard, the goal of Westworld would seem to be just like any other amusement park. On the other hand, Westworld doesn’t offer traditional rides, but a life-like experience where guests are given the opportunity to go on scripted adventures as pivotal characters, not just as observers. In that regard, Westworld reminds me of the cattle-drive vacation plot in the classic comedy “City Slickers.”
On this level, we can delve into the reasons why people take vacations. For many people, a vacation is an opportunity to relax the mind and body which are often taxed by either over-exertion or under-use in daily life. Whether a person is the CEO of a major company who spends much of his or her day in meetings with stress building up all-over, or a person works in manual labor, at the end of the day, the person is tired, if not exhausted, physically and/or mentally. A vacation, at least before the age of smartphones, provides the opportunity for people to let go of the stresses of their lives, if only for a short while. Indeed, even just watching a television show, going to a movie, or reading a book can provide means of escape for many people. But, there is something about a vacation, actually picking up and going somewhere for a change of scenery, activities, and so on that many people aspire for to really unplug and escape from their daily grind. An immersive experience, such as the one provided by Westworld, would therefore be attractive for many people as a means of escaping from their daily grind, and doing something completely different.
Also, at surface level, since people look for creative ways to take vacations, it makes sense that there would be visionaries, such as Robert Ford’s character, who would create a theme park like Westworld to provide for that means of escape. Many people who work in the amusement or entertainment industry are just doing it for the money. However, much like Walt Disney in real life, the character of Robert Ford dreamed of a more perfect world than the real world, or at least a better or different world from the one that we regularly inhabit.
Even for a visionary, as Robert Ford is presented to be, a question emerges as to what would drive him to create an artificial world that is so violent? What does it say about the human psyche, at least in this perspective, that an expensive vacation involves going to an interactive theme park where guests can “kill” hosts in gun battles? Why would people want to pay money to be chased around by wild savages, spend a few nights in prison, or get shot at by bandits?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the goals of the Westworld experience is to help people actualize who they really are. In this regard, we see the character development of William throughout the first season. When we are introduced to William, it is his first time coming to Westworld, and he is accompanying his future brother-in-law Logan who has been many times. William is aware that Westworld is an amusement park, yet since the hosts are so realistic, he has a hard time getting involved with any of them. As the story unfolds, he becomes infatuated with Delores and he believes her to be different from the other hosts; he comes to believe that she is actually a real person. At the same time, we see that Delores, and some of the other hosts, are being programmed in such a way as to keep glimpses of their past experiences, which they are told are dreams. In the case of Maeve, she decides to try to escape the park, though at the end of the season, it is revealed that this escape attempt is programmed into her character.
Delores, however, truly does seem to be different. While the roles given to other hosts are, at times, changed, Delores is the oldest host in the park, and has, apparently, always had her general role, a fact that we are clued-into toward the end of the season. Additionally, as we see throughout the season, Delores is purposely given the opportunity to retain some of her memories, which the engineers refer to as “reveries,” in a clandestine way. She is led to believe that she is dreaming when she is in an “awake” state outside of the park, and in this way she is studied by certain members of the programming team, specifically Bernard, the head of the department. As the season progresses, we find Delores, who like the other hosts does not know that she is artificial, become more human. The interplay between William and Delores, coupled with the programming and testing performed by Bernard and Robert (and, as we find out mid-way through the season, Robert’s deceased partner Arnold) blurs the line between what is real and what is artificial.
Additionally, throughout the season, Delores is visited by a mysterious guest known only as “the man in black” who has been frequenting the park for about thirty years. The man in black is convinced that there is some “point” to the Westworld experience, which he has decided to take upon himself to uncover. The point, he believes, can only be discovered by working through a maze that he is repeatedly told by hosts is “not for you.” The maze is revealed, at the end of the season, to be a game developed by Arnold and Robert to help Delores, specifically, learn how to become “real.”
As a result, it appears as though the park has two different agendas, one revealed, and one concealed. The revealed agenda is for guests to enjoy a vacation where they can explore themselves to discover who they really are. The concealed agenda, concealed even from the park’s board of directors, is to help the hosts, or at least some of them, actualize themselves and become “real.” In this, second, sense Westworld is reminiscent of Pinocchio, and his quest to become a “real boy.” And, for our purposes here, it begs the question, what does it mean to be “real” and what drives us to attempt to create life?
On more than one occasion during the season, various humans, from Robert to the man in black, tell hosts that there are “god.” At face-value, this sounds as though they are having a cognitive distortion known as a “god complex.” However, at least in Robert’s case, there is something more to it than that, which is revealed at the end of the season. Robert has maintained throughout the season that the hosts are not real; they are obviously programmed to act like people, but they are more like sophisticated robots. However, Arnold came to believe that the hosts somehow blurred the line between robot and real person, and this was especially the case regarding Delores.
A common understanding, among others, as to why some people may develop a “god complex” is that it stems from a fear of death. That is, if a person is able to create life somehow, then he or she need not fear dying; this is, perhaps, the same reason why Dr. Frankenstein attempted to create life, and it is certainly the impetus behind the exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow. It may be more of a search for meaning in life as well.