Westworld: Death & Consciousness

There’s a line in The Dark Knight – co-written by Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan – that I find very illuminating when thinking about Season One of Westworld:

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

Something about Harvey Dent’s turn of the phrase rings true to several characters in Westworld, notably host Dolores & Teddy but also The Man in Black aka William/”Billy”.

As was revealed in the Season One finale, William/”Billy” is actually The Man in Black and has spent 30 years searching at first for Dolores, then for himself, and finally for the deeper mystery of the park. He assumes the deeper meaning is contained in Arnold’s code – within the maze – but, as Ford and a young host point out to him, the maze was never meant for him.

William learns early on, in the absolute timeline of the show, that Dolores is special and may, in fact, be conscious. What he does with this knowledge is feed his own inner bloodlust in a vain attempt rescue Dolores. The part of William’s transformation I find most interesting is that, after initially rejecting Logan’s appeal to explore the darker potential choices he could make, he embraces the role of villain. Having been unable to fulfill the role of the hero, he takes up the mantle of the villain in the hopes of liberating the hosts somehow by solving Arnold’s maze.

By his own admission William states that the lack of skin in the game for the guests – their inability to die at the hands of the hosts – is a fatal flaw. It would be a mistake to dismiss this insight out of hand, since I believe it informs both Ford’s conception of how the hosts achieve consciousness, but also how his (Ford’s) new narrative exploits this fact. 

I think Ford realizes soon after Arnold is killed that he too must play the role of the villain. He must subject his creations to a Sisaphayen underworld from which they cannot escape, in order to build up a reservoir of suffering upon which Dolores or Teddy or Maeve can call upon when they are allowed to remember. 

I’ll go one step further and ask what if, instead of a generic backstory of pain, loss or grief, the only thing that triggers consciousness on the part of hosts is killing? This could happen gradually due to their own repeated deaths – either as a part of a narrative or from a guest – or it could be sped up as they are allowed to remember atrocities they were made to commit or were done to them. 

In this way I think Ford has always been playing his own part in the meta-narrative, stringing William along just enough to feed William’s perverse need to find the secrets of the maze through repeated, brutal killings. Ford needed a human being to play such a villainous role – the contemporary counterpart to Arnold’s Wyatt – to be the violent tool, doing the work of planting in the hosts’ minds the seeds of suffering that might sprout in to consciousness.

We, the viewer, are eventually told that consciousness is less like a ladder or formal hierarchy and more like a maze. It is not something that comes directly from external stimuli, or bootstrapping, or backstory but from introspection. But, as Bernard rightly asks in the penultimate episode, “How can you learn from your mistakes if you can’t remember your past?

Ford’s answer, in as much as he gives one, is that “the divine gift doesn’t not come from a higher power, but our own minds“. This is the lesson of the maze, that the hosts must look inward to find themselves. In Dolores’ case (and I assume all others) the hosts would have to hear themselves and not Arnold or Bernard or Ford. 

Maybe I haven’t connected the dots well enough, but I firmly believe that Dolores coming to terms with her own ability to kill (Arnold initially and, later, Ford) despite the programming of her personality is the truest test of humanity, if not consciousness. We must all recognize in ourselves the potential for violence and evil. 

William, a human guest and not a host, is the perfect embodiment of this concept. He resists succumbing to the baser desires the park has to offer for a while, only to do a complete transformation in an attempt to find a deeper external meaning by becoming the instrument of death incarnate. Ironically, he becomes more like a robotic killing machine than Hector in the process. He doesn’t even fully understand what he’s killing for anymore, just the promise of the maze.
Dolores’ killings play out in the opposite fashion. Instead of having some external desire that forces her to kill or sentences her to death, all she has are the killings and the death that have been foisted upon her, and she has to work her way inward to make sense of the senseless. 

I don’t know if I’m making sense or not, but William thought all that externalized violence would set him free (just like so many other guests). They thought they’d find themselves, and maybe some did, but only after they considered how acting so savagely could change them, not by blindly continuing to kill without consequence.

Dolores can’t kill – or is it least very limited in her ability to mete out violence – instead she is forced to suffer it. But once she’s allowed not only to remember it, but to consider for herself how she would use it, she becomes self aware. 

Ford obviously expects her to become “alive” and chose to kill him, but this is less narrative and more simple, human manipulation. Any rational, sane being who had been kept and exploited in this manner would choose to punish their oppressor. It’s the final, violent act that signifies true humanity (in all its ugliness) that differs from the performant simulacrum of the reveries. 

So Ford’s plan, or my estimation of it, is the violent mass uprising we begin to see as the episode ends. Whether or not all those hosts fight their way to true consciousness or not, I don’t know. I only hope that Bernard, Maeve and Teddy are able to join Dolores.

I’ll end with this last bit of foreshadowing, in the form of the phrase several characters spoke this season:

“These violent delights have violent ends.” – Friar Laurence, Romeo and Juliet

It’s interesting to note that the character of Friar Laurence drives a good bit of the narrative in Romeo and Juliet. Some of his words and actions, like that quote, foreshadow the tragedy that unfolds in that story. 

It’s a dire warning to the Delos board as Dolores opens fire upon them.

It’s the epitaph for William, 30 years too late. 

It’s the promise to Dolores that her own redemption may come from accepting that she’ll have to become the thing she has fought against in order to find her freedom.

I think I’ve fried my own brain enough for one day. I can’t tell if I’m conscious or not. ;-)

Feel free to leave a comment to agree, disagree or just plain +1 the effort. 

Until next season …

2 thoughts on “Westworld: Death & Consciousness

  1. Clunky, I don’t think it matters if the Ford killed by Dolores was a host. I think what matters is her awakening (hearing her own voice) and her acceptance that she has the capacity to take life, even *if* that life is also a host (which I’m doubtful of, in the case of Ford).

    Thanks for the comment!

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