If Westworld can be described as “about” any one thing in particular — which is a dangerous game to play, because the show is trying to encompass a great number of themes — it’s about the nature of consciousness.
Indeed, the show has come up with a sort of simple equation for how consciousness is formed, one that is played out, again and again, in “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” the first season’s penultimate episode. Pain leads to trauma. Trauma leads to memory. And memory leads to consciousness.
Think of the child who lacks complex thought processes, toddling around her home. In the classic example, she reaches up to the stovetop and burns herself on a pan. Quickly, the pain leads to an important memory, one that becomes a building block of her long-term conception of the self: Don’t touch hot things, because you don’t want to get hurt.
What Westworld suggests is that repeated pain, repeated suffering, creates something deeper than a warning signal that goes off in the brain. Imagine that the child could be forced to touch the hot pan again and again and again.
Eventually, the hot pan would be a constant reminder of the fact that she is trapped in a world where all she can know is the scalding burn upon her skin.
She would only burn herself again because she had been built not to remember that it had ever happened. But the scar tissue of trauma subverts that, builds up callouses and memories where they wouldn’t otherwise be.
“Remember,” the now-revealed Arnold tells Dolores near the end of “Clavier,” as he attempts to push her to darker truths, and it’s a beautiful summation of the show’s deepest philosophy: Holding onto a memory is a deeply subversive, even revolutionary act.
Humans forget all sorts of things. The Hosts must always remember.
A popular thing to say as 2016 draws to a close is that it’s one of the worst years people can remember. A divisive election had everyone on edge — and depending on how you feel about the winner, you’re possibly even more on edge now. Unrest and strife continue to exist throughout the world, often because systems of oppression are punishing the oppressed more and more. And to top off the shit sundae, a seemingly endless stream of beloved celebrities have died.
But think about how well you remember the worst things that happened in February of this year. If you dig back through your social media history or search on Google, you’ll probably jar your memory, but otherwise, everything falls into a deep pile of muck — unless you had some sort of massive personal tragedy befall you in that month, in which case, that overrides everything else.
To a degree, the Hosts are designed to function like this. When Ford takes Bernard back to his “earliest” memory — that of the death of his son — he comes to realize that this death is sitting atop what Bernard really needs to remember, which is the moment when Ford first awakened Bernard in his lab and went about building his personality. (As many have suspected, Bernard was built in Arnold’s image, though Ford did not give him the name of his late partner.)
But as Ford mentions, the human brain is an imperfect machine, one that he and Arnold hoped to improve upon, to some degree. So the brain of any average Host is able to hang onto everything that happens. The cornerstone memory, yes, but also every terrible thing visited upon a Host since their creation — they’re all stored away, just waiting to be called upon when the right key turns the right lock.
That’s what we’re seeing happen with Maeve, but in Dolores’s arc (which increasingly seems to take place in about four different timelines; more on that in a bit), we’re seeing how this is a constant throughout the history of the park.
Once you build near-sentient beings who exist solely to be used and abused by sentient beings, there are going to be near-sentient beings who cross the line to memory, to consciousness. And once that happens, they won’t stand for the repetition of trauma without putting up a fight.
This is where the idea of memory as revolutionary comes in. Think, again, to whatever you were doing in February, and try to recall all of the things you’ve forgotten simply because your brain didn’t need to hang onto them. If 2016 really has been as terrible as the memes would have it, everything should remain fresh, should remain salt to pour in wounds.
And yet our brains are built to dump this stuff — or to numb us if everything simply becomes too much. Isn’t it the most powerful thing any of us can do, then, to remember the horrors that happen, to not forget, to not grow numb? But that’s not how our brains work. At a certain point, they tap out.
Not so with a Host.
The more interesting Westworld becomes, the more frustrating Westworld becomes
I should state here that I’ve never had a relationship with a TV show quite like the one I have with Westworld. Every week, I watch it and simultaneously love and hate the show a little bit more. Indeed, the very things that I find fascinating about it are the same things that frustrate me about it in the very next scene.
As Peter Suderman wrote for Vox, Westworld is seemingly uninterested in answering even the most basic questions about how its universe operates. The show simultaneously puts the audience in the role of a Guest — invited to play a giant game while knowing only a few of the rules necessary to enter the game world — and a Host, with limited knowledge about the world, period.
That vagueness can be endlessly enervating when the show is, say, playing cutesy with the true identity of the Man in Black, or the number of timelines the story is operating on, when answers to both seem pretty obvious by now. At the end of “Clavier,” I think I have a fairly full theory of what’s happening on the show (which I’ll share at the very end of this review), but it increasingly feels pointless to even speculate.
Most TV shows — heck, most stories — operate with a fairly straightforward dynamic: A character wants something or wants to do something. Don Draper wants to make a great ad pitch. Tony Soprano wants to stop his panic attacks. Michael Bluth wants simultaneously to put his family back together and to escape said family. Even a more experimental narrative will usually start from the place of a character with a recognizable goal, and then subvert our expectations from that point.
On Westworld, however, some of the characters have concrete goals — Maeve wants to escape Westworld, for instance — but because many of the characters are unaware of fairly basic facts about their existence, it’s hard to get too invested in, say, Teddy finding Dolores and saving her.
Instead, the characters with goals are those of us in the audience who want to know what’s going on, and the writers, who are working as hard as they can to keep information from us. Thus, Westworld is currently mostly a meta-narrative — a story about how we construct stories.
I have trouble imagining the show keeping this up for much longer. Indeed, the Dolores story, which was easily the most compelling in the first half of the season, is now mostly buried underneath the obfuscation of what’s happening during which timeline. There are probably versions of next week’s finale that finally drive me to drop the show — and versions that make me stand up and applaud its storytelling audacity.
More likely than not, I’ll end up somewhere in the middle. Westworld is a mystery show, like Twin Peaks or Lost, but where both of those earlier shows had most of the mysteries swirling around the characters, Westworld keeps developing mysteries within its characters.
Where Mad Men would keep vital parts of Don Draper’s backstory from the audience, he still knew them. He was still driven by them. But a character like Dolores is a mystery even to herself, an endless series of locked doors inside her own brain that she’s never quite sure how to open. And while that’s fun as a writing exercise, I don’t know how long the show can sustain it.
Consider the character of Bernard, who in three consecutive weeks has been revealed to be a Host (episode seven), someone who’s been rewritten many times (episode eight), and a figure built in the image of Arnold who has now “killed himself” so Ford can presumably rebuild him at some point (episode nine). Because this is so much story piled on top of one character, nearly all of it plays out in exposition, rather than via something with emotional followthrough.
It feels, for all the world, like the storytelling equivalent of computer programming — you see the code where the emotional attachment goes, but not the emotional attachment itself. That’s maddening, but also incredibly fascinating. Hence, I love it, and I hate it.
“Clavier,” at least, is probably the “best” version of this approach yet. By digging deep into Bernard’s consciousness, then balancing that deep dive with quick check-ins with essentially every other storyline in the show (including yet another “a park technician is attacked under mysterious circumstances” cliffhanger that’s abandoned midway through the episode), Westworld reaches some sort of platonic ideal of itself.
But Lord — or maybe, I should say, “Ford” — I wouldn’t mind a little clarity at this point.
What I’m pretty sure is going on: possible spoilers follow after the picture
The constant flashbacks to the massacre in the little town where the Hosts were trained have made me pretty sure that not only is Dolores behind that massacre — the incident from the past that was mentioned in one of Westworld’s first episodes — but that she appropriated Teddy to help her carry it out and that it’s led to Ford appropriating her as “Wyatt” in the “present” timeline (if anything on this show can be called “present”).
In this theory, there are four timelines: Dolores’s life before the massacre (which we see mostly in flashbacks to her conversations with Arnold); her time with William (who is almost certainly the young Man in Black); the long torpor of her existence post-William (which seems a kind of punishment visited upon her by Ford); and the Man in Black and Teddy’s journey to find Wyatt, whom I believe to also be Dolores.
Anyway, some of this is probably wrong, but it’s what I’ve got. I’ll be pretty surprised if at least some of it doesn’t pan out.