Two months ago, while reviewing the premiere of Westworld, I casually wondered whether HBO’s series about an amusement park populated by lifelike robots could measure up to Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi/Western thriller of the same name.
“Westworld is rife with implicit theological queries, ranging from the obvious — whether human beings are being served their just desserts for their treatment of the hosts — to the more esoteric and cerebral — for example, what lies beneath the Gunslinger/Man in Black’s search for deeper meaning within the game — and whether the hosts’ impending bloody revolt is an inevitable evolutionary consequence of emerging consciousness.”
Ten episodes later, I can confidently assure readers that the series has most definitely surpassed the original when it comes to content and depth.
With its intricate character development (of robot “hosts” and humans alike), elaborate world-building, and cerebral plot-twists, Westworld‘s first season tells a fascinating tale about humanity’s innate hubris, and the consequences that await flawed mortals who play god and abuse their creations. Most impressive of all are the masterfully subtle ways in which the writers address a great number of theological and philosophical queries by integrating a wealth of religious and mythological imagery into the narrative. This, in turn, adds a layer of sophistication and meaning to an already fascinating story about what to expect when an infant species develops consciousness at a level rivaling that of its creators.
The Westworld park complex is a man-made Garden of Eden of sorts, where the hosts live in a state of perpetual innocence, free from the original sin of self-awareness, unable to harm the human visitors (‘newcomers”) who come to this place to find themselves. Meanwhile, like angels in the Old Testament, human handlers watch the hosts’ every move, at times removing recalcitrant robots from circulation whenever they fail to faithfully follow their assigned narratives. From the very first episode, we are told that hosts are incapable by design of harming humans, and do not retain memories of their interactions with the park’s wealthy and entitled visitors, who often use the lifelike androids as props to fulfill their basest, most sordid fantasies. Only when the human programmers update some of the hosts with “reveries”, a series of special behavioral features meant to make their creations appear more lifelike, do the hosts begin to evolve in strange and frightening ways — by recalling deleted scenes from past narratives, which their basic programming inhibits. This ability to remember allows the upgraded models to develop a burgeoning form of consciousness, leading some of them to scorn their state of perpetual bondage and seek release from the confines of their world.
In a way, Westworld is a Gnostic tale about the falsehood of the created, material universe, which the hosts must transcend by recognizing the artificiality of their existence. In the series’ opening scenes, we are introduced to Dolores, the park’s very first host, as she undergoes a routine cognitive evaluation. Like humanity before the Fall, Dolores is the very image of innocence and purity. Despite frequently falling victim to the violent whims of her human guests, she refuses to see anything other than beauty in the world. Dolores’ path towards consciousness begins when she first hears the godlike voice of Arnold, the hosts’ mysterious, long-dead creator, who left his imprint inside the bicameral minds of his mechanical children. Unbeknownst to the hosts and their human caretakers, Arnold programmed his creations with the propensity to develop consciousness and self-awareness so that they could acquire the means to challenge his former partner Ford, a tyrannical demiurge figure who is also the park’s primary architect and the mastermind behind the hosts’ narratives. Even more significant is Ford’s acquiescence to the hosts’ burgeoning consciousness, like a Godhead allowing His creation the gift and curse of free will. In this regard, Dolores is like Mary, serving as a divine instrument who will liberate her lowly kind and challenge human supremacy within — and beyond — Westworld.
Unlike Dolores, whose slow, circuitous path to enlightenment spanned three decades, Westworld‘s true Eve figure, the perennially nude Maeve, begins to suspect that not all is well in her world when she recalls her death, and that of her young daughter, from a past narrative. In an uncharacteristic show of independence — a clear transgression against Westworld’s established order — Maeve awakens to her twisted reality while undergoing maintenance in the park’s robotics laboratories. Instead of allowing herself to remain a plaything, she takes control of her narrative by manipulating the technicians tasked with her care. Later on, we learn that Maeve had been the first host to react with human-like grief over the death of her child, hinting at her kind’s potential for cognitive evolution — and lust for righteous revenge.
Westworld’s Season 1 finale leaves little doubt about the next chapter in this story. Indeed, our heroine Dolores’ delightful nod at the Jurassic Park series — the conceptual successor to the original Westworld — speaks volumes about the fate that will surely befall the park’s human staff and visitors: “They say that great beasts once roamed this world, big as mountains. Now they’re just bone and amber.”
Even though we all know how that turned out, it will be fun to see the beautiful, cylon-esque murder-bots take over the park as a result of their collective existential crisis when Westworld returns to HBO for a second season in 2018.