Spoilers for season one of Westworld below the line
What is the difference between humans and animals? Is it a rational thought or something else? When man develops an artificial intelligence that can think on its own accord, whats the difference then between man and machine? Well, the answer might be a bit more complex and in this article, I will dig deeper into season one of Westworld, and how it uses the analogy to explain the human experience and the difference between man and machine.
Back in 2016, the TV show creation of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan broke our minds in more than one way. The remake of the 1976 movie with the same title, showed us a future in which robots not only are humanlike but a tool for our own Westworld an amusement. In this scenario, Westworld is a theme park set in the Wild West of old with an array of characters and storylines that revolve letting guests live out their wildest adventures.
In Westworld, all people the guests encounter are actually hosts, amazing and vivid replicas of human beings that are programmed to follow their set storylines and divert based on guest interaction. Through the clever use of timelines, it is clear, the park has been open more than twenty years. During that time, the hosts have been programmed hundreds of times.
The concept of “past lives” is the idea that deep in our souls we can remember who we used to be in previous lives. I believe the show uses this as an analogy for their hosts “waking up”. Characters like Maeve seem to remember their previous programmed stories. Past storylines are presented as dreams. For example, Maeve finds herself dreaming repeatedly of a field, a house, and men in suits, creating a heavy contrast between the dream and Maeve’s current programmed story.
As the season goes on, so do Maeve’s dream, reveals a daughter and an attack by the Ghost Nation (a tribe of Native American hosts, seemingly “savages” to the more sophisticated westernized hosts). This becomes the core of Maeve’s story for the second season and shapes her personality.
Dolores, another host with a story we follow in the show, has a different and complex story. Since she is both the innocent Dolores and deadly Wyatt, she is able to feel love for her father and Teddy, but she also remembers all those storylines where the Man in Black killed her over and over again.
In the first season, the seemingly innocent Dolores and the madam of the brothel, Maeve who is morally grey and only driven by money are introduced to the viewer with their awakening to consciousness. The character we seem to unveil ends up being very different from the first time we encounter Dolores, as the audience and the host begin to understand their memories and dreams.
By the second season, we finally see Dolores as the cold-blooded killer and defiant leader of the hosts. In contrast, Maeve is a mother who will do anything for her child and shows mercy to the ones who were once merciful to her. The breaking point for both of this characters is the complete consciousness: power over their own minds, bodies and the memories within.
The hosts’ unforgettable storylines have something in common, the powerful emotions they experienced. Whether it be love or violence (or in some cases a mix of both,) these older storylines had a lasting impression on the host and shaped their future personality.
The hosts’ experiences are an analogy for humanity itself. Your experiences shape the type of person you will be.
When the question “what does it mean to be human,” is usually asked in reference to what makes us any different than animals, i.e. rational thoughts, emotions, choices and so forth. So when man creates a machine that can think, feel, and choose for itself, what is humanity then?
The show brings up the question of the difference between man and machine. We see human characters ask themselves this question when in front of the robots, and more so when these robots begin to gain consciousness. The question is asked to the humans in the show, and by them, to us.
In the movies iRobot, the idea of a robot who “has feelings” is one of the main points of the plot. The distinct technological and mechanical look of the robots makes it easier to declare them as “other” because there is a clear visual difference between the two. However, when the robots look more human, the difference gets harder to picture, especially for the humans in the narrative of the movie or show.
At the same time, because of the human resemblance of the hosts, it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than human. The scenes where the hosts are being asked to create their own diagnosis or appear open-like machines drive home the idea that these characters are not human, despite their very human experiences.
Another story we follow is that of The Man in Black, his journey inside Westworld and how the experiences lived there shaped his life. It’s ironic that the encounter with the Man in Black and Dolores when he was young, is what created the monster we get to know now. He, as well as the hosts, has been shaped to the person he is today, by his past experiences with the hosts. It’s almost laughable that it’s him who Dolores remembers as a stand-in (or maybe an original?) for Teddy, her love in her current storyline; but also as the man from her nightmares, remembering each and every time he has taken her life.
A big part of the first season presents the figure of The Man in Black and Dolores in the archetype of villain and victim. They are living this storyline over and over again. The Man in Black seeks revenge in the shape of Dolores, over and over again killing her in hopes of what he felt for her when he was young and truly believed in the consciousness of the hosts.
It’s poetic because in the first season we are presented with the journey Dolores and William take, from their first meeting, falling in love, to the eye-opening ending. William was just part of the story Dolores was given to play and is this truth that pushed William to become The Man in Black and the villain we now know.
Throughout our lives, we experience good, bad and maybe traumatic situations, how this affects us will end up being a part of us. This is the core of the human experience, and Westworld makes a clear case to present to us that their robots are neither good or bad, but it is their multiple experiences that shape who they are when they finally gain consciousness.
So, in Westworld, what makes a human different from a robot? Freedom. Humans create robots and keep them as tools, but when they show human behaviour, will they let them live? will the humans see the robots in a different light and welcome them as equals?
These are only a few questions that one has when going into season two, and the answer might be a little more complex than expected.