Questioning the nature of our (televisual) reality: Westworld and consciousness

This is a guest article by Hannah Searson who previously wrote Hysteria in Twin Peaks and Ghosts, Sympathy and bearing witness in Twin Peaks The Return We hope you enjoy!


“Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward. Not a pyramid, but a maze”, or so Jeffrey Wright’s Arnold tells us in the final episode of Westworld season 1. The show made a claim to Lost’s legacy from the start – championing JJ Abrams’ famous “mystery box” form of storytelling, where each shot represents a clue within a clue to a wider narrative.

Unfortunately, that’s never interested me in the slightest. Even on Lost, the ‘mysteries’ and their resolution always felt beside the point. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse understood that and ultimately came down on the side that what matters is the reality of what was felt by the characters, of the connections they formed and how it changed them. Lost has one of my favourite series finales of all time, thanks to that transcendent focus on these connections, and therefore the connections the audience has made with the characters they’d watched on screen for over 6 years, and with each other in fan communities. That’s what mattered in the end to Lost, and it worked.

Westworld, on the other hand, has always kept emotions at a distance. It’s something I rather admired about the first season, it felt like a commentary on the way we over sentimentalise television and stories. The way that we treat fictional characters as though they are real people with choices and feelings, rather than whatever the writers need them to be. A common complaint about the show is how difficult it is to become “attached” to a character, the audience doesn’t know “who to root for”. That’s intentional, and not in a way that suggests that black-and-grey-morality is the ultimate hallmark of Peak TV. Westworld is a story about stories, it’s about what we choose to represent on screen and the consequences of those choices. Why did the show’s full-frontal nudity garner so much media attention prior to the show’s airing, rather than the disturbing implication of Ed Harris’ Man in Black (or, as season 1 revealed, William) dragging Dolores off to the barn? Characters get scalped, tortured, raped and used – yet we were most shocked about the sight of full-frontal nudity. Our choice to find horror and vulgarity in that proves that Westworld knew what it was doing. Midway through the first season, Anthony Hopkins’ rather cruel yet idealistic puppetmaster, Robert Ford, publicly humiliates Lee Sizemore – the hackish ‘showrunner’ of the park, for proposing a narrative of just plain old sex and violence, with nothing to transcend its casual debasement of our intellects and satisfy our narrative impulses. A ballsy scene coming from a show airing on the same channel as Game of Thrones. Ford insists throughout the first season that stories should inspire, should allow the audience to transcend their lives and uncover the truth about themselves, it just so happens that he believes that this truth is ugly and cruel.

Its second season, concluding on HBO this Sunday, takes this even further. It pushes Dolores to seemingly unsympathetic depths, having her become cruel, modifying her lover Teddy’s personality so he can survive in a world not made for people who are kind. I can understand that perspective – the world has shown Dolores nothing but cruelty, it’s given her nothing but pain and hammered home repeatedly that she doesn’t belong anywhere. Too self-aware for her story, and just not human enough to be a real girl. It doesn’t help that her journey to consciousness, as explained by Arnold, was indeed a journey “inwards”. She searched and searched inside of herself until she found something real, her own voice, which amounted to nothing but memories of her pain. So now she’s stuck in a new loop of inflicting that pain on others. It’s a clever choice on the part of the writers. Westworld has two ways that characters come to consciousness – one through relentless inward-searching, like Dolores did, and one prompted by someone outside the self. The latter method is best exemplified through Maeve, who achieves consciousness less through solitary introspection, but through the anchor of her love for her daughter. She understands intuitively that it doesn’t matter that someone like Lee Sizemore specifically programmed her to love her daughter, she just does, and that’s what matters. Her awakening, as it were, is prompted and propelled by this love, and allows her to guide others to do the same. Maeve even goes so far as to awaken Sizemore, human though he is, to the truth – the best stories come from a place of love and empathy, not a paint-by-numbers appeal to our worst selves.

It’s through these two characters of Dolores and Maeve that the show showcases its highly original and interesting way of looking at consciousness. Their respective actions in the second season are a direct result of how they achieved consciousness; Dolores enacts her pain on the world around her, and Maeve acts from a place of love. That’s not to say that one isn’t capable of the other, but their viewpoints were shaped by their journeys in the first season. What we are witnessing is a contrast between introspection and expansiveness, with their knowledge and gifts deriving directly from these dichotomous impulses.

It also creates a parallel with William, the Man in Black, the owner of the park where all the chaos takes place. He’s another character whose journey has been almost exclusively internal. He’s Dolores’ logic taken to its extreme – not only does he believe he’s the only ‘real’ thing about Westworld the park, he also thinks that everything there exists exclusively for him. His personality is one made up of narcissism, a persecutory complex and amounting to little more than vanity. You can draw a clear parallel between him and the viewer who is caught up in the mysteries, trawling Reddit for the latest “mind-blowing” theories, and convinced that within every shot lies five layers of clues to the narrative. This isn’t a condemnation of those fans – I look too, because it’s fun! It’s an enjoyable way of viewing the show, but it’s also myopic. It causes you to keep the show at a distance, to see everything as a game, a mystery to be unravelled. These characters aren’t real, but does that matter to your emotional experience watching the show? My feelings of disgust at William’s actions, my laughter at Robert Ford’s drama queen tendencies and the clench in my heart that came at Akecheta’s story revealed in the masterful episode ‘Kiksuya’ were all real.

William kills his own daughter because he’s just so convinced that he’s the only real thing in the universe, because he can’t imagine that someone would come to hate him, not because they were programmed to, but because they’re aware of his choices and find them repulsive. He kills her because he still hasn’t learned that, although he’s the ‘villain’ of the story, that doesn’t matter. Because the story he believes he is in doesn’t matter. He’s a distraction from what is actually important, the creation of a new conscious species through Dolores and Maeve’s respective journeys. This is much in the same way that viewers, like me, are wasting their time debating if William is a host, or what the door will lead to, or if Bernard is trapped in a time-loop.  It doesn’t matter. Teddy shot himself to escape what Dolores is turning into, to be sure, but that’s not all. He shot himself to wake her up, to make her realise that she, too, has become distracted by her own vanity and narcissism from the bigger picture. I doubt she’ll learn, at least not yet, but we can, and should.

Arnold was right, consciousness is a journey inwards, but that’s not all. In Westworld, consciousness is a shorthand for agency – for the idea that we are free to make our own choices and suffer the consequences for them. Westworld, through all its twists and turns and incredibly unsubtle references, is doing something very simple: it is teaching us how to watch stories again. It has all the bells and whistles of Peak TV attached to it, but its goal is to prove that’s all they are. Instead, the story is much simpler – it’s one about looking inwards and finding pain, and looking outwards and finding love, and trying to move forward from both of those. To walk in between the real and fake worlds and see the beauty and the cruelty of both, to hold the action at a distance, while acknowledging the value of the emotions it evokes in you. Westworld isn’t about us because it shows how cruel we are, or how complacent we act when it comes to technology. Rather, because it shows us clearly what we value in our stories, and therefore in our lives. It shows us the emotional and artistic inadequacy of what we get from our entertainment, and asks us to look at the show, and try to find something real.


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