Westworld, HBO’s new flagship series, has swept through the viewing queues of TV fanatics like a dustorm across a Mojave ghost town’s main street. With an average of 12 million viewers every week, Westworld has captivated critics and fans alike, usurping Game of Thrones’ old record to claim the crown as most watched first season of any HBO original.
On its surface, Westworld is simply another thrilling epic presented in the vein of Game of Thrones, less story than Russian Roulette game, where every bet is off and anything can and often does occur, even to the show’s most significant players. But after religiously devouring the entire first season, I believe that, like the fine distinction between humans and hosts, Westworld’s narrative message holds past skin deep, tugging instead at our most primal, essential questions: what does it mean to be real, to be true…to be human?
Westworld’s every moment is a wrestling match between conflicting definitions of humanity. In one corner we have Dr. Ford and his designer cohorts, who craft and maintain Westworld, a Wild Western fantasy for people bored with what is real, a false land filled with false inhabitants, who at first seem incapable of perceiving themselves and their surroundings as anything but true; a collection of simple, base toys for real girls and boys to abuse and dispose of.
Then, a revelation: glitches in Westword’s false inhabitants, the human-identical “hosts,” are granting hosts a human-like memory, allowing them to process details of their existence they are supposed to forget and ignore. One host, Dolores, seems to posses a near human level of information retention and improvisation, far surpassing what her programming is supposed to allow. These glitches eventually take hold in several other key characters, and humanity’s trademark bloody chaos ensues.
The show warps reality further with the revelation that Dr.Ford’s protege, Bernard Lowe, is himself a host, designed to mimic the appearance and personality of the deceased Dr. Arnold, who co-designed the hosts with Dr. Ford. The “real” Arnold died in a form of protest against Ford’s plans for opening Westworld, which Arnold believed would condemn self-aware synthetic organisms to life as nothing more than decorations and pleasure receptacles.
But, compared to the hosts, just how human are characters like the Man in Black, who forsake their “real” existence to forever act out fantasies within Westworld? By granting Dolores an understanding of “the key to the maze,” an apparent metaphor for her own self-consciousness, and leaving the Man in Black (among many others) to experience a very real human phenomena: death, at the hands of supposedly false people, the show seems to scribble between the lines of what is human, and what isn’t. Westworld’s notion of reality bends further when considering that every supposedly “real” character in the show is, by context of our actual, physical reality, written and acted out in much the same manner as Westworld’s hosts act out pre written scripts within the show’s context, all of which our we temporarily render real when we sit down to watch, and suspend our disbelief.