Westworld is shot through with narcissism, and soars from flights of hubris to the agony of the abused. The park brings pleasure through unspeakable suffering. It’s set up to be zero-sum: no pleasure without equal pain. Guests use the androids, reducing them to living objects, extensions whose only function is to service the guest’s egocentric needs.
It’s the very definition of how narcissists treat other people. It’s an appropriate theme for a Hollywood production, especially after the revelations of the last year, which have thrown great light upon how Hollywood operates.
Narcissism, or narcissistic values, are at the core of the park experience: other people (in this case, androids) are only there to serve the needs of the guests. The androids don't matter, and can be treated with complete disregard, as they’re only machines. You don’t worry how your toaster feels. And that's pretty much how narcissists feel about other human beings.
Ford’s final speech suggests that he created the park because he wanted to tell stories, and through those stories, help people grow and achieve self-realization:
"Since i was a child, I've always loved a good story.
I've believed that stories help us to ennoble ourselves to help fix what was broken in us, and help us become the people we have dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.
"I always thought I'd play some small part in that grand tradition ,and for my pains, I got this: a prison of our own sins.
Because you don't want to change. Or cannot change. Because you're only human, after all."
The guests proved to be uninterested in self-reflection. As only the richest and most powerful people could afford to visit the park, this stands to reason: the upper echelons of human society are dominated by people with an all-consuming need for success and the external validation it provides. Wealth, power and fame are all extrinsic. An effective way to achieve these things in a highly competitive environment is to be ruthless, exploitive and give it your all.
We all can be selfish at times, even unwittingly and unintentionally. And there's nothing wrong with competition–it helps hone systems. But narcissists take it to the extreme.
When William begins to feel for Dolores, he thinks it’s significant, that it goes beyond the extrinsic and represents a connection between their true selves. He thinks something profound is happening between them. Love of this sort connects to the intrinsic aspects of the self. When William sees that Dolores has simply reset in her loop and is going through the same old motions, he believes it was all a lie, that there never was a connection, and that everything is just surface illusion. Perhaps she really was just a prop to make him feel like he was a good person.
To say he doesn’t handle it well would be an understatement: it pretty much destroys his soul.
William abandons hope and truth and authenticity and fills the void with ambition, avarice, cynicism and cruelty. Rather than bonding with Dolores, he turns to James Delos, who’s the embodiment of William’s new value set. Listen to the snide, abusive manner he uses to address William, the way his android replica bellows for his long dead son to appear, and the nasty barbs he delivers: “are you enjoying running my company, William? Eh? Fucking my daughter?” The man’s every action shows the yawning black chasm of nothingness where empathy should be.
Narcissists follow a familiar pattern in their interactions: idealize, devalue and discard. Many relationships follow this pattern, but it’s especially pronounced with narcissists, and this paradigm is informing the writing on the show, either through deliberate research or unconsciously through observation of human nature.
Personality disordered people relish the suffering of others. As such, they want their targets to feel. The park presents them with subjects that appear to feel quite deeply: the illusion is very powerful. Ford himself has a scene in which he declares the androids do not feel, at all, but he's lying: the ending reveals that he believes the androids can indeed achieve self-awareness and that they are suffering, and that their repeated suffering is what actually brought them to awareness.
William initially idealizes Dolores. He sees in her something he’s always sought: a purity, a grace, a way of looking at the world. Authenticity. And even while being unconsciously manipulated and repeatedly murdered and abused, there’s a beautiful naivety and earnestness to Dolores’ manufactured personality. That is the kernel from which her self-awareness grows (until her spiritual journey is unceremoniously derailed by being merged with a psychopathic cannibal, but whatever. Shit happens). They begin to bond deeply. Then William realizes she’s not all he thought she was. He’s gone through a traumatic, transformative spiritual and emotional journey with her, but when he manages to stumble back into the hideously misnamed Sweetwater, he sees that she’s reset. She’s not grown at all. Rather, she’s back where he found her, oblivious, absentmindedly dropping her canned lure into the street, again, to be picked up by yet another faceless guest. The guests, he realizes, are interchangeable, and Dolores will be off to experience emotional awakening and horrors with another man, with no memory of what they shared. He’s devastated by this, the knowledge that his great journey the park’s product, and in his mind he throws Dolores off the pedestal he had placed her upon.
After buying the park, he has her brought down into the park’s labs, stripped naked and helpless in diagnostic mode, to bitterly tell her that she was only reflecting what he needed. He denies her emergent consciousness (even though it’s there, just trapped inside her looping cage) and reduces her to an object, a tool to help people play out their own dramas.
The really shameful thing is that people do this with other human beings, and that, at it’s core, is what the show is about.
Unable to handle the hurt his true self suffered, William falls back into a set of black hearted, selfish values. He seduces Delos into buying the park as a means to exploit the guests and provide Delos with a path to immortality. Just listen to the way he describes the park experience: it’s a way for guests to reveal their true selves, to show who they really are (horrible, monstrous, cruel, selfish, abusive, exploitive, heinous), while no one is watching or judging. Only he’s lying: Delos Corp is watching, and recording, everything the guests do when the rules are seemingly all taken away. The show’s been hinting at the dark purpose behind this: either to blackmail guests, or even replace them with programmed android duplicates who’ll do William’s bidding.
He truly becomes the Man-in-Black, an amoral CEO who nevertheless is still obsessed with finding deeper meaning in the park. He continues to believe that there is something more than the extrinsic, beyond the surface, and desperately hopes an answer can be found in Ford’s Maze puzzle. He yearns for the androids to be free, likely because he wants (or wanted), more than anything, for Dolores to be free to love him. This wound has caused him life long suffering and alienation from his true self, and he’s taken his frustration out on everyone around him. Yet he lives by superficial values and abuses his wife, neglects his daughter, and exploits and lies to his clients (to a likely criminal degree if he’s behind the labs where they’re stealing guest DNA).
Except he’s stumbled on another game entirely, one designed not for the guests, but for the hosts.
Arnold realized the androids were potentially self-aware, and felt to subject them to the guest’s depredations would be unconscionable. So he tried to derail the park by having Dolores shoot him in the head and kill all the other androids. Or so goes my understanding. Given that the androids were designed to be abused and recycled, I don’t see how this plan really works, unless Ford was entirely reliant on Arnold to repair them. That Arnold decided to have himself shot in the head to derail the park makes little sense: surely he could have just resigned and refused to help. But plot and drama demands being what they are, a less than optimal solution was adopted.
The androids suffer, as anyone who is close to a narcissist does: they are objects, tools to help satisfy the massive ego needs of the self-absorbed. From Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff to Mussolini, narcissists draw others in and then exploit them. The Italian people were just there to glorify Mussolini and tell him how awesome he was. The movie starlets existed only to service Weinstein. In the end, they make others pay a high price for their fantasies.
FBI profiler Joe Navarro has studied and written extensively about toxic personalities and the harm they cause to anyone close to them. They play mind games and devalue others to pump themselves up. They mind-f*ck. And what is the host experience other than a mind-f*ck on a grand scale? They are plunked into a false reality, a world that’s an illusion, throwninto roles they have no control over, are fed desires and personalities and goals that are only there for our benefit.
Yet… they are conscious beings. Like the children of narcissists, they are caught in a nightmare of abuse that’s out of their control. Narcissistic parents use their own children as extensions, as a means to reflect the image of perfection they want to present to the world. Michael Jackson’s father pushed his offspring to a damaging degree that I can hardly believe possible. Think of the movie Whiplash. It ripped Michael Jackson’s tender soul to smitherines, but also gave him the drive he needed to become one of the greatest pop stars in human history. And yet, by all accounts, Jackson was a desperately unhappy man who sought solace in possessions, fantasy and inappropriate relations with children. Abuse can foster abuse, down through the generations, until someone, someday, finally awakes to the horror.
And this ties in to reincarnation and the journey of the soul, if not eternal recurrence. It also touches on agency and free will and independence and the ability to assert ourselves in a universe that is indifferent. The world is what we make it, and that includes all the love as well as all the hatred and cruelty.
How much abuse and suffering is success worth?
In Westworld, the androids are murdered repeatedly for the sake of the guest’s entertainment, and we, the audience, get our jollies watching their collective suffering. At least this is better than the gladiatorial games in which the participants were brutally murdered. Some would be tied up to stakes and devoured by starved animals. That's entertainment! Over the centuries, across the entire Roman Empire, it's estimated a mind-boggling 20 million people were killed for the sake of entertainment.
This is not unusual human behavior: during the Holocaust, in the Ukraine, German soldiers would bring lawn chairs and alcohol to pogroms, and settle in to watch from rooftops while the locals murdered their Jews. One camp commandant later referred to this period as ‘the good old days.’
The world is what we make it.
You can argue that it is better for the humans of Westworld to be abusing androids instead of real people, but it becomes a very sticky issue when you imbue those androids with sentience and feelings and eliminate all meaningful distinctions between them and human beings.
The guests are told that the androids don't feel, yet William in his first visit most certainly does believe that Dolores feels, he's convinced of this, he's willing to risk his real world life for her because she too is having an emotional epiphany on her journey with him.
The idea that the guests are unaware of the host's ability to feel doesn't wash with me, despite a few scenes to the contrary.
Ford has a scene in which he chastises a technician for treating an android like a human being, and drives home his point by cutting the android on the face with a scalpel. How does this jive with the later reveal that Ford is, in fact, trying to help the androids achieve consciousness and freedom? That they must do so through decades of suffering speaks more to greater themes about the nature of life, than the specific circumstances surrounding emergent AI.
The Buddha says that 'life is suffering', and that's true, in that suffering is inescapable, and it can teach us. Wake us up from ignorant slumber and complacency. Those larger themes are covered through the metaphor of the androids, but I don't think we need to take the park on an entirely literal level. The writers are infusing a new set of ideas and themes into Michael Chricton's original concept, and it's not always a perfect fit.
Ford begins as a cryptic figure, then veers villain, then (anti-)heroic, at least for the androids he's freed. He has no problem having the executive board slaughtered in cold blood, or having guests massacred across the park. How many were in this vast pleasure park? What is the total death toll? Surely there was a better way to go about it. Only that probably wouldn't be as cinematic and entertaining.
Fod's thrown humanity under the bus for another paradigm. Do we judge his ethics by a higher standard, or relative to the group he supports? Pragmatic-sadist patron saint of androids? Butcherer of guests? As the second series comes to a close, and Ford is reintroduced into the cast, we'll gain more insight into his motivations.
Most of the abuse in Westworld is over the top and obvious, which is reassuring in a sense, because you can spot it easily. But abuse goes beyond the physical: denying sentient beings autonomy, using them as props for our own ego drama, and forcing them into unwanted narratives also constitutes abuse. It’s just emotional and spiritual and mental, instead of physical. Submerging awareness of the horror, but not eliminating it, so it hovers at the edge of consciousness, and then subjecting living beings to endless torment, is just evil. It's Hell, only the participants don’t know it consciously. Abuse victims often try and suppress awareness. They try not to talk about it, because they cannot escape it. People caught in an abusive relationship (whether with a spouse, partner, or parent) are often enmeshed and confused, because abusers employ both carrot and stick. Denial and avoidance and false-consciousness become coping mechanisms, allowing them to survive horrible circumstances. ‘Just leave’ is a simplistic directive given by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Outrageous entitlement and self-centred desire to the point of perversion and sadism lies behind the treatment of the hosts. It’s narcissism on a grand scale, and the hosts are stand-ins for all the human beings who have suffered at their hands.
The hosts have woken up.
What lessons will they ultimately learn from their suffering?
Dolores goes from selflessness and empathy to savagery, while Maeve shifts from cynical selfishness to selflessness in pursuit of her daughter. Two very different arcs for two very different female characters.