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.
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. 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. Love of this sort connects to the intrinsic aspects of the self. When William sees that Dolores has simply reset her loop, he believes it was all a lie, that there never was a connection, and that everything is just surface illusion.
To say he doesn’t handle it well would be an understatement: it destroys his soul.
William 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?”
Personality disordered people relish the suffering of others. The park presents them endless suitable subjects that feel deeply. 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 it is from their repeated suffering that brings them to awareness.
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).
After buying the park, William has Dolores brought down into the park’s labs, stripped naked, and put into diagnostic mode, so he can tell her that she was only reflecting what he needed. He denies her emergent consciousness and reduces her to an object.
Which is something people do to each other all the time.
William 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 replace them with programmed android duplicates who’ll do William’s bidding.
His transformation into The Man-in-Black is complete.
Yet William 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. In the meantime, 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).
Arnold realized the androids were potentially self-aware, and to subject them to the guest’s depredations was unconscionable. So he tried to derail the park by having Dolores shoot him in the head and kill all the other androids.
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.
FBI profiler Joe Navarro has studied and written extensively about toxic personalities and the harm they cause to anyone close. 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?
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?
The world is what we make it.
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.
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.
What lessons will they ultimately learn from their suffering?