What Westworld says about the human condition

Or why Westworld is a must-watch for readers

It’s much of a coincidence that I started reading Frankenstein around the same time as I started watching Westworld. It’s interesting how a 19th century gothic horror fiction can confront the audience or the reader with the same questions as a 21st century sci-fi show.

The overarching theme is man’s hubris – how his pursuit of greatness can create and destroy. Also, the big questions that run through both the show and novel – who is truly grotesque – is it the creator or his creation? Who is the monster and who is more human?

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My social media feed has been bombarded with ‘Westworld’ for months now. Truthfully, I had very little interest given that it was the sci-fi genre, which I have very little tolerance for. Yet, it kept on popping up and it only increased post its premiere. I finally gave in recently.

Here’s a fact about me. I have been a reader all my life and I appreciate any work of art that takes a layered approach. It is also the reader in me who loved shows like Oz and Carnivale (HBO in its golden days) – for though these were TV shows, they could also have been intricate novels that in different ways spoke about what it meant to human, the nature of evil and the ancient play of good vs. evil albeit grayer in their dynamics.

Westworld too has appeased the reader in me. Yes, it’s a fatalistic and negative view of humanity, but we are, after all, living in times where apocalypse would almost seem preferable to the current reality.

Here’s the synopsis in short: In an, as yet, undefined future, Westworld is a ‘hyper-real’
theme park, which leverages the ‘Wild West’. The inhabitants are the ‘hosts’, unaware that they are not real; then there are the ‘newcomers’ or the ‘visitors’ who can inflict whatever they want upon the hosts; and then there are the ‘Gods’, the creators of Westworld. Westworld is where the visitors can be anyone they like, do anything they like. The hosts, unbeknownst to them, can never be anything but passive recipients of whatever fate is dealt out to them.

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This post not so much of a review, as there are hundreds out there (not to mention some truly astounding theories that I truly could not have envisioned myself), but more of  a reflection on the themes or layers of Westworld.

Man’s arrogance

I remember this one essay question which we were often made to write on in middle school – is technology a bane or a boon? Is there an absolute answer? I don’t know.

Technology is man-made, and man himself is relentless and ravenous in his pursuit of knowledge, and in his pursuit of pushing the possible. Yet, while he is capable of extraordinary creations that can improve lives, at the same time, he is capable of extraordinary horror. History is your witness.

The show poses this question to the viewer then – If man could create anything he wanted to for his own entertainment and for his own ambition, what kind of a world will that be? A better one?

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 What makes a human being?

Who is human? One who feels all spectrum of emotions, the one who questions, the one desires the presence and affection of other humans, capable of inflicting harm but also capable of loving. The hosts or robots of Westworld feel pain, anger, love; they desire, they have dreams and aspirations. Oblivious of how suffocatingly small their world is, they live in the same blissful unawareness that most of us do. Just one thing they are somewhat incapable of is questioning, yet some of them start to do so as they become aware of their consciousness.

When the rich and privileged newcomers, who come to entertain themselves, inflict their most base instincts upon these ‘robots’ , they do so because they think it doesn’t matter- they are not humans, so I can do the worst.

How readily we are willing to dehumanize those who we don’t understand or feel superior to? Think of it. Those of us in countries somewhat stable thinking of those in countries that are war zones – do we feel that those victims are the same as us – the same fears, desires, emotions? How do we rationalize the suffering of others? That’s not me, so it’s OKAY.

The show also asks – if these humans can perform any atrocity upon the seemingly lifeless robots, are they truly human? Where is the humanity then?

Some related themes are power, exploitation & God syndrome. A line that particularly haunted me is this: ‘We can do anything we like to you, you cannot do anything to us.’  Sounds too familiar, doesn’t it?

Morality is pretense

This brings us to the question of morality. The show hypothesizes that morality itself is a thin, breakable thread, easily broken if you remove all the rules and boundaries that maintain any semblance of a ‘civilized’ society. The assumption is that most human beings are not naturally good or moral, they are just pretending to be so in the ‘real world’ and all they need is the removal of structures that maintain societies.

It’s a reminder, albeit pessimistic, that man has and can, perform horrors, no matter how civilized we deem ourselves to be. Moreover, no matter how evolved we become, are we really more than our reptilian instincts?

You life is an illusion

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances….

Let’s say that all of us are stuck in our own ‘modest little loops’, as Dr. Ford, the creator, refers to the hosts’ fixed narratives as. Our lives have a fixed routine, every one of us have fixed roles, most of us live by some codes, then we bid adieu. And that’s the extent of most of the ordinary lives.

While the visitors think their lives have meaning, are real as compared to the unreal worlds of the hosts, the audience is forced to confront the deluded man – if all of us are living structured narratives, then are we real and are we alive? Are we truly better
than the hosts?

The eternal question – Who am I and why am I?

Two of the primary characters in the show – one a host and one a guest – are in search of
the center of the maze, which seemingly is the answer to these questions.It’s the last
stage of the Maslow’s hierarchy, which most of us never reach.

What may be the upcoming theme: Your creations may come back to haunt you

Like Frankenstein’s Creature, jilted by his creator and shunned by man, will the hosts rebel back then? Let’s see what’s next.

Rating: 4/5

(By Misha)

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