Amelia Nicholson is a Film and Television graduate learning the ropes of television production with a keen interest in the nature of storytelling.
Featured image credit: HBO
‘These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends’ – An Analysis of Humanity and Ideology in HBO’s Westworld
In 2016, HBO introduced the high quality, genre-bending Westworld to our screens. The show is a reimagining of Michael Crichton’s screenwriting debut Westworld, harking back to 1973 when the idea of theme parks gone wrong was not at the forefront of the public consciousness, and the likes of Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) (also based on Crichton’s work) had yet to be released. Show creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan show that not much has changed from an ideological perspective within society between 1973 and 2016. They use the narrative and character design in Westworld as a platform to play very much on the audience’s expectations pertaining to the mythology of the ‘Western’ film and television genre. The show adds to the more recently validated science fiction genre, especially in its exploration of artificial intelligence, as initiated by Crichton’s writing and spurred on by recent film and television explorations of the topic such as Channel 4’s Humans (2015 – present) and the critically acclaimed film Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015).
‘Do you know where you are?’ ‘I’m in a dream.’
Westworld drops its audience in the midst of a theme park for the very rich, a large-scale and richly detailed version of LARP-ing (live action roleplaying). The majority of season 1’s narrative centres on the actions of theme park ‘Hosts’, androids that are intended to entertain guests of the theme park in fictional character roles as designed by the narrative directors to fulfil a multitude of pre-set narratives that the guests can step into if they choose. The show’s narrative also follows some of the guests as they play out their fantasies during their stay, and their interactions with the hosts and each other. Another primary aspect of the plot is the hosts’ relationships with their creators and maintainers, that is, the people who run the park and make it secure for the guests. For the purposes of this essay I will explore the character arc of one host in particular, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) who is arguably the key character in season 1’s narrative arc.
We are introduced to Dolores Abernathy in the first episode of the series as she is posed to respond to a series of questions about her current whereabouts and state of cognitive awareness. Dolores is prompted to ‘Tell us what you think of your world’. Dolores responds with, ‘Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose’. This dialogue seeks to rouse the philosopher and the psychologist within the prospective audience and it also serves to establish Dolores’ mindset at the beginning of the series. We soon learn that Dolores is the oldest host in the park that is still functional (‘She’s been repaired so many times, she’s practically brand-new.’ [– Stubbs on Dolores Ep. 1]) and we learn later in the series that she was assembled and awoken by the mysterious figure, ‘Arnold’ (Jeffrey Wright) himself. The identity of Arnold is a mystery itself for most of the season: he is a deceased yet crucial figure within the Westworld narrative being Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) co-creator of the Delos park (including Westworld).
When we are initially introduced to the context of Dolores’ life we see her in a recognisable role within the Western film and TV genre. She is the softly spoken, well-mannered girl-next-door. She respects her parents, likes to paint landscapes, has a predictable ongoing love story with fellow host, Teddy Flood (James Marsden), and has small-town girl dreams of someday exploring the wider world. What Dolores is unaware of is her real purpose in the wider context of the park and the façade that is her predetermined narrative. In reality she has a dual role, on the surface to be the unwitting ‘girl next door’ and on another level to be exploited by the park’s guests as they as they may seek to play out their dark fantasies without consequence.
That is, they go into the park to murder, rape, and pillage, and the hosts like Dolores are just collateral damage, machines made to bear the brunt of the guests’ desires: ‘The newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are. A place to be free to stake out our dreams, a place with unlimited possibilities.’ [—Dolores on the guests Ep.1]. The audience is aware that Dolores is an android but does this make the violence against her more acceptable? This is where the androids’ sentience comes into play, arguably Dolores is not an inanimate object. Over the course of the series what she is struggling to ascertain is a true sense of self outside of her programming, this is the metaphorical ‘maze’ that has been sought after by the extraneous character, the ominous ‘Man in the Black Hat’ (Ed Harris).
The catalyst in Dolores’ awakening is shown in episode 1, entitled ‘The Original’, when she reveals what her compromised ‘father’ (a broken host) whispered in her ear after he broke free of his own programming, “these violent delights have violent ends”. The phrase has its own cultural and contextual relevance deriving from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but takes on a context of its own within the narrative Westworld. Primarily that the humans may do what they will within the theme park in their particular way, but also that their actions will have equally destructive consequences, and that is inevitably what happens at the end of the season. With violence so normalised within such a world it loses its potency, in that we become so desensitised to it, that it becomes commonplace. It is unsurprising that the hosts find it so easy act out violently when they break from their programming when violence and aggression is all they know.
The narrative trajectory of Westworld season 1 hints towards a slowly building robot uprising at the behest of Westworld creator, Robert Ford. The series prompts continuous juxtapositions between the human characters (and by extension the nature of humanity itself) and what makes the ‘hosts’ they create so lifelike. Early in the season the hosts are shown to go through human phenomena such as possessing deep emotions, personal, and pain, they are very much programmed this way.
An example of this is when Dolores finds her ‘father’ after he’s been shot and her utmost grief and despair because of this shown through her emotional affect. The way the hosts are presented and made to act make them so akin to real people with idiosyncrasies (the hosts’ equivalent in the show are called ‘reveries’) that the main question raised is what makes them ‘unlike’ living humans. On a surface level it’s because they are played by real actors and aren’t actually androids which prompts a discussion on how a lifelike android would be received in reality. If it was to be classified in terms of biological functions, it could be argued that there are various other living creatures who function biologically but are not classified as ‘human’ simply because of this fact. If it is about being ‘born naturally’ and not ‘made’, this also raises debate around topics such as artificial insemination and genetic determinism.
There is also the philosophical concept of ‘the Soul’, which arguably the ‘hosts’ seem to possess through their individual personalities (however artificially imposed). The narrative also explores themes of self-perception, conscious thought (and by extension the human mind), of what is ‘real’ and what is artificial which are arguably essential components of the human experience. As far as the androids in the show are concerned they are real, living people and they are programmed not to see otherwise. A major factor in differentiating the hosts from the humans in the show is that the robots are supposed to adhere to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, they can be switched off as and when their handlers command it and are not supposed to be able to cause real harm to actual humans.
What stands out primarily within the context of the show’s storyline is the prevalence of metanarratives and their relation to the human experience. What makes a person is arguably a summation of not only the circumstances of their birth and their intrinsic nature, but also their lived experiences. A primary difference between the average human and the hosts in Westworld is how perfectly they store memory, and how biological humans’ memory naturally decays which can alter an individual’s behavioural patterns: for example, a person’s recollection of a traumatic experience and their changes in perspective and behaviour over time. Although the ‘hosts’ in Westworld aren’t intended to remember their experiences, inevitably the characters Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), and Dolores Abernathy start accessing fragmented occurrences stored in their memory which then in turn affect their behaviour and subsequent actions.
The ways in which Dolores and Maeve react to their awakening can be justified by their original intended purpose, as one of their creators, Arnold Weber, was said to intend to give consciousness to his artificial beings which is confirmed at the end of the season. The hosts also differ most notably from humans in terms of mortality, as humans are made of biological material that will decay, our demise is inevitable, whereas the hosts, as long as they are maintained, are everlasting – even their creator himself realises that there is a level of cruelty in their immortal state and sought to suppress the opening of the park and potential outcome which in the series is what came to pass. The robot hosts are created in ‘man’s’ image in that they almost perfectly imitate what makes a human person an ‘individual’ in their own right, right down to their autonomic responses which are primarily survival instincts.
‘Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?’ ‘No.’
The show presents multiple layers of discourse throughout all of its visual and scripted aspects, be it characterisation, set design, narrative trajectory and so on. This is evident within Dolores’ narrative arc as she serves many different purposes from many different perspectives, making her more like the ‘average’ person than just in the design of her characterisation. On a primary level, her function within the ‘Westworld theme park’ narrative is to be a woman of that fictional time period: she has social roles to perform, she is a daughter, a romantic interest, and a potential victim of outlaws and bandits. This is the ‘Westworld theme park’ narrative’s equilibrium; it becomes unbalanced after Dolores is awoken by her ‘father’ after he says the key phrase ‘these violent delights have violent ends’. This leads her to her social role on the next level, Westworld – the ‘television show’ narrative. She is a robot ‘host’ that has been created in order to be interacted with by guests of the park, be it benevolently or malevolently.
Then there is the discourse level to be ascertained by watchers of the show, which is an awareness of the socio-historical context of the representation of female characters in a wide range of media, be it books, films, or television shows. As the myth of the ‘Old West’ has spurred on a popular genre of film there are particular signifiers that can be recognised to form a familiar narrative. These narratives indicate certain societal markers of things like a woman’s place for example, in a caregiving, domestic role, which is arguably where Dolores is placed within the ‘Westworld theme park’ narrative. Her narrative arc is notable because she seeks to break free of the parameters that have been set for her and become a person in her own right. She becomes aware of her cyclical narrative, or ‘loop’, and realises she is playing a role. However, she is only truly able to break free of this when she achieves the ability of true conscious thought, that is speaking to her own self within her own mind. The imposition of social roles also reaffirms what makes the hosts so human-like, and the dividing line between them and the humans more difficult to establish.
When Dolores reaches her final primary purpose within the context of the show, she has reached self-awareness and now realises her and her peers’ place on the evolutionary ladder: the ‘hosts’ are superior to their human counterparts in their design and durability. The big season finale reveal is that Dolores is in fact the much-feared ‘Wyatt’, the key player in Ford’s ‘new narrative’. This plot twist reveals a lot in terms of cultural anxieties about technology eventually overtaking mankind. What was much hinted at comes to fruition in the final scene of the season. There are, however, more layers of cultural anxieties than just technology triumphing over man. Arguably there is a metaphor about the oppressed overcoming their oppressors which harks back to our particular cultural moment, that is the rise of right-wing ideology (again) as it rears its ugly head in many forms including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States. However generally the show may allude to outside influences, they become clear within its narrative, and what the showrunners suggest as a possible outcome seems bittersweet.
The whole series ruminates on the existential state of the characters as the plot development hinges on their state of awareness if it is to conclude with the robots’/hosts’ inevitable uprising. The character, Maeve, starts to display existential intelligence as she questions not only the nature of her being but also how she should proceed after realising the façade that is her existence and placement within the theme park. Intelligence as a concept is intrinsically linked with the concept of human consciousness_. Arguably the robot hosts, Maeve and Dolores display this particular consciousness in their self-awareness, however both are initiated by different catalysts. From an initial standpoint, as far as Maeve and Dolores are concerned, they are human women with completely normal functions and motivations. It is the realisation that they aren’t that upsets the equilibrium of their lives and subsequently the lives of others, be it the park runners or the other robot hosts that haven’t achieved ‘consciousness’ yet.
The roles of the characters on the show parallel the social roles that people play within Western society in reality: they appear to be cyclical as one generation bestows their established information on their descendants, inevitably their generation dies out and thus the cycle continues. Any hope of breaking such a cycle is quashed by the prevalence of mass media that acts as the individuals’ ‘programming’ in much the same way as the Westworld hosts are programmed not to see anything that contradicts their way of ‘life’, that is, their predetermined loop. Just as the hosts’ lives are scripted, an individuals’ narrative trajectory is usually predetermined by their social class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. The difference is that the hosts are unaware of their continuous cycle, yet in reality we have open access to a higher level of awareness due to the development of the internet as a source of information and globalisation which makes intercommunity communication easier than it has ever been before in history.
This is not dissimilar to the average person’s standpoint within Western society, in that when aspects of our socialisation are acknowledged or when they are questioned, this threatens to disturb the equilibrium of one’s inner peace and sense of self-awareness. Part of Western philosophy is to for a person to be indoctrinated with particular ideologies and individual standpoints which are integral to being a member of society. In order for a person to survive and function within such a system this socialisation is mandatory as well as it is inevitable. Maeve and Dolores are like real people in that their main purpose within their perceived reality is exploitation based. They are part of the attraction, their labour serves as part of the role-play, and they are not repaid for this as they are classified as commodities with no agency of their own.
That is not to say that this particular series and others like it perfectly mirror our reality as we are inundated with established legislation such as The Human Rights Act (1998) and the philosophical concept of free will, but ultimately after filtering through these aspects the bottom line is that our existence mainly revolves around exploitation. We live under a capitalist-patriarchal system in which exploitation is fundamental to the maintenance of the ideology. If we work, we are purposely underpaid in order for the people in charge of maintaining a labour-force to gain and maintain their profit. We know this and yet we continue, which makes us different to Maeve and Dolores because when they realise they are being exploited they decide to make a change, to rebel. Dolores breaks out of her written narrative, and Maeve is the figurehead of the android uprising.
It is notable that these characters are presented as protagonists of the series and not antagonists: the primary antagonistic character is their very own creator and master manipulator, Robert Ford who is the closest thing the show has to a patriarchal deity figure. It is Ford who disregarded Arnold’s ethical dilemma pertaining to the condition that is the hosts lives and went ahead with opening the Delos park, although at the point where we meet him in the series he seems somewhat remorseful and takes on the role of the catalyst for the hosts awakening and subsequent uprising.
Delos park co-creator, Robert Ford, is presented in the show as a somewhat malevolent, almost Machiavellian figure. In episode 1 of the series he states,
‘Of course, we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now. We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive, and one fine day we’ll perhaps even resurrect the dead. Call forth Lazarus from his cave […]’
He muses that humanity as a whole is finished with evolution as we make no allowances for pure chance and chaos. This in turn is representative of Western society’s post-enlightenment attitude and the age of science as a belief system of its own, which is the idea that humanity as a species can no longer evolve, that we have plateaued. This gives rise to Ford’s later actions in the series as he uses Dolores’ new self-awareness as the catalyst for the hosts’ collective uprising. Arguably, this portrayal is representative of the show and its creators’ standpoints on society, as well as in relation to what Karl Marx predicted in his writings (the disenfranchised proletariat revolting against the bourgeoisie).
It also shines a harsh light on contemporary cultural anxieties about the relationship between citizens and the people in power within our contemporary society. This society thrives on conservative values in order to sustain itself, but the structure of society itself isn’t tangible: humans uphold this concept themselves as part of their socialisation. As the ‘hosts’ in this case are stand-ins for what would be marginalised groups in reality they cast aspersions on the underlying fears of the ruling class, that is, their demise (or the demise of their culture) at the hands of those they have exploited. What these occurrences reveal to us is the insecurity of those who are in power when they stand to lose the privileges upon which their livelihoods depend. Although these thematic links are arguably coincidental, this gives credence to the idea that ‘life imitates art’ and vice versa, both are seemingly symbiotic at this particular cultural moment.
1] Dr. Asimov explains his Three Laws of Robotics in this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWJJnQybZlk
 The season 1 finale is titled ‘The Bicameral Mind’ in reference to the psychological theory of Bicameralism as introduced by Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. USA: First Mariner Books (2000)
 Howard Gardener touches on this on this in his book Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons ((2006) USA: Basic Books) with reference to his 9 established types of intelligence, ‘existential’ being one of them.