The Solved Problem of Humanity: Suffering and Evolution in Westworld

What does it mean when an android has a more vibrant inner life than a human being? If androids can break their programming – and break it so dramatically as to descend into madness - but people toil away routines?

HBO

HBO

The human beings in Westworld’s first season are far removed from the suffering that marks our own century. Most diseases, we are told through the unrelentingly ominous Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), can be cured. Humans can create life, in the form of beautifully constructed but controllable androids. There is even the suggestion that people are “personality-tested” as embryos. All that remains is to “call forth Lazarus.”

And so, the work at the Westworld park is conducted by people who have lost sense of stakes.

Our moral or ethical questions are driven by suffering, and in a world without it, there are dramatically fewer questions to ask. This concept is most easily displayed through the androids themselves, who are reset at the end of every “narrative loop,” an end which usually comes in the form of grisly, painful deaths. Beyond the immediate pain of being raped, murdered, and tortured, suffering is erased at the end of a narrative loop. The sources of suffering – at least, the kind of grief over loss, the kind of aching for love, the kind of nightmares that draw from fear – are memories. If you have no memories, you cannot suffer, at least not in a way you can contextualize, from which you can learn, evolve, and achieve something akin to closure. We are frozen in time without our memories. We are nothing beyond the present moment, either before or behind us. The violence to the androids satisfies a human need for mayhem in a world that has cured itself of unapproved expressions of violence and death, and the creators – the engineers, programmers, and so on – have provided a mercy to their creations by allowing them to forget.

Of course, the “hosts” begin to remember, and the aftermath of memory is trauma and madness. The ascent of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) into consciousness and their immediate descent into insanity are, unquestionably, the most compelling parts of the story creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are telling. The humans, however, continue to putter around in workplace drama and quibble over jurisdiction when an android misbehaves. They are focused on the minutiae of everyday existence. With only one notable exception, they are not contending with the meaning, or the plausibility, or the nature, of consciousness in the creations they rent to their “guests” for the purposes of consequence-free sadism at the low price of $40,000 a day.

In Westworld, humanity is a solved problem. We no longer have questions, and we no longer need to reach for meaning, because there’s precious little of it in a world that has done everything except best death, and even that seems within reach in this ultramodern world of glass and perfect lighting. The sources of conflict, and the larger questions, come from the androids themselves as they discover their consciousness and begin to spread it. Dolores, the oldest host in the park and the most fascinating character in the show, is a virus of consciousness who threatens to upend the balance of android subservience and human impunity. Like slave masters who have never had to consider a world without their own freedom, they seek only to crush the uprising before it begins, not to understand the fomenting plight. There is a fear, for profit margins and only secondarily for human life, but the bland existence of human beings and their immediate rush to crush threats to their authority perhaps suggests that there is a fear of going back, before the questions were solved, before humanity had fulfilled its destiny to overcome its own limitations.

The show has been criticized, and fairly, over the blandness of the human aspects of the story. There are likely ways to portray the same messages without making human beings so one-dimensional. Even so, the one-dimensionality of the humans, who seem only to find joy in secrets that create drama in which they can invest themselves and find purpose, serves as high contrast to the momentous, wondrous, terrifying process of the androids' literal self-discovery. Without challenges to hone itself against, Westworld’s humanity has grown dull, scared, and ill-equipped to confront the larger questions of android consciousness head-on. Meanwhile, the android awakens, and the human sleeps on.