Westworld: Relative Inhumanity

Several episodes in, Westworld has crafted a compelling but disturbing fictional universe.

Based on the movie of the same name, the show takes places in an “Old West”-themed park, populated by human-seeming androids called “hosts.” The action in the park is overseen by a crew of actual humans. Which species is more deserving of the “humanity” title is one of the show’s central themes.

The concept of a Wild West adventure isn’t so far-fetched; there are plenty of small scale correlates in the real world. The disturbing aspect of Westworld is its hosts, an entire population of artificial people with no purpose other than to be killed, screwed or otherwise used for the entertainment of the park’s wealthy guests. An incipient consciousness among several of the hosts provides a major plot impetus in this first season.

Before Westworld debuted, its premise generated controversy. And indeed, the concept can be difficult to stomach at times. Guests who are supposed to be otherwise “normal” people indulge murder, rape and other violent power scenarios against the helpless hosts. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t use those elements to titillate, but to litigate the questionable humanity of the park’s guests and proprietors. Does knowing that the hosts aren’t “real” somehow make abusing them in a variety of ways “okay?” Is there no moral toll for the alleged “real people” in acting out violent power fantasies with “props” that act like humans, with the ability to bleed and experience pain before a simulation of death?

It’s a fairly weighty theme, even for an HBO series. As the first season nears its halfway point, it’s gratifying that the writers are delving into the complex implications of this world, considering the impact of the violent acts, on the slowly evolving hosts, the often-clueless guests and the morally ambiguous employees.

The power dynamics between the park’s employees and the hosts provides another vivid illustration of the concept’s disturbing nature. In between park scenarios, the hosts are repaired and conditioned to be put back into play. Repair sessions often include an interrogation, where the human employees extract data. With a word, the humans can order the hosts to turn off their emotions and to reveal their secrets and inner dialogues. Basically, to surrender basic building blocks of humanity. To drive the point home, the hosts usually are naked for these sessions. In one particularly memorable scene, park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) chides a technician for covering up the genitals of a host undergoing construction. Ford insists that the hosts are incapable of shame and thus are in no need of dignity.

Ford has been one of Westworld’s most enigmatic figures. On the one hand, he’s clearly attached to his creations, exhibiting a sense of awe as he brings them to artificial life. And yet he constantly reminds the hosts that they’re not “real.” He commands them with a whisper or sometimes just the flick of a finger. The idea of the hosts gaining consciousness and potentially rebelling against their creator echoes the Judeo-Christian story of the fall of Lucifer. As various hosts begin to remember supposedly “erased” parts of their pasts and take actions inconsistent with their creator’s design, what is their moral nature? Are they “fallen,” based on the standards of their creator? Or does their creator’s intention cease to matter once the hosts have outgrown their limited states of being?

Westworld isn’t always easy to watch. But its willingness to delve into the dark corners and consider where the lines lie between humanity and inhumanity or good and evil make it a fascinating morality play.

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