Forget the Sexbots, ‘Westworld’ Is Really About the Power of Reading
Westworld the park lets you step into a story, and “Westworld” the show forces you to think about what stories are for
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There may be no more overused simile, at least about reading, than “a book is like a door.” “Books and doors are the same thing,” Jeanette Winterson states in a widely-circulated quote I’ve yet to accurately source. “You open them, and you go through into another world.” This is the promise of all good novels. Whether they transport you to a Wonderland or to Middle Earth, back to Southern plantations or forward into dystopian theocratic regimes, they hold within them the promise of a journey. You may be cramped against fellow weary commuters on the subway, but your Kindle holds the key to take you somewhere else.
This sustained imagery of books as sites of exploration necessarily invokes the other key prospect we find in books: in these journeys you’ll learn not just about the novel’s subjects, but about yourself. The conceit of HBO’s Westworld, where wealthy patrons can enter the eponymous world and entertain their wild wild west fantasies surrounded by “hosts” that look and act just like humans, holds a similar promise. Westworld may call to mind video games or amusement parks, but the storytelling devices it depends on (both as a park and as a television show) are decidedly literary.
Westworld may call to mind video games or amusement parks, but the storytelling devices it depends on are decidedly literary.
When young William (Jimmi Simpson), the audience surrogate for much of the first season, is welcomed into Westworld, he’s escorted by his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Logan (Ben Barnes). A seasoned parkgoer, Logan encourages William to let himself go and use his time there as a way to explore who he is. The storylines the park makes available to them — and this is the language its characters use to describe these immersive experiences, “storylines” — range from the family-friendly to the R-rated. They’re designed to cater to those base desires you wouldn’t indulge anywhere else. You can practice your shooting skills in scenarios that team you up with the Sweetwater’s sheriff, head up into the mountains to help facilitate an armed robbery instead, or even visit Pariah, the aptly-named town where you’re encouraged to join a never-ending orgy.
The park, we soon learn, is the brainchild of two visionary engineers: Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the mysterious Arnold, who died in an accident that nearly derailed Westworld’s opening decades before we enter the story. Not only did they envision an immersive environment that would allow guests to roam the Old West, but they were committed to creating life-like robots that could believably inhabit the roles of saloon madame, heroic cowboy, rancher’s daughter and so on. The “hosts” — the robots — are programmed to function as characters, trapped in narrative loops that the guests can dip into and out of at will. Logan finds plenty of the storylines rather boring; he almost refuses to accompany William when the latter decides to take on a bounty hunt mission, claiming the better narratives are found the further you stray from the park’s entrance, the sleepy town of Sweetwater.
The show gives us William as an entry point into the way guests experience Westworld, but it also moves away from his viewpoint to introduce us to the inner workings of the park. We follow Ford and his associates as they service malfunctioning hosts, deal with the bureaucratic nightmares that plague such an expansive corporation, and dream up new narratives designed to wow guests and shareholders alike. Where the unseen Board (and some sulking employees) would like Westworld to be simpler, Ford often speaks about his work in ways that echo Logan’s words to William: the purpose of the park is to help guests discover who they are. It is in the details of the storytelling that the beauty and possibility of the park come through: “The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do,” he says, “the garish things” — presumably the violence and sex that so dominated discussions of the show’s first season, which served up enough gore and nudity to leave viewers wondering about the kind of humanity its creators (both Westworld’s and Westworld’s) were trying to represent. “They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one has ever noticed before, something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are — they already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
Westworld isn’t just an IRL choose-your-own-adventure; it’s also an attempt at making those books-are-doors metaphor as literal as can be. When William, finally dressed in full cowboy attire, steps through the door at the end of the dressing room provided to him by a Westworld employee, he’s thrust into a moving train taking him to Sweetwater. He’s immediately transported to another time, another place where his story is about to unfold. Choices about whether he’ll be a dashing hero to the sweet rancher’s girl Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) or a roguish client of the saloon run by Maeve (Thandie Newton) become crucial decisions about how he envisions himself.
Westworld isn’t just an IRL choose-your-own-adventure; it’s also an attempt at making those books-are-doors metaphor as literal as can be.
But what’s merely a game of role-playing for the guests becomes the ontological question that plagues the hosts. The more time we spend with them, the clearer it becomes that their own lives are bound by storytelling tropes. Literary metaphors, in fact, are embedded into the very technology that makes them slaves to Ford’s stories and orders. Created not merely as people who would populate Westworld but as characters who would bring to life its many narratives, the hosts were designed with backstories (often tragic; those worked best, Arnold found) that would anchor their motivations and guide their semi-scripted lives in accordance with the role they’re made to play. “The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike,” Ford explains. “It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning.” Trauma colors many of the inhabitants of Westworld. It makes Maeve, for example, a vocal spokesperson for the freedom Westworld provides its hosts. “This is the new world,” she tells unsuspecting guests she’s trying to lure into taking one of her girls upstairs, “and in this world, you can be whoever the fuck you want.” It’s a lesson she learned when she decided to leave her life across the pond and brave it in the New World. That’s the backstory that dictates much of her actions throughout the story. Like literal characters in a novel, Ford’s hosts all have key moments in their life that explain who they are.
And like characters in a novel, they are there to serve a purpose; their programming reduces them to characters in someone else’s (presumably the guests’) story. When Ford wants hosts to do something, he uses what he deems his “narrative voice,” enacting the authorial control that his code embodies. Maeve, who slowly begins to question the nature of her reality, becomes aware that she’s merely a cog in a giant storytelling machine, and tinkers with her code to be able to similarly persuade other hosts to do as she pleases, uses those same kind of commands: “The sheriff judged the riders to be upstanding, God-fearing citizens,” she narrates in the town square, and the authorities turn away from their quarry (including her lover, a wanted man in the process of stealing a safe). “The marshals decided to practice their quickdraws with each other,” she adds, creating even more chaos and allowing for his escape. Maeve, like Ford, becomes God in the most literal of senses: she’s an author making the characters around her do her bidding. Her motivation, then, once she awakes from her programmed slumber (it’s no surprise we see plenty of shots of her and Dolores waking, ready to re-live the same day over and over again with only minor variations), is to rid herself of the story that’s been laid out for her.
Maeve, like Ford, becomes God in the most literal of senses: she’s an author making the characters around her do her bidding.
Decades later, when William has exhausted all the stories Ford has concocted for guests and hosts alike, he’ll become obsessed with the inner narrative layers he knows exist within the park. “This whole world is a story,” he growls. “I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what this all means.” But time and time again he’s told that the story of the mysterious maze he’s become fixated on is not meant for him. The maze, which we (and William) encounter all over the park (on a tarot card, plowed into a field, carved onto a tabletop, imprinted on the inside scalp of a host), is also a hidden narrative of Westworld. The goal, William correctly ascertains, is to make it to the middle—though he doesn’t quite know what he’ll find if he makes it there. As it turns out, the maze (“The Maze” is, incidentally, the title of Westworld’s season one) was created not for a guest at all but for one host in particular: Dolores, the rancher’s daughter.
More than merely giving viewers a chance to ponder on the idea of identity as a narrative we need to tell ourselves, Westworld also portrays the very process by which reading contributes to self-discovery and self-fashioning. Dolores doesn’t just wake up one day wishing to embark on a journey away from her predetermined life in Sweetwater. She’s coached to do so with a steady diet of classics. Viewers of the show may easily identify her blond hair and powder-blue dress as winking nods to her status as Westworld’s very own Alice, but they don’t need to: the connection is made rather bluntly early on. The very first episode opens with a technician asking Dolores is she knows where she is: “I’m in a dream,” she obediently answers. Those hours she spends naked being upgraded or patched up by nameless engineers and tech guys are explained away as “dreams” she’ll soon forget — like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, a place she cannot quite comprehend but which acts as a warped mirror of her real life back in England. Dolores is even encouraged to read Lewis Carroll’s novel by Bernard, the leader of Westworld’s Programming Division.
“Dear dear, how queer everything is today and yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night,” she reads out loud to him at his behest. We gather that she’s been slowly making her way through several books already when she remarks that these texts they’ve been dealing with on their one-on-one sessions are always about change. This prompts Bernard to note that “people read about the things they want the most and experience the least.” The suggestion is that Dolores cannot experience change; she’s trapped in narrative loops, in someone else’s behavioral codes. But Westworld is a place that offers people the chance to experience precisely the kinds of the things they usually would only be able to read about. Bernard’s epigrammatic quip suggests that, in Westworld’s wholly immersive storylines, the line between reading and experiencing the things we most want has been blurred altogether. It explains why the glitch that eventually makes hosts self-aware about their own enslavement is triggered by hearing a Romeo and Juliet line (“these violent delights have violent ends”) — as if Westworld were acknowledging not merely the “books are doors” metaphor, but that thing we all know is true of great (and sometimes not-so-great) literature: that it can will you into being a person you didn’t know you could be.
Dolores’s journey through Arnold’s maze leads her inward to where the sweet young woman will find herself. But it’s also a journey outward, where she’ll soon see her own consciousness bloom from within the rigid parameters set out by her own programming and in turn put the wheels in motion to explode her gilded cage. By the time she’s fully in control of her consciousness, no longer beholden to Ford’s narratives, she becomes the most dangerous host in all of Westworld. “You said people come here to change the story of their lives,” she explains. “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” HBO’s show may bill itself as a dystopian take on AI technology, but it’s also become perhaps the most probing exploration of the power of literature available on television today.