The Secret Meaning of HBO’s Westworld

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[Author’s Note: there will not be any spoilers in the following.]

HBO’s recent sci-fi/fantasy series Westworld was one of the best TV shows this Fall. On the surface, Westworld taps into traditional sci-fi and contemporary philosophical questions about artificial intelligence and consciousness. But there is a deeper meaning that many might miss. And it’s not about artificial intelligence, “bicameral theories of mind,” or skeptical metaphysics, but about us—real human beings.

The world of Westworld is set some time in the future, when American scientists and technicians are capable of creating androids so life-like that they cannot be told apart from real human beings. Westworld itself is a Wild West theme park that costs wealthy guests $40,000/day to attend. The androids that populate Westworld, called hosts, are the main attraction in the park. They play the roles of prostitutes, bar tenders, cowboys, sheriffs, gunslingers, wanted gang members, ranchers, etc. Guests get to play along in different narratives that the hosts help them act out.

The hosts think that they are real people and do not understand that they have been programmed simply to act a role. They cannot kill or harm the human guests even though they try (nor can human guests shoot other guests). When a gun is shot at a guest, bullets either miss or do not penetrate the skin. But hosts can kill other hosts and guests can do whatever they want to the hosts: have sex, rape, mutilate, torture, kill etc. What makes it all so terrifying and life-like is that when the hosts are being killed or raped, they really think it’s happening to them. They give every evidence of actually suffering. If they are mutilated or die, their android bodies are recycled and fixed up, their memories wiped, and they are placed back in the park to start their own personal narrative all over again.

The main narrative tension in Westworld is that something is going wrong with the hosts’ programming after a recent update. They are beginning to act strangely, stepping out of their narrative roles, and—most importantly—beginning to remember the past traumatic events that they have suffered under the hands of the guests, even though their memories should have been completely wiped. There is foreshadowing of the traditional sci-fi theme of the revolt of the machines against their makers. In the closing scenes of episode 1, “The Original,” the main character Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is asked by a technician if she could ever kill a living thing. She responds, “No.” In the next and final scene, Dolores is standing on her family porch and a fly lands on her neck. She slaps and kills it, leaving a blood mark after her hand drops away. Following this main narrative conflict, the surface level of Westworld probes questions about artificial intelligence and consciousness, specifically in terms of the role of memory in consciousness, anticipation, adaptation, and freedom, including the freedom to revolt. But let us put this obvious philosophical theme to the side and focus on what I think is the more hidden philosophical problem contained within the show.

The deeper philosophical problem does not have to do with machines, but with human beings. It is about individual character. The writers of Westworld hint at this hidden theme in two statements from episodes 7 and 8, “Trump L’Oeil” and “Trace Decay.” In episode 7, William tells Delores that Westworld “reveals your deepest self. It shows you who you really are.” And in episode 8, the Man in Black echoes this, saying to another character that Westworld “reveals your true self.” But what do these statements mean? How could a fantasy world reveal our true selves?

Westworld the theme park is filled with guests who have come to live out their most anti-social and destructive fantasies. Two such characters are the embodiment of this. There is ‘the Man in Black’ (Ed Harris), who rapes, tortures, and kills the hosts, acting like a complete sociopath in his drive to unlock another gaming level in the park. And there is also Logan (Ben Barnes) who has arrived to the park with his new brother in law, William (Jimmi Simpson). Logan wants to spend his entire time drinking and getting into orgies, tempting William to get some too. But even beyond the Man in Black and Logan, it is a recurring theme throughout the series that many of the guests exploit the hosts in many different ways. They behave in ways that they would not dare to in the real world. And like the Man in Black and Logan, these guests act as if it does not matter that they engage in such behavior; because, after all, it’s not hurting anyone. ‘No harm, no foul.’ Their crimes are victimless crimes. The guests’ logic goes: the hosts aren’t real, they’re just machines, so it doesn’t matter how we act. And this is the crux of the matter. Even if this kind of activity is not really hurting any other human being, does this still mean we should let loose our most destructive phfantasies and behavior?

Westworld poses this deep ethical question to us real human beings today.

The show’s answer seems to be, no: we should not act like psychopaths even in a theme park. Contrasting with Westworld’s ‘bad guys’ (Logan and the Man in Black) is William. He’s the show’s good guy, the one polite and reserved guest we have been introduced to that does not exploit or mistreat the hosts. Without giving away the details of the first season, William is the character that represents the moral of the story. If and when the machines ally themselves with sympathetic and decent humans and revolt against the exploitative hosts and makers, the moral will be about the depths of human depravity, the bad humans getting what they deserve, and the few decent humans coming to the aid of an exploited and oppressed creature.

But, of course, Westworld is only a fantasy. For us today, there’s no real situations that are identical to it. Someone might point to video and role-playing games as an example of something that is similar to the futuristic Westworld. But I think this is beside the point. When someone plays a video game or a role-playing game, they are not playing themselves. They are playing a character, much like an actor plays a role, and they pretend they are that character, usually not confusing their own self with that character. In Westworld, it is different. The guests are themselves and they act how they would act if they were freed of social constraints, norms, and lacked the fear of death, shame, and imprisonment.

So what then does Westworld’s hidden meaning mean for us today?

The basic ethical lesson of Westworld is difficult to express today. It is the idea that even victimless acts of aggression or violence still damage the person that enacts them. In other words, even if we buy into the ‘guest logic’ that, in the park, the hosts are just machines, those who act out violently against the hosts are still hurting themselves, their own self. In BBC’s episode “Evil” from the podcast In Our Time: Philosophy, philosopher Stephen Mulhall discusses ancient Greek conceptions of good and evil. He points out that in the ancient world, “…doing evil is a matter of damaging yourself…. And I think that’s a less familiar thought in a kind of a more modern context, but I think a very attractive thought.” There’s two points that Mulhall is making.

First, we find that this idea of doing evil and its damaging effects on us is unfamiliar in our modern context. Why is it unfamiliar? For our contemporary liberal mindset, most people think in terms of ‘no harm, no foul.’ In other words, every individual is free to do whatever they want as long as it does not harm or restrict the freedom of anyone else. We see this same logic played out in Westworld, where the guests justify any action they take in the park by claiming that the objects of their aggression are not real, but only machines that don’t matter.

Second, Mulhall is pointing to an idea that we not only find it hard to understand and express today, but one that still concerns us, no matter how ancient its origins. The basic point is that regardless of whether violence and aggression are directed to an object that matters or not, we ourselves still suffer from this very aggression. More simply, to intend aggression, whether or not it affects something else, is to already suffer under this very aggression. To intend aggression is already for the self to suffer aggression, to undergo self-aggression. As Mulhall indicates, this ancient idea that to act evil is to suffer evil is an idea that we find difficult to express today. Even the very terms good and evil, especially when placed side by side, usually do not sit well with us today.

The way I see it, these terms are not necessarily religious, but simply traditional names for destructive and life-affirming forces. Because of this, I find no reason not to say that every person has the capacity for good or evil. A person can become evil or come to have a familiarity and facility for evil in their character if they secretly participate within or act out these destructive forces. The more they secretly participate within or act out these destructive forces, the more their character or way of existing in the world can become evil. Such tendencies accrue to who they are and they gain a facility for repeating these patterns of intentionality, thought, or behavior,. Aand, I think this is the key point. They can come to have a facility for evil even if they are not hurting any one in particular or in Westworld’s case, only hurting machines. They embody the destructive force, which becomes a self-destructive force. Once we grasp this idea that we hurt ourselves even by intending evil, this is where the fictional world of Westworld comes to have real world significance for us today.

History is full of examples of societies and groups who withdrew moral standing from their victims, so that they could violently oppress or kill them. In other words, history is full of examples of times and places where people just didn’t care about the suffering they caused against others, because these others didn’t matter. The most obvious example is that of Nazi Germany, where the Nazi Germans dehumanized the Jewish people (and other ‘undesirable minorities’) so that they could ‘exterminate’ them with moral and political impunity. But there are also innumerable, smaller-scale examples of the same kind of groupthink that happen everyday in our contemporary world. Whether they be gang rapes on campuses across North America, gay-bashing on the streets, or hate-crimes against visible minorities.

What connects all of these examples, both large and small, is that the same kind of groupthink logic is at work. The group dehumanizes the helpless other, making the group indifferent to their suffering. Then the group encourages the individual to aggressively violate the victim. “It’s just a machine.” “It’s just a Jew.” “It’s just a slut.” “It’s just a fag.” “It’s just a [insert racial slur].” “It’s just an animal.” “It’s just a…” In each case, “It’s just a…” really means that the individual can be aggressively violent towards the other and not have to worry about the consequences, because the victim doesn’t matter. But this is deceptive.

Eventually, each of us will find ourselves in such a situation, where the group is telling us to let loose our aggression on someone or something that doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, we will hear, “It’s just a…”, like we could imagine someone in Westworld justifying their aggressive behavior and encouraging our own by saying, “it’s just a machine.” But even if we find it difficult to identify or empathize with the victim, even if in our stupidity we cannot find the reasons or words to explain to ourselves why the group is wrong and why the suffering of this other matters, this way of thinking is deceptive. For it hides that our own personal character is at stake. By intending and engaging in evil, even if the object really doesn’t matter, we place ourselves within a destructive force that threatens to place us on a path of self-destruction.

In other words, the deep meaning of Westworld is that even if we think the consequences of our destructive behavior do not matter because the things it is directed against don’t matter, we are still destroying ourselves when we intend to or become aggressively violent. We are becoming self-destructive, because we are coming to embody, have communion with, and coming to be possessed by destructive forces, by evil. That is, we are placing ourselves on a path of destruction, which the other way around unleashes destruction against us. We do not need a revolt of conscious machines to teach us this. But it is difficult to express today, because the thought has become so foreign to us. These jarring questions indicate why shows and artistry like Westworld remain important for us today—as long as we do not treat them as entertainment, but think about them: they give us the imaginary to recover and teach us lessons that we already know, but find it hard to express and live by.

About the Author

Dustin Zielke is a currently a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, in the Cultural, Social, and Political Thought program (Sociology). He has a background in religious studies (BA) from the University of British Columbia and philosophy (MA, MPhil) from K.U. Leuven. He has specialized in Heidegger and phenomenology. His dissertation work focuses on Heidegger, phenomenology, and the imagination.

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1 Comment

  1. This concept that no misdeeds are victimless, that one self-harms when one intends to do harm: I’m fascinated by the idea that classical thinkers as well as Christian theologians agree on this point. (In the Christian case, it’s because there’s always another party involved: the Creator. I harm my relationship with God by sin, even if no other part of creation appears to be involved–and through God, all other parts of creation are indirectly affected by my sin.)

    So, why did modern Western thought drop this ball? I’m guessing the Utilitarians are the most to blame, but I’d like confirmation from better students of philosophy. To me, it’s simply obvious that someone who goes to Westworld to objectify and abuse the Hosts (even though Hosts are, you know, objects) will come back a nastier person.

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