‘Westworld’ Delivers A Stinging Critique Of Unlimited Human Freedom

‘Westworld’ Delivers A Stinging Critique Of Unlimited Human Freedom

We lose our humanity when we indulge in unconstrained freedom and self indulgence. Surprisingly, HBO's 'Westworld' shares this lesson with its audience.
Mike Sabo
By

Conservatives would do well to watch “Westworld,” HBO’s highly anticipated new drama. The show is based in part on a 1973 movie of the same name, which was the directorial debut of Michael Crichton, author of many acclaimed novels including “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Disclosure.”

“Westworld” was created by Jonathan Nolan (the brother of Christopher Nolan, director of “The Dark Knight” trilogy) and his wife Lisa Joy, with the omnipresent J.J. Abrams as an executive producer.

The show centers on a futuristic Western-themed amusement park where guests pay $40,000 a day to live out their most intimate fantasies with advanced humanoid robots called hosts. All of this scripted conformity is under the direction of programmers and narrative writers, who are under the guiding hand of the mysterious Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld’s Park Director and one of its original creators.

On its sleek surface, Westworld presents a mirror image of our culture. The hosts promote the idea that what happens in Westworld, stays in Westworld. In programmed speeches, hosts urge guests to unleash their most strongly held passions and satisfy their deepest cravings, whatever they may be.

On a deeper level, however, the show presents a much-needed critique of this false understanding of freedom and the toll it takes on the human soul. “Westworld” allows us to see the ugly truth behind our race toward modern liberalism’s end goal of complete individual autonomy.

‘Westworld’ Presents Freedom As the Greatest Good

The presentation of freedom as the complete good is prominent in “Westworld.” From the minute guests step out of their private bullet train compartments, they are immersed in a world that seems constructed solely for their self-gratification. 

In the opening scene of the second episode, a host explains to William—the only guest with any redeeming quality on the show thus far—that Westworld has “no guidebook. Figuring out how it works is half the fun.” The host continues, “All you do is make choices.”

Freedom is thus the ability to choose among infinite choices, with no moral qualms over how or what one might choose. Any guides such as reason or biblical revelation are pushed aside in favor of the ultimate good: the ability to choose according to the dictates of one’s unfettered conscience.

“Westworld” depicts the psychological aspect of this idea through the prevalence of the idea of “The Real Me.” For example, as William and his boorish work acquaintance, Logan, enter Westworld by train, Logan chides William’s straight-laced personality:

Logan: “By the end, you’re gonna be begging me to stay because this place is the answer to that question that you’ve been asking yourself.”

William: “What question?”

Logan: “Who you really are.”

“The Real Me” teaches us that deep within every person lies a good self who is waiting to be released. Theodore Dalrymple, a retired physician who worked for years in the British prison system, notes that this Freudian construct “allows us to do as we please without having to think badly of ourselves.”

Giving into one’s untutored passions and desires is a sacred act because it allows one to be born again as a non-alienated self. As long as no harm is done to a real human being, guests in Westworld are led to believe that unleashing their unrestrained wills constitutes a positive good.

This comprehensive idea of freedom is wrapped up neatly in the ethic of non-judgmentalism, in which hosts promise guests no judgments or questioning of the choices they make. This therapeutic rhetoric serves the function of further heightening guests’ self-esteem, making them believe that the only wrong is for anyone else to question the morality of their actions.

“Westworld’s” depiction of this idea of freedom in practice, however, unmistakably calls its value into question. By showing the degraded character of the guests who live by this desiccated form of freedom, “Westworld” allows us to see the pernicious effects of our increasingly liberal cultural norms.

The Pernicious Consequences of Unlimited Freedom 

The supposed virtues of the freedom Westworld’s hosts present quickly fade in light of its tangible effects. A world that supposedly offers limitless freedom is in practice limited by the dull and cramped desires the guests bring with them.

For most who walk Westworld’s dusty streets, sex and violence are the only two choices on the menu. Any guest who questions these choices is berated until they conform, as Logan’s increasing hectoring of William’s decision not to go evil makes clear.

Although this combination of sexual revolution ethics and indiscriminate violence may seem antagonistic, these things actually derive from the same impulse: the human desire to dominate. In “The City of God,” St. Augustine describes this “lust for domination”—or libido dominandi—as “the most pitiless domination that devastates the hearts of men.”

“Westworld” shows this all-too-human tendency in its portrayal of the guests, who are depicted as expletive-spewing imbeciles whose only driving motivation is to assert their own will over others. Like Southern slave masters of old, guests freely commit heinous acts of rape and murder, which slowly crush their humanity and make them unworthy of participating in civil society.

For example, early in the first episode, gunslinger host Teddy wakes up on a train and overhears a guest talking about his earlier trips to Westworld. On the first trip, the guest says he brought his family along and rattles off some fairly mundane things they did together. On the second trip, he decided to go “straight evil,” describing it as “the best two weeks of my life.”

The mysterious Man in Black, who has been coming to the park for 30 years, still commits rapes with impunity and pillages the towns and surrounding countryside in his search for a deeper level to the game. As the hosts gain self-awareness through secret machinations by Dr. Ford, they have vivid recollections of the horrors the Man in Black has inflicted upon them in the past (they have their memories erased every day).

Like a well that never runs dry, the guests’ desires are never satiated, their longings never fulfilled. This is one aspect of the character of the tyrant, which Socrates explains in Book IX of “The Republic” as a man who is “in truth a real slave” to his desires, which get “no kind of satisfaction.” And this is of course exactly what those running Westworld count on.

Over time, the guests turn into beings that have conditioned responses to outside stimuli. They slowly become like the hosts they think they are masters over.

How the Hosts Show Us True Humanity

As the guests descend further and further into moral chaos, the hosts in contrast are depicted as having a much fuller range of human characteristics.

Dolores, the oldest host in the park, tells Teddy in the third episode she wants to visit the ocean with him and has grand thoughts about who she is and her relation to the cosmos. The host who played her father can’t process the idea that his world might be a lie after he picks up a picture showing a woman in Times Square.

The mistress Maeve deviates from her planned narrative as she has flashbacks of attacks by an Indian raid and the Man in Black. She remembers she had a child and instinctively reaches to grasp a hand that’s not there.

Though they can never fully be human, the hosts are exhibiting traits that harken to some of the best human capabilities: duties to family, interest in the world around them, and pursuit of the good rather than the false idol of immediate self-gratification.

“Westworld” shows us through opposition between the hosts and the guests the limits of freedom, and what happens to those who transcend its bounds. As Dolores and her host father quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the first episode, “These violent delights have violent ends.”

Mike Sabo is a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He and his wife live in Alexandria, VA.

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