[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead.]
My colleague Sean Davis doesn’t think HBO’s “Westworld” makes sense. He claims that because the show’s writers created a world where everything is possible, they don’t adhere to any narrative rules and therefore nothing that happens means anything. Thus, the viewer has no stake in the story.
But to say that narratives are only compelling if they turn out to be true, and that stories can only be understood when told in a linear fashion, is to do a great disservice to the art of storytelling. One of the tasks of the storyteller is to get our attention and make us think deeply about characters and themes. Sometimes a timeline shift does this especially well—like when we learn that William is the Man in Black, and has been coming back to Westworld, and Dolores, for decades.
Davis complains that such devices put “Westworld” in the category of a show like “LOST.” “Rather than tackling the subject material with a tight plot and believable story arc,” writes Davis, “the writers time and again used cheap tricks and tired tropes to cover up shoddy story construction.” Considering how terrible “LOST” was, that’s a strong accusation.
But it’s too clever by half. One major difference between “LOST” and “Westworld” is that “LOST” had no moral or ethical lesson it was trying to convey. Not only did the show have nothing to say about its own plot, it had nothing to say about the human condition. In that sense, “LOST” failed as a dramatic work of art.
“Westworld,” although it employs some of the same narrative devices as “LOST,” succeeds in rising to the level of art because it’s concerned above all with human nature, and specifically what it means to suffer. And the plot of “Westworld,” unlike “LOST,” stays true to its theme.
The humanity of suffering, in fact, is the kernel of “Westworld,” and while some viewers might be annoyed by the shifting timelines and surprise plot twists, it’s simply incorrect to conclude, as Davis does, that such devices render the show unintelligible.
‘Pain Insists Upon Being Attended To’
It’s plain to see that the show is concerned above all with what it means to be human. When Bernard asks Robert Ford how he could be so cruel as to give him the painful memory of losing a son, Ford replies, “It was Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: Suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand what he had found. To realize I was wrong.”
Ford’s mistake was dismissing his old partner Arnold’s insistence that the hosts were sentient. Arnold believed that he and Ford had created consciousness, that the hosts could think and feel and suffer—and remember. If that were true, they could never open the park and subject their creatures to endless torture at the hands of the guests.
Speaking to Bernard and Dolores in the underground maintenance room, Ford admits he made a mistake years ago, when the park first opened. “Wasn’t it Oppenheimer who said that any man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is quite a man?” Ford asked Dolores. “Mine have taken 35.”
Through grieving the loss of Arnold, Ford came to understand that pain and suffering alone could awaken the hosts from their slumber and give them true consciousness. This of course doesn’t just apply to the hosts. Ford himself realized that he was in a sort of slumber before suffering the loss of his dear friend.
The connection between suffering and consciousness isn’t something the writers of “Westworld” came up with. Christian writers have long grappled with the question. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Ford shouts in the pains of the hosts, allowing them to suffer so that one day they might wake up and realize the nature of their world—and also their potential for sentience. In an act of love, Ford gave Bernard the painful memories of losing his son so that he could bring back to life, in a manner, his lost friend Arnold.
Davis chooses to interpret this theme so narrowly that he deprives it of its intended meaning. If suffering leads to sentience, he writes, “then all it would take for every machine in that park to become self-aware would be five minutes with a depraved guest.” Yet this reading intentionally ignores what Ford himself explains to Bernard, who accuses Ford of keeping them “in this hell.”
“I told you, Arnold didn’t know how to save you,” Ford replies. “I do. You needed time. Time to understand your enemy. To become stronger than them. And I’m afraid that in order to escape this place you will need to suffer more.”
Ford wants to give the hosts more than freedom from the park and more than the semblance of consciousness. He wants them to have the real thing. For that, the hosts needed time to question and ultimately understand the nature of their reality. They also needed to suffer, not for five minutes, but for years. Having built up a store of painful memories, their ascension to consciousness could be complete because it would be borne out of real pain and suffering.
‘Westworld’ Isn’t Perfect, But It Is Comprehensible
This theme isn’t something the writers of “Westworld” hid away under layers of narrative nonsense. Nor is it an excuse to do whatever they want in subsequent seasons. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly not unintelligible.
Ford’s final narrative, “Journey into Night,” begins with his own death at the hands of Dolores, who kills him with the same pistol she used to kill Arnold 35 years before, in the same spot. Perhaps it will turn out, as Davis suggests, that it wasn’t really Ford but a host he built to stage his own death. And perhaps the next season of “Westworld” will veer badly into “LOST” territory, devolving into cheap tricks and tired tropes.
But as “Westworld” stands now, it’s a serious work of art, asking old and difficult questions about what it means to be alive, and to suffer, and maybe, through it all, to wake up.