Westworld’s Exploration on What Humanity Means

The season finale of HBO’s Westworld was tonight. Critics and public have raved about the show. It is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen–one of my favorites of all time. Those of us who loved Lost finally have found a worthy replacement.

Interest from viewers seems to focus on discerning and hypothesizing about all possible challenges the show presents–that is, figuring out the identity of Arnold, of the “Men in Black,” of Wyatt. And the blogosphere is full of theories about how many time frames the show’s plot is playing with.

Although I indulged on those, I am more interested in a different aspect of the show. Specifically, its reflexion about human nature and its continuous exploration of what makes us humans human–what is special about our humanity. In this sense, I’ll point out the following observations (in complete disorder).

1. First and foremost Westworld‘s writers emphasize the link between identity and memory. “It starts with remembering,” it’s said in the first episode (and that coda “Remember” appears time and again in all first season’s episodes). Not forgetting is the more human trait of the hosts’ personality: “It’s always there” (speaking of memories). Not forgetting is the most human thing we can do–and the decisive step that allows hosts/robots to gain consciousness and to evolve into quasi-human entities. (Still the hosts (like us humans) remember, but they/we cannot fully understand the meaning of reality.)

2. Violence and death. A very intriguing aspect of the setting and the plotline of the show is the question What if violence can be erased? What if violent acts wouldn’t count? The ability the host have to be repaired and put again into a functional state completely alters the guests’ (and the viewers’) understanding of violence and the meaning of death. “Getting to hell is easy,” says Maddie committing suicide for the hundredth time. Mortality takes into a special meaning: “I’ve died a thousand times,” she says at another point of Season 1.

3. Change. At the heart of the show are issues of change; the show continuously explores the process of evolution of the individual (from Dr. Ford’s malign derive to the development of consciousness in the hosts). At the center of the individual’s evolution is the concept of error. The machines/hosts start deviating from mechanical behavior into something “more human” by erring–by getting away from the way they are supposed to act.

4. Destiny. Life and death is a question of a line of code–coding in the hosts’ universe seems to fulfill the role of fate in our human reality. “Surviving is just another loop,” says one host.

5. Storytelling. Everything starts with issues of narrative: “All fiction is rooted in truth,” we heard at one point in one of the initial episodes. Creating consciousness, creating meaningful experiences, starts with expert storytelling ability. Life is just a narrative that has to have meaning.

6. Manipulation of reality. Then the narrator manipulates the world and our understanding of reality: The hosts feel their reality is unreal; the guests role-play in a world that they know artificial; the viewers are confused about different time frames in the narrative.

7. Human nature. We humans are capable of the best and of the worst. As Sophocles wrote at the open of one of his plays, 2,500 years ago, in awe with our humanity: “What a terrible thing a human being is.” Dr. Ford, in the last episode, reveals a similar cynic and pessimistic view of human nature: “Never put your trust on us, Bernard… We always disappoint”.

8. Choice. In the season finale, Dr. Ford added a final layer to the hosts’ “humanity” by giving them the ability to choose: choice, and free will (Maddie in the train deciding to stay in the park to reunite with her daughter; Dolores pondering how to use the revolver Dr. Ford has left for her), finally will give the hosts the opportunity to be set free.

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