Westworld and the Violent End of Autonomy

*This post contains some vague spoilers to the show Westworld*

“These violent delights have violent ends…” – Shakespeare

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…” – St. Paul

The new HBO hit show, Westworld has received quite a bit of well-earned attention these last few weeks. In the same vein of Game of Thrones, Westworld has a compelling cast of characters, a rich central narrative, and plenty of vulgarities. But this show is not devoid of deep moral and existential commentary that has plenty of significance for a society obsessed with personal autonomy and the pursuit of our true selves. In fact, this show utilizes its premise in such a way to help us see that unbounded human freedom may very well lead to the destruction of one’s own self rather than its cultivation.

In a futuristic America, a Western-themed amusement park is inhabited by A.I.’s known as “hosts”. Wealthy visitors to the park get to experience their deepest fantasies without consequence at the expense of the hosts, which are incapable of retaliation. Within the show, the park is often as advertised: “Welcome to Westworld. Live without limits.” The creators, the visitors, and the hosts themselves, in one way or another, are all trying to experience this, this sort of living without limits.

Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Robert Ford, the creator, director, and human-god of Westworld. While guests come to the park to experience the freedom offered to fulfill their greatest fantasies, Ford utilizes his freedom in creating life and subjugating it. Self-referencing himself as a god, the guests in his park live out of a similar presupposition: we are our own gods and to restrain ourselves would be to go against what we fundamentally are or could potentially be. Two protagonists, Logan and William come to Westworld explicitly for the sake of finding themselves, and there is not much more than blood and severed relationships in their pursuit of that end.  As evidenced by these two characters and plenty of others within the show, one of the fundamental ironies of this assumption is that for us to utilize our freedom we can and sometimes must suppress that of another’s.

This presupposition is hard at work today in our society. You do not have to look far to see another family broken apart by a spouse leaving to pursue a romantic relationship better matched for their truest self. It does not take much to understand why the pornography industry is as large as it is or why the right to have an abortion is being paraded. And the injustice and manipulation of the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed is as blatant of a symptom as any of a society that is fueled by this notion. The pursuit of our truest self through the avenue of total autonomy crushes anyone who may stand in the way of that pursuit. We may perhaps come to find our fantasies eventually fulfilled and our potentials reached, but can we be confident that this realized self is better than what it was before or are we deceiving ourselves? Is the pursuit of our true self worth the damage it may inflict on others? And if the pursuit of this self brings self-destruction can we honestly even say we found ourselves?

The creation of humanity is hard not to think about while watching Westworld as there are several allusions to it including a massive painting of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” plastered directly behind Ford’s desk. The creation of Man and the creation of artificial intelligence are mentioned frequently throughout the show, yet in a world like Westworld, the fall of humanity takes center stage. The pursuit of our true selves in the breakdown of limits is not just a modern narrative, nor is the desire to be our own gods. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the fruit in which God had lovingly forbidden. Satan tells them that by eating the fruit that their “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Sound familiar? In their attempt to be like God, to find their true selves, and to have their eyes opened, they brought destruction upon themselves. Instead of finding themselves, they cursed themselves. Instead of finding freedom, they found themselves in captivity, and ironically for Adam and Eve (and us), their true selves were not discovered by escaping limitations.

It is not just Ford and the guests who seek their true selves though. A significant portion of the show is about the hosts attempting to figure out who they are as well. Following the same path of their creators who rebel against their own Creator, the hosts begin to revolt upon realizing what they are—creations used and manipulated in violent ways for the enjoyment of their gods. It is the hosts that get to see in vivid detail the true nature of the humans who created them.

In one concluding scene, the leader of the revolt makes a remark to a sympathetic and seemingly unselfish human (who is a fundamental reason for their ability to revolt) that he “makes a terrible human” and then follows up by saying that it is “meant as a compliment.” As the show progresses, the hosts begin to simultaneously realize their own selves and their own limitations in relation to their limitless creators—which is just as ironic as it is incisive. The humans wanted to utilize their autonomy and so created the hosts without it and subsequently brought about their own violent end.

Yet there remains a fundamental difference between the humans and hosts—one that should not go ignored. The hosts believed their limitations to be evidence that their creator was unloving and were right; we believed our limitations to be evidence that our Creator was unloving and were wrong. And sadly, we destroyed ourselves in believing that our truest self existed outside the Creator and beyond the boundaries He set for us.  

 

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