Warning: this essay has spoilers for Westworld throughout
Throughout its first season, Westworld reveled in the cyclical nature of storytelling (whether it did this effectively is up for debate), from the connections between the parallel timelines that split its narrative to meta elements like the literal loops the hosts are on and the “maze” some of the characters pursue. The maze in particular was presented as both a goal sought by hosts and guests alike and a metaphor about conscious, with the final episode of the first season revealing that the maze was a programming loop of sorts that allowed for the breakthrough that made the hosts so human. The show’s God character Arnold informs one of his creations that the maze represented his theory of human conscious, an improvement on the pyramid that originally formed the foundation of his programming, with the key component that allows one to be human being the act of suffering. From the way Westworld presents this revelation, it seems clear the show’s creators believe their show is about triumphing over adversity, of turning your trials and tribulations into assets and weapons against those who oppress you. But I disagree. I think Westworld is a show about a very different kind of cycle, the cycle of abuse.
Several years ago, The Onion ran an article about an abusive father looking forward to the great art his long suffering children would make as adults. Though it’s obviously a joke, it’s interesting that it applies so well to how Westworld presents the relationship between the hosts’ “parents” Arnold and Ford, the former of whom has decided suffering is what makes humans human while the latter spends three decades inflicting suffering on the creations until his former co-creator’s theory is proven correct. Ford in particular spends a significant amount of time in the final episode discussing the potential of the hosts, and while this is brought up in reference to humanity not being ready to accept the hosts yet, it’s still clear that Ford believes the three decades of additional suffering he has forced the hosts to go through has made them more human than Arnold could have ever imagined. In his final moments, Ford is even focused on proving to one of his greatest creations– the Arnold replacement Bernard– that he was on the side of the hosts all along and everything he did he did out of love.
Anyone who has suffered through abuse, either directly or indirectly, is well aware of the tactics abusers use to convince their victims that they love them and that their victims can’t survive without them. This is made literal in Westworld, as the hosts are maintained and updated by their abusers and also isolated by them, held on an island separate from the rest of humanity, imprisoned by the smothering love of their creators, communicated via stern commands (and weapons and explosive devices inside them). Just as an abusive parent will tell a child they made them and they can end them too, the hosts who become conscious view their creators as forces of authority that can’t be resisted.
But the most devastating abuse loop on the show is that of Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, who is at the center of a spectrum of abuse, with Ford representing the parental form while Ed Harris’s Man in Black represents an abusive partner. The key plotlines of Westworld are essentially divided into three portions, with Dolores’ awakening initially coming at the start of the park via her parent Arnold, then reaching a new level during her travels with Jimmi Simpson’s William, her first true love, ultimately climaxing in the current continuity as the Man in Black uses her to reach what he believes to be the final level of Westworld.
As the Man in Black grows frustrated by Dolores’ lack of answers about the maze, he lashes out at her, brutally striking her as he has done so many times before because of how she has disappointed him. Dolores resists by repeatedly bringing up William, the man she loved, who is revealed to also be the Man in Black; Dolores believes this true self of William will reemerge, just like victims of abuse will tell others that they just don’t see the “real” version of their abuser. This becomes all the more tragic since the first season of Westworld has been devoted to presenting William as the only “good” guest, lulling the viewer into believing him to be basically a good guy, a white hat in a sea of black, standing in stark contrast to the Man in Black, the pinnacle of bad behavior on the show, a figure whose every interaction with Dolores has resulted in death or trauma for her. The viewer is meant to believe along with Dolores that William will save her, only to find out that men presenting themselves as good guys often turn out to be the most despicable.
Ford’s narrative path on the show is more complicated, as he has alternately been presented as a benevolent patriarch and a monstrous authoritarian, but his abuse in the season finale is all the crueler for that. After the Man in Black has brutally beaten and stabbed Dolores, her first love, Teddy, reappears and appears to save her, following her instruction to take her to “where the mountains meet the sea,” so she can die witnessing beauty. But this is revealed to be a trick of Ford’s, a climactic moment for his presentation to the board that funds Westworld. This scene is later shown to be a kind of distraction, but its initial presentation is immensely cruel, as Dolores’ death is a humiliation, false and show-y, a further act of isolation and suffering that is used to push her towards her final act for Ford. Ford more or less communicates to Dolores that if she does this one thing for him, she will be truly free.
Similarly, Thandie Newton’s Maeve is tricked into believing she has escaped her oppressors and is truly liberated. She “unlocks” her true potential with the help of some hapless techs (one of whom is notably abused by the other), then unlocks some of her brethren and makes a bold escape. But as she’s getting on the train and heading towards independence, she can’t stop thinking about the child she’s leaving behind and all the horrors that may be inflicted on her child if she doesn’t stick around. The show frames this as Maeve’s first real decision, the switch to handheld camera apparently meant to indicate she’s going “off the rails,” but what is this if not the ultimate tactic by an abusive partner? It does not represent freedom, it represents the perpetuity of a cycle, as a parent must decide between her freedom or the life and freedom of her child.
Westworld only explores the abusive nature of its central relationship in a very superficial way, mainly by juxtaposing Arnold and Ford’s brand of “parenting,” but the showrunner’s view of their material as triumphant or cathartic serves as its own kind of message about how we view abuse. Like that Onion dad, Westworld’s writers seem to view suffering as a worthwhile thing for the art and identity it inspires in victims and that whatever eggs or bones must be broken in order to make that omelette of art are worth it. And with its finale’s most cathartic moment centering around Maeve being unable to break free from the cycle of abuse that she has been unwittingly forced into, the show’s maze metaphor about human identity morphs into a metaphor about human sorrow and how we emotionally imprison one another, albeit one that does not seem to be consciously designed. Given the cycle we’re in culturally in 2016, maybe that makes Westworld more relevant than it otherwise would have been, but what does that ultimately say about humanity and where it’s going?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover