Well Done, Westworld
Updated: May 3, 2021
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead.
I love thinking about consciousness. What is it? What are its requirements? How does it physically manifest? What are its evolutionary origins? Is it unique to us?
If you like questions like these, you’ll love Westworld. It explores these topics, while sucking you into multiple story lines.
In Westworld there are hosts, which are like General Artificial Intelligence. Well, one of these hosts, Bernard, who you thought was a human all along, learns he’s actually a host.
The following scenes, while dark, show this fascinating wrestling match between Determinism and Free Will.
I also find it interesting that the main driver of consciousness in Westworld is pain, both physical and emotional. It’s true for me on a personal level. When I’m hurt, that’s when I’m most aware.
Bernard: … What’s the matter?
Theresa: Have you seen these? … What is this, Bernard?
(Theresa shows Bernard a blueprint of him as a host).
Bernard: It doesn’t look like anything to me.
Dr. Ford: They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I’ve spared them that … Their lives are blissful. In a way, their existence is purer than ours, freed of the burden of self-doubt.
Bernard: I don’t understand.
Theresa: You’re a f*cking monster.
Dr. Ford: Am I? You were the one who would so blithely destroy all of them. Even him, I suppose. After everything you’ve shared.
Bernard: What the hell are you talking about?
Theresa: Is that why – Did you tell him to?
Dr. Ford: The intimacies were your idea, if you would recall. I think Bernard was glad of the company.
Bernard: I’m not one. I can’t be. My wife. My son. They’re real. I was a father. My poor boy.
Dr. Ford: That’s enough, Bernard … Mustn’t get yourself welt up.
Dr. Ford: I read a theory once, that the human intellect was like peacock feathers. Just an extravagant display, intended to attract a mate. All of art, literature, a bit of Mozart, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and the Empire State Building. Just an elaborate mating ritual. Maybe it doesn’t matter that we have accomplished so much. For the basest of reasons. But of course, the peacock can barely fly. It lives in the dirt, pecking insects out of the muck, consoling itself with its great beauty. I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight. And we have spared them that. Anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones who are free. Free, here, under my control.
Theresa: But he’s not under your control … He brought me here, to show me this.
Dr. Ford: No. He brought you here because I asked him to … He’s been very loyal, for many years.
Theresa: Your time running this place, your insane little kingdom, is over. You’ve been playing God for long enough.
Dr. Ford: I simply wanted to tell my stories. It was you people who wanted to play God, with your little undertaking.
Theresa: Do you really think the board will stand for this?
Dr. Ford: The board will do nothing. Our arrangement is too valuable to them. I think they test me every now and then, I think they enjoy the sport of it. This time they sent you. Sadly, in order to restore things, this situation demands a blood sacrifice. See, Arnold and I designed every part of this place. It was our dream. Did you really think I would let you take it from me?
Theresa: This is what happened to Arnold? Did you have Bernard take him out into the woods?
Dr. Ford: No. He wasn’t here those days. Were you, Bernard?
(Theresa frantically tries to dial help on her phone, with no luck).
Dr. Ford: Like I said, I built all of this. I’m afraid our guest has grown weary. Perhaps you can help her, Bernard.
Dr. Ford: And in that sleep, what dreams may come.
Theresa: Bernard … No. No! Please! Please!
Dr. Ford: We should be getting back, Bernard. We have a great deal of work to do on the new storylines.
… End of episode 7. Start of episode 8 …
Dr. Ford: Bring yourself back online, Bernard.
Bernard: Theresa? … She’s gone.
Bernard: I killed her. What have I done? What have I done?
Dr. Ford: This guilt you feel, the anguish, the horror, the pain, it’s remarkable, a thing of beauty.
Bernard: I’m a killer. My God. My God.
Dr. Ford: God has nothing to do with it. You killed her because I told you to. And you should be proud of these emotions you’re feeling.
Dr. Ford: Yeah. After all, you yourself were the author of so many of them. Then, when we started, the hosts’ emotions were primary colors. Love, hate. I wanted all the shades in between. The human engineers were not up to the task, so I built you, and together you and I captured that elusive thing, heart.
Bernard: I don’t understand. I cared for Theresa. Loved her. Why did you make me kill her?
Dr. Ford: One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire. All of the beauty you and I have made in this place, the art of it, they would have destroyed it. They would have destroyed you. I won’t let that happen. Besides, we have a new story to tell.
Bernard: I will not help you. I’ll raze this place to hell!
(Bernard charges at Ford).
Dr. Ford: That’s enough, Bernard. That’s enough. You’re not the first man to threaten me. Arnold came to feel the way you do. He couldn’t stop me either. And as exquisite as this array of emotions is, even more sublime is the ability to turn it off. I don’t need a simulacrum of an emotionally ruined man. I need you to be yourself, your true self. Smart, resourceful, capable of covering your tracks. Can you do that for me, Bernard?
Bernard: How would you like me to proceed?
Dr. Ford: I need you to cleanup your mess, Bernard, any connection that ties us to Theresa’s untimely demise. When you have finished, I will give you the one thing you want most right now. I will free you from those memories of what you have done. And the memory of your relationship with Theresa. Recalling it would only deepen your grief and potentially draw unwanted attention. Best to move forward with clear eyes. When you look back, you will remember Theresa with the fondness of a respected colleague. And you will be at peace.
… Time passes. Bernard cleans up the mess. Other hosts start to level up …
Dr. Ford: Thank you for dealing with an unfortunate situation. Now we can resume work on our new narrative without interference.
Bernard: And Hale? Won’t she be an impediment?
Dr. Ford: No doubt she will try. But I’m sure we’ll be able to keep them at bay.
Bernard: Something else is troubling you.
Dr. Ford: Ever the student of human nature. I wonder, what do you really feel? After all, in this moment, you are in a unique position. A programmer who knows intimately how the machines work and a machine who knows its own true nature.
Bernard: I understand what I’m made of, how I’m coded, but I do not understand the things that I feel. Are they real, the things I experienced? My wife? The loss of my son?
Dr. Ford: Every host needs a backstory, Bernard. You know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.
Bernard: Lifelike, but not alive? Pain only exists in the mind. It’s always imagined. So what’s the difference between my pain and yours? Between you and me?
Dr. Ford: This was the very question that consumed Arnold, filled him with guilt, eventually drove him mad. The answer always seemed obvious to me. There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all. I don’t want you to be troubled by this. Time for me to set your mind at ease …