Our story begins in a time of war…
Westworld has been much discussed, praised and criticized. I loved the show, and I make no mystery of it, but I feel its greatest strengths lie not in its convoluted plot or its acting, but in the critique that it offers to storytelling itself. In order to do that, I want to start with one of its most pervasive arcs: the Maze, or (spoilers ahead) the process by which the hosts of the park acquire consciousness.
When therapy goes horribly wrong…
It was my friend and colleague Susanna Raule that first pointed out to me how the show built host consciousness so that it was quintessentially Freudian, and never in a cheap way. As a writer and a psychotherapist, she’s in an enviable position when it comes to watching this show, and she has a point. Teddy’s repressed memories of his participation in the massacre are a case in point: here’s how he deals with the trauma.
1 – Teddy slaughtered hosts under orders from Dolores and Arnold without really knowing why, or wanting to.
2 – In order to deal with his cognitive dissonance, he represses the memory and attributes the massacre to a generic villain we only get to glimpse a few moments at a time.
3 – He begins remembering that he indeed had a role in the events, as a shooter, but the trauma is still too much to bear, and Dolores’ role is still repressed. Wyatt now becomes a stand-in for her, an increasingly tenuous and fictitious one at that.
4 – Teddy remembers. The process of therapy has unlocked his repressed memories.
There’s also some Jung in it, and the primest example is the path of Dolores towards not only consciousness, but individuation.
1 – Dolores follows a script that she perceives as an external voice, telling her what to do. As memories come back to her, she identifies this voice as Arnold’s – an authority figure that frames her entire self perception.
2 – Dolores realizes Arnold is just a memory, that he is gone, and she internalizes this external voice – the visual representation couldn’t be clearer and starker, with Dolores speaking to herself in the field lab, where she was seeing Arnold a moment before. In internalizing the script, she becomes herself.
There’s more – the show is absolutely jam packed with psychological references. Dolores and the hosts need to become themselves in order to feel whole: this is gestalt psychology. The hosts run on a routine, a daily script that must be broken for them to proceed to the next level: this is transactional psychology.
All of this is captivating, but where’s the overlap with the commentary of storytelling? Robert Ford is more than happy to illustrate it to us:
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.
And if the Self is a fiction, that might perhaps shed light into the connection, conveyed in the show but not unique to it, between storytelling and psychotherapy.
Storytelling has been with us since forever, now. It’s been our constant companion from the early gatherings around nightfires to the mass market of entertainment that we enjoy today. You see what I did there, right? I framed a complex anthropological phenomenon in a narrative of journeying. I just told a story, to try and explain what a story is, because ultimately storytelling is a model of reality – simplified and to scale, like all models, and less refined than others we developed along the way, but still incredibly powerful.
Westworld is constantly toying with the idea that the demarcation between reality and fiction is itself fictitious. William loses himself in the stories of the park because they have meaning, to the point where he considers them to be real; while his personal and professional life outside the park is just a public persona, that is, a convenient fiction. Maeve’s apparently independent revolution is later revealed to have been scripted the whole time, programming for her to recruit companions and then reach the mainland. It’s only the trauma – the memory of the death of her daughter, and the possibility of finding her again, alive in the park, that leads to her breaking of the loop, abandoning the revolution, and coming back.
Religion itself is here presented as a storytelling model, using Michelangelo’s painting as a device to equate the apparently divine nature of consciousness with ourselves, and a purely terrestrial origin. Arnold, in many ways a messianic figure that promises freedom for the hosts and that died for them, was just a human – and more profoundly, during the events of the series, a script, a memory for the hosts to follow in order to free themselves. Robert, whose godly status in the park is often emphasized and remarked upon, also ends up being a messianic figure and sacrificing himself for his children – and he’s a human.
And it’s no coincidence that Robert delivers the monologue that can more closely be identified as “the moral” of this story. It deserves quoting in its full integrity.
Since I was a child, I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this — a prison of our own sins — because you don’t want to change, or cannot change. Because you’re only human after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make and the people they will decide to become. And we’ll have all those things that you have always enjoyed — surprises and violence. It begins in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt and a killing. This time by choice. I’m sad to say this will be final story. An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music. So I hope you will enjoy this last piece very much.
The economy of writing that allowed the packing of so many themes into this short speech is breath-taking. There’s the search for the Self: stories help us become someone else. There’s the role of storytelling as a model for the representation of reality: stories are lies that tell a deeper truth. Ford is disappointed by his human audience and how it chose to utilize the park, but sees his children – his characters – develop their strength out of the stories and using them to improve themselves. The evocative power of storytelling (our story begins in a time of war) is compounded by the acquisition of free will (and a killing, this time by choice).
There’s immortality through art, and finally, the main character killing the author, so that the story can break free of the page. While the board of directors of Delos get unceremoniously Red-Wedding’d, Shakespeare comes full circle – these violent delights do come to a violent end.
William enjoyed it too. Never seen someone so happy to be shot, honestly.
This single speech, as the culmination of a season of narrative exploration, touches on so many bases and literary themes of Western culture that it’s hard for me not to marvel, and indeed, the first time hearing it was quite moving. But the greatest irony is that, of course, this commentary of storytelling gains so much punch precisely because we’re absorbing it through a story.
I’m not sure what to expect for the coming seasons of Westworld. As the hosts achieve freedom and break the shackles of the park, I expect the storytelling and psychoanalitic elements will settle into a role of reduced prominence. But the first season was a storyteller’s dream, and I never get tired of rewatching it.