The Theology of “Westworld”

I just finished watching the first series of “Westworld”—have you seen it?  It is a really interesting tv series, with lots of material for theological reflection.

Basically, the plot of the story is this.  “Westworld” is an elaborate, sophisticated theme park for very, very, VERY wealthy people, who come into the park by high-speed train.  Once they arrive, they are greeted by hosts who invite them to change into their choice of Western-style clothing, and enter the park, which replicates a stereotypical “wild west” environment:  saloon town, small settlements, ranches, and lots of open landscape, full of cowboys, bandits, Indians, leftover Union soldiers, prostitutes, etc., etc.

Here’s the catch:  all those different characters, all of whom are called “hosts,” aren’t “real” human beings—they are synthetic. So, while they look real, sound real, kiss real, bleed real, and die real—they are machines; very sophisticated, very beautiful, very advanced machines.  Underneath their soft skin, authentic emotions, and genuine conversations is wiring, metal and a whole bunch of sophisticated computer technology.  What this means is that the guests can do anything they want to the hosts with no ramifications and no repercussions.  By contrast, while the hosts actively participate in various storylines, which means they can throw punches, shoot guns and have sex [can you tell this “world” is very male-dominated?], they cannot kill or seriously injure the guests—this is a safeguard of their programming.  So, basically, for the guests, it’s all the fun with none of the guilt; and apparently, to indulge in this brutal side of their nature, people will pay exorbitant amounts of money.

One of the main drivers of the story as the episodes unfold is the growing self-awareness and deepening consciousness of several of the hosts; in particular, two female hosts.  And, I should say that I find it interesting that while most of the male main characters are “guests,” the two main “host” characters are women.  [More could be done with the gender differences here, I think.]

There are two primary theological issues that dominates the storyline, and both of them relate to questions about what it means to be human. Or, perhaps better said, the question of what true human nature really is. So, the most obvious question that presents itself early in the series is the ethical issue: What would you do if there were no rules; if you knew you couldn’t be punished; if you knew there were no consequences?

If “Westworld” is to be believed, you would be quite depraved, and you would take pleasure in the pain you were able to freely inflict on other “people.”  [This is why it is so important that the hosts appear so lifelike—there is no fun in torturing a robot.]  Here, we see Luther’s first use of the law in action—or rather, the results of its absence. It seems we all really do need the law as a curb to behavior, to keep us from indulging in the worst of our nature.

For me, however, the second issue is actually the more interesting one, and it crescendos through each episode until the final episodes present this issue starkly, and with passion. The issue is, of course, what does it mean to be human? What is required to be considered “real”? As I noted earlier, several of these synthetic hosts come to develop a form of consciousness, emotion, and relationality that seems to belie their existence as ‘merely’ sophisticated computers. They have their own agency—or do they?—their own desires, and they seek their independence, their freedom.

As you might imagine, the irony is that several of the hosts seem to be actually more human than the human techs, and the human guests. This is made explicit in one brief exchange in the story.  There is one human tech, Felix, who develops genuine and strong empathy for one of the hosts, Maeve; and he takes increasingly daring risks to help her attain her dominance by the end of the series. At the very end she says to him, “You really make an awful human, Felix, and I mean that as a complement.”  He has shown such compassion for her, tenderness even, and he has risked everything to help her.

There is another character whom through most of the episodes, we think is a human, but only near the end do we find out that he also is synthetic. His name is Bernard, but his inspiration—the human behind his creation—is named Arnold. As we shift forward and back in time in the later episodes, we aren’t always sure whom we are seeing—Arnold, or Bernard.  This pushes us to ask, “What is the difference between them, really?”

Another question comes increasingly to the fore as the series as the season comes to an end, and that is the question of whose world this really is:  who rules here, the guests or the hosts? The final scene in the last episode suggest a twist, and I am eager to see how season two carries this forward.  We might well wonder ourselves, as technology advances at such a rapid pace, in ways both exciting and unnerving, whose world we live in—and for how long?

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