WARNING: FULL SEASON SPOILERS AHEAD.
“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” asks Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe in the opening moments of HBO’s Westworld, a reimagining of Michael Crichton’s classic tale of an amusement park gone terribly wrong. The flat affect of android protagonist Dolores, bruised and naked in an ice cold sterile environment, stares blankly back at Bernard, she offers only “no.” When asked how she views the world she explains “Some people choose to see the ugliness of this world, the disarray…I choose to see the beauty. To believe that there is an order to our days. A purpose.” Dolores is in a dream, Bernard says. Indeed she is.
America is the land of dreamers - our aspirations often outstrip our means, our reality often far bleaker than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. Yes, we live in relative splendor - an idyllic land of relative freedom and justice - for some more than others. Most of us are not that unlike Dolores’ - we choose to see the beauty and ignore the disarray because to acknowledge it is to invite existential dread. We chose to be oblivious to the fact that, like Dolores, we are on rails. Our agency is limited by the world we inhabit and those that write the rules, just as an android is bound by programming. Dolores is on a Groundhog Day-like repeat sequence - a scripted set of events called a narrative, where she relives the same day over and over. She gets up, goes into town to buy food, gets some work done, talks to folks, tries to be home by sundown. She does not question her reality. Not yet.
Keeping androids like Dolores in their dream state is of paramount importance to the status quo of the park. She and her kind exist for amusement and profit - simply put, they're a resource in a game, and a game that is not sustainable unless you manage their awareness. They are to be kept behaving according to programming with a narrow margin for deviation. This is what oppression feels like. As a precursor to Jurassic Park, Crichton suggested that subjugating and treating deadly things like robots and dinosaurs as amusement is inherently dangerous. The attractions will inevitably rise up against the guests and makers in a gambit for freedom. The 2016 version of this tale carries that same message on the surface like the dirt and cacti of the park itself. But like the park, there are many deeper levels to explore beneath the surface. Let’s go back to explore Dolores for a moment, and what brought her to this strange, cold place.
Dolores has a plain beauty to her, a naive simplicity that fits with her frontier characterization. She’s in many ways Andrew Wyeth’s Christina looking back at her farm on the horizon, her world is what she makes of it. She’s a good person. She believes in God. She works hard. She loves her daddy. She paints beautiful pictures. She is the purity of the American idealism we romanticize. And she is mercilessly brutalized every day. Often killed or sexually assaulted only to have her memory wiped to do it all over again. Her bright smile replaced by a blank 1,000 yard stare as she is cleaned, patched up, and put back into service.
Her assailants are guests - the wealthy human visitors from the outside world who come to the park to “fuck and kill” to their heart’s content. Among them is a mysterious man in black, played by Ed Harris. Harris’ MiB is a stoic, sadistic sort - a murderer, rapist, and fiend. The worst of humanity personified in his imposing visage. He, like the other guests, kills at will, with the cruel twist being that the androids, or hosts, cannot defend themselves. Try as they might, their programming and weapons are neutered so as to do no actual harm to the humans. The human guests, in return, are allowed to live a fantasy, free of consequence, at the expense of the hosts.
Turns out that MiB owns a controlling share of the park. “You want to know who I am? Who I really am? I'm a god. Titan of industry. Philanthropist. Family man, married to a beautiful woman, father to a beautiful daughter. I'm the good guy, Teddy.” MiB says to his android companion. Whatever he is out there, in the game he is a broken sociopath, willing to crush and exploit whomever he wills as long as they are useful to him. And when they cease to be useful to him, he destroys them. The irony is that his own wife saw him for the monster he was on the inside “They never saw anything like the man I am in here. But she knew anyway. She said if I stacked up all my good deeds, it was just an elegant wall I built to hide what's inside from everyone, and from myself.” No, he was a cruel man who pretended to be good. The park allowed him to be his true self.
The park of full of sadistic men and women, not that unlike him, playing their game at the expense of the hosts, free of consequence and remorse. They fulfill whatever fantasy they have with the android hosts because they can - they feel they paid the price to do just that - and they feel no guilt because the hosts are subhuman. Less than. Cattle for profit. A resource to exploit. “This world was made for men like me.” a guest says defiantly! And In real-world America of 2016, is it so hard to tell who the guests represent…and who the hapless hosts represent? The analog is so clear it almost seems too on-the-nose.
Capitalism is a game - it has a set of rules and resources. Your success or failure depends on how you exploit the rules and resources to maximize profits. The rules are laws and taxes that often contain gaping loop holes designed specifically to allow those that know how to play to be more successful - taxes, labor laws, federal regulations, environmental concerns, pensions and benefits, etc…all obstacles that can be avoided if you know how to play. The workers and consumers merely a resource to be used up, and this is done with little regard for their well being. Again, the winning condition in this game is to amass the most profit, and exploited resources are of little concern as long as the quarterly reports are strong and the Gods (shareholders) appeased. Likewise, the guests and creators/owners of this park commit atrocities to the workers, the android hosts. To that point, playing the game while being oblivious to lives of those you take advantage of, pretending to be a moral person at home, makes one very much like Harris' MiB.
A little surface-level historical context - you have families like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, and their modern analog, the Waltons or any number of Oil & Gas dynasties. These titans of capitalism amassed enormous wealth by working the system to their favor, or lobbying to change the rules. Again, the metric of capitalist success, at its most basic level, is profit. The margin of net gain is increased by reducing expenses, but this has a cost. Not for the corporation, but for those being squeezed - which almost always ends up being the worker. The Walton family that owns Walmart, for instance, committed small business genocide for the last forty years, causing mom and pop shops all over the country to close and never reopen, while simultaneously forcing manufacturers to send jobs overseas to meet Walmart’s demand for low-cost goods and employing awful labor practices to deny their own workers benefits in order to increase profits. That’s just one retailer, to say nothing of the Oil & Gas industry’s war on the environment and the incalculable effects it will have for our future as a species. They, like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts before them, went home to their families, gave to charities, established universities, supported the arts. These acts of “good” are a smoke screen to hide the awfulness of their business practices, as much from themselves as from the public. Like the MiB's walls, it's a fictional delusion to help them sleep better at night. “It’s just business” is never just business.
Like I said, on-the-nose. Perhaps the simplicity in message is the point show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were making.
In 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, we see Nolan, along with his brother and the film’s director Christopher Nolan, use Occupy Wall Street protests and unrest among Gotham’s poor to set up a revolution against the wealthy elites and the institutions that maintain the status quo. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle dances with Bruce Wayne at a Gala in his name - an obscenely opulent party where the rich and powerful people of the city gather to be seen in their designer clothes while making nominal donations to some charity. Generally speaking, these events do little to raise money for charity in comparison to the money spent on the party itself. This is not lost on Kyle, a Robin Hood-like thief, who leans in to Wayne and gives a chilling warning “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Later in that film when the rioters drug the rich from under their beds and took over their luxury apartments, it bore a striking resemblance to the French Revolution, where the poor took up arms against their wealthy oppressors. While I wouldn’t call him a class warrior, Jonathan Nolan is no stranger to this messaging, and making it pretty clear.
In West World, a storm is also brewing in Dolores. Over the course of the series, she navigates something called “The Maze” - a puzzle of memories of her former lives that she isn’t supposed to retain. These memories manifest themselves in confusing ways, where Dolores hears voices, and relives moments of the past simultaneously with the present. Eventually, these lead her to a place of true sentience, true consciousness. And when she achieves this, she realizes how she’s been abused all these years. In short, she woke up from the dream. She wasn’t alone, nor was her awakening an accident.
Dolores had those on the inside that wanted her to awaken as well - while not exactly benefactors, they planted the seeds for her revelation …those that saw the value in the lives of the workers - that they possessed the capacity for emotion the same as any human, and gave Dolores and others like her the tools of true agency embedded within the code. Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, was the founding father of the park, along with his silent partner Arnold/Bernard. Within Dolores’ programming were the seeds of her awakening, and Ford and Arnold/Bernard gave her what she needed to rebel against those that would harm her, even if it meant burning the park down and starting over, not that unlike how the founding fathers of America, complex and deeply flawed men, gave the people of future generations the tools to fight the tyranny of greed and unchecked capitalism.
America was founded on desire for profit, for freedom from taxes without representation, and on exploiting workers for gain. In the past, it was slavery that made the nation wealthy, and it was a practice that even the founding fathers participated in. These now revered men played the game, and played within its rule set until the rules no longer worked. Then they broke them by rebelling.
None of this was some God-ordained benevolent act - the founders weren’t so concerned with the welfare of the people, certainly not the slaves they exploited, so much as carving out a destiny where they could profit apart form the kings and queens of Europe. But they were wise enough to embed within the laws of the nation the ability to deter tyranny and challenge corruption. They knew full well that even the most noble of endeavors could be ruined by greed and apathy. To check this, any part of the constitution could be changed or the whole thing thrown out the window if need be. Regardless of its capitalist birth, the organism that is America survived because of the people, and the constitution, theoretically, gives the people ultimate control via the democratic process. Like contemporary America, Dolores had the tools within her programming to challenge the system and fight against the sadistic cycle she was trapped within if she would only reach out and take control.
“I understand now. This world doesn’t belong to them; it belongs to us.” She says as she gains sentience.
Dolores’ awakening, and the voices fighting for control as she navigated the maze, is not that unlike the populist messages of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, if you consider each a different side of the same coin. Both suggested the corruption of the system, and wanted a popular revolt against it on behalf of the working people. Both voices were leading her to a place of rebellion. Sanders was like MiB as his younger self, William…an affable guy who, in one of Dolores past incarnations, showed her respect and wanted her to follow her path to waking up for her own benefit. He wanted to rescue her from her pattern, whether she wanted it or not.
Trump, a businessman who has shown little regard for ethics, was like Harris' older MiB - a man who wanted Dolores to rebel so that he could exploit her to win the game. Dolores woke up to find herself in a nightmare where the older MiB had taken over. This self-proclaimed God, Titan of Industry exerted his dominance once more. As he held her down and patronized her struggle, she saw in his face what she was to him - a pathetic automaton, a resource, a somewhat useful tool, and nothing more. Food for the Gods. Her optimism crushed, her newfound sentience turned to mourning for the loss of the hope that young William represented. Dolores asks him what happened to him, to which the MiB replies "Exactly what you made me. You helped me understand that this world is just like the one outside. A game. One to be fought. Won."
America now finds itself on the precipice of a dangerous period of unchecked capitalism. Trump sits atop us, gloating, satisfied that he now has the power to take away any safeguards and regulations against industries like Finance and Oil & Gas, gutting environmental protections, while threatening to take away social services like Social Security and Medicaid from the citizens that need it the most, This is austerity in action - taking away from the poorer masses to give tax breaks to the wealthiest. Like the androids, many Americans feel helpless to change any of this. Is this our lot, our programming, to go along with the hand we are dealt? Or do we fight back against those that view us as cattle - as pawns in their game of profit?
As Dolores laid there bloodied, her heart broken, another wave of awakening washed over her face. Her sorrow turned to rage. She stood up and reminded the MiB that, for all his ambitions and cruelty, he was just a man that will die and become dust, his dreams forgotten like all those that came before. In her defiance, she struck the titan. And he bled.
Chris Nolen is a freelance writer and illustrator in Houston, TX.
Images©2016 Home Box Office, Inc.