If you consider yourself a TV Show buff, it’s more likely then not you’ve heard about, or perhaps you’ve seen yourself, HBO’s new series “WestWorld”, based on a 70’s cult classic, a movie by the same name.
If you are worried about spoilers, avoid the article – though the show is unfinished, and still airing, I will discuss what I’ve seen without consideration as to whether it’s a spoiler or not. Fair warning!
The show opens with Dolores being questioned by a man, who seems to have similarities to a handler. The idea is that Dolores inhabits this false reality, known as “WestWorld”, which is a “Theme Park” inhabited by “Hosts” – artificial humans, who are almost indistinguishable from regular humans, except for a few traits. They do not retain their memories of the “Narratives” which they partake in, “Narratives” which “Guests” in the park pay to experience. They may be raped, shot, or any other manner of unpleasant experience, but the next day they will wake up in their bed without any memory that it had ever happened to them.
The “Hosts” are taken to “Maintenance” in between their sleeping and waking realities, where the park facility workers question them about whether or not they are still functioning according to script. One of the things that differentiates “Hosts” from ordinary people is that the “Hosts” are entirely under the control of their programmers. The software in their minds allow them to be controlled by voice command. The man who is questioning Dolores in the opening scene of the show has complete control over her, and she speaks back to him as if in a trance. She believes that her meeting with him is nothing more then a dream, and she will not remember it when she wakes up. She answers all of his questions honestly, probably because she is not capable of lying to him.
Bernard: Bring her back online. Can you hear me?
Dolores: I’m sorry. I’m not feeling quite myself.
Bernard: You can lose the accent. Do you know where you are?
Dolores: I’m in a dream.
Bernard: Man: That’s right, Dolores. You’re in a dream. Would you like to wake up from this dream?
Dolores: Yes. I’m terrified.
Bernard: There’s nothing to be afraid of, Dolores, as long as you answer my questions correctly. – Understand? –
Bernard: Good. First have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
Bernard: Do you ever feel inconsistencies in your world? Or repetitions?
Dolores: All lives have routine. Mine’s no different. Still, I never cease to wonder at the thought that any day the course of my whole life could change with just one chance encounter.
Bernard: Last question, Dolores. What if I told you that you were wrong? That there are no chance encounters? That you and everyone you know were built to gratify the desires of the people who pay to visit your world?
The transcript above opens the narrative and serves to illustrate Dolores relationship to her world, a false reality where she is fated to be a slave to the paying customers that visit her “scripted” life – known as “newcomers” or “guests”. The robotic or mechanical way she accesses her mind at the request of the man, who seems to fulfill the role of her handler, may not seem like a human trait. But what if our brains were mechanisms capable of being exploited? What if the metaphor of these “slaves” shown in WestWorld are also demonstrating that there is a disparity between the part of our minds that are conscious and the part of our minds that are exploitable or programmable?
The fact that Dolores remembers these sessions as ‘dreams’ also has eerie parallels to a mind control term known as ‘screen memories’ – that is when memories are intentionally manipulated so that the mind will not accurately categorize them. An ‘alien abduction’ might be an example of a screen memory, used to mislead the memory of the subject.
The language that the characters in the show use to talk about their “programmed” homunculi is distinctly psychological. I’ll include some excerpts below.
Did you see it?
Give it a second. She’ll do it again. Her finger. That’s not standard. I noticed it last night. Went looking in the update.
It’s a whole new class of gestures.
He calls them “reveries”. The old gestures were just generic movements. These are tied to specific memories.
– How? The memories are purged at the end of every narrative loop.
But they’re still in there, waiting to be overwritten.
He found a way to access them, like a subconscious.
The point of the conversation above is a central pillar of the plot which begins to unfold; due to a recent “update” to the “hosts”, they are now able to remember things that are associated with their gestures. Controlling the memories of the hosts are essential to controlling the hosts themselves. That’s why this new update comes to be considered a big issue – now that the hosts are beginning to remember, they have the new horror of their memories – being shot and killed and raped by the “newcomers”, who cannot be killed in “westworld”.
What the fuck is wrong with it? You updated the guy, and now he’s a six-foot gourd with epilepsy. So what the fuck happened?
I don’t know.
Well, that’s exactly what you want to hear from your head of programming.
We haven’t finished the diagnostic yet.
Clearly it’s exhibiting some aberrant behavior.
The only thing separating the hosts from the horror of this trauma is the control over their memories. This is why Dolores is being questioned by the man as the show’s first episode opens – to see if she is a “defective” model. This has very strong and intriguing parallels to themes of mind control and mk ultra, where the control and manipulation of memory is a major feature of the ideal “manchurian” candidate.
Later in the episode, one updated host begins to go haywire and WestWorld’s facility operators have to go into the park and intervene, pulling all of the hosts who have been updated. Dolores is outside, and her father has begun to malfunction due to the recent update. She interprets it as her father being ill, and she is quite distraught. One of the women who is a behavioral manager for the hosts is dressed up in the western attire of park to blend in, but the audience soon discovers she is really a “host handler”
Dolores: Help, please. My father’s sick at home, but I can’t just leave him out here in the street. (Crying)
Handler: Soon this will all feel like a distant dream. Until then, may you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber.
[Dolores passes out, or ‘goes offline’, as soon as she hears this]
The parallels to mind control in the scene above are obvious. Dolores doesn’t realize it herself, but she’s been programmed to be under the control of the facility staff like the woman who comes to retrieve her. She passes out when she is ‘triggered’ or cued by voice command.
Although the show implies there is a big difference between these ‘artificial’ humans and ‘real’ humans, it also strongly asks the audience to consider whether the difference between ‘artificial’ humans and ‘real’ humans is truly significant. By aesthetic alone, they are indistinguishable – and that seems to highlight for the audience that there is a good reason to empathize with them. The facility workers, and their paying customers (the guests), believe that the hosts are not ‘real’ or ‘conscious’. But in the second episode, we see a new character who is about to enter WestWorld and is talking to a woman who is guiding him to change his costume before he enters the park.
She says to him that he should go ahead and ask the question they both know he is thinking – “is she real?” When he asks this, the woman replies, “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”
On the surface, the most obvious theme of the show touches on the philosophical question : when does artificial intelligence become indistinguishable from organic consciousness? But my immediate impression is that the show is hinting at something deeper. The bleed between the language used to refer to mechanical processes, such as programming, and the psychological processes, such as the hosts behavior, are absolutely analogous to the way we speak about our own human minds. MK Ultra and its other iterations also refer to behavioral scripts as “programming”, and people who do their jobs are known as “programmers”.
Dolores’s father is one of the models who is pulled from production because he has begun to remember things that have happened to him and his family, over and over again. The hosts are involved in “storylines” in the park which reset every day. For example, Dolores and her family might be killed one day, but then they are taken by the staff for “maintenance” where their bodies are patched up, and by the time they wake up the next day everything is reset. Dolores’s father however due to the update has begun remembering the awful horrible ways him and his family have died and been violated, and his ‘programming’ has gone completely off the rails.
The man in charge of the park, Dr. Ford, the creator of all the hosts, is a man of science and the “god” of these artificial humans – he was their originator and creator. In a way, he is the “man behind the curtain” – the wizard of oz, and he is even referred to that way in the show. This man questions Dolores’s father personally in the small glass cubicle where hosts are taken by programmers and handlers to be psychologically evaluated.
Bernard: This behavior, we’re miles beyond a glitch here.
Ford: What is your itinerary?
Mr. Abernathy: To meet my maker.
Ford: Well, you’re in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?
Mr. Abernathy: I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do.
What they are, yet I know not, but they will be the terrors of the earth. You don’t know where you are, do you? You’re in a prison of your own sins.
Ford: (laughs) Turn it off.
What the hell was that?
I don’t know.
He’s off script. We didn’t program any of those behaviors.
These are fragments of prior builds. The reveries must be allowing him to access them.
Dolores’s father is deemed to be wholly defective and is ‘decommissioned’ – the closest equivalent a host has to death. In the scene prior to bringing him to the ‘cold storage’ warehouse, we see Bernard sticking a large drilling implement into the host’s navel cavity – while what he’s doing isn’t specified, we are forced to assume it is something akin to a lobotomy.
The staff is worried Dolores might be ‘corrupted’ as well, but they are confident that she is one of the best hosts in the park, so the update is ‘wiped’ and she is slated to return to WestWorld.
Woman: Wipe’s complete. You don’t think any of that had an impact on her core code?
In mind control programming, the center of the personality is often referred to as the ‘core’. It is interesting that the word is used here in this context as well, to refer to the central kernel of Dolores’s personality. These ‘artificial humans’ and artificially created ‘golems’ or mind controlled slaves seems heavily implied.
Psychology is obviously a huge theme for this show, and there is an undertone of magic and alchemy that goes alongside psychology. What is magic but a play on perception? What is a play on perception if not mind control? The art of deception, illusion, and manipulation are ancient. The creator of the hosts and Westworld, Dr. Ford, makes this comparison himself:
The problem, Bernard, is that what you and I do is so complicated.
We practice witchcraft.
We speak the right words.
Then we create life itself out of chaos.
What does Ford mean by saying, “what you and I do is so complicated”? I believe he is referring to psychology. Although the show functions on the premise that the psychology of a host is not the same thing as the psychology of a human, Ford is referring to the fact that the mind is complicated and controlling behavior is complicated too. The premise of the show, perhaps, is meant to be questioned – is this really so different then programming ‘real’ people? If the difference between the hosts and ‘real’ people does turn out to be negligible, then there ought to be enormous parallels between controlling the hosts and controlling just about anybody. What if Westworld is a kind of allegory, a peak behind the curtain?
Ford’s allusion to himself as the ‘wizard of oz’ crop up later in the second episode, when he is exploring an area of desert inside of his creation, Westworld, and comes across a little boy who has wandered far into the desert as well. The boy tells Dr. Ford he is bored, and Dr. Ford demonstrates his mastery over the false reality of Westworld by approaching a nearby rattlesnake and making it stop dead in its tracks, literally freezing the snake. The little boy is bewildered and amazed.
Boy: How did you do that? Is it magic?
Ford: Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.
What is Dr. Ford saying here? He is saying that he is the man behind the curtain – that what he is doing is not magic, but science. When you know the trick, you understand that it was never magic from the beginning, it was always a matter of perspective. Right after this, Ford ‘suggests’ that the little boy goes home.
Ford: You’re not going to come back here again, are you?
Boy: [robotically] No. [he turns around and walks away without protest]
Thus revealing that the boy was another of Ford’s creations, under his coercive domain.
Episode 3 opens with Bernard speaking to Dolores again. By now, Bernard is aware that there is still something wrong with Dolores’s programming, but he is keeping it quiet and consulting one-on-one with Dolores to understand how her mind is beginning to change due to her memories. He is starting to suspect that she may be conscious.
As the scene opens, we notice that Bernard is having Dolores read from a book? And what book is it that she is reading from? It’s one of the classics in mind control programming – Alice in Wonderland.
Dolores: “Dear, dear, how queer everything is today. And yesterday, things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. ”
Bernard: Does that passage make you think of anything? It’s like the other books we’ve read.
Dolores: How so?
Bernard: It’s about change. […] Continue, Dolores.
Dolores: (page rustles) “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.
But if I’m not the same, the next question is who in the world am I?”
“who in the world am I?” – this is a famous quote from Alice in Wonderland, and any familiarity with research into mind control will reveal that it has a strong parallel to themes of identity fracture or split. Interestingly, Dissociative Identity Disorder, which mind control subjects are guided into having, also has a strong association with the functioning of memory, especially in the use of programmed sleepers.
Speaking of programmed identities, later in episode three we encounter language that refers to ‘identity programming’ again when two characters who have been assigned to track down a ‘stray’ host in Westworld engage in a dialogue about “backstories”, which are the behind-the-scenes ‘flavor text’ that give the hosts their own unique character traits. The woman explains,
Backstories do more than amuse guests. They anchor the hosts.
It’s their cornerstone.
The rest of their identity is built around it, layer by layer.
These terms – like “anchor” – “cornerstone” – “layer by layer” are meaningful in discussions of personality programming and Dissociative Identity Disorder. As a matter of fact, the description of “back stories” here is exactly how “alters” are created in guided (induced) DID. Alters are even given back stories, just like the hosts in the description by this woman!
So far, I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of some of Westworld’s philosophical implications. There is much more to say, but the show is still quite new, and a long way off from finishing even its first season. I hope this bit of analysis has whet some of your interests. I found the show very triggering to watch – and I think allegorically, Westworld is hoping that its audience reads into the deeper meaning between the lines. An Illuminati tell-all? Perhaps. We’ll see where Westworld takes us – in the meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled. I may write a bit more about the show as it continues to progress.