Westworld’s Hidden Symbolism: Part II
Spoiler Warning: This is a follow up to the first article I wrote, Westworld Ties With MK Ultra – as such, it will contain spoilers. If you want to remain “unspoilt”, please don’t read the article.
I am going to start this article with a bit of a preamble about my thoughts on the premise of Westworld, which I wanted to expand upon from the last article. From the moment I began watching Westworld, my mind intrinsically drew the link between “hosts” and MK Ultra victims – whether they be shattered celebrities or “sleeper” assets, the similarities and the metaphor for me, as somebody who has invested hundreds of hours into researching the phenomena and conspiracy of mind control, was undeniable and visceral. Whether the connection was intentional or not, I felt it had to be explored.
In this article, I am going to elaborate on the themes in Westworld to the more generally psychological, in addition to those that I find accord strikingly with the theme of mind control.
The Man in Black is looking for a “maze” (the center of the maze). The Maze, or labyrinth, can be seen as metaphor for understanding the mind. Think back to the Man In Black’s method of learning about this maze during the first couple of episodes – he is scalping Hosts and looking at the underside of their skulls.
Teddy: The maze itself is the sum of a man’s life. Choices he makes, dreams he hangs on to.
And there at the center, there’s a legendary man who had been killed over and over again countless times, but always clawed his way back to life.
The man returned for the last time and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury.
He built a house.
Around that house he built a maze so complicated, only he could navigate through it.
I reckon he’d seen enough of fighting.
Teddy explains this as the native american myth at the origin of the “maze” the Man In Black is seeking. We the viewer know that Ford’s partner, Arnold, designed the maze – as the hidden “something” buried underneath the park known by nobody and taken to his grave. This explanation given in the mythos of the maze itself bears some reflection:
“The maze is the sum of a man’s life. Choices he makes, dreams he hangs on to.” This brings to mind Jung’s process of individuation – by which a person attempts to integrate the whole of his personality, including both the rejected “Shadow” parts of the personality and the idealized hero parts. To become whole, a person must navigate something akin to a maze, bringing everything within himself or herself into one integrated portrait. Until then, a person could not be seen as psychologically complete – and indeed, most people never became complete, according to Jung’s conception. This is similar to Maslow’s process of “self-actualization”, in which a person ascends the hierarchy of needs to become the most fully potentiated version of himself or herself.
“And there at the center, there’s a legendary man who had been killed over and over again countless times, but always clawed his way back to life.” – In this quote we have something intriguing; it could even be called spiritual. Traditionally what you might find in the center of a labyrinth or a maze is a Minotaur – a monster, or in Jungian terms, a “Shadow” of the self – rejected and scorned parts of the persona. But in Westworld’s maze, we have something magical at the center: the great symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation, the phoenix. Could it be that in Westworld’s maze, the monsters are outside of it, rather then within it? By the sound of Teddy’s story, this is precisely why the treasure of the inner sanctum needed protecting.
Christlike, the Phoenix rises from its own scene of desiccation and destruction in a flame of brilliance: it does not burn up or disappear, but becomes greater still. Evaluating the themes of the park that Arnold and Ford have created, what is the significance of a proverbial “Phoenix” that resides at the center of Arnold’s maze? Instead of representing the rejected and unintegrated “Shadow”, we have something like a center for fire and magic that is waiting for a “Hero” strong enough to pluck the fruits from the forgotten trial. Many cultures revere the Phoenix as the center of the mind and spirit of a man, and the foreshadowing of Westworld is no different here: the “man in the center of the maze” here is the lost “soul”, of not just Westworld itself and its hosts, but of the people who created these Frankenstein travesties: in a sense, it offers the hope of redemption.
Arnold felt that in Westworld they’d created something evil and wanted to destroy it before he died, but he failed. The symbol of the maze has a man in the middle of it. Is this supposed to indicate the humanity inside of the machine, the point were free will is delineated from automation? It seems Arnold wanted to free the hosts from the control of the park. It doesn’t seem like a negligible fact that he impressed or “imprinted” this image of the maze on many of his hosts, an analogy so distinct that it is illustrated by explicit ink upon the bone of skull.
“He built a house.
Around that house he built a maze so complicated, only he could navigate through it.” A house is similar to a temple, the center at which the maze is built around the mind and the soul. The man lives in the house – the man at the center of the maze. Thus, the phoenix lives in the house. When Teddy speaks of the “maze so complicated only he could navigate through it”, who is he referring to? The beaten and flayed man? Arnold himself? In a sense, yes; but what he is really referring to is that potential for hope: the soul itself. Until a person is actualized or integrated, that soul doesn’t reveal itself. The hope for Westworld, at it’s finest, is that it would reveal not the basest and most awful nature of man, but his highest potential. The symbol being invoked with the maze is the relatively common trope of the “sword in the stone” – Excalibur – which only the worthy are befit to pull from the rock. Only the worthy will find themselves capable of navigating the maze – and it is the journey to the center of it that will teach them of what it means to be human, not the treasure itself that they will find which will change them.
This is alluded to by The Man In Black’s monologue in episode 6:
Man In Black: You know why you exist, Teddy? The world out there, the one you’ll never see, was one of plenty.
A fat, soft teat people cling to their entire life.
Every need taken care of except one;
So they come here.
They can be a little scared, a little thrilled, enjoy some sweetly affirmative bullshit, and then they take a fucking picture and they go back home.
But I think there’s a deeper meaning hiding under all that.
Something the person who created it wanted to express.
The idea that Arnold’s “maze” is a references to the hidden and subtle layers of his “programming” that his partner Ford is attempting to uncover is foreshadowed by Ford’s investigations into the minds of his hosts. The following excerpt is taken from near the beginning of episode 5 as Ford is questioning Dolores to uncover whether or not she bears the remnants of Arnold’s influence.
Ford: Hello, Dolores.
Do you know where you are?
Dolores: I’m in a dream.
Ford: Yes, Dolores. You’re in my dream Tell me, do you know what this dream means?
Dolores: Dreams are the mind telling stories to itself. They don’t mean anything.
Ford: No, dreams mean everything. They’re the stories we tell ourselves of what could be, who we could become.
Ford: Your mind is a walled garden. Even death cannot touch the flowers blooming there.
Dolores successfully fools him into thinking that she does not bear the remnant of Arnold’s programming, but we know as she talks to herself once he leaves the room that she does hear Arnold’s voice inside of her. When Ford says, “Your mind is a walled garden“, does he even know the significance of what he says? After all, the true “barrier” erected within Dolores is clearly viable enough to keep even him, “god” of the hosts, out of its inner sanctum. What does this walled garden refer to? Does it refer to the deep split in Dolores’s mind – the split between the impulse to obey her programming, and the impulse to break free of it? When he says, “Even death cannot touch the flowers blooming there“, which part is he calling indestructible? The part of her under his control, or the part of her that is outside of it?
As episode 5 continues, we observe Dolores is slowly coming into an alien new form of herself: this form that is growing into its own will, or soul. On some level, it seems this begins to disturb her. When we see Dolores stumbling through the whorehouse/eyes wide shut pleasure house in episode 5 after leaving her human companions behind.
(Moaning) (moaning, voices echoing) What does it mean? (Gasps) The maze You must follow the maze.
she finds a hidden room with a fortune teller in it and takes a seat across the table. The fortune teller has already dealt a number of Tarot cards for Dolores – she asks what the cards mean, but suddenly when she looks up, she realizes she is staring at herself across the table.
Dolores [to fortune teller]: What’s wrong with me?
Fortune Teller Dolores [to herself]: Perhaps you are unraveling.
The Dolores in front of the cards looks at her arm and sees something sticking out of it. She begins to pull and the skin comes off. It’s a hallucination- she runs out the room. It is interesting that Dolores finds herself in the room of the fateful fortune teller, and the card she is dealt directly before she is told by a split of herself that she’s “unraveling” is, notably, a picture of the “maze”. This scene is particularly of importance because it clearly distinguishes a choice in Dolores to follow the path of the maze, and to leave the part of her that is safe and under control behind. This must be terribly confusing and painful – confronting this side of herself and the realization of her memories – hence the feeling of becoming unraveled. One of the more obvious symbols in programming is that of the mirror – an allegory of which is confronted by Dolores in the scene with the fortune teller. The scene is a potent symbol in programming because our faces become pictures of fragments that are dissociated from our inner core. Dolores is learning that the demure girl on the loop at her family’s farm may not be her true self – or at least it is not her only self. And as she begins to remember – like many other victims of trauma who begin the process of remembering – she begins to “unravel”. Her desire to find the center of the maze, whether on her own initiative or “Arnold’s”, is also the desire to confront her true inner self, even if that process is frightening or dangerous.
The symbolism here is obvious – although it may not be Dolores herself that knows she needs to “follow the maze”, it is as if she is in the midst of an organism that compels her by its nature to seek her center – directly after this serendipity with the fortune teller occurs, Dolores stumbles upon a scene that alerts her to the betrayal of her companion and gives her and William an early opportunity to escape. Dolores begs William for his help, claiming that there is a voice inside of her that is guiding her to seek the center of the maze, and it is telling her that she needs his help to be successful.
The next significant scene in our analysis is a part of episode 6, during which Maeve is forced to deal with the reality of what she is – a “programmed marionette”. Significantly, she begins to reach this understanding partly on her own initiative – by waking herself up for her “dreaming” periods, where her broken body is being put back together by the park workers.
Lutz: Everything you do, it’s because the engineers upstairs programmed you to do it.
You don’t have a choice.
Maeve: And you are like them, not like me?
Felix: Well, I can’t exactly afford to go to the park, but yeah, I’m human like the guests.
Maeve: How do you know?
Felix: Because I know. I was born. You were made.
Maeve: We feel the same.
Felix: We are the same these days, for the most part. One big difference, though the processing power in here [he points to Maeve’s head] is way beyond what we have.
It’s got one drawback, though.
Maeve: What’s that?
Felix: You’re under our control. [he glances around the room conspiratorially] Well, their control. They can change you however they like, make you forget.
I want to talk about the above passage for a moment, particularly with respect to Felix’s comment about the different cognitive capacities that humans have compared to hosts. The passage above reads eerily similar to an account of mind controlled subjects, that they have sustained additional capabilities at the cost of a fragmented and shattered mind that is not under their own control. This idea – that the hosts are “special”, but with a cost, also recollects of what victims of mind control are often told by those who shatter them, invoking the symbol of the butterfly as “metamorphosis” into their transcendent form. This scene, in particular, reminds me of what happens to shattered stars and starlets, who are given their dreams at the cost of control over their own lives. They are told often that they are destined for greatness, as a way of dealing with the extreme experiences and trauma that are rumored to be a cost of ascending the hierarchy of elite idols.
In episode 8, Lutz and Felix also intimate that the hosts, unlike ordinary humans, have photographic memory. What are the consequences of having photographic memory? Does this relate to the necessity that the hosts have their memories wiped each day? In ordinary people, it is theorized that our memories obfuscate and romanticize the past with good reason. Without this, we’d have too much material to sort through, and no ability to soften the intensity of painful or traumatic experiences either. Another interesting detail is that in cases of trauma, our memories tend to act in different ways. There are two potential outcomes: for one, the memory of the trauma can be hyper-imprinted on the mind, because the emotions are so heavily aroused and the parasympathetic nervous system is kicked into overdrive. This makes the details of the traumatic event impossible to forget, making one prone to flashbacks and painful re-envisioning of the experience – the memory is recollected almost photographically. Here is a good example: it is very likely that if you are an American, you can remember the day of September 11th, 2001 very well. Can you remember September 10th? Probably not. The day of September 11th is emblazoned collectively in the public’s national memory as an incident of collective trauma, which is why we all remember where we were.
Another possibility is that the event is so traumatic that the organism experiencing it shuts down consciously and disassociates itself from the experience, particularly in the case of repeated traumatic incidents. The body itself remembers the experience, and may react in the case of triggers violently, but the memory itself has split off or fragmented in order to keep the functioning of the organism intact. This latter case is what you will often find in cases of repeated abuse, and particularly in the case of those repeatedly traumatized as children. This recollects of the way that the memory of the hosts are wiped every day in order to preserve their ability to function as necessary. What’s interesting is that the same way the “engineers upstairs” make this choice on behalf of the hosts, in an ordinary human our minds often split off and repress our memories in the same way so that we can continue to function even when there are extremely awful things happening to us on a regular basis. The violation, or manipulation of our memories in this way in the interest of survival is both something that those interested in mind control can take advantage of in trauma based techniques of control, and something which happens naturally in extreme and cruel circumstances.
Maeve doesn’t believe their level of control so Felix hands her the “behavioral” tablet and she watches it display her inner world in real time. It screws with her mind so completely to see this machine charting and predicting her inner thoughts and outer dialogue as it occurs that she literally just stops working – on the level of cognition entirely. She doesn’t pass out or faint, she just freezes, unable to process anything or comprehend her reality. Notably, this is a pretty reliable indicator of something so traumatic, that the organism has no idea how to process it – instead, it just “shuts down”. Whether the organism in question is a dog, a human, or a “host” – a controllable bionic superhuman of a sort – it’s psychology does not significantly differ.
Felix, who was never in the “behavioral” department to begin with, has completely violated protocol, likely with no idea of what effect showing the host a “tablet” would have on one’s mind.
When she unfreezes she demands to see “upstairs”. Felix takes her to see it despite his better judgement. This scene and the choice of music is rather harrowing. When she gets to the top of the stairs she sees the “trailer” banner for her entire reality playing on a nearby wall. You can see that Maeve nearly breaks down on the spot. Her reality is just a small world within a bigger one – and she is merely a source of entertainment and amusement for this unknown world. When they get back downstairs, Maeve expresses her shock in seeing the depiction of her inner world in the outer one.
Maeve: How did you have my dreams? Those moving pictures – I saw myself.
– With the little girl? Those weren’t dreams. That was you in a previous build.
The theme of trauma is raised again with this segment of plot where Maeve is confronted with the reality that the past which haunts her is her own. The little girl whom Maeve continues to experience reliving as her parents are killed in front of her, are not the memories of a stranger, but indeed her own memories. Although this is the metaphor of a “nonhuman” entity experiencing its own past, the metaphor extends with almost frightening fluidity into the real world. When people are forced to confront their real traumatic pasts, they often experience it much the same way as Maeve did – as memories belonging to someone “else”, not themselves. They are plagued by the emotions and impulses that come along with these memories, but cannot bear to inject their own experience into them.
Maeve has no concept that these are her own memories, until Lutz and Felix enlighten her that they are – from a “previous build”. While the memories plague and addle her, she experiences them as belonging to a foreign entity not herself. Like many other victims of trauma, she is forced to confront that the little girl in her memories that is being repeated violated within these scenes is in fact herself – this is a theme of integration after trauma that arises not for the first time in Westworld.
Episode 7 opens with Alice in Wonderland again – Bernard is reading it to his child who is sick in the hospital.
Bernard: Where were we?
Bernard’s Son: – The madman.
Bernard: – Oh. Of course.
Bernard: (grunts) The Hatter who says, “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.
I have to ask as a choice – why Alice in Wonderland for these scenes between Bernard and his son? They aren’t particularly sentimental passages and they do nothing to illustratee the character of Bernard’s son or Bernard – rather it only seems a remark on the lunacy of Westworld itself, a prophecy of the form of psychology Bernard will later “engineer”. Given the nature of the show, it is a very pointed choice of children’s fiction. It practically couldn’t be any more distinct unless it was The Wizard of Oz – and it’s not like Westworld doesn’t allude to the mighty Wizard in the characters of Arnold and Ford.
Of course, by the end of episode 7 (the big twist) we find out that Bernard never had a sick son at all. He was a host all along – a host unaware of his own nature. That gives the Alice in Wonderland readings a COMPLETELY different meaning. After all, he HAD no son. The Alice in Wonderland readings then in his memory can be interpreted purely as mind control programming, and perhaps his dreams and flashbacks can be conceived of as reinforcement for that programming. In retrospect, it appears the Hatter’s diatribe with respect to Bernard was right: everything wasn’t what it appeared to be. His sick son was merely an implanted memory, somebody who didn’t exist – even as Bernard’s son himself voiced the fear of not existing.
In mind control lexicon, we can easily see Bernard as a sleeper. He had no idea he was a host. As soon as he was activated by Ford, he obeyed. Up until the moment he was activated, he was a faithful friend and love interest to Teresa. Bernard himself had no idea he was being used. And he was helpless to defy Ford’s command. Now we have a better context for Bernard’s behavior, which was operating beneath his own conscious threshold, and we share in his shock: Bernard was loyal to Ford because he had to be. He was programmed to be. And he had never truly been free; rather the factors that he had believed to be motivating him were just the products of his arranged history, another feature of Ford’s “master plan”.
In this, the show seems to be warning us once again, and with great emphasis, that nothing in Westworld is as it appears to be: and thus nothing should be taken for granted as such. Just because we believe we are human, like Bernard knew himself to be human, doesn’t mean that we are immune to deception, immune to control. Ultimately, what differentiates the hosts from their human counterparts is nothing in the corporeal realm; rather it is only an access to their totality: the totality of their functioning, as controlled by others, and the totality of their potential, their “unlocked” capability. In essence, what the hosts appear to be showing us is what is possible at the greatest of extremes. What the engineers in Westworld are creating, may in fact be something with real world counterparts. Just as Arnold and Ford are Wizards, “Architects” of a parallel world, we must ask ourselves what it is they have endeavored to master.
It is not the engineering of something artificial, but rather the artificiality of something biological which they have created. The means to control are ultimately, wholly psychological means. It is our minds which hold this greatest of capabilities, and as the show continues, it appears to foreshadow its emphasis on this theme, in both its maze and the struggles of Westworld’s denizens with their own humanity – and the consequences of “becoming human”.