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Does Westworld suggest humans are hopeless?

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The case for, and against, the pitch black tone of the first season

Westworld’s first season did a somewhat ridiculous amount of heavy lifting when it comes to explaining the concept of the show, a large number of characters and their often twisted relationships and histories. The wonderful video embedded above works as a very effective cheat sheet if you still haven’t put everything together.

You should probably watch that first, so you’re up to date on the story and the characters of the show, and then we’ll continue.

[Warning: The following does contain spoilers for Westworld’s first season. You’ve been warned. Seriously.]

The bleak future of a world raised on a video game

The first season of Westworld took place across two different timelines, and it takes at least two passes through the show to really understand what’s going on, and what the characters in control of the narrative are trying to accomplish.

We don’t really know what Westworld is trying to say yet, especially with the first season covering so much thematic ground. We know what the characters think, but it may not be until the end of season two before we learn whether the show itself agrees with them.

Dr. Ford’s idea that humanity won’t change — or can’t change — for the better, and that the artificial life they’ve created for the park is the only real way to improve the world is ... flawed.

The park itself is a playground, a way to remove some consequences from the actions of people to give them a sense of power. You could argue these circumstances tell us more about who we really are — and characters certainly argue that the park holds a mirror to our true selves — but the park itself is designed to constantly offer us violence and sex. It’s a very expensive and very effective seduction.

No one is going to evolve for the better in an environment where you take away meaningful punishment and set up a reward structure that offers gunplay and sexual release of every kind imaginable. We’ve already seen how horribly people act online, which is in some ways the closest thing we have to a real-world Westworld right now, with you and I playing as both the guests and the hosts. And people are often monsters online.

So William, the innocent first-time visitor to the park, comes into a situation where he has one of the few truly formative experiences of his life, and he finds it to be empty. Of course he does; it’s part of someone else’s plan, someone else’s design. William plays a part in a narrative that is meant to wake something in an artificial mind, and his takeaway is that everything in life is empty. He never spends time creating meaning for his own life or experiences and blames others when his experience at the park just shows him more of the same void he’s always felt.

The cause, or the effect?

His company invests in the park, and he becomes a treasured guest. His reign continues to contribute to a park where humanity is offered sex and violence and responds by taking part in its own worst instincts. We don’t see much of what life is like away from the park, but we do know that the park’s designers are cloistered in a bunker away from society. It’s unsurprising that they begin to see the actions of people inside the park as damning; you can’t set up a playground and then get upset when people begin to play.

But again, we don’t know if the show itself will end up agreeing with Arnold and Ford about the hopelessness of humanity. It’s possible that the clash between guests and hosts will lead both sides to learn something about themselves and each other. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

I’d argue the fictional park was always a test that humanity had no chance of passing, especially when you considered the cost of attendance. It would be interesting to see what Ford and Arnold would have learned about humanity if a group of people used to being treated like objects by the rich and decadent visited the park. I have a feeling the response would have been quite different.