“The only thing I had when I was a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to go to sleep dreaming I’d wake up inside one of them ’cause they had meaning. This place, this is like I woke up inside one of those stories. I guess I just wanna find out what it means.”
These words, taken from the seventh episode of HBO’s new series Westworld, are put into the mouth of William, a guest at a Western-themed amusement park populated by androids (or “Hosts”) designed to be physically and sexually assaulted with no consequences. Invited into this horrific world of make-believe by his future brother-in-law, he responds to a question raised by Dolores, one of the trapped “Hosts” who has gained self-consciousness.
The first time I heard these words, as a student in literature, I found them quite striking. These words hit home for all of those who, like me, build their academic work on the presumption that every word in a piece of literature has a meaning, a purpose. We’re so keen to “dissect” a narrative that we create terminologies and divide stories into distinct stages: exposition, complication, restoration. And the “heart” of the story we’re striving to find is the thread or narrative logic that binds all the elements together. That makes it make sense.
Westworld, however, does not neglect the other direction of traffic; and this, I think, is what makes the show so fascinating. In addition to us (like the guests) seeking to find the meaning of each storyline, it also shows the characters, the Hosts, in the narrative working against their authors. Yes, just imagine all your characters have free will, little by little straying from your script, and reaching out to you from the pages – just like Maeve does, a Host who is a brothel-manager planning to write her own script in the real world.
It’s frightening, to grow up and learn that we aren’t always in control, that we are losing the meaning which we had so confidently assigned to the narrative of our lives: this is why William comes to the park. But the Hosts feel the same. Dolores, whose name literally means “pains” in Latin, is horrified to learn that her creators have assigned being assaulted as the sole meaning of her life and narrative.
What Westworld presents us with is essentially a blurred distinction between author/reader and the narratives they want to create. It draws both sides towards each other, creating a unique dialogue between the creator and the created. It reminds us of our attempts to give life itself a grand narrative – a meaning, logic and sequence. Though we may not be as dolorous, or distressed, as Dolores, we are in fact her reflection outside of the screen, in the real world.
William is damn right when he concludes, “I used to think this place was all about pandering to your baser instincts. Now I understand, it doesn’t cater to your lowest self, it reveals your deepest self. It shows you who you really are.”