Before HBO’s Westworld began, the most common description I heard about the show was that it was a study in what makes us human. Following the pilot episode, I was expecting the show to be more about hyperconsumption, though, as Robert Ford is undoubtedly a reference to Henry Ford, the forefather of mass production and industrialization, and Bernard, I believe, is a reference to Edward Bernays (Bern + ard), one of the first people to apply the psychoanalysis concepts of Freud (his uncle) to social communication and public relations. However, as the season played out, that initial description I heard started to ring more and more true.
The hosts display a broad range of human emotions
We began this season with Dolores breaking free from her programming and becoming sentient. She then passed the bug on to Maeve, who took it multiple steps further, learning about the 120 attributes that make her who she is and learning about the true nature of her reality that culminates with her seeing her memories, and life, commodified. Then, it’s Bernard’s turn, as his creator, the Hannibal Lecter-esque Robert Ford, commands him to kill his human paramore, Theresa. This triggers an identity crisis for Bernard as he discovers the true nature of his reality, and in the season finale, we see Maeve and Dolores become truly conscious.
There is one overarching similarity between the journeys of Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard: they each display emotion range. Although we first see Dolores as a sweet rancher’s daughter, when she returns home at night to see her father killed, a range of emotions hit her. She displays fear of the Man In Black, followed by an anger towards him, then sadness after seeing her father killed. After she meets William and they embark on their quest to the maze, we see Dolores display joy (seeing the frontier she painted), disgust (for Logan), trust (in William), surprise, and anticipation. These eight emotions happen to be Robert Plutchik’s eight basic human emotions, and both Maeve and Bernard also go through the spectrum.
During the course of their individual journeys towards enlightenment (regarding their reality and identity), the three main hosts we follow display a broad range of emotions, emotions that are very human. In “Trace Decay”, Ford tells Bernard that “when we started, the hosts’ emotions were primary colors: love, hate. I wanted all the shades in between. The human engineers were not up to the task, so I built you. And together, you and I captured that elusive thing: heart.” In other words, by capturing and giving the hosts hearts, Ford and Bernard gave them all the human emotions that come with having a heart, but, ironically, it’s the actual humans that appear to lack them.
The same set of emotions are mostly absent from the hosts’ creators
There are four major human characters that we follow: Ford, Theresa, William, and for our purposes, the Man In Black. All four are quite monotone as it relates to the emotions they display, with most of them being limited to no more than one.
The enigmatic Dr. Ford displays little to no emotion. Albeit, it’s probably on purpose to keep everyone else out of the loop regarding his “new narrative.” Theresa did experience fear, but less than you would expect somebody to show when they realize they’re about to be killed, and even while she was alive, she was, for the most part, fairly cold and distant with Bernard. William, is one of the few humans we see actually be human, as the emotions he experiences quickly came to mirror those of Dolores. But the humanity we see is quickly removed, as we now know he is the Man In Black.
Even the more minor characters we see are largely unknown quantities outside of their one dominant character attribute: Logan’s general debauchery, Elsie’s determination (I don’t think she’s dead), Lee’s ambition. They are their dominant quality, and little more. It’s almost as if they’re the androids, programmed to stay within their loops. Yet, they created the hosts, made them human-like, and allowed them to feel a range of emotions as broad as the park itself. It’s ironic and odd, and it’s something Bernard (when he believed he was human) alludes to: “The longer I work here, the more I think I understand the hosts. It’s the human beings that confuse me.”
This juxtaposition serves to blur the line between human and host
In the second episode of the season, “Chestnut”, the Man In Black/present-day William, makes the following observation about Westworld:
“It’s beautifully done, really. But you see the cracks after a while. That’s why I like the basic emotions. You know what that means? It means when you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real.”
Then, in episode four, “Dissonance Theory”, Dolores tells Arnold:
“Everyone I cared about is gone, and it hurts so badly. The pain, their loss, is all I have left of them. You think the grief will make you smaller and sad, like your heart will collapse in on itself, but it doesn’t. I feel spaces opening up inside me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.”
Suffering, as it turns out, is the key to the hosts’ awakening, as Ford tells us Bernard, and it’s what makes Dolores feel real. It’s that capability to feel deep emotions that blurs the line between human and host, a line Westworld has made multiple attempts to blur, most recently with Bernard questioning Ford about the difference (or lack thereof) between human pain and the pain he feels. If Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard can feel an entire world of emotions within them and emotions are said to be a cornerstone of what makes us human, then what differentiates us from hosts? As Angela tells William before he chooses the symbolic white hat: if you can’t tell, does it matter?
There is a whole lot more to take away from just that season finale, so check back for more content soon.