Creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have spoken about the influence of video games on Westworld; the husband-and-wife duo played Grand Theft Auto and BioShock to gain inspiration for their show, which essentially depicts the world’s most immersive video game: An Old West-themed amusement park populated by extremely lifelike cyborgs who exist to be stabbed, shot, and raped.
Westworld has given us ample reason to be suspicious of anyone who relishes his time in the park the way Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) do. Last night’s episode, “Dissonance Theory” goes further, suggesting Westworld’s immersive experience can actually change its guests for the worse.
“Dissonance Theory” opens with the park’s programming head, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), conducting one of his covert sessions with host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s just witnessed the murder of her parents. “I think there may be something wrong with this world,” she tells Bernard — or else there’s something wrong with her. “I think,” she concludes, “I want to be free.”
As a host, Dolores is destined to remain in Westworld forever, stuck in a loop of mindless suffering for which she was expressly designed. In this way, her situation evokes the bulletproof nature of a player in a video game, who never really dies, but simply dusts himself off and starts another game. And yet, the same could be said of the park’s much more fortunate guests. Later in the episode, the mysterious Man in Black, a veteran of the park who’s been visiting for 30 years, explains that this is “a world where you can do anything you want. Except one thing: you can’t die. No matter how real this world seems, it’s still just a game.”
From the beginning, the Man in Black has been positioned as the show’s big, bad villain — the first time we see him, he’s dragging sweet Dolores by the hair into a barn, where he’ll rape her. It’s not hard to see how his decades of “playing the game” have desensitized him to the park’s violence.
The same could be said of Dr. Ford, the park’s founder, who sits down for lunch with Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the operation’s manager. They meet inside the park, in a restaurant located on the veranda of a grand house that overlooks a kind of plantation: Hosts serve Dr. Ford and Theresa, and many more of them are at work in the fields beyond the house. The analogy to the slavery-era Deep South is hard to miss. While Theresa is rightly creeped out by the whole scene, Dr. Ford is right at home. The setting becomes even more threatening when Dr. Ford somehow causes each host to stop in his or her tracks so he can reveal that he’s aware she’s having an affair with Bernard, warning her to watch her step: “We know everything about our guests, don’t we, as we know everything about our employees.”
Logan (Ben Barnes) is another repeat visitor to Westworld who savors the opportunity to kill and fuck with abandon. In this episode, he takes William (Jimmi Simpson) by surprise when he goes on a random shooting spree. After Logan knocks one man out with the butt of his gun, he notices the man’s much nicer gun laying by his side. “Upgrade,” he says, scooping up the weapon just like a player in a game might. “Nice.” William admonishes his friend, calling him an “evil prick,” to which Logan responds, “Evil? It’s a fucking game, Billy!”
He’s right, of course. But the show allows us far more intimacy with the hosts than it does guests like Logan. We know what he doesn’t: The hosts are beginning to have PTSD-like flashbacks to previous violent episodes, despite the memory wipes the park’s engineers administer after each killing spree. We can’t be as dismissive with their feelings as Logan is, because we know the hosts are developing independent consciousness.
And yet the episode ends with a glimmer of hope for the cyborg victims. A group of bandits shoots up the town and storms the saloon, but Maeve (Thandie Newton) manages to sequester one of them, the sexy bandit Hector (Rodrigo Santoro). She shows him a sketch of a mysterious creature with a mask — one of the park’s clean-up crew who come to take the hosts away after they’re “killed.” She tells him she was shot in the gut, but somehow there’s no scar; she takes a knife to her belly to prove it, and pulls out a bullet-sized foreign object. When Hector asks what it means, she replies, “That I’m not crazy after all. And that none of this matters.”
As the hosts gradually clue into the nature of their reality, Westworld seems to indicate that immersive technology has the potential to both desensitize and to humanize. And yet it also suggests that it doesn’t matter if we mistreat cyborgs or relish in the destruction of video-game creatures. Over time, exercising your ugliest, most violent impulses — even in a virtual space — can eat away at your conscience until there’s nothing left.