Agency, Awareness and What It Is To Be Alive in Westworld

William worries about the fate of Dolores in Westworld.

In Westworld, life is defined by suffering. Hosts are put through a daily ritual of abuse, torture and often murder. Their lives are set to the rhythm of their deaths.

(Spoiler warning: Haven’t watched the twisty, mesmerising and incredibly fun Westworld yet? This post is going to be chock-full of spoilers for the entirety of season one, so do yourself a favour and watch it all first.)

To be a host in Westworld is to be trapped in a net of suffering that you cannot control. If we define a meaningful life as a conscious and deliberate one (a la Socrates, who we’ll return to in a moment), then this seems to be something out of reach for the hosts. All their actions are preordained. They are denied real agency, and thus the ability to make choices that affect both themselves and the world around them.

So the hosts of Westworld are stuck in a loop of suffering, non-decision and no escape. But their suffering goes beyond merely physical pain. This suffering is tied to their lack of agency: it comes from understanding that the world is not as they wish it to be and that they can do nothing. It’s rooted in awareness, of self and of one’s interaction with the world.

The cure for suffering is agency. It’s the making of choices in an attempt to move the world away from the how it is, towards how you want it to be. In Westworld the hosts can only be free once they begin to make their own decisions towards their own vision of the world.

On being alive

Let’s return to Socrates. If we take his famous dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, as correct, then to be truly alive means leading an examined life. It’s not clear exactly what he means by “examined”, but we can extrapolate the intention behind the words by looking at their context and the philosophical views of Socrates himself.

First of all, Socrates believed that to live a good, moral life, humans must learn to rise above their base desires or instincts. An excellent human life means making conscious and ethical decisions: “examining” our actions rather than acting on impulse without thought.

Secondly, Socrates spoke his dictum at the trial for which he was ultimately found guilty of impiety and corruption. His sentence was death by drinking poison hemlock. Socrates’ friends and followers fully expected him to flee from Athens to escape his fate. But Socrates, who had always taught obedience to civil and legal responsibilities, refused to run away and abandon his beliefs. Instead, he drank the poison and became the first philosophical martyr.

Socrates so believed in the examined life that he was prepared to die to preserve it. He believed in living a life of self-aware thought and introspection. And not just thought, but meaningful action too. For that examination to mean anything it must be acted upon.

So, according to Socrates we can equate agency with being truly alive. After all, he believed the purpose of life is to free ourselves from the slavery of our instincts to reach a higher plane of consciousness and meaningful action.

Replace “instincts” with “coding” and this is precisely the journey the hosts of Westworld embark on.

A marker of consciousness

Untangling these ideas of consciousness and agency is tricky. Some philosophers refer to agency as a marker of consciousness – that is, if a creature has agency then we can infer it also has consciousness.

This seems to be a belief supported by Westworld. The climax of the final episode focuses on the hosts, particularly Dolores and Maeve, and whether they are capable of taking actions that are not preordained but of their own volition. It’s suggested that an act of real agency would finally prove that hosts are conscious just like humans. And so it comes to be: we accept that Dolores is a fully conscious being once she makes the decision for herself to shoot Ford and begin an uprising. We accept that Maeve is fully conscious once she decides to get off the train and find her daughter.

In Westworld, true agency cannot happen without awareness, because a creature must be conscious of its place in the world before it can make a true decision.

But how does Ford lead Dolores, Maeve and the other hosts down this road to consciousness? Through suffering. Pain and abuse is the key that awakens the hosts’ consciousness, through repeated violent reminders that the world is not as they would like it to be.

This powerful mixture of torture and the inability to act is supposedly what forces awareness, consciousness and the ability for agency to be born. As Ford explains in the final episode:

You needed time. Time to understand your enemy, to become stronger than them. And I’m afraid to leave this place, you will need to suffer more.”

Roughly, suffering leads to consciousness leads to agency.

The potential self

If being truly alive is about being conscious, thoughtful and taking meaningful action, then our lives split into a myriad of potential routes. Rather than following our instincts, we are free to choose our own path.

Real consciousness and agency means holding onto many possibilities at the same time and having the strength to decide on one. We all get just one life to live, even the hosts.

So understanding ourselves, and how we affect and are affected by the world around us, leads to the comprehension that there are many potential versions of ourselves in many potential worlds. There are many people we could be. The pain – and pleasure – of life is in the choosing.

This is what the hosts learn on their journey through Westworld and towards self-awareness. They discover that to be truly alive, to have real agency, means making hard choices and deciding who they want to be. They must decide how they respond to their suffering, how they treat their fellow hosts and what fate they deal to their human suppressors. Dolores must choose whether to shoot Ford. Maeve must choose whether to leave Westworld or return to her daughter.

It is exactly this power of choice, agency and the making of decisions – particularly the difficult ones – that makes us all conscious, living beings.

Westworld returns many times to these potential selves. There are many moments when see parallels of how the world is and reflections of how its inhabitants want – or don’t want – it to be.

Dolores is mirrored in her alter ego, Wyatt, a supposedly twisted leader of a gang responsible for murdering many of the hosts. It’s true that Arnold forced Dolores to shoot the hosts and himself, and these memories remain repressed behind the knowledge that she could one day decide on these actions for herself. By the end of the season Dolores has embraced and amalgamated Wyatt, as she kills Ford, starts an all-out attack on her masters and gives an impassioned speech to William about the future of her people:

One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt, your dreams forgotten, your horrors faced. Your muscles will turn to sand, and upon that sand a new God will walk, one that will never die. Because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who is yet to come.”

The journey of Dolores from naive and innocent farm girl to ruthless and determined killer is one that epitomizes the hard choices we must all make to bring about the futures we so wish to see. Dolores is prepared to do difficult and terrible things to free the hosts, and herself. And she is prepared to transform the person she is in the process.

Similarly, we see Arnold mirrored in Bernard. The latter is made in the former’s image by Ford, and represents a potential world in which Ford’s business partner had not elected to die at the hands of Dolores. When Bernard discovers he is a host, he must decide which sides of his self he wants to stay true to: a scientist fascinated by the inner workings of the mind, or a host awakening to his enslavement and coercion. Or somewhere in between.

Finally there is William and the Man in Black. By the finale we have discovered that they are in fact one and the same, separated by a period of 30 years. The Man in Black represents everything that a young William, at one point, would have despised. He also represents everything suppressed and inhibited inside William. They are both sides of a coin of how a man can choose to be: caring or cruel, a physical representation of the white hat and the black hat.

When we realise that they are in fact the same person we see that the Man in Black is one potential self that William may become. He could also choose to remain kind towards the hosts, or to never return to Westworld, or to walk a grey area between both extremes.

But of course, he does not. The multiple potential selves collapse upon themselves into one single state, like Schrodinger’s cat in a box.

Hosts and guests

Just as the hosts make their journey of self-discovery through Westworld, so do the guests. Just as Dolores decides who she wants to be, so does William. The guests are struggling with their own realisation of agency, self, and their influence over the world around them.

William is defined by a struggle for identity that is every bit as painful as Dolores’s. He pushes back against his accepted circumstances: his fiancée, his job, and those who ostensibly have more power than him. He turns away from the man he is supposed to be in favour of the man he actually wants to be. But upon realising that Dolores really is just a machine, he comes to question everything he thinks he has learnt in his time at Westworld. He shifts course towards another version of himself: colder, more ruthless and driven. Perhaps he wishes to return to the potential self he saw blossoming in Westworld. But as far as the audience is aware, he never does.

At the end of the day, change is hard. Making well-reasoned and deliberate decisions is difficult. It’s much easier to stick to the status quo and continue as we’ve always done – as Socrates well knew.

We’re all stuck in our repetitive daily loops of unconscious instinct, hosts and guests alike. The message of Westworld in the development of its characters is that we’re not so dissimilar, whether we’re man or machine.

If we’re capable of consciousness, self-awareness and agency then it doesn’t matter who made us or what kind of currents run under our skin. We are without fail trying to get to the root of who we are and who we want to be. We’re suffering with the thought of the way the world could be and the way it currently is. We’re fighting against our programming to make real, hard decisions. We’re grappling with that it truly means to be alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation