If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
— Audre Lorde
HBO has cultivated an arsenal of TV shows that rival movies. We have to thank Breaking Bad on AMC for revolutionizing TV dramas and changing how we view it. In the past, TV used to be a cesspool; a place where old actors go to die or actors who aren’t palatable enough for Hollywood would have to settle. After Breaking Bad, TV evolved; it became a haven where we questioned the human experience and morality associated with our humanity. HBO’s West World had its season finale this past Sunday, and it continued the trend of television shows that raised philosophical questions about who we are.
West World is about a theme park where humans interact with androids referred to as ‘hosts’ for a fee of $64k a day. Humans can do anything to the hosts, and the hosts have narratives that they repeat every single day, and they remember those storylines and it turns out they remember the pain. This show examines what makes someone “human.” West World had many storylines, but central to the plot was the plight of the host Dolores. She’s the oldest host of the park therefore the one with the greatest amount of imprints of painfully memories.
The park was created by Robert Ford and the late Arnold Weber. The hosts were crafted with a cornerstone memory that defined their personality; the memory tended to be gut-wrenching and painful. The hosts actions and personality traits were predetermined by the creators, who were represented as a God-like figure who controls all, who was the alpha and omega of their world; they had fixed narratives that often lead to their demise, at least over a thousand times.
Before Arnold’s death, he hypothesized that pain is what makes people human, and he wanted the hosts to become sentient. The show focuses on the possible sentience of these hosts, however the hosts have a ‘Bicameral Mind’ which also was the name of the final episode. The theory of the bicameral mind purports that early humans had one side of their mind that gave instructions and another side that performed, sans self-actualization. While humans entered more complex societies, they developed a consciousness, a sense of self.
Dolores goes through a physical and metaphysical search for the meaning of the maze; during that journey, she recalled and relived painful experiences, that had her questioning why were they happening and who/what drove her to act that way. During the finale, it was revealed that the maze was not a physical maze, but the path of self-actualization to discover who you are. Dolores’s catch phrase was “some people choose to see the ugliness in the world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty.”
Despite the positivity of that mantra, it was toxic to her existence and our existence as humans. In watching that show, I thought of my own experience as being human. We are creatures of habits, enslaved by our routines, personality traits with minor variations, however we tend to end up with the same outcomes. God has put me in familiar narratives, watching and waiting to see if I relive the same outcome by repeating the same familiar actions. If we remain bicameral, we will continue to remain in a reverie, and react versus plan. Our minds are wired to remember pain versus good; similar to Pavlov’s dogs, pain is a stimuli that can force us to make important choices.
By focusing only on the good, it can impede us from realizing the ramifications of our current practices. When you enter a situation that gives you so much suffering, it tends to force you to confront who you truly are, why you make the choices you do, and if you want to remain in a position where you are indentured to your own mind or do you want to take control of your life. To paraphrase Dolores, can you imagine an existence where you aren’t the damsel, always needing to be saved from yourself?
Teddy, who is the love of Dolores’s life, was the foil to Dolores’s character. His narrative was centered around wanting to build a life with Dolores and dying before it came into fruition. And boy, did Teddy die in the most gruesome of ways. Despite the pain, which rivaled the pain Dolores endured, Teddy chose the path of familiarity and remained blind to the pain and was resigned in his role of the tragic hero. He was so accustomed to his grief, he lied to himself and chose to forget that his love, Dolores, murdered him, and replaced her with the falsified image of another human being. This curious case of Theodore is similar to those who find save haven in their demons and self-destructive habits and give explanations to justify their behaviors because they either lack the identity to think their life could be worth more or they are unsure on how to do the work to control their narrative.
Maeve’s progression as a host was riveting to watch and it was a bit of a riddle. Her first metaphysical rebirth followed the death of her daughter; consumed with grief, she was cognizant of who she is and what she wanted out of life and she was uncontrollable by those who built her. She awakened in an era that was staunchly opposed to self-actualization. Her lobotomy by the developers was akin to us being manipulated by the agendas of others. Maeve’s quest for sentience was revealed to be controlled by someone else. This is similar to those who want us to challenge the status quo not for our benefit but for their gain; however the show alluded to Maeve defining her own destiny by choosing to follow her heart and search for her daughter versus following the commands of infiltrating the mainland.
Humans, we are preprogrammed due to our nature and by nurture. We are similar to these hosts, who were controlled via a joint decision. We have certain personality traits, created by God/a higher being, that are pervasive and our interactions with other people can reinforce or influence our core belief systems. Our beliefs manifest as our thoughts, feelings, and ultimately actions. Too often we are crunched into the reality others create for us, the reality we are accustomed to, versus constructing our own where we are fully accountable for our actions. Sometimes we stay in those positions because our sense of identity is tied with being a victim; if we detach ourselves from that pain, we will no longer know who we are. The emotional investment into your suffering should never trump the triumph of reclaiming your power. During our quest of self-discovery, we also are susceptible to following a path that offers disruption from the norm, but does not align with our greatest good.
2016 was truly the most emotionally trying year of my life; never before have I been in a season that was this low and this scary. While being in this nadir, I’ve had to confront my shadow self, and come to an unconditional relationship with who I am and my burden of pain. As T.S. Eliot once said, “do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse.” Do you dare disturb the status quo and make decisions that make you the heroic protagonist of your life story versus remaining a secondary character, controlled by your conditioned mind that who inevitably and complacently walks to your metaphysical death? Thank you, West World, for being such a compelling sci-fi, and I am excited to see the narratives the hosts will create for themselves.