Westworld lends itself beautifully to analysis and all kinds of theorizing. You need to look no further than it’s subreddit to see proof.
Since this is so fun, here’s a spin-off article dedicated to picking everything apart and drawing exciting (and unlikely) parallels. You don’t need to read the main Westworld review beforehand to keep track with this article. But it would be very nice of you if you went ahead and read it anyways.
Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Ford, Arnold and Different Approaches to Parenthood
The fascinating history between Ford and Arnold is one of the centerpieces of the first season. Throughout the bulk of the season it seems that Ford fell out with Arnold due to a difference of opinions and/or had him killed. The late season reveals that a) Bernard is a host and b) Bernard is modelled after Arnold further reinforced this view.
Ford’s name is an allusion to two historical figures- Henry Ford, one of the cornerstones of capitalism in early 20th century and Robert Ford, the ‘coward’ that famously killed outlaw Jesse James. By proxy, it also references The Brave New World, which also homages Henry Ford with a genius named Ford who creates a sterile culture filled with genetically-engineered people. Such allusions certainly do not paint the character in a positive light.
Ford is rarely painted in a positive light until the very end of the season.
Arnold, it seemed, wanted to protect the hosts from the cruelties of the real world. Ford, on the other hand, seemed a bit too megalomaniacal to let something like robot sentience get in the way of him running the park. This is why the grand reveal that Ford was working to realize Arnold’s dreams worked so beautifully.
Protect or Empower?
Ford and Arnold, essentially, had two different approaches to raising children. When Arnold realized that the hosts would be too different for the world to accept them, he wanted to shelter them. When Ford eventually understood Arnold’s perspective years later, he instead chose to empower the hosts, hardening and enlightening them through pain and suffering.
Ford’s poetic death indicates much he loved his partner.
Ford choosing to die in the same manner as Arnold also indicates how much he loved his partner. After atoning for his mistakes and finishing what Arnold started, he decides to follow his love to the grave in poetic fashion. Although Ford and Arnold’s relationship is largely off-screen, it’s surprisingly well-realized.
Westworld is Continuing to Evolve as a Video Game Metaphor
Until the climactic revolt in the season finale, Westworld has always been a single-player, PvE (Player vs. Environment) gaming experience. This is one of the reasons the Man in Black has become so frustrated with the park. He has gotten too good at the game to be satisfied with a single player experience. Not only can’t hosts fight back against him, he can’t engage with other guests in the park as well.
This can be seen as allusion, for instance, to how the offline campaigns in Call of Duty or Battlefield are rarely as engaging or visceral as their multiplayer features.
The Man in Black has gotten too good at Westworld’s single player gameplay.
There are several other allusions to the limitations of a single-player, open world game in Westworld. As exciting as the world of the park itself is, the narratives (or quests, if you will) and the characters themselves seem rather pedestrian. For a long time, this is how games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 have worked.
Early on in the season, Logan stabs a host at the bar when he approaches him and William to initiate a treasure hunt. This mirrors how many gamers feel annoyed by filler, meaningless fetch quests and would rather explore open world environments on their own.
This is the happiest he has been in years.
This is why when he finally gets shot by one of the hosts in the finale, Williams smiles like an idiot. This was the most alive he felt in years. Westworld was finally becoming a PvP (Player vs Player) multiplayer experience.
Storytelling Can Do Only So Much
The healing and empowering powers of literature are widely accepted in most cultures. It’s felt especially keenly by those of us who associate so closely with and study the craft of storytelling. Westworld, however, suggests a darker view of storytelling.
From the start, Westworld defies the conventions of traditional storytelling. Its nonlinear narrative places beginnings, middles and ends out of order. It hides character motivation and key pieces of information from us to enhance its mystery. It routinely derides the campy nature of Western stories by exposing their violent underbellies.
The Melancholy of Robert Ford
Most importantly, however, it highlights the limitations of storytelling through the park’s creator, Ford. He always believed in the power of good storytelling. He sought out its restorative powers through the traumas of childhood and stuck with this search throughout his adult life. Several years into running Westworld, however, Ford realized that stories can only do so much.
Ford eventually realized that his stories couldn’t improve the world.
“I always loved a good story,” Ford states in his final monologue. “I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in the grand tradition. …And for my pains, I got this. A prison of our own sins.”
There are only seven kinds of stories, after all. You can preach only so many universal truths within those constraints. Westworld suggests that the ability to tell stories- about our environment, ourselves and our origins- does empower us in myriads of ways. However, many of our senseless actions are just that– senseless and impulsive.
The show posits that brutality, indifference and cruelty do not belie tragic hidden truths. They are simply expressions of our worst, basest instincts. In a way, this is a commentary on networks like HBO itself, which peddle in shows that exploit sex and violence in the name of prestigious, thought-provoking television.
Psychotherapy, Radiohead Covers and Free Will in Westworld
Early on in the season finale, we learn that the maze represented a journey inwards into the hosts’ consciousness. This mirrors the season’s own recursive narrative structure, constantly returning to key moments in the past, analyzing them through different perspectives to unlock clues about the show’s future direction. More surprisingly, the maze can also be seen as a subtle reference to one of the core tenets of psychotherapy.
Confronting hidden painful memories is central to Freud’s psychotherapy.
Although the hosts go through regular mind wipes, their memories are still locked deep away within their brains. This fits the textbook definition of Freudian repression to a tee. Westworld indicates that these memories are key to becoming more human. Not just any memories, but traumatic ones. Freud posited that confronting deeply-buried trauma was key to becoming a healthy person, and more relevant to the show’s context, better understanding who we are.
Are We Truly Free?
The way Westworld structures the hosts’ personalities also calls into question the authenticity of our own free will. They are given guidelines, rather than exact scripts. They are given scores on a comprehensive personality matrix and tethered by backstories or ‘cornerstones’. It suggests that, yes, the hosts (and humans, by extension) aren’t necessarily directed to behave in a certain way. However, they come with blueprints that lay out the path to do so.
Like ourselves, the hosts come with blueprints and backstories that shape their identities.
Even by the end of the first season, it’s uncertain just how sentient the hosts really are. Dolores might have chosen to take Ford’s life, but she did so by embracing the Wyatt narrative. That narrative itself was triggered by the phrase ‘These violent delights have violent ends’. Similarly, when Maeve decides to abandon her covert narrative of infiltrating the mainland, she does so because of the love she feels for her erstwhile daughter. This love itself stems from a cornerstone memory pre-programmed for one of her earlier versions.
Although the hosts probably have ways to go in achieving true sentience, Ford has given them quite a push to get them started. One of the ways he might have done this, for instance, is queuing piano covers of Radiohead songs in the bar throughout the season. This stylistic flair may have doubled as clue for the hosts that something was wrong with Westworld.
By the end of the season, the hosts are starting to choose their own soundtracks.
The covers also tie in Ford’s theme about creating music and becoming part of it. By the end, it seems, that the hosts are choosing their own soundtracks. As the robot rebellion begins in earnest, we hear a piano cover for Radiohead’s aptly titled Exit Music (For a Film).
“I think more than ever, it’s been turned around,” Ramin Djawadi, the show’s composer told Vulture in reference to the song. “They’re picking their songs, rather than the songs picked for them. They’re scoring their own actions. This is what they’re feeling at this moment, and what the future is holding for them. This song is the climax of that.”
Theories, Theories Everywhere
Clearly, Westworld is a show that lends itself very well to a healthy dose of fridge logic. The theories I discussed aren’t close to covering all the wild and wonderful ideas going on about the show. If you want to check out more of them, you can always check Westworld’s subreddit, r/westworld. If you want a healthy dose of speculation about what might happen in season 2, you can also check out this article.
Frankly, we are going to need this kind of endless theorizing to survive the two-year wait until season 2 airs.