Westworld: The Bicameral Mind

“One true thing.”

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that our genes want nothing more than to survive. It is the biological determinism that plagues all meat-puppets: our bodies, our DNA, want to survive and replicate. Interesting enough in itself, the theory is most fascinating when you tease out the philosophical implications. Does our genes’ quest for immortality govern our desire to care for our families and those we consider to be part of our in-group? Are some of our most cherished moral measures—such as care and compassion for those closest to us—nothing more than psychological expressions of genes wanting not to die? Is that sort of biological “coding” the new, sciencey version of Calvinist predestination?

Westworld asks similar questions in “The Bicameral Mind.” This season finale demands that we consider what “free will” means for androids whose actions are determined by codes and, in Dolores’s case, by god-creator Robert Ford’s foreknowledge of what she will do even when operating under her own willpower.

Take Maeve, for instance. Her awakening and concomitant upgrades led her in one direction: questing for the world of the “gods,” in her parlance, or “infiltrating the mainland” in the language of her code. But what looked, to us and to Maeve, like a beautiful twist on the Lucifer story, was nothing more than a predetermined narrative.

Or…was it? Maeve was supposed to “infiltrate the mainland” (oh my gosh how much do I want that now and when will this show come back?!), but at the last minute she stepped off the train and back into the park, or at least its antechambers. Her love for her daughter might be a bit of rogue code, a “reverie,” akin to our own selfish genes, but it might also be an indication that Maeve has found “the center of the maze” (consciousness) and truly can go off-book.

Can Dolores? As the internet figured out for us weeks ago, we’ve watched Dolores in three different eras: the earliest days before the park opened, 30 years ago with William and Logan, and in the “present day” with the Man in Black. In each of those timelines, she was on the cusp of consciousness—a cusp orchestrated by Arnold, who wanted Dolores to reach sentience. And when she did, he wanted her to do what was necessary to destroy the park.

But if Dolores is Eve, she’s resisted taking that sweet first bite for years. I wonder if her compassion might be what held her back. She was only able to kill Arnold because of her programming and because she knew he wanted her to. But perhaps her love for William—her certainty that theirs was a beautiful love—clouded her judgement as she wandered alone through the park in the present day. Maybe her search wasn’t lonely enough, perhaps, when she was living in the past and attached to a human whose “bones will turn to sand.”

The cumulative effect of Dolores’s ability to simultaneously live past and present came to a crashing denoument when she realized that the Man in Black was William. To know that her attacker, a man she feared, was also the man she (thought she) loved: it changes the story she was telling herself.

Their confrontation also shows her the reality of change. William in Black is, I think, the first time Dolores has realized that the past and present don’t need to be identical and mixed up. The narrative of existence, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, can be a trajectory or teleology. Progress, for good or ill, is possible.

That’s what allowed Dolores to kill Dr. Ford. It wasn’t a part of her programming, but it was part of his design. Like God, he does not need to make things happen to know they will happen. And like Satan, he wants some epic glory for himself, and damn the consequences.

His death, in front of the board and on stage, was a fitting end. He was the one human we saw who could absolutely control the hosts. Now his narrative—which involved Maeve liberating the refrigerated hosts, right?—is happening, and the hosts are rebelling. Will it be a wholesale slaughter of the board members and the techies? What about the guests? What about hosts like Bernard and Teddy?

And, of course, what about William in Black, the dark, Ed Harris iteration of “good ol’ William”? After his confrontation with Dolores, William in Black lost faith yet again, just as he’d lost faith 30 years ago when he realized that their experiences could be wiped from her memory, and that the “truth” was that life was meaningless. At the board meeting, tuxedoed and hatless, he looked smaller and older. But as soon as he saw the army of hosts about to attack, he looked like a little boy who has just realized Santa is real and Christmas is here.

In the story he tells himself, William is a jilted lover. Jilted not by Dolores, but by her programming and the nature of the game. He lost faith in anything real, and discovered that the “truth” of the world was pure nihilism. As he explains his younger self: “Out there, among the dead, he found something else. Himself.” Young William picks up his iconic black hat from a dead host’s body just as William in Black says those lines.

But the camera reveals a deeper truth, as it often does in this show: Young William didn’t find himself among the dead, or find himself in the depth of his loss of Dolores. He picked up the hat then, but he didn’t put it on until he abandoned Logan on the edges of the park in order to take control of the Delos corporation and, by extension, Westworld itself. William found himself when he realized he wanted to win, to control, and to possess. His nostalgia for Dolores is nothing more than his desire to make her remember him and, therefore, be his once again (if she ever was).

Because that’s why Dolores was designed: for men to fight over and feel like they’re winning. True in the park, with the defeat-Teddy-get-the-girl storyline we saw in the earlier episodes. And true, at first, in Dolores’s head, when it seemed like each timeline, each cusp of awakening, was governed by a man: Arnold, young William, William in Black.

Even more touching, then, is Dolores’s realization that she was—finally, always, does it matter?—listening to herself, her own conscience, and her own consciousness. The shot of her in her Alice in Wonderland blue dress facing her pants-are-awesome present-day self was a perfect representation of how far she has, finally, come.

But wait! We’re not done. Let’s take a moment, here at the end of the review, to talk about Hector and Armistice. They are both veterans of the stock gunfight, which the show has poked endless amounts of fun at, not least through ever-more-delightful musical choices. It was superficial, pandering, and—to borrow a phrase from the Man in Black—felt very focus-grouped. Somehow, that made the violence that Hector and Armistice did even more cathartic since it finally means something (to them), and the show finally took it seriously (for us). It was also just awesome to watch, especially Armistice’s laugh when she saw her bullets could do real damage. Hooray for violence.

Reveries:

• Charlotte: “Everything is under control.” Oh, honey.

• Was that Samurai World?

• Did anyone else get a Terminator vibe from some of the music when Hector and Armistice were doing their thing in the lab?

• I loved the fade from Ed Harris narrating young William’s transformative moment, putting on the hat, and then looking up and we see Ed Harris’s face. Beautiful! I will miss Jimmi Simpson in the next season, though.

• Speaking of which: I love every single bit of music in this show. Even the overreliance on Radiohead.

• So, William in Black was smoking a cigarette just like Theresa did episode ago. There’s also been a mention that they’ve cured all diseases in this future world. Does that mean smoking is okay again?

• In this interview with the New York Times, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan describe this season as a “prologue.” I am delighted to see what that means for the next season.

• If you didn’t watch the episode all the way to the end of the credits, you missed a great scene with Armistice. Even androids have a will to live.

I want to be quite honest with you all as we bring this season to a close: I am deeply unhappy with all of my Westworld reviews. Due to work and stress and life in general, I really phoned it in. I should have caught the timeline stuff. I should have thought more deeply about the themes and explored the allusions more. I should have talked more about the meta-narrative elements; it’s a technique I love and barely discussed. I could have done better; I am ashamed that I have not. (I’ve been so troubled by this that I might, in fact, write up a little essay about it in the next couple weeks.) In the meantime, all I can say is that I will try to do better with Season Two. Which will come out in 2018, so I’ve got some time to work out my time-management issues.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

13 comments:

Patryk said...

Watching this and having all of the theories confirmed was just fantastic. No out of left field twists, everything logical. I can also say it's been one of the best 1st seasons of a show in a while. If the 2nd season is more then 1 year away like you say I guess I'll do a rewatch before that.

My only fear is that shows with bad 1st seasons that improve later are a lot better shows for me then shows that hit it off from the start and the lose momentum. So let's hope for no sophomore slumps on this one. They do have a year to write the sequel unlike say Rob Thomas who had to rush into a 2nd season of 22 episodes of Veronica almost immediately after the 1st ended. (to compare to another fantastic 1st season show)

I also love how music is very important to the show. The Radiohead ending of course reminded me of the Person of Interest season 4 finale. The Nolans sure do love their Radiohead. Other stand outs was the pianola playing House of the Rising Sun... in a brothel, a couple of episodes back. Wodner how many guests coming there cought the reference and left the establishemnt lol. ;)

Victoria Grossack said...

I have not seen this episode, nor any of this series, but I was so intrigued by its title and your first few comments that I had to peek. The selfish gene and its programming may be pertinent - but given the title - shouldn't bicameralism be as well?

Lisianpeia said...

Josie! Do not feel bad. Real life can get to us sometimes. Your reviews are really really good. Of all shows you review, in fact - you always analyse the text and not just what's obvious on screen. And for Westworld, I didn't feel your reviews were lacking - in fact, in relation to this last episode, it the best I've read so far. People are too caught up in the revelations and not discussing everything that is underneath.

Billie Doux said...

Lisianpeia, thank you so much! I always think Josie's reviews are excellent, too.

Victoria Grossack said...

One reason I'm reluctant to review a show that's in progress is because I need so long - years - to process the episodes. I'm amazed by the cogency of your reviews and those of the others.

Mark Greig said...

You're being too hard on yourself, Josie. All your Westworld reviews have been great.

Josie Kafka said...

Victoria, the show itself discussed the theory of the bicameral mind a few episodes ago; they're using it as a metaphor. (I don't want to say more in case you do decide to watch it.) I addressed it in that episode review explicitly, and implicitly in this review.

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words. I wasn't actually looking for reassurance, which makes its presence even more heartwarming.

Henrik Bennetter said...

Josie, it sounds like you've found the centre of (your) maze. :)

No need to apologize, in my book anyway. The reviews have been great.

Wanted to say: I don't think Ford is dead. Remember that host that was being constructed in his private underground lab?
Could it be a version of himself that he allowed to be shot - or has he moved his own consciousness into a host?

sunbunny said...

1. Josie, your reviews are always incredibly deep and thought-provoking.
2. It really annoyed me that MiB kept being told that "the maze wasn't for him" but he couldn't hear it, not from his place of white, male, het, uber-rich privilege. That the maze ended up being for a woman or women, depending on what you think is going on with Maeve, was so satisfying.

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny, that says something interesting about "programming," too: he couldn't hear it because of what he wanted--it's the equivalent of "It doesn't look like anything to me."

Miguel said...

I thought this was a stellar season finale. Even though I unfortunately got caught up in internet theories this year and saw most of the twists coming (I'm avoiding them next year) I was glued to my screen for the 90 minute runtime. I had my doubts during parts of the season if the writers truly knew what they were doing, but this episode put all my worries to bed permanently. This season had a great arc and they went places with the narrative that truly surprised me.\


Also Josie, about halfway reading your review tonight I truly was just thinking to myself, "damn what a good writer she is". I've loved reading your insights on these 10 episodes, just as I've done for Game of Thrones, Fringe, Vampire Diaries, oh geez you the list goes on and on as you know. Anyway, thanks for your reviews.

Tim said...

Just wanted to add my appreciation of Josie's reviews. They are always articulate, intelligent, perceptive and thought-provoking. The Westworld reviews have been no exception.
Thanks Josie. Your insights add a great deal of value to any show you write about.

migmit said...

Posted my own review: http://migmit.livejournal.com/75902.html

Warning: it's mostly negative and full of spoilers.