Seeking Narrative Consciousness (contains spoilers)


HBO’s Westworld, season one, masterfully explores the nature of reality, morality, freedom, and consciousness. These themes are knit together by a larger exploration of narrative that is central to the show’s premise. Consciousness, for the writers of Westworld, is a maze of narratives. At the center of the maze is freedom, but the center is always receding and when one believes one has reached it, the center is revealed to be a piece of yet another narrative. The narrative loops that the hosts inhabit are a metaphor for the narrative loops we, as humans, inhabit – the stories we tell ourselves about others, the world, reality, and, most significantly, ourselves. Initially, the illusion seems to be that freedom lies in escaping these narratives, but the show eventually converges on a much less elusive, if more illusory, notion of freedom – namely, authorship.

Both the show’s heroines, Dolores and Maeve, achieve a kind of authorship by the end of season one. Dolores comes to realize that the voices she has been hearing and obeying are her own voice and reasons that she must kill Ford and the board members gathered in the park in order to bring about a more perfect world. Maeve refuses to accept that her leaving the park is simply a new narrative iteration, written for her like all the loops before, but it is not until she decides to return to the park in search of her daughter that she (and we) are convinced of her authorial “freedom.” However, their freedoms are not complete. Ford seems to know precisely the moment Dolores will shoot him in the head, indicating that at least this much has been written for her and is, in fact, Ford’s narrative. And, even if Maeve does not play out the narrative that has been written, by returning to the park she is investing the narrative of her daughter’s life with a degree of truth that it, perhaps, does not deserve. And so, the loops continue.

It will be interesting to see where season 2 takes the viewer. (I have not yet begun to watch.) I am especially interested to see how and whether the show maintains the narrative complexity it both engenders and elevates as more valuable than simple black and white tales of good and evil. After all, the man in black, William, seemingly the villain of the show, is cast as seeing the game (and the world) in terms of good and evil, black and white, winners and losers, though he alternately occupies both sides of these equations. He is the antithesis of narrative complexity. As Ford and others tell him, “The maze is not meant for you.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if even this simpleton could become the conscious author of his own narrative instead of always looking for it externally. What, for instance, happens when he learns that Dolores is Wyatt, as we are led to believe? Does he fall into despair again or does he rise to a new level of consciousness?

Ultimately, Westworld is a story that takes stories and storytelling very seriously. It is no accident that narrative truth is the highest truth in the show. It is, in some ways, the only truth a story can peddle. Here’s hoping this one can continue to deliver at the highest level.

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