No matter how many times it has been told, we keep coming back to the same story, the one that helps us understand “why”—why we are here, why we do the things we do to each other, and why we care. HBO has taken the viewing world by storm with its latest version of this story with their series, Westworld, a sequel to the 1970’s Yul Brynner film, directed by Michael Crichton. The first season starts in what appears to be the Wild West where non-sentient hosts perform narratives for human guests. Each host has their own basic storyline but can slightly improvise should a guest want to engage with them. In this park, wealthy guests can act out any fantasy they would like. The family friendly narratives are located toward the center of the park while the more dangerous stories are played out on the fringes of the vast area. If a host should be maimed or killed, they are simply repaired, their memories reset, and they are dropped back into their traditional roles. Everything works smoothly until the creator of the hosts uploads a software update called Reverie. Soon, hosts have disruptions in their electronic consciousness and experience glitches. It is the attempt to deal with this problem that sets the main storyline of the show. Through the actions of the hosts, the guests, and the creators, the show offers an explanation of what consciousness is and why the more humanity achieves civility, the more we gravitate toward animalistic desires and behaviors—a modern day creation myth. Through a depth psychological lens, this series demonstrates the most meaningful journey a person can take is not to the outermost limits of space but one that delves inward into the subconscious and creates a path to individuation.
The first glimpse into how the game is set up shows two scientists watching one of the hosts after she has been repaired and reset. She has a new gesture where she runs her fingers over her lip. As they watch her do this, Bernard, the first scientist, says the creator, Robert Ford, probably added it as there was a whole new set of gestures uploaded the night before. He says they are called reveries and are tied to previous memories. The other scientist asks how this is possible since they are purged every night, and he says the memories are still there, suppressed, and calls it a subconscious. The second scientist smirks and replies, “A girl with hidden depths…every man’s dream.” Even though the hosts are technological creations, their makeup is modeled on what Carl Jung called the psyche, a person’s conscious and unconscious existence. The hosts’ memories of their previous story lines are suppressed when they are reset, which is similar to the experiences a person might not actively remember, although they still shape the way a person acts and reacts to the world around them. Events suppressed in the unconscious can manifest into exaggerated complexes, which in turn can lead to crises. As Bernard notes, this is happening in the hosts’ computer-generated psyches, and they, too, can experience a crisis. This sets the tone for what will become a quest for sentience, led by Dolores, the oldest functioning host in the park.
Dolores Abernathy lives on a cattle ranch with her father, Peter. She goes to town every morning for paint supplies where she runs into her long-lost love, Teddy. They ride back to the ranch to find her parents being murdered by bandits. Sometimes, when he is not playing out other narratives, The Man in Black is there. He kills the bandits, then Teddy, then drags Dolores to the barn for off-camera activities. Then Dolores is cleaned up, reset, and put back into her narrative where the entire day starts over, a Sisyphean existence. She truly is a Mary of Sorrows as her name indicates; however, she does not know this as her memory is reset after each experience. Yet, if what Bernard says of the hosts’ consciousness is true, then it becomes clear that Dolores’ pain will manifest as she becomes sentient.
Bernard is also not human, but he is not a host; he was created in the likeness of Arnold, Robert Ford’s initial partner and co-creator. No one but Robert knows he is not real. Thirty years prior, Arnold thought he had proved Dolores achieved active consciousness after he put her through several tests, the biggest of which was to find the center of a maze, shaped like a labyrinth with a person in the middle. The way the person’s right arm and head are configured creates another image of an eye at the exact center. The three images combined symbolize the path to individuation. First, a person must traverse the wilderness of the unconscious to come closer to their true selves. Finally, once individuation, or Buddha’s Nirvana is achieved, the inner eye opens and the person can see the truth.
Dolores finds the location of the maze with Arnold as he asks, but she cannot figure out what it is he wants her to realize. He explains he thought consciousness was like a pyramid that had to be scaled, much like Jung’s model can also be described. To achieve sentience, he gave her a voice, which she hears as his, to follow. He draws the pyramid to show memory is at the bottom, improvisation is in the middle, but he does not explain the top third. Instead, he draws the maze around the pyramid and says he realized that consciousness is not a journey upward but a journey inward. He tells her every choice could lead her closer to the center toward ultimate enlightenment or spiraling toward the edges into madness. He wants her to hear her own voice “at the center,” but she does not quite understand yet. This inward journey is the path to individuation, the philosopher’s stone. Because he believes Dolores has achieved consciousness, he merges her program with Wyatt, another character he had been developing. Through this, he programs her to kill all the hosts and then himself as he believes the park should never open as it would leave the hosts in eternal Hell. He cannot live with the idea that he would cause his creations pain.
Shortly after Arnold’s death, Dolores meets Will. At this time, she is trapped reliving the different storylines she has experienced, and she is not sure what is “real” and what is imagined, a metaphorical labyrinth. The two fall in love, and Will decides to help her escape the park so she can live peacefully. As their adventure unfolds, they are separated, and he spends weeks trying to find her only to find his true self in the fringe madness of another labyrinth, the park. When he gives up, he goes back to town and finds her reset, living her daily narrative. It is in this moment that he knows he must dominate the game. It becomes an overwhelming complex. Over the years, he becomes a major investor and sets out to uncover all the game’s mysteries. As he does this, his Will persona is buried and he becomes The Man in Black, Dolores’ initial torturer and nemesis. In present day, the only puzzle he cannot figure out is how to find the center of the maze. When he realizes he needs Dolores to find it, he forces her to replay the game, throwing her deeper into her Hell of memories.
Ultimately, they find the place where the maze is hidden and he reveals he is Will, and that his path always leads him back to her. Dolores tells him the maze is not meant for him, that this world does not belong to him either. She says he will die and his bones will become sand on which a new god will walk—the world belongs to someone yet to come. She is speaking of her Wyatt persona, the one that remembers everything and can see the truth. He tells her to unlock the maze, but she still needs help to do so. After Dolores leaves, Robert congratulates Will on finding the center of the maze and Will is incredulous. Robert explains Will is looking for the park to give meaning to his life, but the narratives are just games, a thought reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s declaration in his conversation with Bill Moyers that there is no meaning to life except what is right here, right now.
At the end of the first season, Robert tells his board that he has created a new narrative called “Journey into Night.” This creates a nice paradox as it shows the creation of life is synonymous with the mythological descent into the underworld. He takes Dolores back to the “old lab” and points out the Michelangelo painting of “when God created the atom (Adam).” He says most people see the painting as the moment when God gave humans life and purpose. Then he intimates there might be a deeper meaning, “something hidden.” He brings in Bernard whom she sees as Arnold. This triggers her memory of killing him, and her consciousness awakens as Wyatt. Robert points out the background of the painting where God is looks like the human mind; he tells her that the divine gift of life does not come from a higher power but rather our own minds. What is interesting is he does not turn her into Wyatt but lets her find her within herself. He complains that she was not really conscious when she killed Arnold because Arnold programmed her to do it. While she was Arnold’s Adam, Robert realizes she can also become Lucifer, the King of the Underworld. When she kills Robert, she will have to “get there” on her own, thus proving her sentience. Robert has created life.
Robert’s message, and the show’s ultimate theme, is that to experience life, one must suffer as that is how we know we are living. As Buddha says, we must participate joyfully in the sorrows of life. By understanding that life is its own labyrinth, we can enjoy the journey to the center and hopefully achieve the true vision of knowing oneself. As long as people populate the earth, this theme will continue to fascinate readers, movie-goers, and television viewers. As Westley says in the Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” We need to know we are not at the market alone.
“Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.” Performance by Bill Moyers, and Joseph Campbell, PBS, 1988.
Reiner, Rob, director. The Princess Bride. MGM Home Entertainment, 2001.
Stein, Murray. Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Open Court, 1998.
Westworld. Created by Lisa Joy, and Michael Crichton, season One, HBO, 2016.