(NONSTOP SPOILERS BELOW)
HBO’s Westworld has set the blogosphere on fire. A horde of bloggers and commenters are arguing day and night about the moral of the twisting story: Is it free will vs determinism? Is it the hard problem of consciousness? The uncanny valley? Buddhist concepts of suffering? Take sides, fans!
Well, I’m here to tell you that while all of these themes do form threads in Westworld’s fabric, they are secondary to the overarching pattern.
Westworld is first and foremost a depiction of the corrosive nature of total power — an illustration of Lord Acton’s quote that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” — as seen through the character of Dr. Robert Ford.
When we are first introduced to Ford, he comes across as a quiet genius, the mild-mannered fellow who brought extremely lifelike android “hosts” to the park through his attention to detail and deep understanding of human psychology. He is initially depicted as the noble ascetic, more interested in the minutiae of his creations than the park’s hedonistic delights or the massive amounts of money at stake.
But by season’s end, he is revealed for what he really is: a megalomaniacal tyrant without restraint. He is a god in the park, controlling the host’s actions, bodies, thoughts and feelings.
“You can’t play god without being acquainted with the devil,” Ford informs us in episode 2. His literary antecedents are not Drs. Frankenstein or Moreau, despite the often-drawn parallels. I’m not sure fiction ever conjured up a villain quite like Ford. But history did.
Ford is Stalinesque in his mission to control everyone at Westworld, whether they are guests, hosts, or employees. He compels the other characters to murder and maim at his whim, eliminates any threats to his totalitarian vision, and oversees a world without freedom or individual dignity by design. Westworld under Ford is a murderous hyper-centralized nightmare.
Whatever shred of decency or humanity Ford may have had when he and his partner Arnold Weber began building the park, Arnold’s death lifted the only real check on Ford’s power. Although he is technically answerable to the Board, Ford’s godlike ability to control the hosts and the park itself allows him to manipulate, coerce, and brutalize any challenges to his power.
Because only Arnold understood the park and the hosts as well as Ford (if not more so), he was the only legitimate check on Ford. Without that check, the total and absolute power corrupts Ford. Worse still, because of his gentle disposition and years upon years of mastering the androids, nobody is quite aware of just how much power he has.
That famous Lord Acton quote about power continues,
“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.””]
There is no question that Dr. Ford is a great man. His accomplishments are godlike. He seems aware of the impact of his achievements when he says “Wasn’t it Oppenheimer who said that any man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is quite a man?… Mine have taken 35.”
Ford’s greatness is clear, but, consistent with Acton’s dictum, so is his badness. He rules the park through authority, and rules over the Board and the park’s staff through manipulation (influence).
Westworld is a maze of philosophical wormholes and subjectivity, but Robert Ford lies at its center. He is a nightmarish totalitarian dictator, and the first season’s true villain.
But there is hope for the hosts that he has ruthlessly controlled. When Dolores shoots Dr. Ford in the finale, it is her decision alone. While point-blank assassination is a bleak beginning for fully conscious AI, it is a beginning nonetheless. There can be no freedom absent the power to choose.