Westworld is HBO’s newest cinematic masterpiece. Based on a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, it follows a Western style theme park, filled with synthetic androids, called “hosts” who cater to the fancies and follies of high paying visitors, known as “guests” or “newcomers”. Already an intriguing plot, with various ethical and moral dilemmas, the series takes it a step further by introducing a malfunction or bug of some kind within some hosts. This bug, as it may be contagious, allows hosts to remember past “memories” or story plots they were involved with, all of which are wiped from their minds at the end of each day.
The ethical and moral questions of, “Are androids people?”, “Is rape still rape even if she was made in a 3-D printer?”, etc. aside, what strikes me most about Westworld is this theme of repression. Maybe I am more sensitive to it as I have experienced this before, but it is an intriguing storyline to follow. These hosts, who are programmed to become as humanlike as possible, and practice human mannerisms and conversations incessantly, have formed relationships through muscle memory. While certain relationships are synthetically created through the programmed storyline they follow, their humanlike qualities are created through repeated physical actions. Once infected, certain memories are triggered through physical actions or phrases, usually memories of fear and pain, but some of happiness and love. For example, one host, Mauve, remembers running through fields of flowers with her then daughter, and also remembers when she was attacked by other hosts created to look like Native Americans, as well as a sinister guest who seems to be a prominent figure in the “pasts” of all the infected hosts.
I think what I find so arresting about this part of the Westworld story, is how similarly it mimics true repression in humans. There is usually some kind of trigger that spirals a person into a memory they have no recollection of. Once experiencing that memory it fulfills the phrase, “A train wreck you can’t take your eyes from”. Repressed memories are always painful, or have some sort of pain associated with them. When experiencing them, you feel the pain, but you crave the knowledge of that pain.
For me, I have experienced repressed memories when extremely tired, cold, and immobile. Experiencing them is like an out-of-body experience within my own body. I know I’m re-experiencing something, like Deja-vu, but at the same time, I’m experiencing something for the first time. In my head, I know there’s a way to escape, but at the same time I can’t; it’s a nightmare I want to remember. The hosts are the same way on Westworld, at least, it seems they are. They will witness a memory until the pain becomes unbearable, and then wake themselves up, but continue to change and evolve in accordance with the memories they have gotten back.
The show is a good one, with surprises and ethical questions that make me squirm. However, what has pleased me the most is the adept way the show highlights the dichotomy of repression/memory wiping: it is done by the programmers and the human brain to protect the host/person from the pain of it; while at the same time, the pain is too ingrained to ever be truly forgotten.
I’m looking forward to seeing where the show goes, but I may be watching it in a sweatshirt from now on.