Westworld Is an A/B Test

At its cold, compiled heart, Westworld is binary. Everything exists in pairs.

Maeve and Clementine. Sylvester and Felix. Guests and Hosts.

The two timelines.

The black and white hats.

The bicameral mind.

Even the way, you may have noticed, that Westworld’s scenes are split visually half and half, like this:

horizontal split: as above, so below.

And this:

vertical split: the bicameral mind.

So, too, the treatment of bodies — naked but sexless in headquarters, clothed but sexual in the park — and the treatment of “the other”: the developers exist in opposition to QA, for example, and the butchers at the bottom loathe the suits at the top.

And, if you’re given to obsessive pattern recognition, you’ll even notice binary references in the smallest of set pieces, e.g., Sylvester and Felix’s red and white butcher gowns, or Bernard’s black skin against Theresa’s ivory white.

In a way, you could say Westworld is about the characters coming to terms with this dualism. Every character, after all, must cross a boundary.

Maeve, for example, goes from robot to real. “There are some elegant, formal structures,” she says, “a kind of recursive beauty, but complex, like two minds arguing with each other.”

William, for another example, goes from white to black. Felix goes from butcher to coder. Even poor Bernard: he once knew himself as an engineer, but now acknowledges to Ford: “I’m a killer.”

In another way, you could say Westworld is an elaborate riff on the Mind-Body Problem — how is what I’m thinking related to what my body is feeling, given that my body is physical and my mind is … what exactly?

Bernard is an A/B Test

“This guilt you feel? The anguish, the horror, the pain? It’s remarkable. A thing of beauty.” — Dr. Ford

Episode eight opens by asking us to confront, again, the ultimate question of Westworld: what makes a human, human?

Ford brings Bernard back online. We can see his emotions, through the expressions on his face, change in real-time:

  • awake
  • realization of being awake
  • remembering
  • analyzing
  • confusion
  • sorrow
  • bargaining
  • questioning
  • acceptance

“She’s gone,” he says, as he takes off his glasses and, sobbing, drops his head into hand. “I killed her.”

We find out soon enough that Ford created Bernard to create more life-like robots.

“When we started,” Ford says, “the host’s emotions were primary colors. Love. Hate.” (binary!) “I wanted all the shades in between.”

This is no dashed-off line. What Ford says about colors is echoed across the season. In the first episodes, the characters were undeveloped: simple Dolores in her blue dress, for example.

But as the season continues, the characters and their colors have grown more complex. Maeve changes her clothes to beige. And the next scene of Episode 8 shows a sudden vibrant blue on the map of the park which had been, until then, pale white and green.

When Bernard asks Ford why he made him kill Theresa, Ford responds with a quote from the narrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “One man’s life or death,” he says, “were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought; for the dominion I should acquire.”

It’s worth noting the narrator had just rescued Dr. Frankenstein from certain death. And Dr. Frankenstein, having just created a monster, saw the foolishness of the narrator’s words.

Soon thereafter, Ford tells Bernard to turn off his emotions and begin covering his tracks. Bernard complies and puts his glasses back on. Seeing the world through screens makes everything easier to deal with.

In the A/B test of doing the fuck what you’re told, (B)ernard out performs (A)rnold every time.

Maeve is So Over This Shit

“Best to move forward with clear eyes.” — Dr. Ford

Eyes, of course, play a symbolic role in Westworld.

They are, most obviously, in the credits — the dark well of the pupil is juxtaposed (binary!) against the jutting mesa of the park. It’s no mistake that headquarters is in the center of the park, like a panopticon, seeing all.

With her Bulk Apperception dialed up to 20, Maeve sees the park for what it is. She is the opposite (binary!) of Bernard.

Bernard can’t remember his past, so his perception is clouded. Maeve can remember everything, so her perception is clear. (It’s worth mentioning here that, in some artificial intelligence research circles, perception equals cognition.)

But Maeve is also having problems distinguishing “reality” from “memory”. “I can’t tell which is real,” she says.

Felix explains to her that her mind isn’t like ours. “When we remember things, the details are hazy, imperfect,” he says. “But you recall memories perfectly. You relive them.”

This is a direct reference to the episode’s title, Trace Decay — the idea, in psychology, that memories leave some sort of chemical trace that dissolves over time. (For the wiki-inclined, I might also recommend fuzzy trace theory in Gestalt psychology.)

In response, Maeve decides that she’s going to break out of Westworld. “Time to write my own fucking story,” she says.

In this desire, she is like Dolores (binary!). Except Dolores is improvising within her loop. Maeve is improvising outside of it.

By the end of the episode, Maeve has tricked Sylvester and betrayed Felix. With her core code changed, Maeve can now injure humans — and she promptly slices Sylvester’s neck. She then directs Félix to solder his wound closed, and then proceeds to go back into the park to “build my army”. There, in the park, Maeve finds she can control the other hosts simply by speaking to them — almost as if she, herself, were the old bicameral mind broadcasting system.

The episode ends with Maeve re-living her memory of slicing the MIB’s throat (presumably because she’d found the internal center of the maze), which causes her to slice Clem #2’s throat, which causes park management to pursue her. The episode ends with her remembering her own suicide and park management looming in the background.

When is Dolores?

“I feel like I’ve been here before.” — Dolores

Dolores isn’t the change agent she thought she might be.

Without the cocaine-like code bumps that Maeve receives, or the ability to wake herself up, Dolores finds herself remembering previous incarnations of herself where she met grievous ends.

“Where are we,” she asks William, after hallucinating the memory of the original Westworld town. “When are we? Is this now? Are you real? Am I going mad?”

Eventually, Dolores gathers herself and says “This is what Arnold wants. For me to remember.”

William, concerned she may be “trapped in old memories,” decides to take her back to Sweetwater. “This far out, it’s like you break down.” As they run out of scene, the viewer sees the nearly-buried roofs of the former town. This town, it seems, is what Dr. Ford is digging up for his new narrative — even though he’s said it won’t be a “retrospective.”

The irony of this scene is that if William is the MIB, then he was *this close* to helping Dolores (and himself) find the maze on his very first visit to the park. To a young William, to “break down” is to be dangerously introspective.

So, like Lee Sizemore, he’s afraid of losing control.

A Pair of Men, Remembering

Mirror image of each other much?

“I know everything I need to. My vision’s clear.” — Teddy Flood

Teddy Flood began the season dumb as a bag of hammers, but now he’s remembering his past lives, too. In episode eight, he has a flashback to when the MIB told him he was “the loser”.

Continuing their mission together to find Wyatt, Teddy and the MIB come across the bodies of settlers massacred by Wyatt’s men. In that group: the host Angela, still breathing. Angela has only been seen in two circumstances: one, as a smiling woman with a parasol in the early days of the park, and two as William’s greeter when he first arrives at Westworld. It’s the latter that, seemingly, jogs the Man in Black’s memory.

“It’s you,” he says. “I figured they’d retired you. I guess Ford never likes to waste a pretty face.”

Presently, Teddy and the MIB are attacked by a large member of Wyatt’s crew — kind of a cross between a Civil War soldier and a minotaur. During the melee, Flood remembers a scene from the first episode in which the MIB dragged Dolores to the barn. After the pair dispatch the minotaur, Teddy says: “I did remember something,” he says. “You.” With a pistol to the forehead, he knocks out the MIB.

When the MIB comes to, Wyatt and Angela are talking. “Wyatt’s men, they keep whispering,” she says. “They said, this world didn’t belong to the old settlers or the new.”

Teddy tells her that “they belong to something yet to come, they belong to him.” To which she says: “You remember.”

This is curious. Like Dolores, Teddy is becoming more sentient as he reaches the edges of the park. Angela recognizes this, which means she’s becoming self-aware too.

The MIB sees this interaction and believes Teddy and Angela are part of the same narrative. When Teddy begins to question the MIB with his fists, the MIB reveals part of his backstory. How, in the outside world, he’s a titan of industry. A philanthropist. A good guy. That he comes to the park to be a bad guy (binary!). And that he tested his badness by killing pre-madam Maeve and her little girl, but “didn’t feel a thing”. It was then, however, at the moment when Maeve tried to save her girl, that she became human — ostensibly by her grief — and “the maze revealed itself to me.”

In other words, at the precise moment when Maeve realized her humanity, the MIB failed to realize his own. The implicit, saccharine sweet lesson: you find awareness through connection with others (binary!) — not, it turns out, by killing them.

This makes the MIB’s search for the maze all the more pathetic—and why the maze is not for him.

The Gestalt of Bernard Lowe

Those 19th century accouterments are no mistake.

“The answer always seemed obvious to me. There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. No inflection point in which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist.” —Dr. Ford

The mind tends to self-organize around whole shapes.

That’s the basic principle of Gestalt psychology. Shit is crazy out there, and to cope the human mind creates a “gestalt” —ye olde German for “shape”—that represents the entirety of the world independent of the world’s constituent parts.

For example, when we see another person, we recognize their face first; we don’t recognize that face by first identifying nose, mouth, ears, eyes, etc. The face appears as a whole at once.

There’s a lot more to it than that (the pattern recognition stuff is super cool!), but the reason I mention Gestalt is because of what Dr. Ford said to Arnold at the top of Episode 8: “There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts.”

Borrowing from the rapidly decaying traces of my own schooling: that’s a misquote.

In this context, “greater than the sum of its parts” implies that consciousness is an additive property of cognition. Add enough brain cells together and et viola, consciousness.

But the original quote from Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka is that “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” That phrasing implies the parts of the mind create a reality —a gestalt—that is wholly separate from the mind itself. Reality, in other words, is a shared abstraction.

I’m quibbling with the misquote here; to quote it accurately would have seemed awkward. And regardless, Ford’s point is central to the show’s conceit. It’s worth quoting the scene at length:

Bernard: “I understand what I’m made of, how I’m coded, but I do not understand the things that I feel. Are they real? the things that I experienced? My wife? The loss of my son?”

Ford: “Every host needs a backstory Bernard, you know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. Every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you life like.”

Bernard: “Life like, but not alive? Pain only exists in the mind. It’s always imagined. So what’s the difference between my pain and yours, between you and me?”

Ford: “This was the very question that consumed Arnold. Filled him with guilt. Eventually drove him mad. The answer always seemed obvious to me. There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. No inflection point in which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do. Seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No my friend, you’re not missing anything at all."

Ford, like most evil masterminds, wants to have it both ways.

He admits the hosts are as life-like as humans, but denies them the agency of personal growth that comes by grappling with the state change of grief. Erasing memories, we’ve found, is the central method of control.

Which makes Ford just like Lee Sizemore.

And just like the young William.

And just like the MIB in the outside world.

Just one more man on the frontier, afraid of losing control.

New Questions from Episode 8

  • Theresa was on her side, but the transmitter wasn’t Hale’s idea. So who was Theresa working with, if not Hale? Is Hale also somebody’s patsy?
  • Stubbs knew Bernard was sleeping with Theresa, but how? Is he confused because Bernard lied about the relationship? Does he suspect, then, that Bernard is a host?
  • What’s up with all the slicing of necks? The MIB wears that ascot, presumably, to cover the wound he received from Maeve. Maeve stabbed herself in the neck. Maeve sliced Sylvester’s neck. The MIB cut Kissy’s throat. Many more examples abound.
  • It seems like hosts at the far reaches of the park are more likely to be self-aware (e.g., the Ghost nation worshipping the butchers, and Dolores “breaking down” trying to find Arnold). Why?
  • Do hosts, like Teddy, remember more of their past lives the longer they’re kept alive?
  • Why do Claude Debussy’s compositions calm the hosts? Is it because of their mathematical structure and use of the Fibonacci sequence?
  • Telulah Riley’s character, Angela, says: “Wyatt’s men, they keep whispering. They said, this world didn’t belong to the old settlers or the new.” Are the old settlers the original hosts? Are the new settlers the new hosts, or the guests?]

Previously:

The Host With The Most: Westworld, Episode 7

Follow the Forward Chain: Westworld, Episode 6

Modest Little Loops and Whatever Devices: Westworld, Episode 5

Exploding Cigars! Westworld, Episode 4

The Voice of God: Westworld, Episode 3

A Bongard Problem: Westworld, Episode 2

The Robots Are Coming For Us: Westworld, Episode 1

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Content Ops and Strategy for brands and agencies // itsmestevebryant.com // now with more newsletter: stevebryant.substack.com

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Steve Bryant

Steve Bryant

Content Ops and Strategy for brands and agencies // itsmestevebryant.com // now with more newsletter: stevebryant.substack.com

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