As Westworld challenges viewers’ empathies and long-held beliefs about what it means to be alive, Anthony Hopkins’s character, Dr. John Ford, has presented an especially intriguing question: Is he trying to carve out a new kind of morality, or is he just nuts?
In some scenes, he displays tenderness towards the robot “hosts” of Westworld, while in others, he reminds characters — and the audience — that these creations are “not real,” cutting short any excitement over the possibilities offered by his own inventions. Like many of the characters on the show, he’s having it both ways.
So far, Westworld hasn’t so much offered anything groundbreaking in terms of original themes. It relies on well-trodden, violent Western motifs mixed with equally cliché robots-turning-on-their-makers stories, but its success is in its sly style of telling its story. Like nearly all contemporary TV, this works by laying out information the audience could have no way of knowing. Like the “hosts” of Westworld, our minds are reprogrammable: As soon as new pieces of the narrative are uploaded, we feel as though we “remember.”
Mild spoilers for the first three episodes of Westworld ahead.
One hallmark of the contemporary television drama is the art of concealing the past. Revelations about something a character has done before the show even began can suddenly re-color our view of them in the “present.” In the most recent episode of Westworld — “The Stray” — Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) pulls a skeleton out of his closet by revealing the founding of his park began with the collaboration between himself and a now-deceased character named Arnold. This revelation is a shock for the seemingly well-meaning Bernard (Jeffery Wright), not just because it demonstrates the duplicity of Ford, but because it doles out one piece of the puzzle as to why certain robots are starting to act out. Seemingly, Ford’s now-deceased buddy wanted to give the robots of the park true consciousness, which Ford glibly regards as being cruel. If the robots of Westworld really remembered everything that happened to them, they’d never let themselves be shot or raped again. So, Ford claims that the nicest thing they can do for these robots is to help them “forget.”
All of this hints at Dr. Ford possessing a vague sense of his own personal brand of morality. Granting the robots of Westworld true consciousness would be wrong because at that point, they could remember the terrible things done to them. And yet, Dr. Ford is playing fast and loose with what defines being conscious. In the real world, there are humans who experience memory loss. This doesn’t make them any less alive. As far as the memory versus real-time experience of being alive, Virginia Woolf had this to say: “What more terrifying a revelation can there be than that it is the present moment?” The robots in Westworld have already achieved the top of whatever sentience pyramid Arnold was working on before his death, and Ford is just kidding himself that memory-wipes make the robots less than “real.”
But, what if this moral contradiction on Ford’s part is intentional? In the second episode, Ford says to Bernard, “We can’t play God without being acquainted with the Devil.” Later, in chatting with a young, seemingly human boy in the park, Ford admits, “I strayed a bit to far from where I was supposed to be,” and it’s likely that he wasn’t referring to the path of his daily stroll around the grounds. This seems to imply that Dr. Ford is perhaps having a crises of faith in terms of how the machinations of Westworld are playing out. In an epic series of disses, he vetoes Lee Sizemore’s (Simon Quaterman) new big, bloody storyline on the grounds that it won’t tell the guests of the park anything about themselves but that it only tells him something about Sizemore himself.
We already know Sizemore to be a cynical and totally morally bankrupt person, and Ford shuts him down. But why does he care? If the creator of this entire enterprise has already lied to himself about the basic truth — that these robots are indeed alive and fully conscious beings — it shouldn’t matter much to him what goes on day-to-day in his creation. And yet the character is there, teasing at an ominous new “storyline” of his own making, one that involves some sort of religious iconography.
All of this will be given some kind of explanation, of course. That’s the nature of a narrative payoff. And if Dr. Ford has one robot skeleton in his Old-West closet, there are bound to be plenty more where that came from. But if Westworld has any kind of backbone — robot or human — it will reveal that Dr. Ford is pushing his robot creations towards a big mission of moral reckoning and huge redemption.