Since the start of Westworld, the character of William (Jimmi Simpson) has been a kind of gee-golly do-gooder, wide-eyed at the sinister and dreamlike aspects of the fantasy scenarios. But does this behavior mean that William is actually as “good” as he comes across? Being a “good person” in science fiction is often presented as a state-of-mind, rather than a clearly defined moral valance. After this new episode of Westworld, it’s suddenly pretty unclear if William is a traditional good guy or just a bit insane. But maybe it doesn’t matter either way. Maybe Williams is just really screwed-up. And in that confusing way, William has more in common with Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk than you might realize.
William and his foul-mouthed amoral brother-in-law Logan may have gone “black hat” in the latest episode of Westworld — “Dissonance Theory” — but in terms of who is the most guilty of acting-out sicko fantasies with robots, these guys have nothing on Kirk. If we want to talk about dark meditations on human beings acting out morally questionable activities in a robot amusement park, then look no further than one of Star Trek’s ostensibly silliest episodes: “Shore Leave.”
Written by science fiction legend Theodore Sturgeon, the original Trek episode “Shore Leave” presents essentially the same premise as Westworld: an amusement park planet populated by robots who can be killed or fucked for fun by privileged people on vacation. Everything gets going when Bones thinks about Alice in Wonderland, and a bespoke robot White Rabbit appears. Of course, in “Shore Leave” the crew of the USS Enterprise doesn’t know the planet is made for amusement and are initially terrified — or feign terror — at what they are seeing and being made to do and think.
In this way, everyone in this Star Trek episode is like William on Westworld: they are — at first — constantly shocked (or feigning shock) in the face of all the violence, sex, and references to Alice in Wonderland. But, on Westworld, is anyone taking William’s innocent act seriously at this point? At first, William was presented as the audience surrogate, a good guy who got roped into a vacation. In “Shore Leave,” it’s the same for Captain Kirk: He has no idea these robots are robots and acts all valiant and good, seemingly playing the good guy.
On Star Trek though, the robot planet is a little different: Telepathic scanners read your mind and manufacture robots on command to act out fantasies. In Kirk’s case, this means beating the shit out of an old bully from his school days and reconciling with a girlfriend he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Like William, Kirk vacillates on giving into his darker, violent urges until, of course, it’s revealed at the end of “Shore Leave” that this is all a game and everyone is really a robot.
Logan has a similar moment with William in “Dissonance Theory.” He gets super pumped about an “easter egg” in the game of Westworld and kills a bunch of “innocent people” to get what he wants. This example is enough to convince William to go “black hat” and become a “bad guy.” While this is shocking in terms of William’s behavior up until this point, it’s not really surprising. In a robot amusement park, you might not be a such a good guy after all. And William still isn’t nearly as twisted as Kirk was in the same situation on Star Trek.
So far, a major theme of Westworld is all about revealing who people “really are” by putting them in an amoral environment. The only hitch in this philosophical giddy-up is the fact that because all the robot characters and situations are prefabricated by Dr. Ford and company, characters like William and Logan are pretty much off-the-hook. They didn’t invent this fantasy world, they are just exploring it.
But, with Captain Kirk in “Shore Leave,” the responsibility of the fantasies is squarely on the conscience of the user. Kirk himself wanted to beat the shit out of someone who represented a real person. And at the end of the episode, it’s heavily implied he sleeps with the simulacrum of his Ruth, a girlfriend who he must have dumped or something. Spock asserts that all this robot fucking and killing is okay because “the more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.” So, who’s the bigger pervert: Captain Kirk in Star Trek or William on Westworld? You could argue the true cognitive dissonance is happening with William and Logan: They think they’re being hardcore by going “black hat,” but are they really?
Captain Kirk — and other members of the Enterprise crew — all willingly walk into a Westworld-esque amusement park with smiles on their faces both before and after the experience.
In Westworld, because the user didn’t ask for these specific characters or situations, the responsibility they have towards all of this is strangely absent. People in Westworld aren’t really left to their own devices to discover who they are. They are left to the devices of the designers of Westworld. In this way, Logan and William come across as less-realistic in reveling in their dark desires than Captain Kirk. Presumably, we are getting a peek at what Kirk’s deepest fantasies are in “Shore Leave,” but in Westworld, the moral ambiguity doesn’t actually come from Willaim, Logan, or anyone else: It comes from the situation.
Instead, our judgement of the characters hinges on one specific detail: If we believe the robots in Westworld are on the same level as human beings, then the repeated killings of them is wrong. But if William is being incredibly compassionate — annoyingly so, you might argue — toward robots, does that actually make him more crazy than moralistic?