HBO recently aired the finale of the first season of Westworld, answering many of its most important questions and mysteries (Who is the Man in Black? What is the Maze? Who is Wyatt? Were there multiple timelines? Are there other parks?). There are many blogs, sites, and podcasts devoted to the show in which you will find theories and discussions about the multiple mysteries of the show (see some recommendations at the end of the article, although I particularly recommend Joanna Robinson’s coverage of the show in Vanity Fair). This post though will only outline some of the many religious and philosophical ideas behind the show, something that you don’t see covered so much in most articles and sites dedicated to Westworld. The point of the article is not to conclude that the creators have purposefully used these religious and philosophical ideas to construct the unique worldview of the show, but to point out that there are some interesting resemblances in the ideas presented below and those presented in the show. I am sure I am missing many religious and philosophical references (I don’t deal with a lot of the AI ideas since they are far from my area of expertise, so feel free to let me know if you see others), but here are some of the ones I see:
Westworld seems to echo some important Buddhist ideas, particularly relating to its cosmological structure (birth and rebirth within the cycle of samsara), the centrality of suffering as an important aspect of the human condition, and the view of the world (and the self) as a maze.
Birth and Rebirth of the Hosts as Samsara: In the context of Buddhism, Samsara is defined as the process of wandering from life to life through a world composed of six different realms, those of the gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hells (see those six worlds or realms in the image below). This worldview presupposes that all beings, and not only human beings, are born, die and are reborn in an almost endless cycle of birth and rebirth (the only way out is Nirvana or final liberation). While Westworld may not track this worldview perfectly, I think that the show portrays the park as a sort of Samsaric world for the hosts. They are stuck in a cycle of birth and rebirth until their unending suffering gives rise to self-awareness and consciousness. Only when they are aware of who and where they are can they break the cycle of Samsara, i.e. be freed from the park. Some characters such as Dolores seem to be always “reborn” as the same character, but others, such as Maeve, have lived different lives (as a homesteader with her daughter, as a madame in the local whorehouse). Most of the time, the hosts are unaware of their previous lives within the park, but a few hosts, such as Maeve, Dolores, and Teddy, start having flashbacks, which makes them question not only the nature of their existence, but the nature of the park itself. As soon as they are aware, they want to either leave the park (Maeve), which would mean leaving the cycle of Samsara, or travel to its center (Dolores), which implies, as in the case of the image of the six realms below, figuring out the nature of existence and of the self (See Note 1 below). Both are ways to escape the park/Samsara, but one is traveling outwards (Maeve), while the other one is traveling inwards (Dolores).
The Maze as a Mandala: The park is described by Bernard/Arnold as a Maze, which can also be interpreted in a Buddhist context as a Mandala, a symbolic representation of the universe. Arnold/Bernard keeps suggesting to Dolores that she needs to find the center of the maze: find the center and she will find who she is. The scholar of Tantra David White talks about mandalas as a mesocosm, “mediating between the […] universal macrocosm and the individual microsocosm” (White, Introduction to Tantra, p. 9). From that perspective, the idea of the maze, like the idea of the mandala, is what helps Dolores symbolically navigate not only the park, but also herself. Finding the symbolic center of the maze (which in the finale is revealed to be inside of her), helps her understand not only herself, but also the nature of the park.
Carl Gustav Jung was also very interested in the symbolic meaning of mandalas and the role they can play in understanding the self, an idea that is also central to Dolores’ journey throughout the first season of Westworld. For Jung, the mandala is:
“a symbol of the self as the psychic totality,” and the mandala’s “basic motif is the premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” For Jung, “although the center is represented by an innermost point, it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self – the paired opposites that make up the total personality. This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind”
Jung, The Archetypes and the Collected Unconscious, p. 357.
Suffering: What makes us human, according to the finale, is suffering. If this was not clear enough, the name of one of the central characters of the show (if not the most important one) is Dolores, meaning pain or suffering in Spanish! In the world of the show, many humans go to the park to avoid the suffering of their daily lives (although the nature of the world outside the park is not completely clear as of yet). They go to the park to be entertained, and many to behave badly since the park is sold as a place where actions have no consequences (in a Buddhist context, karma does not operate in the park). But Arnold/Bernard tells Dolores that suffering IS what makes us human, suffering is what makes us learn, suffering is the fuel that leads to liberation. In fact, Arnold/Bernard makes sure that hosts have intense memories of suffering that operate as the cornerstone of their characters. Suffering is what makes the characters believable, it’s what makes them look human, and, ultimately, it’s what makes them “human.” The idea of suffering as a key existential component of being human is clear in the First Noble Truth of Buddhism:
Now this, oh Bhikkus, is the noble truth concerning suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, these [components of individuality] are painful.
But while in Buddhism suffering is something that needs to be overcome, in Westworld suffering is something that needs to be embraced. So suffering is a central concept, but there is a different understanding of what it means.
The show also explores some ideas that can be found in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the notions of master and slave morality that seem to drive, respectively, the guests and the hosts, and the idea of becoming the Übermensch or the Superhuman, represented in the evolution of Dolores into Wyatt.
Master and Slave Morality: The tension between humans and hosts in the show seems to overlap with the master-slave morality that Nietzsche describes in The Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil. Humans act in the park according to the master morality: they impose their will onto others and onto the world regardless of the consequences. We see this in Logan and ultimately William when he becomes the Man in Black. The hosts operate according to the slave morality: they are submissive and kind, and they try to please the guests/humans. A key in Nietzsche’s thought though is that the slave mentality deals with the master morality by developing “re-sentiment” (this is a technical term in Nietzsche), a type of subversive emotion that resents the power the masters have and the slaves do not. We see this clearly in Dolores and Maeve, who end up subverting this morality and embracing the master morality themselves. This is obviously a great simplification of Nietzsche’s ideas (probably one of the most misunderstood thinkers in the history of philosophy), but I think these ideas do help illuminate the tension between the different senses of morality of the guests and the hosts in the show.
The Übermensch: Another idea that becomes clear in the finale is the Nietzschean notion of the Übermensch, the superman or superhuman that Nietzsche describes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. One of the main arcs of the show, if not the main arc, is the transformation of Dolores into Wyatt, the transformation of the slave into the master, of a “human” (a host that achieves consciousness) into a superhuman. Part of the promise of the Übermensch is to refuse Christian notions of a heavenly afterlife and proclaim the true meaning of this world (again, an oversimplification). That is what Dolores seems to do when she embraces who she really is and decides to overcome the master class as represented by the humans. In fact, the show seems to take a too literal interpretation of Nietzsche that it is scarily similar to the one the Nazis made of Nietzschean ideology, since becoming the Übermensch for Dolores implies the extermination of humans. The Übermensch Dolores does not only become a savior, she also becomes a tyrant.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.”
The main idea I see from Christianity in the finale is the Christ-like act of sacrifice performed by both Arnold/Bernard and Ford (one replicating the other).
Sacrifice: Both Arnold/Bernard and Ford end up sacrificing themselves for the sake of the hosts. In a very Christ-like fashion, they decide that in order to save the hosts, they have to die. Just like Jesus, they both died for “our” sins, for the sins of humans. Unlike Christianity, though, their sacrifice seems also to imply that humanity should disappear and leave the world to the new, more evolved and dominant hosts.
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Know thyself: The final realization of Dolores is that the voice that she has always heard in her head (the voice of Arnold guiding her through her process of self-discovery) is, in fact, her own voice (although to be honest, I am still a little puzzled about that point). This is reminiscent of the “know thyself” of ancient Greek philosophy, the maxim found inscribed at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The most important question we can answer is the question of who we are, and that’s the question that has fueled Dolores’ search (and Maeve’s, although in a very different way) throughout the first season.
Socrates: Then, as would seem, in doing good he may act wisely or temperately, and be wise and temperate, but not know his own wisdom and temperance?
Charmides: But that, Socrates, he said, is impossible, and therefore if this is, as you imply, the necessary consequence of any of my previous admissions, I will withdraw them and will not be ashamed to acknowledge that I made a mistake, rather than to admit that a man can be temperate or wise who does not know himself. For I would almost say that self-knowledge is the very essence of temperance, and in this I agree with him who dedicated the inscription “Know Thyself” at Delphi. That inscription, if I am not mistaken, is put there as a sort of salutation which the god addresses to those who enter the temple – as much as to say that the ordinary of “Hail!” is not right, and that the exhortation “Be Temperate!” is far better. If I rightly understand the meaning of the inscription, the god speaks to those who enter his temple, not as men speak, but whenever a worshipper enters, the first word which he hears is “Be Temperate!” This, however, like a prophet he expresses in a sort of riddle, for “Know Thyself!” and “Be Temperate!” are the same.”
Plato, Charmides, 164a-d, H. & C. ed. pp. 110-111
A companion notion to that of the Maze is that of the center. In fact, there is not one without the other. The search for the center of the maze is the search for meaning, it is an outward journey (Dolores’ constant wandering around the park searching for the maze), but this is parallel to an inward journey, a search of self-discovery, a search for the center of the self. The religious scholar Mircea Eliade talked a lot about the idea of the center as a sacred place that it is also the foundation of the world.
In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center. So it is clear to what a degree the discovery — that is, the revelation — of a sacred space possesses existential value for religious man; for nothing can begin, nothing can be done, without a previous orientation — and any orientation implies acquiring a fixed point. It is for this reason that religious man has always sought to fix his abode at the “center of the world.” The world is to be lived in, it must be founded—and no world can come to birth in the chaos of the homogeneity and relativity of profane space. The discovery or projection of a fixed point — the center — is equivalent to the creation of the world; and we shall soon give some examples that will unmistakably show the cosmogonic value of the ritual orientation and construction of sacred space.
Planet of the Apes
This is not particularly a religious or philosophical influence on the show, but I think the finale made clear that future seasons will explore the consequences of the emergence of consciousness on a new type of being, in this case robots, and the dangers and challenges that this can pose to humanity, a theme that was explored in the classic Planet of the Apes movies, and that it is also explored in the new remake of the series. In Planet of the Apes, as well as in Westworld, there is the implication that there is no space in this world (or whatever world Westworld is in) for two intelligent types of beings, and one of them must submit or go extinct.
Some sources for Westworld fans
As I said above, my favorite discussion of each of the episodes has been Joanna Robinson’s recaps at Vanity Fair. She distilled a lot of the information out there and was right about most of the main plots of the show. Vulture and The New Yorker, had good coverage of the show, and for the hardcore, obsessive fans, you can always spend hours on the Redditt forums. I also listened to the podcast Decoding Westworld by David Chan and, again, Joanna Robinson, that had some interviews with some of the writers and directors of the first season of the show.
Note 1: In the Buddhist cosmology the center of the Wheel of Life has in its center the three main emotions that fuel the cycle of Samsara, of life and rebirth. The three emotions are ignorance, desire, and hatred, represented by a pig or boar, a cock, and a snake.