After watching the first two episodes of HBO’s new series, Westworld, a whole host of questions have come up, but two have stood out:
- What is real?
- What if there were no consequences?
Let me explain. The show’s premise is that Westworld is an immersive theme park where those who are wealthy enough to pay the exorbitant price of admission can do whatever they want to the robotic (but ridiculously lifelike) inhabitants of the park. This, of course, means that for many they exercise all of their baser instincts because it is a “safe” place to do so free of the consequences those activities would bring in the world outside the park.
Shoot a man in Westworld? No worries, they think. The robot dies an agonizing and believable death, but is patched up good as new for the next day. Want to sleep around? No worries, they say. No robots are getting pregnant, there’s no real chance of STDs, and it can’t really be an affair if it’s done with a robot partner. Because the interactions are with lifelike robots rather than actual humans, people’s actions within the park seem unreal to them. If there are no consequences, then nothing has really happened, right?
Something very real has taken place and there are consequences. What I think the show is begging viewers to consider is that these desires they’re living out in the park are real desires, and they have really acted upon them. They have really shot and killed people. They have really had affairs. Just because the people they do these things with or to aren’t human beings doesn’t mean those actions were not real actions. The lack of consequences is an illusion. Real-world moral formation is happening every time people make choices within the park, whether those choices are for good or for ill. Whether they choose to rescue the hurting or inflict pain on others. Their choices are forming them into certain kinds of people. There are no consequence free actions for our souls.
The park-goers are committing these acts with their very bodies. It’s not imaginary, not virtual reality; it is reality, even if it is one degree removed. And any acts that our bodies engage in will impact our souls, for the two are deeply intertwined. What harms one, harms the other. What benefits one, benefits the other. There’s no getting around that.
At one point, one of the characters asserts that the park does not show you who you are; it shows you who you could be. I think that’s true, but we need to go further and recognize that each time someone chooses a path toward who they could be, they take real steps toward becoming that very person. Starting from the moment they choose their hat, they have chosen what kind of formative experience they want for their body and soul. While they think they’re simply choosing what kind of fun they wish to have, they’re really choosing what kind of person they want to be when they leave the park. Their choices will extend beyond the park, despite what they, and the park, want to believe.
As I hope the show allows us to see, “These violent delights have violent ends” both inside and outside the park.