Screenshots via HBO.
The premise of Westworld, the theme park, is simple: what if we had a place where we could expose our worst selves, and to fall in love and fuck and kill without worrying about the suffering or autonomy of the objects of our love and rage. The premise of Westworld is more complicated—what happens when the objects become so apparently conscious that they can no longer be controlled?
In the pilot, we were introduced to the world and to the possibility that these robots could gain sentience. The second episode, “Chestnut,” kind of prodded at that possibility, depicting both the experience of a sensitive guest and, more powerfully, what might happen to a host when stored data are released as memory, when a previously passive machine is able to discover its own, previously hidden traumas. If you are built to gratify the desires of the newcomers, how might you reckon with your own newly developing inner life?
The episode focuses on the park’s madame Maeve (Thandie Newton), who is beginning to have alarming flashbacks; on the Gunslinger (Ed Harris), who is making his way to some kind of maze deep within the park; on Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who is secretly meeting with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to learn how she “thinks”; and William, a first-time visitor who has a difficult time parsing how a host (the park’s somewhat ominous name for its robots) who furrows their brows in pain might not actually be feeling pain. That’s one of the main mysteries of the show—if a host looks and acts and sounds like they’re having an experience, are they?
In this hour, we learn that they certainly are—for the first time, the camera allows us to see the host’s inner life. Once, when Dolores looks down the park’s main street as Bernard says off-screen, “Remember,” and sees bodies haphazardly strewn about in what seems to be a memory of an earlier event:
And we see madame Maeve’s series of flashbacks to another incarnation of her body, in which she and someone who seems to be her daughter are in life-threatening danger.
We also see Maeve comfort one of her host employees who complains of nightmares. “Do what I do,” Maeve tells her. “You find yourself in a bad dream, close your eyes, count backwards from three, wake yourself right up.”
Maeve’s series of flashbacks makes her appear to be malfunctioning, so she’s taken into the shop, where broken hosts are tinkered with until they look new. During one diagnostic session, an engineer denies making the hosts dream, but muses, “Dreams are mainly memories, can you imagine how fucked we’d be if these poor assholes ever remembered what the guests did to them?” The engineer explains that they’ve given the hosts the concept of dreams and nightmares, just as an explanatory precaution in case a memory from a cleaning or maintenance session slips through.
Later, Maeve wakes up in the middle of an operation (sleep mode wasn’t turned on, or didn’t work), and her instincts kick in, leading her to threaten the engineers working on her, and to run into some sort of area where tens of injured hosts are lying prostrate and being hosed down for the next day. Ultimately, she is sedated, and knowledge of this place will be relegated to somewhere deep in her hardware.
Evidently, Maeve, and possibly Dolores, are beginning to grapple with breakthrough traumatic flashbacks, or what would be for humans. To the hosts, for now, these flashbacks likely feel a lot like a problem that has no name. In humans, trauma encodes itself via both memory and the physical body—if the hosts’ bodies are perpetually repaired and replaced, can they experience the kind of trauma that we recognize? Moreover, if the hosts have been taught to convincingly display human emotion, is the appearance of trauma just trauma itself? Yet it’s probably through pain and memory that the hosts will realize their personhood.
“It’s beautifully done, really,” says the Gunslinger as he dances with a weeping, seemingly terrified host. “That you see the cracks after all. That’s why I like the basic emotion. You know what that means? It means when you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real.”