As a viewer of the HBO show Westworld and previously, the popular television series Lost, I willingly suspend some levels of critical analysis about the premise of these shows. One can’t dig too deeply into the context or it quickly collapses. The idea instead is to absorb the characters and draw meaning from the allegories these shows present. The shallowness of such engagement becomes its own passion. The characters in many cases are shunted back and forth in time, the better to understand the depth of their experience.
Yet one of the creepiest characters on the show Lost was the one guy who never changed over the entire span the show. That shows you that people actually expect others to change. Those who defy change are often the creepiest and most repressed people of all. Would you not be creeped out if someone showed up at your 20-year high school reunion and had not aged or changed at all? That would be creepy. Yet that’s what many of us try to accomplish going into many reunions. Be ageless.
Part of the charm (if you want to call it that) of Westworld is the double-premise of suspended reality. Human beings go to Westworld to act out violent or sexual fantasies on the “hosts,” who are human-like robots that actual humans can abuse or even kill if they choose. The company that runs Westworld simply repairs the human-bots and reprograms them for repeat use.
Perhaps we should take a clearer look at what we actually choose for entertainment, because the plotline of Westworld sounds suspiciously like the draft-driven narrative of the National Football League, in which privileged owners buy and sell players whose roles are defined by coaches and to some degree, the fans who embrace the game.
Now we’re immersed in a cultural dynamic in which some people feel no compunction in demanding that football players demonstrate unblinking fealty to the organization and league they represent. All this is expected despite clear evidence that while playing the game, many pro football players experience brain damage and life-altering injuries from which they will never recover. Even the NFL cannot put them back together again.
So yes, the NFL is a world rife with the same brand of coarse fantasy, violence and abuse as Westworld. And tellingly, whenever the people who play the game of pro football resist or act out against this coercive dynamic, they are disabused of the “opportunity” to play at all. They are, in a sense, expected to perform like the humanized robots of NFLworld, which depends upon a parallel world called college football. It’s all a bit creepy in the end.
The Westworld lesson
In the fantasy land of Westworld, there are warning signs that all is not well. The robot “hosts” have quickly developed human-like memory and awareness. The bots begin to question their existence and crave meaning derived from their collective memories.
The main character Maeve teaches herself to tap into the software of the Westworld enterprise. That talent quickly exposes the exploitative nature of the place. Meanwhile, a character named Delores arrives at similar conclusions. That sends her on a vengeful rampage against the entire Westworld universe. She sees beyond the game as it has been played, and makes up her own rules by finding out the source of her narrative and memories.
All this smacks of suppressed memories in people who were physically, sexually or emotionally abused in childhood. Westworld claims that the concept of “innocence” is relative to when true awareness is achieved.
The parallels of #MeToo
The Westworld plotline of vigilante justice aligns somewhat with the themes of the #metoo movement, in which women have risen up to fight back against male sexual domination, discrimination and intimidation. The character Delores and many other female “hosts” were originally programmed for use as sexual playthings. Now that Delores is armed and dangerous, it is the men in many cases that are reduced to begging for their lives. In some cases, she just shoots them in the head. No remorse.
That leads us to the meaning of Westworld as an idea. Can it truly tell us anything about ourselves? The only comparison I have to offer is by considering a world I once occupied. We’ll call it Runworld. That’s where I existed for a decade or more, because running dominated my existence for much of that time.
I specifically recall a moment when there was a choice to be made during high school. I was offered a chance to go on a rafting trip with a teacher who was leading a trip during spring break trip to the Big Bend area of the United States.
A part of me really wanted to go, yet part of me was afraid. The other kids going on the trip were not really bound by sports to any particular type of personality. Some were known pot-smokers. Others were free spirits in every other sense of the word.
I was nervous about those differences, but not stuck entirely in my Runworld universe. I was a member of the poetry and writing club, and published there regularly. I was also a cartoonist for the school newspaper and an avid member of the Prairie Restoration group that was installing a new, living prairie at a local forest preserve. On my own, I was an avid birder despite the wicked teasing it generated from my peers. But Runworld was a powerful dynamic in my young life.
Stay home, son
So I was beholden to the cycle of track and field, and my coach suggested it would be wise to stay home and train the entire week of spring break rather than travel to Big Bend where I would not get to run a step, most likely.
But what an eye-opening, world-expanding trip that would have been. But because I was the lead distance runner at my high school, I felt an obligation to uphold that status even though I was barely an above-average runner in that sport. Runworld owned my conscience.
Later in life, I broke that mold a bit by traveling to do a January interim internship at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. I drove through four states and cold, deep snow to reach the college town of Ithaca on the southern end of Cayuga Lake. I’d spend three weeks there studying wildlife art at one of the world’s leading research institutes for birds. During that time, I ran very little if at all. Yet I’d walk the mile to the lab every day from the little house I rented with no running hot water. It felt magical to be immersed in a world I loved.
About ten days into the internship, I finally did go for a short run to loosen up my legs. Without a shower to use, I heated water in a cooking pan and did a sink bath to wash away the sweat. Then I washed my thick head of hair and took the pan of hot water outside to rinse the soap out.
The temperatures were in the mid-teens, so I did not want to waste any time standing out there without my shirt on. But after washing my hair, I sensed something watching me in the dark. I turned slowly, because the house I rented backed up to a property used for the wolf range, a breeding area for wolves.
And there, in the dark, I could see the dark shape of a wolf staring at me with glimmering eyes. Seldom have I felt so flesh-filled and alive. Then the wolf retreated into darkness. I stood there breathing thick mist into the air and realized with emphatic grace that I had indeed escaped from Runworld.
Testing the legs
A week later as the internship drew to a close, I knew it was time to turn my head back around to the realities of the indoor track season ahead. So I bundled up the little running gear I’d brought from home and drove to the Cornell fieldhouse to do some indoor running. It felt strange to be circling the track again, but with all that rest in my legs, it also felt good to run.
I warmed up a couple miles and decided to do a time trial to see what my legs and lungs would produce. To my surprise, I ran a 4:40 mile without a ton of effort. Of course, that demonstration drew the attention of Cornell runners wondering what stranger might be throwing down some kind of challenge in their presence. The animal instincts of Runworld were forever present. I was tempted to run even more. Instead, I cooled down and drove back to my little house in the woods. Runworld would have to wait.
The return trip
The long drive home from Ithaca turned out to be a harrowing slog through a snowbelt storm. There were tall drifts and the Interstate was covered in more than a foot of snow. I wisely (and humbly) drove in the tracks of a semi-trailer truck. when it pulled off for gas, so did I. For sixteen hours I kept on driving and dared not turn off the engine for fear it would not turn on again.
The trip felt like a bad dream or one of those struggling night visions where you are trying to move from strange place to another. Your legs won’t work. You can’t find the way. Or you’re a person who no longer knows their place in this world. Dreams can vex our souls.
Imagine being a person in the process of learning that your entire identity is about to be erased, or your culture. How would you react? Many of us flirt with some form of that challenge in life. We lose a parent, a loved one, a job that mean so much to us. And in the process, we lose a world. But when have to move on, how do we find our way? What world do we then occupy?
Life outside Runworld
It would take another couple ventures like that and many years of experience to actualize to fully embrace the idea that there were gratifying worlds outside Runworld. So much of my identity had been tied to the person who lived there. But it was time to move on.
Still, so many associates refused to see me otherwise. “Do you still run?” they’d ask. I could not tell if that was a question designed to confine me to that world or liberate me from its control. So I decided that neither was the reality I would choose. It is possible to own the experiences of another world and move on to others. The sometimes lonely choice of what to embrace is yours alone. That’s called autonomy. Ironically, that calls for putting one foot in front the other. That’s how we all make progress.
These days I look back at that time period and part of it does seem like a programmed memory of how to do things. Runworld gave me an identity of sorts. But it also required a level of suppression of certain other instincts. I’d be running down a road in spring and hear migrating warblers in the trees and just want to stop to identify the singing birds. Sometimes I did stop. But then the prodding notion that it time to move on would take over. Runworld would swarm around me again.
These days, I can enter or depart Runworld as I please. The portals are never closed, and they are not confined to the past. It is like being a time traveler in many respects. Yet there is no time like the present to claim the purpose in your next steps.
All told, I still love the realities and lessons of Runworld. They formed me in many ways. But I am also thankful there is so much else to enjoy in this world, or others. I am still exploring, and that’s how it should be.