‘Westworld’ – or: In praise of psychotherapy

No particular plot spoilers will be discussed here, though diving into the themes and ideas of the show may hint at some...

December 8, 2016 12:19

‘Westworld’. (photo credit: SCREENSHOT HBO)

Few TV shows have done a greater service for the image of psychotherapy than The Sopranos (though the Israeli-born In Treatment is a major contender, as is, to some extent, Frasier). New Jersey mafioso Tony Soprano used to visit his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, regularly.

Her office became a space in which he, the patient, could examine the stressors and emotional turmoils in his life and in which we, the viewers, could examine the themes and ideas presented in the show.

The representation of therapy as a tool in The Sopranos was, at least formally, straightforward: a man suffers a personal crisis; turns to a psychiatrist; comes in week after week for his sessions.

But as HBO’s new talked-about drama Westworld demonstrates, that’s hardly the only way to discuss therapy.

Westworld, whose first-season finale was broadcast this week, was created by Jonathan Nolan (who often writes alongside his brother Christopher Nolan, of the latest Batman movie series and Interstellar fame) and Lisa Joy (who worked on Pushing Daisies).

Westworld is a science-fiction series centered around a futuristic theme park to which the wealthiest go to relive the American Wild West, where they are surrounded by incredibly human-like “hosts” (i.e. robots) available for their every whim, including their very dark ones. If it sounds anything like Jurassic Park, that’s because Westworld is based on a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, who wrote the original Jurassic Park novel.

Like the premise of nearly every other sci-fi text centered around robots, the main plot of Westworld revolves around what happens when machines that are created and controlled by an outside force to them – humans – become aware of this fact and strive to become free and independent.

Watching the first half of the season, psychotherapy is about the last cultural reference you would pick up. More prominent sources of inspiration for the show are, for instance, Plato’s allegory of the cave, which tells about prisoners who have only ever seen the shadows of the world behind them, since they are shackled and cannot look away from the wall of the cave in which they sit, until one manages to get away and discovers that everything he had ever known was just a diluted and skewed version of reality.

An additional reference point is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which like the show, features an all-powerful creator named Ford and a metaphorical assembly line of people, each created to serve a particular purpose in life (in itself a reference to the car maker.) There are also quotes from Shakespeare, and, almost inevitably, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Western canon’s No. 1 story of artificial creation.

Westworld shines as an intellectual text where not many peers do. What it lacks in other areas, with its several plot holes, occasional lazy plot devices and some fairly foreseeable twists, it makes up for in its thought-provoking use of philosophy, literature and, importantly, psychology. Throughout the season, one of the show’s main themes is the awakening of the human-like hosts, which naturally raises many questions about what it means to be human (rather than robot), and about our own self-perception.

Ford’s hosts are pre-programmed in a very clever way: though they do have some catchphrases, their lives are not exactly scripted.

Rather, each host is given scores on a long list of personality attributes; objectives; a back story and so on. They are then turned on and left to their own devices (until those devices need updating or fixing).

This is a pretty modern take on the question of determinism versus free will. The park’s hosts – and, by obvious extent, all of us humans as well – start life with general, but very real, blueprints. After all, no one ever gave us the choice of how smart to be, how musical, what to wish for, etc. But given these inherent attributes, we do try and choose how to use them: what to embrace and nurture, what to work on.

The show’s interpretation of free will is already a first step towards psychoanalysis and its founding father, Sigmund Freud. Determinism has been a key question in philosophy since its earliest days; opinions concerning it changed with societal and technological progress made since then. Freud’s approach was novel, not in inventing determinism, of course, but in suggesting the sources for it lie deep within us. He claimed that unconscious conflicts within ourselves determine our behavior.

Like Westworld’s hosts, our behavior takes influences both from our surroundings and from our pre-programmed/ genetic inner structure; more importantly, though, is that like Westworld’s hosts, we are frustratingly unaware of that. In fact, the park’s hosts even have builtin defense mechanisms that prevent them from experiencing certain things (a little onthe- nose, but oh well.) They are also restarted every once in a while, so they won’t mind doing the same things over and over again, nor recognize the visitors around them.

As the season progresses, it becomes clearer that psychoanalytical ideas are not just cute references but actual reference points. The hosts’ restarts wipe out their memories (apart from their designated back stories); but given that they are equipped with highly advanced software, these memories don’t really go away – they’re just stored deep inside and away from daily existence, which is more or less the definition of Freudian repression.

By the time the season’s final few episodes arrive, the ultimate meaning of this reference point emerges. The hosts’ awakening, as it turns out, is intimately related to memory and repression: it is their ability to remember things (from before their latest restart, from earlier years, from previous designated roles) that helps them become aware of who or what they really are. Memories, claims Westworld, are what make us human, and in particular bad memories: traumas.

Trauma is no doubt one of the biggest Freudian buzzwords of all. Traumas we go through make us who we are; they sit, quiet and repressed, in the backs of our minds, until they can sit no more and are expressed in a varied array of neuroses. But here’s the most important part of all, the part that Freud built a career on, the part that he built a whole professional field on: our traumas may be the problem, but they are also the solution. Discussing them – the famous “talking cure” – means becoming aware of them, processing them, and eventually, dealing with them and becoming healthy; becoming free.

Westworld seems to agree with that notion.

No psychoanalyst is available on site; what does exist is a colder, more technological version.

When hosts come in for fixing, they undergo lengthy conversations with the park’s engineers, literally analyzing their behavior and the glitches that caused it. It’s almost as if Freud himself is reaching into their unconscious computer-mind.

Additionally, the same software that stores the hosts’ memories and traumas (both those brought upon by human visitors and those designated to the hosts to begin with) can also usher those memories to the surface. For the park’s hosts – and, again, for us – looking into old memories can be an immensely painful experience.

In part this is because the memories in question are often painful ones; but as the show seems to suggest, what makes it all the worse is the process of understanding what these memories mean, and how great their influence is on us, despite our best efforts to pretend that we’re completely free in our choices.

We humans look inward to find out what really makes us tick. Awareness of our inner structures frees us from those structures’ control over us, and allows us to embrace them instead. For Westworld’s hosts, looking inward introduces them to their own artificialness, but that very process of learning that they are not human is what gives them a chance to gain their freedom – to make them (almost) human.

In other words, never mind plot twists or spoilers; put aside even what the show has to say about the dark violence we are capable of when given the chance. What Westworld seems to be saying is much simpler: Go to therapy.

Study yourself. It will make you more human, no matter what materials you’re made of.

The writer is a screenwriter, a journalist and an editor, writing for The Jerusalem Post and other publications.

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