“You got any stories, friend?”
And so begins Episode Five, “Contrapasso,” of Westworld. Each of the other nine episodes begins with a host, one of the robots at the heart of the story, waking up or coming on line. This one begins with a host, Old Bill, making a request of Ford, the creator of the robots and all the park that is Westworld. Ford answers, “Yeah, suppose I do,” and goes on to tell the story of “the saddest thing [he] ever saw.” A pet greyhound kills a cat when it is let loose from its leash. An event that is wholly anticipated (“our father warned us”), ends in horror (“to the horror of everyone, he killed that little cat, tore it to pieces.”), which is also entirely predictable. Who wouldn’t feel horror at a “little cat” being torn to pieces? Because this exchange between Ford and Old Bill breaks the pattern of the opening sequences, it is, as much as anything might be, the key to Westworld’s first season.
Westworld, for all its science fiction underpinnings, timeline switches, sex and violence, is a show about the power of story. The hosts repeat their stories, which are called loops by the park employees. The guests participate in narratives, taking either white or black hat roles, and act out fantasies of sex and violence that are forbidden in the real world. Ford and the park employees create and manage the narratives and the hosts to meet the guests’ expectations. Only one guest, The Man in Black, sees these stories as part of a game, and wants in on the bigger game, the more meaningful story, the maze.
Ford’s exchange with Bill hints at all this. To begin with, Old Bill, is programmed to listen–that is his loop. But, because he is an old host, he isn’t very good at it. When Ford asks, “Never seen a greyhound have you, Bill?” Bill doesn’t recognize “greyhound” and reinterprets it to fit his understanding; he answers that he has seen a few showdowns. This shows one of the fundamental challenges of stories. The teller and listener need to have a shared language and culture. At the end of the story, Bill responds, “That is one humdinger of a story, partner. Shall we drink to the lady with the white shoes?” Ford looks at him sadly. His secret is safe in Bill’s hands.
The secret Ford shares is the secret of loops. The greyhound “spends its life running in circles, chasing a bit of felt made up like a rabbit.” Whether by instinct or routine, its life becomes automatic, robotic. The greyhound running in circles is like the hosts on their loops. But the dog chases a fake rabbit—just as the hosts are fake humans. While the hosts are on perpetual loops, the guests come to Westworld to break from their loops of their daily lives, to experience a simulacrum of authenticity. The hosts and guests share this. In the park the guests fall into loops that are just as predictable (if more extreme) as the ones they left behind at home, and just as predictable as those that dominate the hosts.
The viewers of the show are invited to sympathize with the hosts. The guests are portrayed as crude and cruel, the hosts are doe-eyed and wistful. However, the hosts are machines—sophisticated machines, but more like supercharged go-karts. They are not “little cats.” And yet, because the story of the show plays on the viewers emotions, our attention is refocused, and our expectations shift to hopes that the hosts will be set free from their loops—much in the same way that a father would bring a rescued greyhound into a home to give it some respite from years of cruel running in circles.
The Man in Black shares this hope. He sees the park as too controlled, and therefore as inconsequential. Even when he gets a glimpse of the maze, he rejects it, because his expectations (“You know what I wanted,” he tells Ford in Episode Ten, “The Bicameral Mind”) were not met. His idea of the story he wants to see prevent him from seeing anything else. He, like Old Bill (and the Man in Black’s name is William), cannot understand the story he is being told.
One of the fun parts of watching the show when it first came out in 2016, was listening to the discussions about the stories in the show. People wondered who each character was, what timeline each one occupied, and what the big secret would be. They were viewer stand-ins for the Man in Black, or Old Bill, listening and not understanding, letting their expectations or programming get in the way of what was told.
The secret to art of reading is in large part dependent on being able to see the structure of a story as one reads it. We know that if an event happens in chapter one, the rule of plot (rising action) will lead to an amplification of that event later in the story. If a stranger dies in chapter one, then a friend will die later. If a distant friend dies early, a dear friend will die later. Stories follow familiar patterns, and when those patterns are broken the reader or viewer may revolt. This is one reason why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey holds such sway over popular screenwriting: familiarity is the writer’s friend.
However, life is not a screenplay or a story. Unexpected, if predictable things happen. Dogs chase down little cats and the results horrify us. “I got the cat. Now what?” wonders the dog. The reason that Ford’s story is “the saddest thing [he] ever saw,” is not because of the little cat, it’s because there’s nothing else for the dog to do. Its life is defined by chase and kill, and once it has succeeded that’s all there is. Growth, or meaning, does not come from meeting expectations, but from the realization, and it can be a sad realization, that life, as opposed to a story, does not follow an order. Life is chaotic and random. It dashes our expectations and makes us strip our stories bare and try (and perhaps fail) to revise.
The overall story in Westworld points us to this, if gently.