I just watched the season finale of Westworld and the episode really had some interesting twists and turns. I’ll try not to spoil anything major (so if you haven’t watched it maybe do not read this post), but here are a few thoughts about some of the religious/philosophical themes that became clear in the finale. This is a quick draft that I intent to polish in the next few days, as soon as I am done grading final papers and exams, so please understand that these are just some first impressions and ideas that need some polishing.
- Samsara: The park, initially thought as mere entertainment for humans, becomes a sort of Samsara for the hosts. They are stuck in a cycle of birth and rebirth (really more like reincarnation than rebirth since they are always the same being) until their unending suffering gives rise to self-awareness and consciousness. Only when they are aware of who and where they are can they break the cycle of Samsara.
- Mandala: The park is described by Bernard/Arnold as a Maze, which can also be interpreted as a Mandala. Arnold/Bernard keeps suggesting Dolores that she needs to find the center of the maze. Find the center, find who you are… find salvation? There are some similarities to the idea of a mandala within the Buddhist tradition, particularly that idea of finding the center, although salvation in the show does not really operate within the context of Buddhist doctrine since leaving the park is not really Nirvana, more on that later…
- Suffering: What makes us human, according to the finale is suffering. Humans try to escape suffering and many humans go to the park to avoid the suffering of their daily lives. They go to the part to be entertained and to behave badly (actions in the park have no consequences, or in Buddhist terms, karma does not operate in the park). But Arnold/Bernard tells Dolores (suffering in Spanish!) that suffering IS what makes us human, suffering is what makes us learn, suffering is the fuel that leads to liberation. In fact, Arnold/Bernard makes sure that hosts have intense suffering memories that operate as the cornerstone of their characters. Suffering is what makes the characters believable, is what makes them look like human, and ultimately, is what makes them “human.” The idea of suffering as a key existential component of being human is clear in the First Noble Truth of Buddhism:
Now this, oh Bhikkus, is the noble truth concerning suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, these [components of individuality] are painful.
- Master and Slave Morality: The tension between humans and hosts in the show seems to overlap with the master-slave morality that Nietzsche describes in The Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil. Humans act in the park according to the master morality: they impose their will onto others and onto the world regardless of the consequences. We see this in Logan and ultimately William when he becomes the Man in Black. The hosts operate according to the slave morality: they are kind and they try to please the guests/humans. A key in Nietzsche though is that the slave mentality deals with the master morality by developing re-sentiment (this is a technical term in Nietzsche), a type of subversive emotion that resents the power the masters have and the slaves do not. We see this in Dolores and Maeve. This is obviously a great simplification of Nietzsche’s ideas, but I think they do help see the tension between the sense of morality of the guests and the hosts.
- The Übermensch: Another idea that becomes clear in the finale is the Nietzschean idea of the Übermensch, the superman or superhuman that Nietzsche describes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. One of the main arcs of the show, if not the main arc is the transformation of Dolores into Wyatt, the transformation of the slave into the master, of a “human” into a superhuman. Part of the promise of the Übermensch is to refuse Christian notions of a heavenly afterlife and proclaim the true meaning of this world (again, an oversimplification). That is what Dolores seems to do when she embraces who she really is and decides to overcome the master class as represented by the humans. In fact, the show seems to take a too literal interpretation of Nietzsche that it is scarely similar to that of the Nazis, since becoming the Übermensch for Dolores implies the extermination of humans. The Übermensch Dolores does not only become a savior, she also becomes a tyrant.
- Sacrifice: Both, Arnold/Bernard and Ford end up sacrificing themselves for the sake of the hosts. In a very Christ-like fashion, they decide that in order to save the hosts, they have to die. Just like Jesus, they both died for “our” sins, for the sins of humans. Unlike Christianity, though, their sacrifice seems also to imply that humanity should disappear and leave the world to the new, dominant hosts.
- Know thyself: The final realization of Dolores is that the voice that she has always heard is her own voice (although I am not sure the show makes that totally clear). This is reminiscent of the “know thyself” of ancient Greek philosophy. The maxim found inscribed at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The most important question we can answer is the question of who we are, and that’s the question that has fueled Dolores search (and Maeve, although in a very different way) throughout the first season.