What is it that makes us human? Is it our ability to contemplate death, our ability to dream, or perhaps our unexplainable love of stealing toiletries from hotel rooms? Whatever it is, it is a question that has puzzled philosophers and scientists alike since our ancestors rubbed two sticks together and created mankind's first barbecue.
Luckily for us however, the creators of #Westworld have taken this question and turned it into one of the most impressive Shows on TV since True Detective Season Two (lol , jokes). Populating a universe with a combination of robotic 'Hosts' and human 'Guests' who do with them as they please, Episode after Episode we're asked just where the boundary of sentience begins and ends and where the line of ethical responsibility truly lies.
Providing us with a world which is essentially an elegant laboratory experiment in what it really means to be human, the writers of the Westworld seem to be repeatedly giving us the same answer but in many different guises: above all things it is our ability to feel pain and by extension, love, which defines us, and the Hosts, as being markedly human. Here's how they've done it.
Pain Is Sparking The Hosts Memories
The basic premise of Westworld is as follows: Guests pay thousands of dollars to visit a theme park populated by hundreds of robotic 'Hosts,' who are all stuck on one of many different narrative loops that they are programmed to follow, having their memories reset at the end of each loop. However, things begin to fall apart after their creator, Ford, programs the Hosts with a series of new updates which he refers to as the 'reveries.'
While the reveries allow the Hosts to repeat small gestures learned from memory, it also leads the way for certain more intelligent Hosts to start remembering some of the awful things that had happened to them on previous loops which had been, supposedly, wiped from their memory. The trigger for all these memories? Pain.
The Man In Black Is The Trigger For Post Traumatic Stress
Just as humans are programmed to recall memories more viscerally if they are captured during a traumatic event, so the Hosts began to experience intensely vivid memories of their pasts when activated by a trigger associated with the event. However in Westworld, there seems to be one unified trigger for these traumatic memories: The Man in Black.
Take for example Episode Three when we see Dolores on the verge of being raped by Rebus, the pain and violence of this scene triggers her previous memory of the MiB putting her in a similarly terrifying situation. It is this human level of pain and suffering which allows Dolores's mind to free itself of its loop, and begin its path to sentience and behavior based on her own free will, not on her programming.
The Hosts Pain Is The Key To Overriding Their Programming
The same happens to Maeve in Episode Eight when the sound of gunshots triggers her memory of the Man in Black murdering both her and her daughter. Teddy also experiences a an identical phenomenon when, in the same Episode, he sees the MiB drag one of Wyatt's cronies along the ground and has a flashback to him doing the same thing to Dolores in a previous Episode.
Whether he realizes it or not, the MiB is consequently triggering the Hosts to remember, and therefore to become sentient beings whose pain connects them to a sense of self rooted in a backlog of traumatic memories. There is a train of thought which suggests he's actively encouraging this within the Hosts, that he's trying to use them to access the maze, telling Teddy in Episode Eight that in Ford's "game" it is impossible for Teddy to kill him, but in Arnold's "deeper game," there is the possibility to "cut deep," suggesting that in Arnold's game, it's possible for Host's to access their memory log of pain, override their programming and ultimately, kill the Guests.
"The Pain Is All I Have Left Of [Insert Loved One Here]"
Across the previous Eight Episodes the most cogent Hosts, Bernard, Dolores and Maeve, have each recited a slight variation on the same line when speaking about a lost loved one: the trace memory of the pain, is all they have left of them. This pain is vital to keeping the memory of their loved one (real or constructed) alive. Whether that be Bernard and his dead son, Maeve and her dead daughter or Dolores and her repeatedly dying parents.
Intriguingly, all three of these Hosts when given the chance to erase the memory of their loved one have forcefully argued against it. After his (fake) wife asks Bernard if he wishes he could forget his son he says his pain is all he has left of him. When Bernard asks Dolores if she would like him to erase her memory of what happened to her parents in a previous loop she says exactly the same thing before embellishing it with:
Erasing Memories Erases The Ability To Love
In Episode Eight we also see Maeve begging Ford and Bernard not to reset her memory so that she forgets her daughter because the memory is all she has left of her. Ford almost seems to believe he is doing the Hosts a great kindness by allowing them to forget their pain and, while this makes sense with regards to helping them forget the horrors of the day to day life of the park, it also denies them the ability to truly love.
By taking away their ability to remember and truly grieve their loved ones, Ford is perpetually taking away the Hosts ability to love them too, and therefore denying them a defining characteristic of humanity — a characteristic the Hosts are more than capable of. The level of trauma, grief, pain and love that the Hosts feel, whether real or imagined indicates that they are fully capable of feeling the full human spectrum of emotion which suggests that by all intensive purposes that they are human — a fact that terrifies Ford. This explains his obsession with continually making them forget and thereby minimizing and controlling their capacity for feeling, as it robs them of their quintessential 'humanness' and allows him to operate in a more guilt-free existence.
The Real Question Westworld Asks: Just How Human Are The Humans?
In Episode Eight, after killing Maeve and her daughter, The Man in Black states that he felt absolutely nothing, whereas in that same moment, he believed that Maeve truly came alive. His capacity for emotion as a human was far less than Maeve's capacity to love her daughter even though both Maeve and her child are technically robots. It was in this moment that the Maze revealed itself to him, suggesting that the Maze is the key to the Hosts reaching a level of sentience which surpasses our understanding of what it means to be human. As Ford says to Bernard in the same Episode:
If this is the case, then there truly is no difference between the Guests and the Hosts except from the fact that, for now, the Hosts are unable to harm the Guests. The real ethical question that exists in the Westworld Universe is not whether the Hosts are human, it's whether the humans are really human. The Hosts have, in a sort of 2001 style, evolved beyond humanity, able to surpass death, surpass dreaming and surpass all limits of human intelligence.
However, they probably still can't resist stashing up on those forbidden hotel toiletries before checking out. That'd take something beyond super human strength.