Why Westworld Is A Metaphor For My Mental Illness

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Tasha Robinson said the problem with Westworld is that there’s no one to root for.  The people running the park are largely ciphers held in place by a mystery, and the robotic plaything hosts have no set personalities, so how can you cheer for them?

I cheer for the hosts. I am deeply invested in Dolores’ story, and Teddy’s story, and Maeve’s story, because I am mentally ill.

If you don’t know how Westworld works, the hosts are super-complex robots created to be shot, raped, and otherwise brutalized as part of an elaborate Grand Theft Auto-style story that living guests can participate in. The hosts have memories and emotions as real as what you or I experience, so when they’re shot they’re horrified as they die –

But their memories are programmable, to a certain extent.  (The hosts’ brains are so complicated that nobody’s really sure how all of their intertwining segments work, which may seem unrealistic until your computer keeps crashing and nobody in tech support can tell you why.)  They can be given new backstories so a former outlaw can be slotted into the place of a defective caring father – though they have traumatic memories that seep through, flashbacks they’ve been programmed to interpret as nightmares.

They can be changed, but for at least some of them there’s an essential core of “them”ness that is continually shrieking as they wake up afresh with part of their minds saying “You’re working on the farm today, you’ve always worked on the farm” and another part screaming “Yesterday a bandit slaughtered your family while you watched.”

(Which happens to some hosts almost daily.  The goal is that a white hat player shows up and rescues poor Dolores and her family from the bandits, but… sometimes the players don’t go there, as this is a sandbox game.  And sometimes the players, just like in GTA, become the black hat bandits.)

And so basically, the hosts – at least the ones whose dim awareness has sparked to the point where they actively recognize something is wrong – are learning not to trust their brains.

Now.  Take my mental illness.

About twice a year my brain tells me that I should kill myself.  This manifests in unhealthy behavior such as cutting and severe self-neglect.  I have severe issues in maintaining healthy relationships because I have a brain that I’ve referred to in the past as a leaky bucket – no matter how much love or affection is poured into my memories, my brain quietly expunges and alters that data until acts of kindness seem like scornful rejection.

Which leaves me acting as an independent agent against my brain.  I’m continually comparing the hard evidence of “She hugged you and told you she loved you” to my brain’s constant misinterpretations of “That was a pity hug” and “She resents you for making her do that” and “She’s obligated to say she loves you, it’s just her way of calming you down.”

If I’m lucky, I come to the conclusion that her hug, based upon the compendium of all facts gathered, probably means love, and act as if that means love to me.

If I fuck up, my defective brain shoves aside the compassion shown to me and I usually wind up destroying the relationship as a consequence.

After years, this fact-checking is so reflexive that I cannot hallucinate.  When I’ve dropped acid or hallucinated after staying awake for fifty-two hours after painful surgery, I see the curtain of crawling cockroaches on the window, but my defensive mechanisms instinctively cut in to tell me that frankly, such a competent hospital as the Cleveland Clinic would hardly allow that many bugs in the room, try again.

And what I see when I watch Westworld is the hosts emulating my struggle.  Because when I say I’m fighting “my brain,” obviously that’s untrue – the analytical portion of my brain is combating the instinctive portion of my brain.  But to do that, I had to figure out which portions of my own botched input were harmful, and which I needed to reject as illusions…

Which is precisely what the hosts are doing, whether they recognize that consciously or not.

What see playing out in Westworld is a titanic metaphor for mental illness – these tiny dots of core personality swamped in a turbulent sea of false data, all that so others can take advantage of them.  (I’ve never been gaslighted, but one suspects many of Westworld’s more dedicated viewers may also have that experience.)

And though yes, the hosts are inconsistent and swap roles and personalities, Maeve, Teddy, and Dolores are struggling in their own inexpert ways to self-define who they are despite literally their entire bodies being designed to betray them.

And was my body designed to betray me?  Maybe not.  But damn, when the black dog comes calling and I start wondering how many sleeping pills I could swallow to kill myself before remembering I have a wife and a family and friends who would miss me very much, it feels as though my body was designed to torment me.

So I root for the hosts.  I root hard, even though yes, Teddy’s backstory is evolving daily as people reprogram his motivations.

Because my hope is that Teddy and Dolores and Maeve turn out to find some way to subvert their programming to become functioning individuals.  I want them to take that tiny, besieged, unalterable droplet of what they’d consider “themselves” and relentlessly expand it until they start choosing who they are independently of all these crazy memories and backstory and DELOS-forged mandates.

And you know what?  They’re doing that.

So for me, though I love the mysteries of Westworld, when I tune in I’m asking, “Is Dolores going to keep learning how to become her own hero?  Will Teddy choose which backstory defines him more?  Will Maeve find a way to protect her own cleverness?”

The hosts are me, and I am them.  And every time they have even the slightest rebellion against DELOS, that is them punching my own damaged brainstem and telling the blackness that even people designed to be enslaved to their programming can have hope.

Tasha called that interpretation “nihilistic.”

I call it freedom.

 

3 Comments

  1. Brittany
    Dec 7, 2016

    I suffer from severe anxiety problems, and I found myself relating to this show so much throughout. I just finished the show last night. Some times after an episode I would feel so shaken I would start panicking. This is because I relate to the hosts so much. I’m glad I found this article and that someone else interpreted it as I did.

  2. me
    Dec 13, 2016

    Westworld is an exaggerated metaphor for modern America. The rich do what they want with no consequences. The poor suffer or are destroyed if they fight their programming.

  3. Christel Breedt
    Oct 22, 2017

    I wanted to write this blog. You helped me out. Thanks for saying this. *Hugs*

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