Big warning: This article contains SPOILERS! If you aren’t caught up with HBO’s Westworld, you might want to skip this one.
After watching the first episode of HBO’s new sci-fi drama “Westworld” a few weeks back, I walked away with a head full of questions.
It was definitely a more cerebral show than I was expecting and even more so than the original movie which, while still heavy on the themes, was much lighter.
Amid this “braingasm”, I started wondering if it would be a fun exercise to see if I could read the show allegorically using Gnostic mythology.
There were definitely hints of this in the first episode (notably. in its main themes of ignorance, life and death, creation and destruction, etc.) but it wasn’t until I saw more of this world that I began to wonder if this wasn’t perhaps intentional on the part of the writers. After all, I honestly wouldn’t put it past Jonathan Nolan who seems like a pretty well-read kind of guy (and who has used similar themes in past works, like Memento).
So is Gnosticism or a Gnostic cosmos the framing device for Westworld both as a world and as a narrative? Well, I don’t have any hard and fast answers for that one, but I think there’s a pretty strong argument in its favour.
What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism (from the Greek root word for “knowledge”) is a religious and philosophical framework which was used by many ancient civilizations to understand their universe and the religious worlds they inhabited.
In essence, it privileged “knowledge” and the need for one to “know the truth” about their reality above all else. Something along the lines of “the Truth will set you free.”
It’s important to bear in mind that this not a religion, or a series of religious traditions – even though we have the tendency to call some religious “Gnostic Religions”.
Instead, we should look at Gnosticism as an element, or an approach to a tradition. A single religious tradition can have both Gnostic and non-Gnostic practitioners and adherents – the difference is in their emphasis. Gnostics emphasize knowledge and “knowing God” while others tend to focus on devotion and rituals.
Note and disclaimer: unlike tons of earlier scholarship, it’s now a given that Gnosticism as a term is a bit of a misnomer and has the tendency to inaccurately congeal a wide variety of religious and philosophical experiences together when they should be separate. I’m quite aware of this, but for the sake of convenience, I’ll stick with “Gnosticism” knowing its flaws.
Plus it means I won’t have to dish out a crash course in a half-dozen schools of thought (everything from Middle to Neo-Platonism, to Manichaeism, to Valentianism, etc.)
So with that in mind, let’s looks over a couple of things and see where this reading can take us!
A World of Ignorance
The show opens with the lines “have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” It’s posed as a question and a challenge to Dolores, the host in Westworld who is slowly becoming more aware of the park’s true nature.
We see over the course of the first episode how every host who wanders through Westworld is ignorant of their true reality. To them, it’s a small patch of land in the Old American West, but to the viewer and the employees up in the control centre, we know it’s actually a simulation.
The opening question is also given to us, the audience, as a framing device, as a way of hinting at what the show is really about underneath all the blood, sex and violence. Perhaps we the viewers should also look deeper and question the nature of the show itself.
The Search for Knowledge
Ignorance is stated as the challenge, as the problem, but there’s also a solution: knowledge.
Salvation in these sorts of religious systems isn’t posited as believing in one God or another, but in realization the truth to the nature of our realities. In this sense, this is the same quest for salvation that is placed on the hosts in the park – as well as many of the other human characters and guests.
So where wood a good Gnostic story be without a quest for knowledge?
Let’s look at a few characters where we see this sort of Gnostic quest taking shape in at least the past few episodes:
1) William (one of the human guests) is told by his “friend” Logan that he brought him to this place to help him discover who he really is.
2) Dolores, our central host, has a larger story arc where she appears to be experiencing a slow awakening – an enlightenment, perhaps – as she remembers more of the past and knows more about what kind of place Westworld is beneath all the veneer.
She hasn’t hit the nail of the head just yet, but she has begun to not only question her reality and her place in it (she tells her lover Teddy that she feels called for something greater, and possibly further away).
If the narrative goes according to plan, one can assume that knowledge (once she acquires more of it) will completely change her worldview and in essence “wake her up” from this nightmare.
Plus let’s not forget that shots of her opening her eyes are a recurring visual motif in the series.
3) Maeve (the head mistress at the bar) also appears to be going on a similar journey to that of Dolores. With each passing episode, she seems to have more and more flashbacks. By the end of episode four, she discovers a truth that lets her know none of her world is as real as she thought it was.
Perhaps even more interesting about her story and her quest is the story she frequently tells guests when they first arrive in her saloon. According to her, she came from “the old world” took a ship and arrived in this “new world”. On the surface, it seems to suggest Europe and the Americas (though those words were never even uttered so far.. is this even Earth?), but going deeper into our mythology it sounds like a reference to a descent. Did Maeve leave the higher world, the more perfect one, and is somewhat aware that she arrived in this lesser one of ignorance?
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret that one, but one other possibility is that she is referencing her own creation – from the perfect, formless matter all the hosts came from, down to her present, flawed form.
4) Even the Man in Black, while likely an antagonist in the larger story, is also on a quest for knowledge. Though his motivations are shady, we know he believes there is something more to the park – “another level” – and he’s trying to piece things together to find it.
There are clues that this is also a Gnostic quest: the discovery of the map underneath the hosts’ scalp; the slow unravelling of information from the hosts (notably, from Lawrence’s daughter) that lead him deeper down the rabbit’s hole; the need to discover “the serpent” (itself, in Gnostic mythology, as a keeper and provider of knowledge); etc.
Bernard as Sophia or Messenger
Sophia – the personification of wisdom in the form of a divine being – is often charged with delivery knowledge to the world of creation down below. In this case, a possible character similarity would be Bernard, the programmer, who has frequent secret talks with Dolores. In these scenes he seems to be pushing her towards her upcoming revelation about the truth of her world.
If Bernard does not stand in for Sophia, it is also possible that he is intended to serve as the often used “divine messenger” figure in gnostic parables (notably, the Manichaean creation myth). While not the embodiment of wisdom, the messenger still travels from the world above to the world below to deliver or demonstrate a powerful truth to its inhabitants. Again, this can be reflected in his talks with Dolores.
Ford as the Demiurge
In Gnostic cosmology, there is a true God and a lesser one known as the demiurge who (in their arrogance and ignorance) created the physical world. However, this world is far from perfect. It’s filled with mistakes and errors – ones that make it possible and perhaps more convincing – but flawed nonetheless.
In our series, Ford frequently talks about “mistakes” or how the world began with a “mistake.” As the architect or founder of Westworld, he is also the creator figure. He even refers to himself as such in episode one during his talk with Dolores’ father.
Though the existence of a demiurge also signals the need for there to be a higher “true” God in the cosmology. Now, I wonder who could that possibly be?
Arnold as the Higher God?
Arnold is a mysterious character who we haven’t yet met, except in recollection and possibly through flashback. However, the information we have is pretty elusive.
We’re told by Ford that he is dead, yet given no evidence to back up this claim. It seems quite likely that this is an error or a purposeful misdirection from the part of Ford. Indeed, in our mythology the demiurge is usually not made aware that there is any God other than himself. Ignorance, after all, goes hand in hand with the demiurge.
But what evidence do we have that Arnold representative of some higher God? One hint comes from Ford who tells us that in the beginning, Arnold created a perfect world (which mirrors a commonly seen trope in Gnostic storytelling that there was a perfect world before this broken one). Everything was perfect in this world except – as Ford calls puts it – no one could die.
Now, eternal life doesn’t sound like much of a flaw to my ears, but it could be a hint as to what was going on with Arnold. If Arnold created an original park where no one could die, it sounds quite a bit like the original plan the “true” Gods in Gnostic mythology have for living beings – a world of perfection, where there is no death.
This idea is even represented in the Hebrew Bible book of Genesis (which came to be no small source of later inspiration). God created the perfect Garden of Eden, where there was no death, and everything seemed perfect. However, eating from the tree of knowledge upset the whole plan and people had to deal with the consequences.
Light and Dark Dualism
In some Gnostic cosmology (*cough* Manichaeism), the universe is divided between absolute light and absolute dark.
Light – standing in for all that is good and true – is at an eternal standstill, an opposite of dark – standing in for all that is evil and ignorant.
People, by their existence the product of a flawed demiurge and perfect higher God, have access to both of these natures. One can choose light or dark, as reflected by their actions.
The nature duality is made fairly evident in the scene where Logan has to choose his hat, and he’s given the choice of light or dark. He chooses light, while his “friend” Logan appears later wearing black.
As the story progresses, both of their choices reflect the colours of their choosing – Will as the “good guy” who restrains from violence and boldly desires, Logan as the increasingly chaotic and violent “bad guy” who succumbs to every desire.
Heck, if I’m not mistaken, Logan even uses hat colours as a metaphor for classifying good and bad actions in Westworld.
Life emerges from the Pleroma
And lastly, those big white vats.
In Gnostic creation myths, all living beings are originally, and truly, a soul or a spirit that emerged from a larger collective of like substances. However, as part of the creation story, these souls get encased in matter and become flawed (thanks, demiurge).
From the opening credits to the frequent scenes in the creepy room with the vats, we’re shown that the hosts are created from the same fibres from the same machines.
They also literally emerge from big white vats and then get encased with their external features. It’s not a huge leap to read this as souls being taken from the collective and then trapped in matter.
It’s not a perfect theory (in fact, it’s pretty messy in some parts, and I had to reach sparingly from a whole pool of different Gnostic traditions to fill in just these blanks) but is it a plausible theory?
I’m quite aware that we as an audience now a tendency to over-read shows and narratives, and our interpretation greatly depends on our own backgrounds, but I’m definitely standing in the “Yes” camp.
It’s possible that this has been an active, guiding idea on the part of the writers since square one. Even if it’s not, I think there is too much thematic similarity for them to have not at least been influence by these ideas, or borrowed a few for storytelling purposes.
But then again, who knows? We’re only four episodes in. A lot can happen over the course of the rest of the season. Maybe the whole thing will degenerate into a generic human vs host war (but here’s hoping for otherwise)!