HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Stumbles Upon a Catholic Dogma

“Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” (CCC 390)

‘Westworld’ creator Jonathan Nolan
‘Westworld’ creator Jonathan Nolan (photo: Genevieve719 and RanZag, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I love stories. I read a lot and I like going to the movies and watching quality television ... and some not so quality, to be honest. I truly believe that the human mind is made to respond to stories. Whenever Jesus wanted to explain something to us, He told a story.

I love the insights of artists who can really make us see things in a new way or perhaps more clearly. Even in violent movies, I am touched by a moment of grace like the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who has a sudden revelation of love in the midst of horrific violence.

The critically acclaimed HBO show Westworld has everyone talking right now. This article will remain spoiler-free but the second season finale had many twists and turns and has many people talking. But what interests me is the show's view of humanity, which is ... quite dire. And I'm totally on board with that. I'm all about the dire. I believe that people desperately need help of the supernatural variety. Westworld co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan's talked about his show's indictment of humanity with Entertainment Weekly. Mind you, his language is salty but the point is a good one.

“No, it’s a ... disaster,” he said. “It’s a ... total disaster. And every time I turn on the news I’m provided with fodder for our discontent. I think our timing might have been exactly right on. Listen, I’m surrounded by the wonders of the creations of human beings. I have children and [co-showrunner Lisa Joy] and I are reminded daily of how much beauty there is in humanity. But yeah, you turn on the ... news and it’s a s—tshow. And I’ve been reading a lot of history this season, a little bit connected to the show, but also just following the train of things I’m interested in, and it’s depressing to realize how familiar some of these problems are, right? It’s like we just can’t figure these ... things out. We come back to them again and again. It’s as if there’s a flaw — and this is very much the premise in our second season — there’s a flaw in our code and it follows us around. Wherever we go, there we are. And we just can’t get out of our own ... way. All the beauty and incredible things we brought, and we just consistently find a way to (mess) it up.” Continued Nolan: “Much of (dramatic storytelling across the ages) has concerned itself with ‘how will we overcome?’ and personal growth and change.
At a certain point you gotta ... call it. We’re not going to fix this (stuff), we’re not going to figure it out. But there’s an opportunity for the things that replace us to do so. And that’s the dream of every parent, right? That their child doesn’t face the same things they do, that they make better choices? But there does seem to be a pattern of behavior that follows us, that history echoes from the past, the same mistakes, the same foibles. So you say: At what point does this fix itself? Or are we just stuck this way?”

There's a flaw in our code. I like that. A perfect diagnosis. We are broken. We are broken but beautiful. That's perfect. And he's also right that it is the same brokenness that's always existed. Pride, jealousy, sloth. These sounding familiar?

Interestingly, what Westworld is getting recognition for saying, has been taught by the Church for 2,000 years. Westworld, in its own creative way, is merely diagnosing original sin. The problem is that while it diagnoses the disease, it offers no cure. In the end, it is a dark show that doesn't even shine a light on the darkness but just invited the viewer to sit and observe all the awful and horrible things that move in the darkness of man's mind. I am reminded of the first time I read Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons" and thinking that his ability to diagnose humanity's faults and society's ills was unparalleled. But as I read it I was saddened that he seemed to ignore the cure.

Hollywood has many insightful and talented artists working there. And television with its long form stories have risen to prominence in the past two decades with some of the most enduring and memorable characters. I watched Breaking Bad until the end. It was brilliantly written and performed. And to me, it had a lot to say about humanity and morality. In fact, it was the absence of Christianity in Walt's life that was so heartbreaking. His materialistic Machiavellian situational ethics led him down a terrible dark road in which even his wish to pay for his son's college was carried out with the threat of violence. But in the end, Walt sacrificed himself for another, in what could be considered a moment of grace.

But Westworld portrays humanity as violent, envious, proud, selfish and ugly. And at some level it's accurate. The show focuses on the fall because falls are always exciting because at the end you know there's going to be a crash and there's going to be pieces scattering. At some point though, art should be about picking up the pieces of a broken world. Because there is redemption. There is grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice. There is love. I'd like to see that reflected as well.