What Westworld Is Teaching Me About Love

Rachel Wood as Dolores on Westworld. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Just as all sentient life may arise from a single evolutionary mistake, so, too, can a love story. You mistakenly think your relationship is “fate.” You mistakenly project all your hopes and dreams onto a single person. You mistakenly justify poor behavior (“He’s just not responding to my texts because he’s busy”), and, much of the time, you don’t realize what you’re doing.

HBO’s new $100 million franchise hit Westworld isn’t just examining society’s basest appetites for depravity and violence in a revolutionary fashion, it’s also providing a beautiful metaphor for breaking down the building blocks of human love (and failure to love).

By richly unpacking conversations between the sci-fi park’s operators and its android hosts about simulated consciousness, Westworld inspires important questions about how our own basic drives can be similarly examined.

Do you have a “vague guilt” you’ve never dared question, like heroic cowboy Teddy (played by James Marsden), that prevents you from ever realizing love? Is your aggression dialed-up like Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) in a desperate and not even fully conscious attempt to increase your desirability?

These are questions Westworld has made me ask about my own relationship, and it’s about as close to a $40,000-a-day romp in the theme park as I’ll ever get.

“I can’t get enough of these secret creepy android talks,” I tell my husband as we watch robot Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood) meet with director of programming Bernard (played by Jeffrey Wright) to process the deeply upsetting grief she’s experiencing after her operating system has been upgraded to include “reveries,” which let her access past experiences and cognition.

Near hyperventilating with dismay, Dolores’s hysteria escalates until Bernard utters a command that changes everything. It’s magical and precise, and it’s one of three phrases I think humans should steal from the series ASAP in our own attempts to deconstruct love.

Command No. 1: “Limit your emotional affect, please.”

When Bernard utters these words, Dolores instantly shuts down her distracting, hyperemotionality in a way that most humans never can — because our own cores are laden with decades of ego, hubris, grief, and pain.

“I would love to be able to say that when we’re in the middle of a fight, and I’m sure you would, too,” my husband says.

“Really gets to the point, doesn’t it?” I respond.

We’re already fans of code words for communicating, and decide that “limit emotional affect, please” is now fair game. Yes, it sounds a bit ridiculous, but so are repeated arguments where you go from 0 to 100 instantly, screaming and thrashing without a moment of reasonable reflection. How refreshing to be able to say “I’m in pain because of what just happened” in a clinical versus borderline-manic tone. When emotions lead the way, the insults are greater, and the pain is more acute.

In the same way that the psychological principle of “detachment with love” can be an excellent tool for dealing with difficult people, so, too, can a concerted effort to get the drama under control. (Note: This is terrible advice if you’re a reality-TV producer. I imagine The Real Housewives of Westworld would feature the operative command, “Increase your wig-snatching affect, please.”)

Command No. 2: “Step into analysis please. What prompted that response?”

One of the most stunning moments in the secret Dolores-Bernard sessions occurs when she asks him a spontaneous question: The viewer knows Bernard lost his son, and one of the ways he’s processing his grief is by having Dolores read aloud from one of his son’s favorite books, Alice in Wonderland.

“Your son,” Dolores says, out of the blue. “Where is he now?”

“Nowhere you would understand, Dolores. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy our conversations so much.” He pauses and continues, “Analysis. Why did you ask me about my son?”

“We’ve been talking for some duration, and I haven’t asked you a personal question,” she says with the warmth of an accountant considering a tax write-off. “Personal questions are an ingratiating scheme.”

My husband and I obsess over this scene for two reasons: The refreshing concept of interrupting someone mid-thought to find out their motives, and the trust Dolores creates by admitting her objective.

“Is Dolores your favorite android?” I ask my husband.

“Analysis,” he responds. “Why did you ask me about my favorite android?”

“Men have strong sex drives,” I say, with the same emotionless clip as the android. “Asking about what sparks your sex drive is an ingratiating scheme.”

Command No. 3: “Stop. Lose all scripted responses. Improvisation only.”

As Bernard suffers an existential crisis trying to imbue Dolores with more consciousness, he confesses, “I think it would be better if I restored you to the way you were before.”

“Is there something wrong with me?” she asks.

“No, but this place you live in, it’s a terrible place for you,” he responds.

“Well,” Dolores replies in a script we’ve heard countless times, “some people choose to see the ugliness in this world …”

“Stop,” Bernard says. “Lose all scripted responses. Improvisation only.”

Suddenly, their entire conversation becomes way more honest — grippingly so. “All right,” Dolores responds. “You’re saying I’ve changed.”

Have you ever been in the middle of a fight with a loved one when suddenly déjà vu takes hold? You’ve had the argument before, and yet the person gives you the same line you’ve already heard a million times? “I can’t because …” “What you don’t understand is …” “Let’s just agree to disagree.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to pull out a verbal command sword like Bernard’s and cut through the clutter of the other person’s defenses?

“So what are my go-to scripts?” I asked my husband.

“It’s more of a defensive thing you do,” he said. “You might launch into a script about how I’m hypercritical when I’m trying to tell you how I feel about something.”

“Yeah, that is a bit predictable, isn’t it?” I observe. “Like you just want me to react in an earnest way to address your feelings, and I’m turning it back on you?”

“Exactly,” he says.

It’s easy to see how we both fall back on reliable fight moves, and how freeing it would be to say “lose all scripted responses” instead. I see this as a more delicate way of saying “drop the bullshit,” and I’m more than willing to do so.

What Westworld Is Teaching Me About Love