In one of season one’s biggest reveals, Westworld viewers learn that the timid and mild-mannered William is the younger version of the violent, sinister, mission-driven Man in Black. It is hard to believe that the reserved, hesitant young man we meet in the pilot is the same person as the vicious, unmerciful rogue who kills and abuses androids like they’re mere rodents or flies. Throughout the season viewers witness the key events that lead to this transformation and the birth of a new character, or at least a character that is unrecognisable in relation to his former self. Viewers are left to ponder whether the Man in Black was William’s “true self” all along, or whether the events William experienced unleashed a new set of character traits.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on freedom can help us understand not just the Man in Black’s identity, but our own. Sartre argues that freedom is not about whether one can act outside of a causal chain. Instead, it’s an ongoing process of building oneself in the world. Sartre argues that freedom is rooted in the nature of human beings’ consciousness. We are the only beings, in Sartre’s view, who form a conception of self by contrasting ourselves with what we’re not. An exploration of our world and environment, or “situation” as Sartre calls it, is necessary for developing our own essence or identity. Sartre refers to our created essence as an existential “project” in the sense that is an ongoing task. He argues that human consciousness is forward-looking, that is to say, we project ourselves towards a future that we are not yet, but strive to be. Because we organise ourselves around a not yet existent future, our essence is not fixed, but in flux. We are at all times able to make a new choice of ourselves in the world.
In Sartre’s view of human nature, freedom is considered an unconditional aspect of human existence. Sartre argues that individuals make a choice of themselves in the world by projecting themselves toward a set of ends. These ends when considered holistically constitute an individual’s “project”. The project is an image we have of ourselves that we use to organise our thoughts, motives, goals, and choices. It is a self we hope to be, but an image we can never completely fulfil. This is what Sartre means when he says that we define ourselves negatively. The existential project is not static but ongoing; it is a dynamic process of directing our freedom towards our chosen ends. Our self, then, does not have a fixed essence, rather, it is a continuous and fluid interaction with the world. Through our project we discover what the world is for us by interpreting and valuing it in light of our chosen ends. “This constantly renewed act is not distinct from my being; it is a choice of myself in the world and by the same token it is a discovery of the world.”
The ends we pursue are used to organise the objects of our experience, and we give meaning to the objects of our perception based on our project. Sartre writes, “In fact, it is this original choice which originally creates all causes and all motives which can guide us to partial actions; it is this which arranges the world with its meaning, its instrumental-complexes, and its coefficient of adversity.”
We do not choose a project based on prior motives or conscious states; rather our motives, actions, and conscious states are a product of the project we have already chosen. Sartre says that the project: “[E]xpresses the finite choice which [the human being] has made of himself. But henceforth what makes his person known to him is the future and not the past; he chooses to learn what he is by means of ends toward which he projects himself.”
We create who we are by the ends toward which we direct ourselves. We have no blueprint or pre-given essence, rather, we create ourselves in a renewed and dynamic interaction with the world. The choice of project is never made against a blank slate. Rather, we formulate a project through an interiorisation of our given environment, and the tools and concepts made available to us.
The existential project is always malleable, and we are always free to make a new choice of ourselves in the world and choose a new set of ends. This is considered an existential rupture, and is characterised “by an abrupt metamorphosis of my initial project – i.e. by another choice of myself and of my ends. Moreover this modification is always possible.” According to Sartre, our choices are always made in light of an array of possibilities laid out in front of us that we choose to either affirm or deny. A change in our project would necessitate projecting ourselves towards different ends and affirming different possibilities. In order to formulate a new pattern of behaviour, a new existential project must be chosen, and then possibilities affirmed or denied based upon this new choice.
Freedom in Sartre’s view, then, is not about the freedom to choose a particular action, but the ability to choose ourselves in the world. However, the choice will always be made in light of the influences of one’s social and material situation.
Also relevant to our analysis is Sartre’s notion of “bad faith” or a lie to oneself. Sartre says that bad faith occurs when human beings deny their freedom, or deny elements of facticity. Facticity can be defined as the limits that are imposed on human beings by their situations. Facticity is the immediate and necessary connection of human consciousness with the material world. For example, a person’s birth, race, nationality, class, living conditions, or past are all facets of one’s being that contribute to one’s identity. Bad faith arises when someone either denies elements of facticity, or denies one’s free consciousness capable of transcending certain facets of facticity. Sartre’s famous example of bad faith is a waiter in a café. In one sense he is a waiter because it is a part of his facticity. However, because of the waiter’s free consciousness, he does not exist as a waiter in a permanent state like a physical object.
“[T]he waiter in the cafe cannot be immediately a café waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell or the glass is a glass…it is not that I do not wish to be this person or that I want this person to be different. But rather there is no common measure between his being and mine…But if I represent myself as him, I am not he; I am separated from him as the object from the subject…Yet there is no doubt that I am in a sense a café waiter – otherwise could I not just as well call myself a diplomat or a reporter? But if I am one, this can not be in the mode of being in-itself. I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.”
The waiter exists in bad faith if he considers himself simply a waiter, because his consciousness can transcend his situation as a waiter and he is ultimately free to take up a new role. But he is also in bad faith if he denies that he is in some way a waiter; it is a role he plays and part of his social situation. Bad faith arises when we focus only on our freedom without admitting our facticity, or focus only on our facticity and deny our freedom to choose.
In “The Bicameral Mind”, the Man in Black explains to Dolores how his younger self searched for her in the park. Although he couldn’t find her, his violent quest to do so led him to a different discovery. “William couldn’t find you,” he tells Dolores. “But out there, among the dead, he found something else: himself.” With this line, the Man in Black suggests that his android killing spree brought out his true self, or real identity. The diffident William, he believes, was really the Man in Black waiting to be unleashed. But examining William’s transformation into the Man in Black through a Sartrean lens leads to a radically different perspectiveonhis journey. Rather than finding his “true self” in the park, the collection of his experiences there – falling in love with Dolores, his pain of losing her, his path to find her, and the final click when he realised it was for naught and she did not recognise him – led to an existential rupture. With this rupture, he projected himself towards a new set of ends in light of a new image of himself.
Let us consider William’s existential project when he first arrives. He was mild-mannered, engaged to Juliet, and quite unsure of what to make of the park. In “Chestnut”, after being introduced to the park by a Westworld host, he completes his costume with a white hat – perhaps a symbol of how he viewed himself as innocent and pure. This collection of ends together comprised William’s identity, and in light of his current project he chose the white hat. When William goes for a walk in “The Stray”, still unsure of what to make of the park, a gunfight breaks out on the street. When Clementine is taken hostage, William feels himself compelled to take action. Again, we can consider this action as stemming from his existential project at the time. He feels compelled to help because he sees himself as someone who comes to the aid of others. In this encounter, he is then “shot” by an android, and he shoots the android bandit in order to rescue Clementine. As he nurses his wound, it is clear the adrenaline gave him quite a high and he liked the feeling of being the hero. While he has not yet had an existential rupture, the seeds are clearly being sewn for his self-transformation.
As William explores and discovers the park with Dolores, he is gradually seduced by its allure and finds himself falling in love with her. In “Dissonance Theory”, when a sheriff host attempts to bring Dolores back to Sweetwater, William bravely steps in and says she’s with him. This manner of asserting himself seems out of character from the William we saw in “Chestnut”. With these subtle actions he is gradually making a new choice of ends. When Logan takes William and Dolores to meet with El Lazo, the group agree to rob the android Union soldiers. When Logan gets violent and the soldiers retaliate, William kills the Union androids to protect Logan and Dolores. Again, William seems to be enjoying the role of being a hero and sees himself and the park in a new light. When he first arrived, he interpreted everything he saw in terms of the image he had of himself as above the vulgar pleasures of the park. Thus, he looked down on the events happening there with disdain or disgust. But the possibility of being a hero and having a beautiful (android) woman fall in love with him begins to change this perception.
William begins to wonder if his previous project is the project he truly wants. In “Trompe L’Oeill”, he confesses to Dolores that he has a fiancée, Juliet. When she exits the train, he goes after her and passionately pleads: “I’ve been pretending my whole life. Pretending I don’t mind, pretending I belong. My life’s built on it. And it’s a good life, a life I’ve always wanted. But then I came here, and I get a glimpse for a second of a life in which I don’t have to pretend. A life in which I can be truly alive. How can I go back to pretending when I know what this feels like?
After the two make love on the train, William tells Dolores he doesn’t regret it and that he believes she unlocked something in him. William admits that his perspective on the park has changed. He tells Dolores, “I used to think this place was all about pandering to your baser instincts. Now I understand. It doesn’t cater to your lowest self, it reveals your deepest self. It shows you who you really are.” William has a new perspective onwho he wants to be and the ends he wants to pursue. At this point we cannot yet say that William has gone through an existential rupture, although he is clearly rethinking his current project. These few days in the park where he has felt a new sense of adventure and an opening of previously unexplored territory make him question whether the life he has been living up to now is actually for him. His old choice of project was made in light of his situation, including the societal expectations that influenced his understanding of the world and what it meant to live a good life. The park is a completely different social world where he has a brand new set of possibilities to choose from. Thus it is a perfect setting for an existential rupture.
It is the more drastic and violent interaction with Logan and then the loss of Dolores that leads to William’s existential rupture. In “The Well Tempered Clavier”, Logan takes William and Dolores to an android Union camp and ties them up. William begs for Logan to help him get Dolores out of the park, as he believes she is different from the other androids. Logan is unaffected by William’s request and after showing him the photo of his fiancée, stabs Dolores to remind William of her robotic insides. When Logan later awakes both injured and confused, there are gruesomely dismembered host bodies surrounding him. William cleans his knife and seems pleased with himself. With a newfound confidence, he lets Logan know that he will find Dolores. He adds, “You said this place was a game. Last night I finally understood how to play it.”
In the “Bicameral Mind”, we see the completion of William’s transformation. In his search for Dolores, his new primary goal, he approaches a camp of android hosts and shoots them all. As he rides from the scene, the photo of his fiancée falls from his pocket, signifying the end of his previous project. His full transformation into the Man in Black is not complete until he finally finds Dolores back in Sweetwater. After all this time, he discovers she is not only unimpressed by seeing him again, she does not recognise him and is ready to start a new adventure with a new guest who picks up her dropped can. William realises that even in finding Dolores he has still lost her, and that the love between them was artificial and contrived. Thus, his existential rupture is complete, and he picks up a black hat. The black hat symbolises the new darker version of himself that he has chosen – his new project as the Man in Black.
In “The Bicameral Mind”, the Man in Black tells the future Dolores that although he couldn’t find her, “Out there, among the dead, he found something else: Himself.” Sartre would argue that the Man in Black is in a state of bad faith – a lie to himself. William’s/The Man in Black’s existential project is not a “true self” in the sense of a self that exists prior to his emergence into a world that he interprets according to the ends he pursues. His project is a set of choices that, when viewed holistically, comprise his essence or self. Believing that his android killing spree revealed his true essence to him is a denial of his freedom to choose. It is also revealed that the Man in Black takes on quite a different persona outside the park, where he is actually a philanthropist.
According to Sartre’s view, at the deepest level the Man in Black knows that his “true self” is a lie and the role he chooses to play in the park is a set of ends he chooses to value. He denies his freedom because in telling himself that this is simply who he is, he can absolve himself of responsibility for the harm he causes in the park.
It is uncertain what the second season of Westworld will bring or where the characters will go next. The androids are now free to fight back, and in the Man in Black’s final scene he smiles when he is finally shot by an android. We don’t know yet how this will influence his project or how he will choose to direct his freedom. Uncertainties about the future strike at the heart of Sartre’s existentialism – the future is open and the paths we ultimately take are still left to be decided. In Sartre’s words, “I am an infinity of possibilities.”