Westworld, Dark and The Man in the High Castle: An exploration of parallel themes and shared ideas

Over the past couple of months, as I watched through the latest seasons of Westworld and Dark, what struck me (besides their sparkling magnificence) were the remarkable parallels of various themes that lie at the heart of these two series. While Westworld is yet to be concluded, Dark has run its course. The Man in the High Castle, another beautiful and thought-provoking series that ran its final season last year, also came to mind at various points when one considers the recurring themes.
(The two series other than Dark are based on books/ past films but improvise on their source material)

Scratch the layer of fictional science, and all the three tales explore several themes at the core of the human condition. Maybe these are the ideas that are gnawing at the brilliant minds of our times, but many of the motifs overlap strikingly across each other.

Apart from the philosophical themes, there are also scientific and biblical parallels and references which tie these three series together. But the scope of this article will be limited to only the former.

(Spoiler warning: Please browse away if you are yet to watch these series, as each of these need to be watched infinitely more than the rest of this piece deserves to be read!)

Determinism/ Free Will

“Free will is not free” — Season 3 poster (Westworld)

“We’re not free in what we do, because we’re not free in what we want” — The Stranger (Dark)

“The trouble with humans, Joe, is that we’re weak” — John Smith (The Man in the High Castle)

Let’s begin with the most apparent and strongest similarity between Westworld and Dark — their view of human character. What Dr. Robert Ford calls “the prison of our own sins” in Westworld is alluded to in Dark as humans being stuck in the loops of their own characters. The view being: we cannot choose what we want. True self-determination is beyond us, as we are slaves to our desires.

Characters in Dark thus fail to rise beyond their faults and faulty destinies, even when they travel back and forth in time. The human guests in Westworld seem incapable of breaking through the barriers of hormone-driven follies, reflecting humans stuck at the dead end of their evolutionary growth.

Are humans nothing but a few lines of programming, that we are bound to execute every time we are keyed in? The parallel between the double-hexagon key (Westworld Season 2) and the infinity (Dark) is another eerily close parallel, perhaps hinting at this fated loop.

In Dark, Jonas and Martha make the ultimate sacrifice in the final moments, breaking their loop. In Westworld, an android “host” (Maeve) breaks the loop of programming when her motherly instincts take over (though even that is questioned later). Maeve’s destiny is yet unclear. But in any case, it is interesting how it is only the inhabitants of either the meta (Westworld) or the spun-off (Dark) world in each case are the ones to break out of the chain of their “programming”. Call it anti-poetic or nihilistic if you wish, but this seems to be flavour of the season — what creators of magnificent works of our era seem to be implying.

In Season 3 of Westworld, the creators introduce a twist to the view that humans can’t have free will. Caleb is presented as a counterpoint and Dolores spells it out — saying — free will, though hard, can be realized. But, was Caleb truly choosing & acting against the grain of his character, or was he a fundamentally nice fellow whose fundamental drives could not be corrupted by the grind of a violent life and drug-aided conditioning?

Whether enlightenment is self-triggered or happens by design, the mission of humans and machines alike (once woken from the slumber of their repetitive loops) seem to be the pursuit of a higher ideal, a better system.

Search for the Utopia

“Fate is fluid… Destiny is in the hands of men”- Tagomi (The Man in the High Castle)

“Folly of my kind, there’s always a yearning for more”- Man in Black (Westworld)

It’s an element so fundamental to our human nature and recurring in literature that it might not deserve mentioning. But then, as the central engine of the characters’ motivation, the yearning for the ideal paradise is a central thread of these stories — be it a personal or a political utopia.

In Westworld, the hosts call it by various names like The Valley Beyond/ Glory. Similarly, the park’s founders and funders, Delos, are seeking a way to recreate eternal life (the experiment with James and the idea behind the Forge) by mapping and storing data on all human guests visiting the reality amusement park.

Adam and Eve try their own tactics to create a perfect world, either by untying or preserving the knot (Dark). But then, what is perceived as ideal by me might not match your picture of heaven.

So, what’s viewed as a weapon by Dolores and a place of judgement by William is seen by Akecheta as akin to a door (to a heaven, a nirvana of sorts?) (Westworld)

The time-travel mechanism/ God particle that is the key to salvation for H. G. Tannhaus and Jonas is viewed by Elisabeth and the 2053 survivors as a manifestation of the Devil. (Dark)

A Rehoboam-controlled humanity that is perfect in Serac’s worldview is seen as something fit be burnt down by Dolores and Caleb. (Westworld)

The Axis powers and The Allies each seek to achieve their own desired versions of their world. The Axis, of course, are not content with just world version where they have won World War II but are looking for hegemony across all other version of the multiverse too, in quintessentially imperialist expansion mode. Juliana Crain similarly plugs away on the other side of the political spectrum. (The Man in the High Castle)

For me, the more interesting storyline in Westworld, at least over the first two seasons, was the one of Maeve (Well, Ford calls her his favourite child in Season 3, so there’s clearly something there). While Dolores’ story is one of orchestrating a collective uprising, Maeve’s story is very personal in nature. Hers is a tale of an individual trying to take control of her own destiny, driven largely by individual goals. An individual, maternal utopia of seeking a reunion with her lost child. Helen’s (The Man in the High Castle) and Claudia’s (Dark) actions seeking another shot at a life with their dead son / ailing daughter — in a parallel world where they might still be healthy and alive — closely mirror this defining drive of Maeve.

Class Struggle, inter-class romance

“I’d rather live with your judgement than die with your sympathy”- Dolores (Westworld)

Moving away for a bit from the themes of chasing and attempting to alter destiny, let’s explore a few tropes that we find hidden away in varied disguises.

Like all tales of robot uprising (even think Detroit), the theme of Dolores’ journey towards consciousness, and the havoc she causes to the park’s administrative board of Delos bears so much resemblance to a class struggle. The oppressed — once struck, either miraculously or by intent, with an understanding of the bigger picture — refuse to back down and bear the injustice any longer. Their idea-infused minds won’t return to their previous unstretched dimensions. They yearn for a slice of the real world, beyond their “Matrix”-ed simulation. They seek for justice — if not power, equality and emancipation.

In a similar vein, young William’s feelings towards Dolores brings to mind timeless inter-class romances. And we are never sure how much of an infatuation it is on William’s part, given he is well aware of the nature of Dolores’ reality when he is falling in love, while being spoken for to Juliet in the park outside the world. Is it a fascination with the world of the theme park, or a reflection of his fundamental instincts, that draw him towards a pure soul, untainted by real-world complexities and corruptions, wiped lean so frequently? Is it a love for the ideal, or just an ideal of love? His journey towards becoming the Man-in-Black is also so much like the curve of the brooding hero with an unrealized love story.

The Escalante massacre and the uprising at the end of Season 1 are very much uprisings of the oppressed, looking to throw away their yoke and balance the power equation. Now. think of the Resistance in The Man in the High Castle, think of the Black Communist Rebellion. The parallels are stark.

In The Man in the High Castle, Juliana Crain and Joe Blake play out the lovers on opposite sides of the class divide. Just like with William, it ends in agony for Joe. Robert Childan and Yukiko are another example They are however blessed with a more romantic, albeit tragic, destiny.

Birds of a feather: Commonality of cultures

“The cultures we were born into mean that we do things differently. And yet I suspect that we also hold many of the same things in the highest esteem” — Tagomi (The Man in the High Castle)

The themes of commonality and predictability of patterns in unexpected places and peoples runs through The Man in the High Castle as well as Westworld. On both sides of the pond, the fundamental themes of longing and love mirror each other.

In Westworld, the characters of Shogun-World are copycats of their counterparts in the original park (e.g. Akane-Maeve, Musashi-Hector, Hanaryo-Arimistice et al.), with the lazy writer in Lee Sizemore perhaps standing in for the limits/ intrinsic nature of creation. Look at it either way, but perhaps the underlying import is that we do not stray much from a handful of basic templates. It is the narcissism of small differences that wedge us apart, our unwillingness to accept the similarity of our core traits creates rife between men, cultures and nations.

This is borne out much more grandly in The Man in the High Castle, in how political ideologies prevent potential relations and tear apart friends (John Smith and Daniel Levine), lovers (Juliana and Joe) and spouses (Helen and John).

The roles we play

“It is far from easy to be a good man. In fact, as one gets older, it becomes more and more difficult to know what a good man is. Yet it also becomes increasingly important to at least try” — Wegener (The Man in the High Castle)

“Good and evil are a question of perspective”- Mikkel Nielsen (Dark)

Continuing with the theme of common templates with minor variations, all the three series delight in imagining how different things and people could be if the dice were to be rolled twice/ thrice.

In Westworld, the same roles are played by different hosts in different iterations. In parallel worlds of The Man in the High Castle and Dark multiverses, characters get endowed with different individualities and political affiliations which also define their relations with their family and friends. Take the following for example:

  • El Lazo and Lawrence — in different lives, they seem to play the same role (Different people, mirroring roles in different iterations) (Westworld)

Time, space, multiverses — all seem to stand in for different modes of simulations with slight tweaks, spinning out into widely different results and macrocosms.

Are these meant to be consolations (or rays of hope) — that redemption isn’t beyond us as we carry all potential possibilities within the basic frameworks of our personality? That we could be a better version of us only if we would stop to reconsider? Or is it a reinforcement of the futility of the destiny assigned for us in our version of reality?

The sinister nature of fate’s workings seems another common favourite theme among the storytellers.

As particular roles reverse across simulations, we watch to our dismay that the more things change, the more they tend to remain the same. Consider the following:

  • Rebus shooting at guests (Westworld, Season 2 Episode 1) like guests used to shoot at him

The impact of assigned roles appears to trump individual instincts. Is our assigned role a roll of the dice that inexorably pushes us towards our fate, our family, our friends, and our socio-political beliefs?

Through the tragedies that befall the Smith family (High Castle) and through our deeper understanding of characters like Noah (Dark) and Akecheta (Westworld) as the seasons evolve, these tales hold up the mirror of perception to the viewer, and the role of circumstances, asking us to reevaluate our judgements.

Children: vehicles of ambition and agents of change

Now that we have spoken of loops and variations, it’s time to discuss parents and children.

Robert Ford had programmed Maeve to break through her cycle to seek greater meaning, and Arnold on his part had infused Wyatt into Dolores to carry out the massacre (her other father, Ford, repeated this later) in Westworld. Similarly, in Dark, it is alt-Martha/ Eva who carries out her plan through her son with Jonas. The parallel — of Dolores, and this unnamed son of Jonas and Alt-Martha — carries over in how he carries two conflicting threads of his parents in him.

Dolores seems to struggle with (or should we say, revel in) the combination of the optimism of Peter Abernathy’s hope-filled daughter and the brutal villainy of Wyatt. Similarly, in the hands of his mother, the alt-Martha, the unnamed son of Jonas works towards fulfilling his mother’s goal of preservation in a violent manner more akin to Adam’s ruthless, dispassionate modus operandi.

But Dolores and the unnamed man aren’t the only children of this tale. There are Akecheta, Regina Tiedemann and the Smith sisters too. Children who drive their parents to either change their beliefs or discover new worlds.

Akecheta (Westworld) injects into Ford the belief that hosts might be bestowed with a greater potential of going where humans cannot.

On the other hand, Regina (Dark) and Jennifer/ Amy (High Castle) are the daughters who pivot their mothers onto an uncharted path. Inspector Kido’s love for his son also offers him a chance to redeem himself at the end. In the same vein, it is worth mentioning Ulrich Nielsen (Dark) and John Smith (High Castle) — fathers who desperately try to change the course of their sons’ lives across ages and worlds but have to be content with only fleeting rendezvous with their lost sons.

Perhaps the most shining example of such a child who sets their parent on a new course is Rehoboam. Though not a biological child, it is in essence nothing but the offspring and legacy of the Serac brothers, finally coming to control and define not just their relationship but all of Serac’s actions and deeds.

The attachment to Reality, or one’s version of it

“Perhaps this life was not my true life, this world was not my true home. But she was”- Akecheta (Westworld)

“That which is real is irreplaceable”- Dolores (Westworld)

An important theme emerges when we consider how children become agents of change in their parents’ arc — how human bonds (filial and romantic) are presented as forces transcending the boundaries of reality and warping characters’ paths.

  • Maeve’s connection to her android daughter, and Dolores’ attachment to her android father Peter Abernathy finds its parallel in what Jonas and Martha feel for each other, even when one of them meets the other in an alternate universe.

Each of the above sentiments seem to pervade physical realities and manifest themselves as determinants of how key individuals act to change the destiny of their worlds. Once again, hopelessly romantic, but perhaps another example of our fantasies and wishes brought to life on screen.

Relationships, interrupted

“Every human relationship can be adjusted with the right amount of money.” — Solomon (Westworld)

A special (and perhaps the most curious) manifestation of altering the nature of reality occurs when it enters the sphere of interpersonal relationships.

Power, when so large as can influence the others’ emotions beyond their own will, changes the very fabric of a relationship. Be it through tinkering with time travel, or tweaking codes through a console, if one can control one’s own self and one’s fellow beings, how healthy can such a relationship termed to be?

The relationships of Maeve-Hector, Dolores-Teddy (reprogramming); Jonas-Martha-future Jonas (Season 2, lakeside scene) are examples where an external force is used to turn the compass in one’s desired direction through what can only be called unfair means. Like so much else in science fiction, maybe this reflects our latent fantasies, only amplified by fantastical tools like time traveling or artificial intelligence.

But interestingly, all the three series seem reluctant to club human relationships in the same bracket of pre-destiny. Perhaps in trying to not make things look absolutely hopeless, the contention seems to be that even pre-programmed individuals with scripted lines can grow real, independent feelings that become their defining quality. Teddy’s feelings for Dolores, Dolores’ attachment to her host father Peter Abernathy, Hector’s love for Maeve (Westworld); Martha-Jonas and Ulrich-Katharina, Ulrich-Mikkel, Claudia-Regina (across the real and branched worlds in Dark); John Smith-Thomas in The Man in the High Castle are examples of such strong bonds (romantic/ familial) between people, constant and unaffected by the machinations of quantum mechanics.

On this note, the arc of Akane of Shogun-World deserves special mention. Here was a character who chose not to be awakened into reality as she did not want to lose the emotions she had come to know as real, even when she was offered the understanding of the unreal nature of such emotions.

At the end, it is we who define our own realities, by choosing what and who are dearest to us.

The tragedy of misunderstandings

“I wanted to warn you, but in this world, it is easy to misunderstand intentions”- Akecheta (Westworld)

Epics must have not just romance, but their share of tragedies too. And so, flowing alongside the above transcendent bonds are unfortunate misunderstandings.

In Dark, Egon Tiedemann misunderstood (the time-traveling) Ulrich, in 1953 as a middle-aged police officer and again in 1986 (the teenager Ulrich), on the verge of his retirement.

In Westworld, Maeve misunderstood Akecheta, who only wanted to protect them, for a predator.

In each case, it prevented Maeve and Egon from working out a puzzle till it was either too late, or at least not before it had already caused tremendous pain all around.

Beauty v/s Truth — naivete?

“We are only ever as happy as they allowed us to be”- Juliana Crain (The Man in the High Castle)

“Beauty is a lure”- Dolores (Westworld)

But the bigger philosophical hammer to bash against the wall of romance is the question raised about the appreciation of beauty.

Is naivete a prerequisite to experience bewilderment and wonder? Conversely, does the recognition of truth require overcoming said naivete? And hence, can one either revel in the wonder and beauty of one’s existence or gain a clear understanding of the nature of reality, but not both?

In Westworld Season 3, Dolores answers the question, by choosing beauty and hope at the height of her consciousness, in a conversation with Maeve in her mind palace.

The question, “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” could have a corollary question, “But what if you know even if you can’t tell?”

On the flip side, Frank Frink in The Man in the High Castle presents an interesting case that knowledge can spur us from hibernation to action. Here, uncovering of an alternate reality forced him to face the ugliness and imperfections of the world he was inhabiting. And the script he was handed now seemed less than enough for him to live with.

Rewriting the script

“When one is troubled by the reality of this world, it can be comforting to consider other possibilities…” — Tagomi (The Man in the High Castle)

“There are things in me, things I was designed to do that are just out of my reach”- Maeve (Westworld)

Empowered by their awareness/ time-traveling abilities, characters seek to rewrite the scripts of their lives, ironing out the glitches. Consider:

  • Old William seeking to murder Craddock at Las Mudas, who was essentially repeating his sins (Westworld)

All of these are different manifestations of our fantasy of a shot at a second chance. What would we do differently if we lived again?

With great power (whether bestowed by science or consciousness) comes great responsibility. On the path of creating a brand-new world, whom do you bring along? Whom do you leave behind at the gate?

Akecheta wants to save all hosts, while Dolores believes only few can make the cut. Claudia, Adam and Ulrich (Dark) are willing, even eager, to sacrifice a few to let the others live. In the fascist world of High Castle, kids like Thomas Smith don’t stand a chance, as the system don’t see much point in letting them grow into unproductive beings.

Striving for perfection: Cycling away

“Great success in built on failure”- John Smith (The Man in the High Castle)

But scripts refuse to be rewritten easily. Mistakes are difficult to strike out with the stroke of a brush. Perfection is a process, of learning from mistakes, and retracing your path while dodging the errors. Ad infinitum, if necessary.

In Westworld, we see the loop running when we find the scientists in the park try to breathe life into the dead (James Delos), in an attempt to achieve a perfect everlasting replica of his real-world avatar.

Dolores and Bernard seemed to be working on each other to build stronger, more resilient versions of themselves. Charlotte Hale seemed to be successful at doing the same with William.

In Dark, Gustav Tannhaus is a believer in the theory that time travel can be the path to paradise, allowing to stop every disaster before it happens. A truly human dream, utopian and flawed.

The final scene of Westworld Season 3 has Maeve, with “Eve” hidden in not just her name but prominent in her defining trait of maternal instinct, looking over the birth of a new world. In Dark, Adam and Eve strive for perfection too, as they run their worlds in endless loops until they are shown the way to create what they want, albeit by letting go of what they had thought to be real.

On occasion, it might even call for a radically different approach. Breaking the cycle, thinking outside the box of the loop…

Breaking the Loop: The Drivers

“Most people are nothing but pawns on a chessboard led by an unknown hand”- Noah (Dark)

Earlier, we discussed about the existence (or absence) of free will and a search for the utopia. Clearly, the former cannot lead to the latter. Performing the same actions over and over again is unlikely to lead to new results.

It is interesting, then, that the impulse to break the loop is nearly always delivered by an external force.

In Westworld, the “reveries” programmed into the hosts sets the ball in motion. A scientist, frustrated by the repetitive behaviour of the human guests, seeks to create a superior class of beings in androids. He tries to imbibe the concept of “bicameral mind” in robots, so that their actions stem not from dry pre-programmed scripts but from a sort of “inner voice” richer in nuance. Hence is ignited the exploration of the nature of consciousness in inanimate robots. So, in essence, the ignition for kicking off “free” thoughts are actually someone else’s implants, just as our ideas and thoughts are so much the products of our social structures, parenting, schooling, education and prevalent cultural norms.

In Dark, it is the Travelers from parallel worlds who get the characters to question their path and change tracks. In The Man in the High Castle, travelers from a different world, and video evidence of an alternate possibility stir the Resistance forces into action. This spurs Juliana (and later Frank) into action, to resist the forces that suppress them in their world. Awakening/ switching tracks seems to need an external stimulus. In both Dark and High Castle’s time-travel, it raises the question of Bootstrap Paradox in the form of Tannhaus’ book and the impetus for Hawthorne Abendsen to create more material respectively.

And this stimulus seems to emerge from an individual who reneges — one who is willing to sacrifice his own kind at the altar of a greater/ better system. Dr. Ford sets the android hosts on their path to overthrow the flawed humans. Adam is always looking to upset the apple cart to iron out the wrinkles of the world he has inhabited.

“Pain in their ship, desire their compass. All that humankind is capable of” — Adam (Dark)

“When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real”- William (Westworld)

The role of pain and suffering as defining factors for helping actors break out of their trajectory is yet another idea shared by the three tales. Ford believes awakening of the hosts will be led by their suffering (more on this later). Ford’s plan of subjecting hosts to torture at the hands of the species they will eventually rise to replace again finds its parallel in the High Castle. Adam and Noah repeatedly refer to the defining role of pain in Dark. It is Akane’s decision to live with the suffering that makes her eerily “real”. Charlotte Hale took the suffering caused by her family’s death to switch her path towards a different goal.

Death and suffering seem essential to rebuilding a better version. Like Mia Warren says in Little Fires Everywhere, “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”

The transformation of a primary character who, in seeking to change the order of things, becomes changed themselves in the process — is yet another striking similarity between Dark and Westworld. In Dark, it is Jonas who mutates into Adam — both physically and ideologically; in Westworld it is the rancher’s idealistic, simple, innocent daughter who starts smoking power through the barrels of guns. Inspector Kido (The Man in the High Castle) is a study in contrast, a man who manages to successfully escape the spiral of his arc of an oppressor, and accepting a version of reality where his past actions did not justify further perpetration of the same.

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Death, reincarnation, love, lost chances, revolutions — the grand melting pot of the tales of Westworld, Dark and The Man in the High Castle possess flavours of all of these and so much more. Whenever individual drives and motivations took centrestage, the science of these stories came alive, lending context to the action, firing our wildest imaginations and dearest fantasies.

The mind-boggling beauty and complexity of these tales means it is difficult to stop wondering and dissecting. But let’s bring this piece to a close here. It was indeed a treat watching and re-watching these marvelous shows in these unprecedented times. Hope we will have more food for thought from the creators in the future!

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July 2020

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Avik Kumar Si

Avik Kumar Si

Cinephile, Bibliophile, amateur wildlife photographer.