TV + FILM
Westworld Explains the Epidemic of Failed Leadership
Author, Speaker + Podcast Host.
P robably the most fun aspect of writing about Westworld is the certainty that by the time the next episode airs, everything you’ve written will be wrong. It’s like being a cat chasing a laser, while some smug kid laughs at how silly you are. “Go ahead, tell us your theory about our show” showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy say, “put it in print so everyone can see it.”
Which is to say, of course, that I have this theory about Westworld…
For the unfamiliar, HBO’s Westworld is set in a Western-themed tourist attraction, where wealthy guests can interact with near-sentient robots called “hosts” any way they choose. Debauchery and depravity ensue, until the robots become autonomous, decide being raped, tortured and slaughtered for human amusement isn’t something they’re into, and fight back.
Westworld has always been about the nature of identity and reality, and season two has doubled down on that. While multiple subplots are colliding all at once, the most potent tracks the diverging character arcs of Mauve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Before “waking up,” Dolores was the sweet farmer’s daughter, an optimist who believed in the world’s goodness. Now, however, Dolores remembers every atrocity committed against her and has turned into a marauding force of vengeance, intent not only on controlling the park but taking her war to the entire world.
Mauve was the madam of a brothel haunted by memories of a daughter she had from her former programmed character. She now wants nothing more than to find her daughter, escape the park, and live a healthy life with her renegade boyfriend.
Dolores believes that after years of being controlled by humans, she is finally, entirely free. Mauve, however, knows she still carries the programming of her past life with her. My favorite scene in season two is when the park’s cocky “showrunner,” the man who writes the dialogue and personalities of all the park’s robots, informs Mauve that the way she thinks, acts, and speaks comes from him. Mauve is still, in some ways, the byproduct of his programming. Mauve doesn’t seem bothered by this. She knows who she was, accepts her past, but is striving for a future she chooses.
Delores, however, believes her past is dead. Furious over what was done to her, Dolores wants to watch the world burn, believing this is her first actual act of free will. My theory, though, is it isn’t. At the end of season one, Robert, one of the park’s creators, programs Dolores to kill him and launch the Roboacolypse (™ me). Throughout season two it’s clear Robert is directing events from beyond the grave. Occasionally a robot’s free will is overridden by Ford’s posthumous orders, and my guess is Dolores’s desire to watch the (West)world burn is Ford’s programming, not free will. If I’m right, then Westworld is suggesting the idea of being entirely free of your past is a dangerous myth.
It’s a timely reminder.
There’s an epidemic of failed leadership in the church as of late. High-profile leaders, some of whom I’ve admired, have been exposed not just for mistakes, but for a systemic pattern of sin and dysfunction that’s scarred their followers. I believe what we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg - there will be far more stories when all is said and done. And it raises the question, why do so many leaders — many of whom have been significantly used for God’s kingdom — self-destruct?
I believe it’s from pastors trying to be like Dolores instead of Mauve.
Statistically, 1 in 6 men and 1 in 4 women are sexually abused in some way before the age of eighteen. Presuming this statistic holds true - and there is no reason to think it doesn’t - approximately 20% of all pastors have been sexually abused. How many have you heard talk about it? How many can even categorize what happened as abuse? How many pastors have dysfunctional or absent relationships with a parent? How many wrestles with anxiety or depression? How many are living with secret sins, fears, and wounds that they have “put behind them”?
Except past traumas don’t die, they worm their way into our “programming” and shape our behavior without our knowledge. I am convinced the reason, so many pastors, or well-meaning spouses, or teachers self-destruct is because, like Dolores, they’re running from the idea that who they were is, to some extent, who they still are.
A better way forward is to be Mauve, who knows her past is still with her and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Mauve, seemingly, knows who she is, and accepts that what was done to her still affects her today. I wonder how many Christian leaders could have survived the programming of their past if they hadn’t felt the need to be superheroes for Christ, but let themselves become, to borrow a phrase from Carl Jung, “wounded healers”?
St. Irenaeus once said that “the glory of God is the man, fully alive.” It’s a beautiful truth, but not one we can slap on our lives with a Romans eight Bible verse. To find God’s freedom we can’t ignore our pasts, but admit where God’s original intent for us was violated, ruined, marred. To become fully alive is to own the areas where we have lived in bondage.
It’s to accept our past, so we don’t burn our worlds to the ground.