Three episodes into HBO’s Westworld, the show has inspired an array of theories ranging from the possibility of different timelines to the notion that William or, somehow, Robert Ford might be the Man in Black. Some have suggested that Arnold — the park’s co-founder — is alive and waiting at the end of the park’s maze. There are even theories that Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is influencing the storylines.
However, one of the more popular theories — and the one I’m most intrigued by — is the idea that Bernard is a host.
While some have isolated some evidence to suggest why he might be a host — the fact that his glasses are always decoratively perched on his nose, or his arguably robotic way of speaking — no one has really explained why making Bernard a host would be a good decision from a storytelling standpoint. Thematically speaking, how does it serve the story Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan are trying to tell?
I have some ideas.
“There’s a path for everyone,” Dolores tells Teddy in the pilot episode. The “path,” to which she refers are the park’s storylines, storylines that are full of repetition. The hosts in Westworld are ants marching, following the same paths day after day. As Dolores notes before she begins to get a twinge of sentience, there’s “beauty in the order.”
The flip side, according to Dolores, is the ugliness of “disarray.” But it’s the ugliness of disarray that sets humans apart from the androids. The hosts repeat their loops, but humans strive for something more. Androids follow their programming. Humans are motivated by a greater purpose.
The hosts, however, have no greater purpose beyond repeating their loops. That changes when the hosts are given backstories. These backstories define their motivations. The backstories give them a greater purpose. “Backstories do more than amuse guests,” Elsie tells Stubbs in episode three. “They anchor the host. It’s their cornerstone. The rest of their identity is built around it layer by layer.”
However, that which gives them purpose can also drive them mad. Whatever was in The Stray’s backstory — the bear, the turtle, the Orion constellation — forced him off of his loop and beckoned him to the mountaintop, where he fell into a crevice. Unable to fulfill the purpose defined by his backstory, the Stray went mad and ended his own life, bashing himself into the head with a boulder.
These backstories are crucial to the development of sentience. The backstories provide obstacles, and the hosts’ purpose is to overcome them. The act of overcoming, however, requires the thought process and decision-making abilities of a human. We see the beginnings of this in Teddy. Teddy is unbothered. He shows no signs of sentience. He repeats his loop and at the end of most days, he is killed. He’s the Kenny of Westworld. He can’t run away with Dolores, however, because he hasn’t completed his purpose, and that’s because — until Ford gives him a backstory — he has no motivating force. The existence of Wyatt, however, gives Teddy a greater purpose, a “final drive,” as Ford calls it. If he fulfills his mission to kill Wyatt, Teddy can run away with Dolores.
Dolores already has that inkling. Her backstory is made up of the memories that have pierced into her subconscious after the reverie upgrade. Her greater purpose is to stop being raped, to stop being killed, to get the hell out of Westworld, and to find herself. Before her update, Dolores believed that the newcomers came into Westworld “looking for what we’re all looking for: A place to be free.” By episode three, Dolores’ tune had changed. “When I discover who I am, I will be free,” she says. She’s seeking liberation through self discovery.
Dolores has climbed up the triangle of cognition. She’s gaining her memories. She’s improvising by, for instance, fleeing her father’s house after he’s killed rather than waiting to be shot, as she has so many times in the past. She’s also ticked off self-preservation: She overrode her programming and shot the man trying to rape her. Furthermore, she’s starting to hear the voices of the bicameral mind, the voices that Arnold had hoped would bootstrap the hosts into cognition. “Do you remember?” she hears a voice inside her head ask. She hears another voice telling her where to find the gun. She need only to internalize that voice — recognize it as her own inner monologue rather than the voice of God — to achieve sentience. Unfortunately, the Stray was unable to do so. He heard the voices calling him to the mountaintop, but didn’t recognize the voices as his own, and it drove him mad.
What do backstories have to do with Bernard? My guess is that Bernard is a host, one that was designed by Ford. Ford lost his partner in Arnold, and rather than go it alone, Ford built a new partner modeled after his old one, as he built a boy host in his own image.
There’s some circumstantial evidence for this. We know, for instance, that Bernard didn’t arrive until after Arnold died. We also know that Arnold was trying to build sentient hosts, and we can surmise that he had some success in doing so. Recall that Ford told Teddy that his backstory was based in reality — that there was some “truth” to it. In Wyatt, Teddy said that he “could hear the voice of God.” My guess is that the “voice of God” was Arnold’s attempt at the bicameral mind. Arnold had hoped to bootstrap his cognition. It didn’t work. Wyatt is a murdering lunatic. We also know that supposedly the only other vestiges of Arnold’s work are the “voice commands,” and it’s those voice commands — ‘these violent delights have violent ends’ — that are infecting the hosts. Perhaps Ford took what he knew from Arnold’s “mistakes,” and built Bernard, “the product of a trillion” mistakes.
Bernard — the result of all those mistakes, if we accept him as a host — has been better able to internalize the voices inside his head, to hear them as his own internal monologues. However, for the last 10-12 years, Bernard has been in a loop of his own, so to speak. He fixes the hosts, day after day after day, which up until now, has never been a challenge. Beyond simple repairs, they haven’t had any major malfunctions during Bernard’s existence in Westworld. It’s also peculiar that Bernard has been working side-by-side with Ford for 10-12 years and has never heard about Arnold until now. Or maybe he had, but he had his mind wiped. Ford does tell Bernard, after all, that he knows Bernard’s mind better than Bernard does himself.
Confronted with Dolores — a host who’s malfunctioning in a way that knocks Bernard off his loop — Bernard awakens. He’s error-correcting, as he did in his conversation with Theresa, and he’s questioning the nature of his own reality, as he’s doing in his conversations with Dolores.
But the most important detail here is this: Bernard has a backstory. Some have suggested that Bernard’s dead son and his wife/ex-wife point to the fact that Bernard has to be real, but I believe just the opposite. The only characters on the show so far who have backstories are all hosts. We don’t know the backstory of Elise or Stubbs or Theresa, or any of the other Westworld employees. We only know the backstories of the hosts.
Moreover, Bernard’s dead son is providing him with the “identity that his mind is built around,” layer by layer. “I don’t forget. It’s always there,” Bernard tells his wife of his memories of their dead son. That would be true in both an android — whose thoughts would be permanently implanted — and in an actual human, who would carry that pain with him forever. But it’s the grief — in my opinion — that’s keeping Bernard grounded. It’s the grief that helps Bernard internalize the thoughts inside his head. He hears them as his own, rather than those of God. Backstories were the missing ingredient in successfully creating the bicameral mind. The backstories transform “the voice of God” into a genuine inner monologue.
Bernard As Arnold
“You mustn’t make Arnold’s mistake,” Ford tells Bernard.
“Why would I?”
“I know that the death of your son Charlie still weighs heavily upon you.”
Why would the death of Bernard’s son cause Bernard to make the same mistakes as Arnold? My theory? Because Arnold, too, had lost a child. I think I have a theory about who that child might have been, too:
My guess is that Arnold used to obsess over that photo, and when Ford gave Bernard his backstory, he also provided him with a photo with which to obsess. It’s one of the many little details — the product of trillions of mistakes — that has allowed Ford to finally create sentient hosts. Bernard, however, doesn’t know he’s a host, or that he’s been modeled after Arnold. Yet, he performs as Arnold would: Not only in his repairs of the hosts, but in his sympathy for them. Bernard, like Arnold, would cover for Abernathy, and like Arnold, he would continue to send Dolores out into Westworld knowing the danger she posed.
“No cause for alarm, Bernard. Just our old work coming back to haunt us,” Ford says to Bernard at one point. The “our” Ford is referring to could be himself and Arnold, who helped to create the hosts. Likewise, recall that Peter Abernathy said in the opening episode that he would get his revenge upon his “makers,” singling out both Ford and Bernard. Bernard, however, didn’t arrive until after Abernathy had been created, when he was in the Professor storyline. So, why would Abernathy want to take out his revenges upon Bernard, unless… Bernard is Arnold.