The Surprising Connections Between ‘Westworld’ and ‘The Truman Show’
This post contains SPOILERS for the second season of Westworld.
“Here, they’re free. Nobody’s watching, nobody’s judging – at least that’s what we tell them. This is the only place in the world where you get to see people for who they really are.”
That’s a line from Westworld’s second season, when Jimmi Simpson’s William convinces the head of Delos about the robot theme park’s potential for mass surveillance and data mining – which, as the most recent episode confirmed, is really what Westworld is all about. But that could just as easily be a line said by Ed Harris’ Christof in The Truman Show in reference to the star of his reality series. In it, Jim Carrey is Truman Burbank, a man who has no idea his entire life has been broadcast to millions of viewers.
While rewatching Peter Weir’s The Truman Show in time for its 20th anniversary this week, I wasn’t just thinking about how prescient the film was in anticipating our addiction to reality TV and the loss of privacy in the current social media age. Sure, all of those things are true, and have already been written about at length. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was Harris’ Man in Black from Westworld. Maybe it was simply because Harris stars in both The Truman Show and Westworld, and his gunslinger was especially present in my mind with Westworld Season 2 currently underway.
But as I watched Harris’ television producer playing God – his name is Christof for heaven’s sake – talk about his preference for Truman’s manufactured world over that of the real one, it clicked. Christof and the Man in Black don’t just share the same actor, but the same obsession with man-made realities; the same fascination with being in control of those worlds, and the same hungry desire to profit off mass surveillance by masking exploitation as entertainment.
On the most basic level, Weir’s film – which was written by Andrew Niccol and first hit theaters on June 5, 1998 – and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s series are both about fake worlds built on giant sets. In both Truman’s fictional island town of Seahaven and the six parks spread across Westworld, the main attractions are characters (be they biologically human or not) who are unwitting performers for others’ amusement, made to believe their fabricated surroundings are the one true reality. Truman, like the Hosts, is a commodity first, a living and thinking being second.
Adopted as an infant by a television network, Truman was born into the world as a piece of corporate-owned property. His birth was shown on live television, and for the next 30 years, every moment of his life was watched by an audience of millions. The town he grew up in housed inside a dome nestled behind the Hollywood sign. Everyone around him is an actor, from his wife Meryl, actually played by the actress Hannah Gill (Laura Linney) to his best friend Marlon, actually the actor Louis Coltrane (Noah Emmerich).
The nature of free will also plays out similarly in both the film and the HBO series. While the question of whether Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) actually gave his Hosts free will in his new narrative still remains a bit murky, the latest episode “Les Écorchés” confirmed Ford is still in control of Bernard’s (Jeffery Wright) consciousness. “We never had free will,” Bernard says in the episode, “Only the illusion of it.” The same can be said of Truman. Much of his life has been preordained by Christof, including the woman he marries (Meryl pretends she’s hurt her ankle to gain his attention and distract him from the girl he actually likes), his confinement to the island, and his fear of water. Similar to the Hosts’ scripted narratives, his life is controlled by episode synopses. That is until Truman has the first flickers of an awakening.
Truman and the Hosts begin their journeys toward freedom when their faith in their reality cracks. In both The Truman Show and Westworld, it’s when a piece of the outside world sneaks inside. It’s the stage light falling from the sky that sets off Truman’s suspicion, followed by a series of events that make him question his surroundings, from the backless elevator door to the appearance of his dead father. In Westworld, it’s the photo of Juliet Delos in Times Square that Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) finds, despite his coding to ignore it.
Eventually, Truman and the Hosts revolt against their creators; Truman reaches the edge of the set and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) kicks off a robot rebellion. At the end of Weir’s film, Truman ascends the staircase and makes his first true choice: to walk through the door and attain his freedom. How interesting, that in Season 2 of Westworld, “The Door” is the mysterious destination both the Man in Black and Bernard are trying to reach, which may also be linked to the “Valley Beyond,” where Dolores is also leading the awakened Hosts. Is Westworld’s Door the Hosts’ key to escaping the theme park and accessing true freedom as Truman’s door is for him?
But there are deeper links as well. It all comes back to Ed Harris. Both his Christof and his William prefer the their fabricated realities to the real world, and both believe Seahaven and Westworld are more genuine than the life outside their borders. “The world, the place you live in, is the sick place. Seahaven is the way the world should be,” Christof says to Natascha McElhone’s Sylvia/Lauren. He later tells Truman that the real world is no more truthful than that of his TV set, trying to convince Truman to stay.
Dissatisfied with his reality, Christof created his own utopia with The Truman Show, one fashioned after Norman Rockwell paintings and the wholesome family values of 1950s and ’60s sitcoms. Christof prefers the artificial life inside the dome because he believes it elicits more authenticity than the one outside. As he explains in the film’s opening lines, it’s in the studio where Christof has captured something that’s been lost on the outside – sincere human emotion:
We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but its genuine. It’s a life.
The Man in Black similarly found more bona fide experiences inside the Delos theme park than outside it. It’s what brought him back to Westworld again and again for 30 years: the thrill of something alive and true, and he finally witnessed it in full swing when the Host rebellion kicked off in the Season 1 finale. “I’ve been pretending my whole life,” Simpson’s younger William says of his trip to Westworld. “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?”
Both Harris’ cowboy and TV showrunner make the same realization about their respective fake realities – you can only truly witness humans as their most authentic, unfiltered selves when you’re watching them in private. Truman is so compelling to watch because he behaves completely unaware that he’s being watched. And as the second episode of Westworld Season 2 revealed, the real reason the Delos Corporation acquired Ford’s park was to spy on its guests. The younger version of Harris’ William convinced his father-in-law Jim Delos (Peter Mullan) to invest in it not as a fun robot amusement park, but as a business opportunity for stealing guest DNA and collecting footage of everything guests do in the park. As the show finally confirmed in “Les Écorchés,” Westworld was never about watching the Hosts, but about watching the guests. As Bernard says:
The guests come to the park. They don’t know they’re being watched. We get to see their true selves. Their every choice reveals another part of their cognition, their drives, so that Delos can understand… so that Delos can copy them.
Do The Truman Show and HBO’s Westworld exist in the same universe? Is Harris’ Man in Black a descendent of his Christof? Did William come up with the idea to watch guests after seeing The Truman Show on TV too many times? Out of all the wild Westworld theories out there, these are some I’d buy.
Gallery: 11 ‘Westworld’ Questions We Need Season 2 to Answer