Westworld, The Truman Show, and Gaslighting

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The threads that bind two stories about meticulously crafted fake worlds.

Despite having little initial interest, and feeling lukewarm after the first few episodes, I decided to marathon Westworld. This impulse was born from a “what’s the fuss all about?” reflex, and once the finale was available to stream, I had to watch it all. Even with a deep love of character study, meditations on humanity, and examinations of what it means to be “alive,” I felt no real connection to the series. It was filled with multiple outstanding performances, but I had to file it alongside other things that I don’t have enthusiasm for, like The Sopranos or Titanic. It’s a good show that didn’t connect. I walked away from the viewing with something though, and that’s a deeper appreciation of 1998’s The Truman Show.

There’s a scene towards the end of the Westworld season finale where Teddy and Dolores share a heartbreaking moment. They sit at the water’s edge, the moon hanging heavily behind them. It’s a tender exchange that’s also brimming with melodrama, and as our view expands, it’s revealed that there’s an audience present for something we assumed was for our eyes only. Patrons in fancy dress watch the two hosts spew their love and devotion, and it’s clear what puppets they truly are. This tableau instantly transported me to Seahaven, fictional setting of The Truman Show, and, ironically, another fabricated world lorded over by Ed Harris.

A quick mental scan over the previous 10 hours of television left me somewhat confident there weren’t other threads connecting the two properties that I’d simply missed. Truman and WW share themes, but their crescendos ask different questions of the viewer. They’re both about make-believe worlds that manipulate inhabitants for entertainment, but Truman is not just about control, it’s about gaslighting.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia has a succinct and relevant definition: a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity. There are shades of it in WW, particularly in Thandie Newton’s Maeve, but, much to my surprise, it’s the whole plot of The Truman Show.

Truman is adopted as a baby and immediately put on TV. There is a sense that the world – and Ed Harris – own him, and therefore he’s undeserving of agency. The tagline of the show (and his life) is printed on shirts worn by crew: Love Him Protect Him. The way they protect him, and show their love, is through deceit. Truman’s father is taken from him in a violent boating accident, the intended goal to keep him afraid of the water, and unable to leave the island. Truman is tricked into marrying his wife, his mother repeatedly uses guilt to keep him grounded, and the world is tilted on its side to keep him in place. But when he points it out, he’s told he’s crazy.

Sitting on the hood of his car, lamenting his life, Truman confides in his “best friend” Marlon that it feels as though the world revolves around him. “Are you sure that’s not wishful thinking?” Marlon replies. Truman is right, the world quite literally revolves around him, and when he pushes past the absurdity and ego of it, he’s told it’s his fault.

Truman’s relationship with his wife Meryl is built on gaslighting. She repeatedly dismisses his concerns and observations, telling him he’s “not well,” and “needs help.” She often positions herself as the victim in their exchanges, accusing Truman of blaming her for a sudden traffic jam forming just as he attempts to leave the island.

Newspaper headlines scream that Seahaven is the best place to live, and why go anywhere else? Every object in Truman’s life informs him that his gut instinct is wrong. Posters on the travel agency wall warn of danger from lightning storms, terrorism, illness – danger if you leave. Truman is kept scared and repeatedly dismissed by the world around him, and all to keep him from creating his own life.

Westworld circles similar ideas (except the hosts are often viewed as too unimportant to even bother lying to), but somehow The Truman Show feels more socially relevant. Interestingly, both toy with the concept that a life half-lived isn’t worth living – the end of one’s current existence preferable to staying put – and that’s something both execute perfectly.