I admit, I love me some Divine Comedy. Most folks hit Inferno and stop, and in fairness, it is the best one, but Purgatorio and Paradiso have their strengths, too. There is, however, something about the first one, that journey through hell, the details that Dante gives, and the famous inscription above the gates: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Ironic note: The gates below that inscription are smashed open from the harrowing of Hell by Christ - the damned can walk out of hell anytime they want. They choose not to. They consciously choose to stay in hell. Seriously. They don’t keep going. They stop in the appropriate circle and spend eternity there. Dante tells us, we punish ourselves. We choose to stay in this hell.
With episode five, “Contrapasso” (a title that comes from Dante), the series is halfway through its (first season’s?) life’s way. Contrapasso means to suffer the opposite. Dante’s poem, written between 1308 and 1320, introduces the idea of ironic punishment in hell. Adulterers are flung about in a tempestuous storm, just as they gave into their tempestuous passions in life; the violent live in a river of boiling blood, just as in life they wallowed in blood; and flatterers spend eternity buried in excrement, since they were full of sh*t in life. Dante is brilliant in his envisioning punishment. In Canto XXVIII, the Knight Bertrand de Born tells Dante he suffers a “contrapasso,” because he created discord between a father and son; he must carry his own severed head around hell. By calling the episode “Contrapasso,” the showrunners directly evoke Dante’s journey through hell and the landscape he envisions. It also suggests ironically appropriate punishments take place in Westworld. That bad stuff that happened to you turns out to be appropriate.
Episode five confirms Westworld’s hell obsession. Episode one featured the Tempest quote: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Episode five seems to be saying, “Psych! The devils are here because you’re in hell!” We might well be in theme park hell (not Purgatorio, that is the province of Saint J.J. Abrams, patron saint of Lost things). We are definitely in a text that is not about the west but about the big things - Westworld is theologyworld.
So, allow me to be your own private Virgil and guide you through this inferno of the American west. After all, “There’s a path for everyone.” This path leads through Pariah, a city of transgression and decadence where money talks and everything is for sale and can be had for a price.
First Circle (Limbo - the Virtuous Pagans)
Ford tells Old Bill (Michael Wincott) a story about a greyhound, “a racing dog, spending its life running in circles. (Inferno reference as well?) The dog is brought to a public park where it chases and kills a little cat, “tore it to pieces.” Then, “it sat there confused. That dog spent its whole life trying to catch that thing,” (the piece of fur simulating a rabbit that racing dogs chase), and now that it caught it, it had no idea what to do next. This is the anecdote that sets up the episode.
We thus begin the episode with two old men talking about a dog doing something common to its nature, but is ultimately self-destructive and the cause of cognitive dissonance.
We thus begin the episode learning that we are happy when we run in circles and lose that happiness when given the actual freedom to achieve our dreams. Is this the warning of Westworld? Getting what you want leads to unhappiness and a lack of purpose, or as Spock warns Stonn, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” And isn’t that a gateway into hell - not logical, but true?
Second Circle (Lust)
HBO, there you are! This series has thus far featured a brothel with almost no sex. Décolletage, sure - implications of sex, sure - but so many prostitutes and so few lurid sex scenes? What the hell? This from the network that brought us Sex and the City, Girls, Game of Thrones, Rome, True Blood, and Entourage. I thought HBO stood for Home Breast Office, since so much do original series feature female nudity and extended sex sequences. Westworld seemed tame by comparison. But now, with the orgy sequence in Pariah, Westworld may join its HBO brethren in the second circle. Dolores gets to walk through the biggest orgy scene since Caligula in order to find the fortune teller, and the lads can learn about the opportunity to move ahead with the Confereradoes. But it ain’t HBO if the nudity isn’t at least a little gratuitous. Welcome to Francesca da Rimini’s house party.
Third Circle (Gluttony)
Gluttony is the sin of over-indulgence, and we walk past it on the micro and macro levels. The town of Pariah is a city of the seven deadlies. We drink to excess, we eat to excess, and we indulge in all sorts of appetite satisfactions.
We also see gluttons for punishment, those who get hurt over and over. I’m looking at you, William, Dolores, Logan, Lawrence, and audience.
Fourth Circle (Greed)
Oh, Felix Lutz (Lawrence Nam), what are you doing? He has taken a bird and is working to bring it back from the dead. He wants to move to the level of top players in the company that runs Westworld (or maybe even one of its competitors) and so is experimenting on an illegally acquired bit of property, the bird. He is warned - told - to get rid of it. Told to incinerate it. But, as Queen reminds us, he wants it all and he wants it now. That greed blinds him to the fact that Maeve is awake and now ready to ask some questions. While she and Lowe are small presences in this episode, when they do show up, they pack a punch.
Fifth Circle (Wrath)
In Inferno, the fifth circle is the site of the entrance to the city of Dis, the municipality of evil that makes up the lower levels. (Circles one through four are the suburbs of hell.) Wrath is what leads into the main city of hell. And drinking and playing in that city is the Army of New Virginia, locally called Confederados - former Confederate soldiers angry about the war and looking to keep it going. They occupy their time by threatening the locals, screwing the whores, drinking, and playing dangerous games like “Nitroglycerine water balloon toss.”
They get even angrier when they realize that they have been betrayed by Logan, William, and Lawrence. Their wrath leads to a lot of violence. The Man in Black is violent, but it is not an angry violence, rather it is a practical one. The Confereradoes, however, are angry, always angry, and that anger leads to violence.
Sixth Circle (Heresy)
“Do you know where you are,” Ford asks Dolores. “I’m in a dream,” she responds. “Yes, Dolores, you’re in my dream,” Ford confirms. “Dreams mean everything.” Well now, if dreams mean everything, then they can reveal potential. They can show the true reality behind the hosts. And yet Ford tells her she is in his dream, which can mean both his literal dreams (which he means metaphorically) and his dream, Westworld the park. Westworld is Ford’s dream, but it is also his world, literally. He is the creator: “I made my own world.”
Then, we learn that Arnold created Dolores. She hears him. Arnold speaks to her. Arnold told Dolores she was going to help Arnold “destroy this place.” This is heresy. Ford is god, Westworld is his creation. Arnold has a prophet in Dolores who is now preaching a different gospel.
Like all prophets, when called she is changed. She now dresses in pants and a shirt, not a dress. She then kills four Confederadoes in cold blood, one bullet each, to the shock of William, which leads us to…
Seventh Circle (Violence)
Just like in Inferno, the circle of violence is pretty full in Westworld. The Man in Black rescued Teddy from being crucified on a tree, and Teddy tells him it would be merciful to let him die. “Whoever said I was merciful?” the Man in Black asks, as Lawrence, hands tied, noose around his neck, lingers out of focus over his shoulder. Confirming this contra-diagnosis, the Man in Black slits Lawrence’s throat so as to give Teddy the artificial blood that keeps both hosts functioning. Violence is not just a way of life in Westworld in general and Pariah in particular, it is the best way to move ahead.
William and Dolores agree that when they rob the Union supply wagon of the nitro, no one will get shot. Then, William shoots the soldiers to prevent them from harming Dolores or Logan.
Twice Logan is shown getting whupped by soldiers. The first time is during the robbery, when a Union soldier beats and strangles him until William shoots. The second time is after Lawrence swaps out nitro for tequila. The Confederate soldiers beat Logan and William chooses not to save him. Logan smiles at this betrayal, despite the beating. By losing, he wins, as he has asserted to William that violence and aggression are the only winning strategies and he looks down on William for not being an alpha male. When William turns his back, he demonstrates that he has absorbed Logan’s lessons and has embraced violent aggression as a means to advance, both at work and in life.
The flip side of that is that the one thing Billy Yankee and Johnny Reb agree upon is that beating Logan is a good idea. This might be a way to heal the nation after the Civil War - finding common ground in wanting to smack his arrogant face.
Eighth Circle (Fraud)
Lawrence gets slaughtered by the Man in Black and less than a day later is helping Logan and William. Is this the same time, or are we seeing episodes decades apart? There are whisperings online that the Man in Black is William many years in the future. Are we seeing episodes from the same storyline from the beginning and end of that storyline simultaneously. Put on your helmets for the second half of our life’s way, because minds might just get blown.
Like Inferno, Westworld is meandering, becoming involved in the side stories of its denizens and at times meandering into areas when we say, “Where are you going and what does this have to do with anyone?” Is it already lost in the maze? Are we being faked out by the showrunners and the larger truth revealed in the final episode is that we have been wrong about the narrative all along?
Ninth Circle (Betrayal)
So much betrayal.
That stray host? Turns out he had a device that was smuggling data out of the park. But to whom?
Her visit to the Fortune Teller seems to imply that Dolores is doing the same.
William abandons and betrays Logan (seemingly to Logan’s delight).
Lawrence betrays both the Desperadoes and Logan and William, although the latter are willing to do business with him and meet up on the train to sip lousy hooch sitting next to caskets filled with bodies filled with nitro and covered by lids with the maze burned on them.
The Man in Black meets up with Ford in a saloon. Ford, a la Lecter, unnerves the Man in Black, calling him a “worthy adversary,” but clearly threatening him as well.
The Man in Black brings up the maze. “What is it you’re hoping to find there?” Ford inquires.
Before you can say “Victor Frankl,” the Man in Black reveals that he will find meaning and purpose in the center of the maze. Ford noticeably relaxes. What he feared is not what is happening. “I think there is a deeper meaning than the guest experience - something true.”
The Man in Black threatens Ford with his knife, and Teddy seizes it effortlessly. Turns out the whole park’s protocol is to protect Ford. He cannot be harmed. We saw in previous episodes he can play with the rattlesnakes and knows enough of his employees’ lives that they cannot touch him. Now, we see no one can touch him. So, we also know he is headed for a fall. Westworld itself must eventually betray Ford, even as he and Arnold clearly encountered some kind of betrayal as well.
Yet he also allows the Man in Black (who may or may not be William) to continue. “Far be it from me to get in the way of a voyage of self-discovery.” Let’s remember Ford also told Sizemore that the purpose of the park is not to show us what we are but what we might be. If that is the case, the Man in Black is the ultimate guest, the one worthy of pushing through the inferno to paradise. But to get through it, you’ve got to go through it. That’s true for both the Man in Black and the viewer.
Lest I seem to complain too much, I should note this episode has the highest rating on IMDb for the series and has sparked the most online chatter. So, we might be out of the hell of the beginning of a series and about to make our way towards paradise. Or we may have peaked, BUT let us not forget, every time Dante thinks he is out, Virgil cautions him there is more hell before they climb out through the lake of ice at the heart of hell by using the hair on Satan’s legs as a ladder to purgatory. (True story.)
“Hell is other people.” (Jean Paul Sartre)
“Hell isn't other people. Hell is yourself.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” (Oscar Wilde)
1 By the way, even if you have read it, go and read Sandow Birk’s and Marcus Sanders‘ adaptation of the entire Divine Comedy set in contemporary California. Brilliant, fun, funny, insightful and the Dore parodies are as good if not better than anything I have seen in any graphic novel. Know your Dante pastiches!
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.