White and Black Hats: The Morality of Westworld

In Westerns there is a long tradition of good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats. I believe Westworld is playing around with this tradition.

White and black hats goes all the way back to silent films. It’s not an absolute rule all Westerns follow. In fact, many films (like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) deliberately subvert the idea by eliminating white hats to imply moral ambiguity amongst the characters. However, it is imagery we see again and again in Westerns.

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I believe that Westworld is conscious of this traditional Western imagery and is playing with the concept — and that it is worth paying attention to which hat a character wears. Here is a brief analysis of six Westworld characters and the hats they wear.

Dr. Robert Ford

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In the first episode Ford (Anthony Hopkins) seems kind, even subdued. We first meet him in the basement talking to an old host that has been retired.

When Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) comes to tell Ford that some of Ford’s new code is causing problems in the hosts, he doesn’t yell at Bernard, Ford simply gives a little speech about evolution, the state of their world and tells Bernard calmly, “You must indulge me the occasional mistake.” At this point Ford, is not in Westworld so there’s no need for him to wear a hat.

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In the second episode, however, we see him enter Westworld. And what is he wearing? White shirt, grey vest and pants and a black hat. Some of him is bright and white, some of him is grey, but his hat (his mind) is black. He displays his ability to command a snake in the park (an animal typically associated with evil).

In the next episode we see a slightly different Ford. He scolds a worker for covering up a host’s genitals and tells the worker that the hosts feel no shame and then cuts the side of the host’s face to prove his point. It is here we begin to see a bit of what the black hat foreshadowed.

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Episode Four, “Dissonance Theory,” probably is the most interesting use of the black hat. When we first see Ford in Westworld, he is having a meeting with Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen). They are meeting to discuss his broad changes to the Westworld narrative. In the background we see giant machines tearing up the earth. Ford is wearing black hat. When they sit down to eat in the next scene, however, he is not wearing a hat. As he talks to Theresa, he tells her about his former partner, Arnold. As he gives this speech, all the hosts in the general area freeze in place.

“He begged me not to let you people in, the money men. But I told him we’d be fine, that you didn’t understand what you were paying for. It’s not a business venture, not a theme park, but an entire world. We designed every inch of it. Every blade of grass. In here, we were gods. And you, merely our guests.”

Is he not wearing a hat because it’s impolite to wear one at a meal? I’m sure that’s part of it. But I also like to think it’s because he describes himself as a God, and God is neither good or evil; simply beyond those concepts.

 

Bernard

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We only see Bernard enter Westworld briefly. And when he does, he is wearing a grey hat and it is not a cowboy hat — it is a baseball hat. I believe this speaks to the fact that Bernard is different from everyone else who works at Westworld; he thinks differently and acts differently.

For example, while everyone seems to fear Ford and Theresa, Bernard seems to have a certain way with them. Ford in particular seems to like and respect Bernard; Ford is even protective of him. When Ford is having the conversation with Theresa where he refers to himself as a God, he says, “I do hope you will be careful with Bernard. He has a sensitive disposition.”

Bernard also seems to have his own agenda with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). He is interviewing her in private while investigating and cultivating her development towards sentience. We know he’s not supposed to be doing that. Is breaking the rules bad, but encouraging Dolores to develop herself good? Or does Bernard simply play games (hence baseball hat) and is neither good nor evil? Maybe he’s just in a grey area in the middle, doing his own thing.

 

Logan and William

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These two are the two most simplistic examples of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats.

Logan (Ben Barnes) is the quintessential example of a guest at the park who is only interested in committing bad deeds. He kills and injures the hosts casually and freely, he’s interested only in destructive storylines and actions, and he has sex with as many hosts as he can. Logan treats the hosts as Ford intended – as playthings – as entities that are not real.

William (Jimmi Simpson), on the other hand, treats the hosts with the utmost dignity. He treats them like real people. He helps the old host and Dolores when they drop something, and he’s helping Dolores on her journey to the maze. He even tries to go out of his way to protect Dolores’s burgeoning mind, and asks Logan not to use the term “doll” around Dolores because he thinks she understands what that implies.

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It is when William is getting ready to enter Westworld that it is made clear Westworld intends to impose a choice between good and evil for its visitors; there are only two colours of hats William to choose from, white and black.

 

Dolores

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Dolores did not wear a hat for the first four episodes of Westworld, but in episode five she wears a hat during a robbery. When we first meet Dolores in the series, she tells us that, “some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray, I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.” While there is purity in her perspective, the first hat we see her in is a brown one. And interestingly enough, it is handed to her by a black-hat-wearing bad guy host in the park. He gives her this hat because for the first time Dolores must interact with Westworld the same way the guests do.

I believe her hat colour is a neutral brown because Dolores hasn’t reached beyond her programming yet; she doesn’t know if she’s good or bad. She seems pure (she’s wearing a white shirt and a white bandit handkerchief), but because she hasn’t discovered her true self yet, she is neither good nor evil.

This idea is furthered when Dolores shoots some men attacking her and William. When this occurs, Dolores is no longer wearing her hat. And while Dolores doesn’t usually wear a hat anyway, I like to think that at least a small part of its absence has to do with the fact that in that moment, she is free of the predetermination that Westworld attempts to impose on her.

 

The Man in Black

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The Man in Black (Ed Harris) has a black hat, black gloves, a black vest, and black pants. But I think it is his actions that are evil, rather than his motivations. We’ve seen in flashbacks how brutal he has been with the hosts like when he rapes of Dolores and murders Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her daughter. He even refers to himself in the conversation with Ford as the villain of Westworld.

But he views it as playing a part, rather than being evil himself. I suspect The Man in Black may be dressed in black because he is a force of chaos, rather than evil. When the little girl host tells him how to find the maze she says, “It is not meant for you.” As we learn from Bernard the maze may give Dolores a chance “to be free.” As such, The Man in Black would gain nothing from this quest other than the chance to entertain his own selfish curiosities. While he tells a host that he is there to set him free, it seems like all The Man In Black’s actions are to satisfy his own interests.


Since Westworld is a puzzle we’re all trying to figure out, looking at what colour clothes and what colour hat a character wears might give us some clues to help us figure them out. While a hat colour won’t reveal everything, it may give us a small hint at where their character will go. At the very least, it gives us a chance to to tip our hat to the show and acknowledge all the thought and care they put into it’s presentation.

2 Comments
  1. Reply Lorenzo November 4, 2016 at 12:20 am

    I like this article! I would like to write more, but I’m lazy and I don’t speak english.

    • Reply Movie Lists Man November 4, 2016 at 12:28 am

      This is a confusing, but welcome comment. Thanks for … reading? Commenting? Maybe just, “thank you.” 🙂

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