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Westworld

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The first I heard of HBO’s new show Westworld was a not-very-positive review (that I now can’t find again), which said the show was like the ‘new Game of Thrones’, in more ways than one. I wasn’t exactly eager to get pulled into another mess of misogyny with characters just compelling enough that you can’t stop watching, so I ignored it for a while, until people I trust started raving about it and I got overly curious, and ended up marathoning all three aired episodes back-to-back.

Westworld is one of those rare shows that makes me reach for a notebook to scribble down thoughts within about two minutes of starting it. There’s so much to discuss. Does that make it a good show? Was that initial review wrong? Well. I’m not sure yet.

Westworld is a fairly familiar set-up. A themepark, Westworld, using realistic-seeming robots to give guests the authentic “Wild West Experience,” with the AI living out the same plot scenarios and then having their memories wiped at the end of every story cycle. Puppeteers maintain the AI and design new stories for them, and the guests interact with them in whatever way they see fit, including killing them (for this story cycle, at least), while the AI cannot hurt real living things. And then, of course, the AI start remembering events that they’d previously been made to forget.

It took me about five minutes to decide that the guests — all the guests — are the most horrible things in this scenario. The show sets up a couple of male guests as potential recurring characters: a jerky guy who’s here for a power trip, and a Nice Guy who is rather out of his element but wants to be the hero. But whether the guests are presented as generally goor or bad people, they use Westworld as a place to play out fantasies that aren’t really allowed in real life. On the first train in, we hear one guy proudly declare that he was evil the last time he came here. Guests must choose between the white hat or the black hat, and they can play through scenarios as villains who would be arrested in real life, or as the dashing heroes they are in their dreams.

Which brings us to Dolores. The rancher’s daughter, an optimistic young woman who believes the world is a beautiful place and cannot wait to savor it every day. And so she is trapped in a plotline where her mother and father are murdered, and she is either raped by a guest, or saved from rape if a white hat guest gets involved in the plotline. Then it’s wiped from her memory so she can relive it again. And again. And again. Dolores is on a loop where we see her happiness and hope, and then see it destroyed, day after day, before everything is reset so that she can experience it all anew.

In fact, it seems like the designers made Dolores so hopeful and so enraptured with the world precisely so that she has the most to lose when she is crushed. Guests can choose to share her enrapture as she paints horses out in the wild, but they can also choose to live out their power fantasies of destroying her life, killing her, raping her, torturing her, or any selection of the above. And if they choose to be the Good Guys? Dolores still suffers just so that they can have their great moment of saving the damsel in distress.

She exists in the park to be raped, or to be rescued from rape, and the psychology of both the creators and the guests is revealed by the comment from recurring guests, and apparent villain, the Man in Black. “They gave you a little more pluck, Dolores.” She’s still in the park for the same plotline, but now she’s more of a Strong Woman, because that appeals to guests more. As the Man in Black says, “I didn’t pay all this money cos I wanted it easy. I want you to fight.”

It wasn’t until I reached episode 3 that I realized maybe we aren’t supposed to 100% empathise with the AI. That the show’s theme isn’t quite “oh my god, they are abusing you so terribly, rebel and fight back!”, and more, “do they count as people? Is their emotion real?” Obviously most of their creators don’t think the robots’ emotions are real, or, at least, are unnerved by how real the emotion can seem, and so want to avoid it. One employee, when faced with a terrified Dolores, orders her, “Cognition only. No emotional affect.” The AI maintains that she’s terrified, but she speaks in a monotone, not inconveniencing their engineer with even the vaguest suggestion that her feelings might be something to feel guilty about. “Just don’t forget… the hosts are not real.”

Obviously, they have emotion beyond certain programmed responses, or else how would they be able to respond to facing scenarios, as they do, where things go wrong and they’re exposed to realities beyond the constructs of the park? But already, I find myself firmly in the camp that, even if they don’t count as people, even if they feel no emotion and it’s all just a performance based on programming code, it still doesn’t change the morality of things. Yes, they’re “not real,” but even at the most robotic end of the scale, this is terrifying. It’s a terrifying exploration of what people want to be able to experience, if the repercussions vanish and they’re told they can do it guilt- and consequence-free.

“She was terrified,” one guest says, before he’s corrected by another. “That’s why they exist. So we get to experience this.” At the very least, a woman has to appear terrified, grieving and broken, so that others can live out their fantasies, as either heroes or villains.

Which is why Dolores hitting the fly on her neck was such a “fuck yeah!” moment for me. We’ve seen Dolores established as the “wouldn’t hurt a fly” girl, precisely so she can get mistreated over and over, and now, finally, she’s hinting that she has a chance to resist.

But three episodes in, it’s already starting to get repetitive. Explicit violence every week, often the same scenes. Lots of suffering and fear and blood, but no long-term repercussions, since everything is wiped, so it just seems like blood shown for the sake of blood. It’s so violent that it becomes a little boring. We get it. The Man in Black is evil. Guests revel in violence. It’s made me wonder if I care too much about the shows I watch to watch this one. To see characters I like going through the same horrors on loop, with very little chance of escape. You don’t watch a show about AI slowly realising what’s going on unless you’re ready for a slow build, and that’s fine, but filling in the gaps with the same violence and abuse on repeat each week is a little much.

And I went into full capslocks in episode three, when Dolores started remembering things. “YES, FIGHT BACK! FIGHT THIS HORRIBLE STORY.” Don’t let them tell you how to live through the same trauma, day after day, always set so you can’t escape the guests. Escape a life that’s purely so others can abuse you if they wish.

Dolores fights back, wielding a gun and refusing to let herself get shot again… but then she faints like a damsel next to the Hero, setting up for his big rescue fantasy story. As I said, it’s a slow burn.

But the big question, then, is what is it slowly burning towards? What sort of show is this going to be? It’s not comfortable watching, but will it be worth it in the end? Is it cycling through all of this violence and suffering to make Dolores into a fascinating, well-developed character who fights back to make statements against commodification and rape culture and the evil of the guests, or is it including it, even in part, because it thinks its viewers, like the Westworld guests, want to see it? That it has unchallenged narrative value, and that the shock factor of Dolores cycling through innocence to trauma is important for its own sake?

And there are other questions, worldbuilding questions, that hint at potential disappointment. We see female guests in the park, and the first one we meet is apparently here for the fantasy of danger in a safe environment: “Perfect is boring. I’m more interested in the bad guys.” In the third episode, we see another woman being the gun-toting hero, but she eventually flees, and the greatest apparent threat to her isn’t the AI, but the other guests. There’s a big question of safety here that I’m not sure the show, with it’s mostly male-guest perspective, has considered. With the line between “hosts” and “guests” so thin, and female guests in an environment where people feel they have a right to do whatever they want, there’s a huge amount of danger to these 100% real people too. Will the show explore that? I’m not sure. Violence against women, and violence in general, is inherent to the show’s premise, and whether it follows that avenue of thought will be one way of seeing why that violence is so inherent to the plot.

The answers to all these questions are going to determine whether the show is ultimately worth watching, but it’s too early for answers right now. And either way, it’s too late for me. I care about Dolores too much. I can’t stop watching now.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

9 thoughts on “Westworld

  1. You are stronger, avd more naive than me. I can’t watvh this train wreck. Keeping GoT in mind, I cant believe tjat this will or can have any kind of good ending. Not rsinbows good, but consequence good. The fact that the writers felt the need to explore this situation in such a way… not promising. Look up the writers and their projects. I doubt there is anything that woukd make your investment and hopes more than naive wishfull thinking.

    1. I don’t know, I think JJ Abrams has done some good stuff — or at least, some early seasons of good stuff, before his shows go off the rails a little bit. I’m not going into this show all starry-eyed, but I definitely find it *interesting*, and, well, if I wasn’t naively optimistic about where shows’ll go, I’d never end up watching anything and finding the shows I DO love too!

  2. I have also now watched through episode 3 and will probably watch episode 4 today. I can’t say I’m hooked, but Dolores’ plight and the insight we get into her when her programmer questions her is enough to keep me watching, at least for a while yet. And what about Thandie Newton’s character? She’s perhaps more interesting than Dolores–constantly changing thanks to resets of her personality by the people in the cold empty spaces of the “command center.” And that dream she keeps having about her and a child. In some ways, she’s far more interesting to me than Dolores. OTOH, Dolores has potential, but for what?

    1. I have no idea what Dolores might have potential for, except growth. She’s just so optimistic and naive, and so betrayed by the narrative, that my instincts desperately want to see her figure things out and grow and fight back. But YES to Maeve as well. She is such a badass, and I love where her story is going. I must admit, after watching episode 4, I’m finding my attention wandering more and more during any scenes that don’t involve those two characters… but I’m still intrigued enough by them to keep going for now!

  3. So I’ve heard that the hosts have a “good samaritan” code that has them step in when a guest is about to harm another guest. Not sure though. It’s something I’ve been wondering about too.

    1. Oh, I didn’t think of how that could apply to protecting guests from other guests. That would make sense. The deeper we get into it, the more safety features are revealed, so I suppose that would be a sensible thing to include as well. I assume the guns aren’t real, and maybe the provided knives aren’t either. Still, the chances for mix-ups still seem dangerously high, and if there isn’t an actual host around to protect people, things could get messy fast.

  4. Just saw the first 3 episodes. There’s a lot to like and I’ll definitely keep watching, but it’s disturbing how every single guest is a horrible human. We have this beautiful, detailed, intricate world that offers so many possibilities for role-play and adventure, and yet everyone goes there for the sex and violence, and to play out power fantasies that wouldn’t be allowed in the real world. No one judges or comments on the atrocities; this behavior is considered normal. We saw a family with a kid, so I imagine people go to Westworld for various reasons, but we don’t see it, and we don’t see many female guests. I’m curious if this changes later on. But even if the robots weren’t sentient and couldn’t feel fear and pain, it’s still disturbing how many people have this type of fantasies and feel the need to act on them.

    1. This is such a good point. At first, I bought into this idea that the park is for terrible people, because the hosts are so sympathetic, but then I found myself comparing it to somewhere like Disneyland. And an immersive fantasy “historical” experience where you ride horses across the open landscape and live an adventure for a few days? I don’t even like Westerns, and that sounds super fun to me. Surely the majority of people would want to go there for actual, non-taboo fun. Or am I putting too much trust in humanity there?

      1. Exactly! I personally would do anything to be able to go to a Westworld-style Middle-earth! And I’m not into westerns myself, but I would still visit Westworld (provided it’s affordable.) Just riding horses across this amazing landscape and dressing up in those gorgeous costumes sounds fun. But I guess you don’t need robots for that – hired actors could easily do the job. Then I suppose the whole point of the robots is that you can kill them and abuse them with no consequences. Ugh, that’s depressing.

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