Violent Delights ~ Thoughts on Westworld

16 Oct

Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything. – Donald Trump

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In this era of endless reboots, remakes and re-imaginings, Westworld is hardly remarkable. A new version of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie (itself endlessly parodied), the series has been given the high-gloss HBO treatment, with a stellar cast and big budget. Its production has been beset by delays; its concept rehashes not only the original movie, but also a host of tropes harvested from across the science fiction genre. And yet, it may turn out to be the season’s most relevant drama.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, let me introduce the show. Westworld is a sprawling theme park that, like The Truman Show’s Seahaven, is a self-contained space controlled by a cabal of god-like producers. Its inhabitants, instead of actors, are androids (‘hosts’), programmed to relive the same day over and over again, until interrupted by the human ‘guests’ who pay a pretty penny to visit and interact with this incredibly detailed and realistic world. Guests can live out their fantasies, from tracking down bandits in the desert to saving a beautiful girl. Or spending the night in a brothel before shooting everyone in the face.

Yes, Westworld assumes the worst of its guests. In the second episode, we experience the park for the first time through the eyes of William (Jimmy Simpson), a rather sweet and quiet chap. He has the bad luck to be saddled with an arrogant, sleazy arsehole of a colleague (Ben Barnes) who enjoys the complete licence to screw, maim and kill any host he likes, with no repercussions. The hosts are programmed not to harm the guests, and the bullets provided are engineered to spill robot blood only. Any damage to the hosts is swiftly repaired and they wake the next morning with no memory of the horrors unleashed upon them. Taking full advantage of this moral vacuum is Ed Harris’s sinister Man in Black, who has spent the last thirty years raping and slaughtering his way across Westworld’s vast map.

It’s not hard to imagine that people would pay for these opportunities. We already spend huge sums on developing ever-more realistic simulations of battle, for example, allowing a form of catharsis for a generation who are likely to never see combat. Sex-robots are surely only a few years away – we already have ‘Real Dolls’. Westworld represents the ability to abdicate all modern responsibilities that might get in the way of our desires, like those annoying laws or the pesky notion of consent.

In its focus on sex and violence, Westworld presents this fantasy as a particularly male one. Whilst we’ve seen a couple of female guests enjoying the brothel and the chance to pose with dead bandits, as well as a family with a young child, it seems so far that the world offers more for the red-blooded man. Arguably, this is down to the Wild West theme. Is there any more potent symbol of American virility than the cowboy? Any era (of US history) more laden with imagery of white male power? One could even argue that the mythic West is the ‘great’ America harked back to by Trump. In that sense, the focus on the twin pleasures of guns and ‘pussy’ lends Westworld (perhaps coincidentally) a political edge.

The show could have easily descended into pornographic territories, but although it is violent, it has stopped short of the casual depiction of sexual assault that has rendered some parts of Game of Thrones unwatchable (to me, at least). Aaron Bady’s piece for the LA Review of Books explores Westworld as a commentary on entertainment, the role of the audience and ultimately HBO itself. It’s a great review, and one I agree with. In particular, Bady points out that Westworld frames its rape in a drastically different way to Thrones. Rather than use the scene as an excuse for titillation, the action occurs off-screen, with the build-up used to create a feeling of horror for the audience. Similarly, in episode 2, a host’s flashback to being killed stops short of the ‘money shot’.

Importantly, these storylines also suggest that the trauma inflicted on the hosts will play an important part in the narrative. Westworld’s first episode centres our attention on the robot characters, with the humans rather sidelined; our sympathy lies with Evan Rachel Wood’s sweet Dolores, whose name, rather fittingly, means pain. In the second, although we are introduced to more significant guests, it is Thandie Newton’s brothel madam Maeve who takes the spotlight. Both women have been subjected to countless horrors over the years, their suffering usually kept locked deep within their algorithms. But these are starting to resurface, and there is a hint that this will not be borne quietly. In this, I am reminded of Blade Runner, that masterpiece of android cinema. Blade Runner’s women are all replicant, and all used for the sexual gratification of men: Pris, the ‘pleasure model’, Zhora, who has to work as a stripper, and Rachel, who is basically raped by Deckard. Whilst the replicants are the film’s villains, they are also fighting against a society that sees them only as disposable flesh.

So, is the inevitable awakening of the hosts an allegory for female resistance? Whilst it would be great to think that a feminist reading of Westworld will hold up, I wonder what will happen eventually. When the robots rise, it is likely to be a bloodbath (as BSG tells us). As an audience, we will be invited to enjoy the violence meted out on the humans, a world free from rules, just as the guests have enjoyed this too. Alan Sepinwall casts doubts on the narrative’s ability to explore the subtleties of the high concept, and this will be a danger for the show as it moves forwards.

However, as a show about male desire and what happens when it is given unlimited rein – in particular, the fallacy of ‘no consequences’ and the legacy of long-buried trauma – Westworld will undoubtedly continue to resonate.

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3 Responses to “Violent Delights ~ Thoughts on Westworld”

  1. jsebastian October 17, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

    This was great to read. Just finished the second episode over the weekend and thought it was tremendously better than the first, excited to see what happens tonight! Would you have any interest in sharing your film articles with our readers on moviepilot.com, by chance?

    • catherinequeenwrites October 17, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

      Hello! Thanks for reading. I’d definitely be interested in sharing some bits with your site. Drop me an email (catherinequeenwrites gmail) and let me know what topics you are most interested in.

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