I Want to See Less of This “World”

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy in HBO's "Westworld."

This week I quit both The Walking Dead and The Mindy Project, two series that I have found increasingly dissatisfying in their later seasons. It used to be that quitting a show I formerly liked would be accompanied by an aggrieved sulk and some vigorous complaining about how the world has failed to entertain me properly (I am a treat), but the Age of Over-Programming has rendered quitting an unenjoyable show a relief.

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It has also made committing to a show like HBO’s strange, messy Westworld in the hopes that it will eventually pay off a much less urgent prospect. Based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, about an Old West–style theme park for the rich populated by realistic-looking robot “hosts,” Westworld is HBO’s long-delayed attempt to duplicate the popular and critical success of Game of Thrones. Responses to the premiere asked whether or not Westworld would find appeal outside of a niche audience in the same way that Game of Thrones was able to lure in viewers not usually tempted by fantasy.

HBO does self-aware robots with grandeur.

Theoretically, the premise of Westworld should take advantage of HBO’s strengths: a development process that allows for the creation of sprawling, ambitious epics and a budget guaranteeing sky-high production values and acting talent with name recognition. Other channels can do self-aware robots, but HBO will do self-aware robots with grandeur.

Set at some indeterminate future date when advances in technology have made androids with artificial intelligence possible, the series splits its time between public life in the park and the “backstage” offices of its on-site employees. Married creators Jonathan Nolan, previously the showrunner for CBS’s Person of Interest and the script writer for The Dark Knight and Interstellar (both directed by his brother Christopher Nolan), and Lisa Joy, previously a writer on Burn Notice and Pushing Daisies, have retained the idea of Westworld as an escapist, adult-themed adventure park. For those who can afford it, this is a playground in which there are no rules and the robots are at the mercy of their human “guests.”

Robot not from "Westworld."
Failing to create the illusion. Photo: WikiCommons.

The scenes in the park feature androids modeled on Western archetypes, like damsel-in-distress Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the brothel madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), and Teddy Flood (James Marsden), a heroic cowboy with a dark past that doesn’t really exist. Life in the park is one of repetition, with the “actors” playing out the same story lines daily, only altering their behaviors in response to the guests they meet. Not only are the guests allowed to do whatever they want to the hosts, the hosts are incapable of fighting back or causing the guests any harm. Naturally, this means the premiere features the off-screen rape of Dolores by one of the guests, The Man in Black (Ed Harris).

The Man in Black, who has been coming to the park since it opened and seems to be afforded special privileges, takes pleasure in sadistically killing and torturing the hosts there while searching for a maze he believes is located somewhere within it. TMiB theorizes that finding the center of the maze will reveal a “deeper level” or ultimate truth about the purpose of Westworld or the universe or life or consciousness or whatever. (His portentous dialogue steers clear of specifics, an affliction shared by several of the other human characters.)

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Westworld itself is the creation of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his deceased partner Arnold. Arnold died in an “accident” that Ford vaguely suggests was a suicide, but this remains unconfirmed in order to encourage wild fan theories. It was Arnold who supposedly created the maze that preoccupies TMiB. Arnold’s death also doesn’t seem to have stopped him from sending messages to park hosts in an effort to nudge them towards consciousness in defiance of Ford. The motivation for this sabotage as an act of revenge against his partner remains unclear. Maybe Ford wouldn’t let him put a Future Starbucks at the entrance to the park.

There’s literal virgin/whore symbolism here.

Westworld suffers from a failure of imagination and nerve concerning the possibilities of its own premise, unable to conjure up a future that differs from our own beyond the addition of robots. Nolan and Joy retain the original theme of the park rather than translating the Western fantasy into one more suited to audiences in 2016 (or beyond). By tying the theme park to a physical reality, the actions of the guests are necessarily limited. (It’s the future! Don’t tell me you can’t fly in Westworld because everyone’s gotten sick of their jet packs already.) This works effectively as a delivery system for some very literal symbolism about new frontiers and Americana and the virgin/whore dichotomy but never connects as a plausible destination for the rich in a technologically advanced future.

The most damning aspect of Westworld is that it is neither fun nor darkly seductive. The show keeps reiterating that visiting Westworld allows the guests to give in to their most forbidden impulses. These mostly take the form of gunning down and having sex with (or raping) the robotic workers, all activities that occur frequently on other cable shows with adult themes. Because these entertainers can’t hurt guests, don’t feel pain, and register as uncanny presences who spout deeply cheesy dialogue, any sense of transgression or danger is rendered inert.

One of the backstage engineers muses that the park works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real, but a sense of reality is exactly what is missing from both Westworld and Westworld. The guests don’t seem to be genuinely giving in to the desire to cause harm. Instead, they are just smashing really large dolls with their overgrown fists. Westworld the theme park is a live-action shooting gallery, where, if you are so inclined, you can fuck the ducks.

Castle Valley, Utah. Better without Westworld robots.
Castle Valley, UT, is better without the robots. Photo: WikiCommons.

But the real answer to “Why Westworld?”may be that it allows for the filming of gorgeous vistas within Castle Valley, Utah, which render the park as a stunning and grandiose investment for the fictional company that built it.

This gets to the heart of my problem with the show. While its sympathies ostensibly lie with the robots who have started to remember the horrors repeatedly inflicted on them, it has a very narrow benchmark for which members of humanity get included in the narrative, in this case rich, white men. The early mention of how much one day in the park costs is a telling detail–$40,000 dollars is a lot of money.

But then again, given rates of inflation, it’s anyone’s guess how much purchasing power this amount of currency commands in Westworld’s undated future. For all we know, that is what a double latte from Future Starbucks costs. It’s a sign that the creators have not only failed to ask themselves what material reality might be like outside the park, it also means that the average viewer isn’t being asked to see themselves in the park’s guests. Power and money make those bad, bad people removed from us in time and space destroy oppressed robots.

This simplistic formula fails to indict the viewer’s own ambiguous relationship to technology or possible complicity with systems of oppression. Though the point of the series is ostensibly the dawning awareness of a downtrodden class, symbolized by the awakening of both Dolores and Maeve, just as much screen time is devoted to the privileged ruminations of Ford and TMiB on the nature of good and evil and freedom and humanity and cruelty and desire and…etcetera. While the women and people of color fight for their lives, the white men sit back and discuss the nature of the universe. TMiB is yet another petty sociopath given a platform from which to spin his theories.

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In my first column I mentioned my ambivalence towards shows that develop strong female characters but only after their male characters have spent a good chunk of time holding center stage. Last night’s episode of Westworld already presents Dolores and Maeve stepping out of the confines they have been placed in and taking action to direct their own destiny. Wood, whose luminous, complex performance is the best reason to watch the show, has defended the portrayal of sexual violence against Dolores, noting that it took place offscreen. Perhaps Dolores and Maeve will smash Ford and TMiB with their own fists, but I’m not interested in watching them share a stage in the meantime.

Liz’s List What to Watch/Follow/Listen to/Read

Instead of Westworld watch Insecure on HBO, one of several shows I will be discussing in next month’s column.

Follow Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold @Fahrenthold now instead of waiting until he wins the Pulitzer for his election coverage.

Listen to Anne Carson discuss the innovative presentation method of her latest book of poems, essays and insights, Float.

Read Zadie Smith in The Guardian on how dancers are every bit as inspiring to her as her fellow writers.