HBO’s latest big venture Westworld arrived recently. Based on the 70’s film written and directed by Michael Crichton (and featuring Yul Brynner in a memorable role as a robot cowboy gone haywire).
Westworld was in the media spotlight long before its first episode aired after a contract for extras was highlighted for being rather creepy now it’s in the spotlight again with stars defending things seen in the premiere episode.
Set at some point in the future Westworld is a vast theme park of sorts which represents an Old West town and the surrounding area. The park is populated by incredibly lifelike robots/synthetic beings called Hosts. Westworld is the creation of Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The series introduces various characters, some are people that work for Westworld in some capacity like Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) one of the technicians that works on the Hosts that populate the park, some are Hosts like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Teddy (James Marsden), whilst others are patrons of the park like The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and his polar opposite William (Jimmi Simpson). These are just some of the characters that feature.
Visitors ,called Guests, are free to live out any desire they have with no judgement or consequence. The Hosts exist to accommodate their desires, whether this is being a brutal sadistic murderer, a violent rapist or something else. The Hosts though have no memory of what they are subjected to due to being wiped, monitored and recalibrated as necessary by the the parks technicians. Also Hosts generally speaking can’t harm Guest ,though they might attempt to, because their guns don’t fire real bullets. This enables Guests to engage in the thrill of a gun fight with no risk of real injury.
The various Hosts in the park are all playing a part in numerous overlapping looping narratives which the Guests can take part in. Once the narrative loop comes to an end it restarts with the Hosts involved completely oblivious to having done the same thing numerous times.
The first episode, and indeed the series as a whole, has more than a little in common with Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed series Black Mirror given that it deals with the darker uses of technology and how they impact people and society, Dolores’ story is a prime example. Dolores is part of a narrative loop involving Teddy but The Man in Black it turns out has been taking part in this loop for years. Each time it culminates in Teddy being killed in some way by The Man in Black and Dolores being brutalised and raped by him, the screaming Dolores being dragged off by her hair into a barn before the door slams ominously shut behind her.
Only Dolores isn’t being brutally raped in the context of the world presented here because Dolores isn’t a person with rights or bodily autonomy. Dolores is a thing. A synthetic person subject to the whims of the parks Guests. The problem with this is the presentation to the viewers at home is exactly the same because Hosts by definition look exactly like real people. This is basically rape by proxy. More than that it suffers from familiar problems that usually arise when sexual assault or rape features in a TV show, deferred consequence for the transgressor to build dramatic tension and deliver catharsis at a later date and glossing over the aftermath for the victim.
The first episode ,which focusses primarily on Dolores’ loop, ends with her naked in the technicians lab (for some unexplained reason Hosts are always naked in the lab when taken for diagnostic maintenance) looking glassy eyed into the camera as engineers question her in a diagnostic mode. This visual is powerful because the viewer has the burden of knowledge of what Dolores has been subjected to repeatedly even if she doesn’t and the Westworld employees are completely indifferent to the suffering.
The long play for Westworld is the Hosts through something in their latest software update (possibly intentional on Ford’s part) is leading them to actually gain full awareness remembering all the horrific things they’ve been subjected to by the Guests over the years via flashbacks and dream like hallucinatory episodes. Dolores it’s revealed is the oldest of the Hosts in the park and is it seems being set up as the leader of the Hosts rebellion against their human oppressors, whilst Maeve, who in episode 2 “wakes up” whilst in the lab, is set to play a big part too.
Whilst this undeniably fertile ground for an interesting multi-layered character drama it’s yet another example of relying on the well worn plot device of women’s sexual assault, rape and trauma being utilised as a catalyst for revenge and empowerment. This was the basis of I Spit on Your Grave back in 1978 and I’m sure it wasn’t the first example. You can’t help but think writers seem to not know how to write empowered women in TV drama without their empowerment being the by product of some man’s malevolent transgression.
The idea that Westworld employees are seperated into different departments, with animosity between the workers of different departments, is prime for exploration as one of the most looming questions about Westworld is how does the place function? Does it have opening hours like a normal theme park? How many departments are there? How do they repair the Hosts damaged by Guests? Are there any animals besides the synthetic horses? Why would anybody take their children to Westworld? Why are there no child Hosts? How do the visitors function outside of the park where they have to revert to behaving in a normal civilised manner? How do the people that work at Westworld function in the real world? Those are just a handful of questions Westworld prompts.
A big part of Westworld is the idea that the only difference between modern, or in this case future, society and the savage primordial past is the thin veneer of civilisation, something which can be stripped away easily given the right circumstance. Swedish series Akta Manniskor explored the same themes regarding technology, A.I and the impact it has on society in a much more grounded manner, the series was remade in English as Humans which changed the story and some characters.