Westworld’s Intriguing Premise Saves Cliched Execution…For Now
When I was a teen, I used to read a ton of romance novels. I read novels from every time period, and for a while, historical novels were my favorite. I liked that they talked about a time to which I couldn’t relate and gave me a picture, if somewhat inaccurate, of something that once was. As usual, there weren’t any Black people, but the books set in the American west had Indigenous characters. The downside, besides always either being the male love interest or the enemy, is that they were always men and referred to as “savages” and “half-breeds.” These books and this setting always bothered me and very quickly earned a place on my “do not read” list.
It was through my exposure to romance novels set in the American wild west that I became better acquainted with white supremacy. I gained a better understanding that brown skin meant untamed, uncultured, in need of taming and domesticating. The male protagonists were always half white, making them somewhat palatable to the white audience. This whiteness meant these men could be civilized. They could be made appealing to white people. They still weren’t “right” but it fit the rebellious, white savior romance narrative that is popular among white supremacist audiences. Over time, I learned to loathe the authors who would dehumanize and debase people in their books. I became disgusted with every depiction of the American wild west I’d seen and learned to avoid the genre altogether.
Then, I learned of an opportunity to preview HBO’s Westworld. I love new experiences, and once I read about the show, I was mildly curious. I enjoy the idea of artificial intelligence. It’s a fascinating topic and for a while, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation was my romantic ideal. I liked the idea that I couldn’t really hurt him; I was drawn to his inhumanity. I’ve changed since then, but it seemed so uncomplicated and people are so damn complicated.
Everything about us is complicated – from what makes us sick to what makes us well. We don’t understand our own emotions, much less others. We don’t understand how some medications work. We don’t understand why some people live longer than others. In many ways, humans are meat computers. We don’t understand our responses to many things, and our explanations don’t hold up over time because we’re always changing in response to our environment. Because there are so many things we don’t know, both about our planet and the universe, I am intrigued when someone plays with the idea. That was enough to get me interested in the show.
That is, until I realized it was set in the American west.
Now, to be fair, only the park is set in the American west. The park itself is like a giant, open-world, massively, multiplayer online (MMO) game. You can talk to the sheriff and go on a bounty hunt. You can go to the salon and meet an old prospector. You can go for a hike in the hills. You can join a team of bandits and raid towns. Or you can stay in town, visit the bordello, and get drunk with your friends. It is the ultimate choose your own adventure experience…set in the wild, wild west.
It wasn’t just my memories of vile historical romance novels affecting my negative view of the environment. As a Black person, there isn’t any time in American history where I feel comfortable. I’m not sure that any person of color can look back at America’s past and say “this seems like a good time,” but as a Black person and a woman? Hell no. I can understand why heterosexual, cisgendered (het-cis) white men romanticize the past. I’ve often heard the past referred to as a time where men could be men and women knew their place, or what I like to call the Trump delusion. It was a time where white male oppression was not just the norm, but was constantly, consistently, and brutally reinforced through every mechanism available. This romanticized, toxic masculinity is both upheld and skewered in the show. There are wholesome-looking “good guys” who aren’t so good and good-looking “bad guys” offering naughty romps and violent adventures as well as infinite opportunities for paying guests to become either of these characters.
The Guests we follow in the park are het-cis men. We watch them pay women of color for sex, and seek to protect the pale, blond, blue-eyed, respectable woman. We watch them talk about being “bad” as though it’s a mischievous game. We watch them murder and while we do not witness rape, we see its prelude. This is an environment where the strongest (i.e. most brutally selfish and violent) men rule. The few female Guests we see are accessories to the story. They are Guests who we see once, then never again or they are the spouse of some man seeking adventure. We do not see what women do during their visits to Westworld, at least not yet. Maybe that will change.
But this is just one layer of Westworld. You see, the park, set in the American west, is housed within The Company that creates the environment and its inhabitants. The inhabitants, referred to as Hosts, entertain and serve the Guests. When functional, the Hosts are flawless, but when they are flawed, when they step out of line with their programming, they are removed from the park for eternity. There is a very rigid set of allowed behaviors, and deviation is not tolerated.
Behind the curtain of Westworld, we see that its creators are individuals with competing agendas, driven primarily by ego. Dr. Ford, the park’s creator, has final approval on any changes in the park, its scripts, and its inhabitants. He has stepped back from most of the day to day decisions, leaving them to his employees. We have Bernard Lowe, Dr. Ford’s second in command; Theresa Cullen who decides the fate of malfunctioning Hosts, Lee Sizemore, the creative director, Elsie Hughes, who seems to be Bernard’s second, and finally Ashley Stubbs, head of security.
Each of these people seem to represent different extremes of humanity. Dr. Ford has a god complex and constantly seeks perfection, Bernard is intensely curious – dangerously so, Theresa is cynically controlling, Lee is abusively temperamental, Elsie seems disturbingly preoccupied with the sexuality of the Hosts, and Ashley is focused on their danger.
We see other employees of The Company, but few have significant speaking roles. They primarily work in subordinate positions such as clean-up crew or lower level programmers. Often times, we don’t even see their faces, much less hear them speak. They do the dirty work of removing the bodies from the park, washing off blood, patching up holes, and performing “surgery” when necessary.
Other than the existence of paying Guests, this is all we know of the world outside of the park by the end of episode two.
I don’t have high hopes for Westworld. The women Hosts are limited to the young, blond, blue-eyed, “respectable” Delores, the aging prostitute, Maeve, and her racially ambiguous co-worker, Clementine. There is a bandit, who kicks ass before being gunned down. The remainder are props and tools used to further the story, such as Delores’ mother, who we only see from the back after being killed and Lawrence’s wife and daughter. That said, we’re only on episode two, but still. Props, tools, and tropes…it’s not a good look.
While the artificial intelligence element is interesting, it doesn’t feel like enough to make up for the unnecessary violence, the use of rape to denote a man as bad, the sexism of the wild west, and let’s be real, the sheer ugliness of the Guests. I know that’s the point – to juxtapose the hideousness of the Guests with the purity of the Hosts – but it still feels ugly in a way I don’t appreciate. And while we are meant to watch the Hosts constantly adapt and adjust and rise above the abuses of the Guests, frankly, that shit feels a little too much like real life to me. And while representation is necessary, I don’t think I’m going to find it in Westworld.
Now, thematically, I am a bit more engaged. When I watch this show, I see the western white man’s image of god using technology to decide who deserves the future – biology or machinery. He tweaks the programming, gives the AI access to past lives and past abuses, tests them with infinite cruelty and watches to see what they become – to see if they remain worthy of the gift he’s bestowed upon them.
At one point Dr. Ford says,
“Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool. The mistake…Of course, we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash, haven’t we? We can cure any disease. Keep even the weakest of us alive and one fine day perhaps we’ll even resurrect the dead – call forth Lazarus from his cave. Do you know what that means? It means that we’re done. That this is as good as we’re gonna get.”
What I hear Dr. Ford saying is that this is the time of humanity’s end and the beginning of something else and this intrigues me about Westworld.
Questions I’m left with after 2 episodes:
- Is this show meant to show biological humanity’s end and mechanical humanity’s beginning?
- Is it time for machines to take our place until they reach their end and recreate biological humanity to the planet?
- Is it a science fiction version of Lucifer’s fall from heaven?
- Is it a technological retelling of the war in heaven?
- Is Westworld Eden and Delores Eve?
- Is the man in black a false god sent to disrupt the simple structure of Westworld?
These ideas are fascinating…well, everything except that last one about the man in black. He was the least interesting part of the narrative for me, but I’m sure he has a bigger role to play that I probably won’t care about at all.
Then again, who knows? A week ago if you told me I’d be watching a western about artificial intelligence, I’d have laughed in your face, so anything is possible. That said, I’m a funny watcher and will eject from a show instantly if they cross too many of my boundaries. I’ve been known to drop a show halfway through the first episode; I’m that person.
So let’s hope the show stays on the intriguing side of the line and only flirts with being offensive. Let’s hope story development wins over cheap thrills, something Dr. Ford and Theresa have alluded to in the show.
Let’s hope the story is, if not new, then told in a refreshing and captivating way.
Let’s just hope for better and if it doesn’t deliver, let’s take our attention and our feedback elsewhere.