I’ve been watching Westworld, HBO’s new prestige series that they’re probably hoping will become their next Games of Thrones. So I figured I would take a break from my thoughts about Robin Hood to say what I’m thinking about this show. Back to Robin Hood next time.
For those who haven’t watched the series, it’s based on the 1973 Michael Crichton thriller of the same name. It focuses on an immersive playground, Westworld, in which android ‘hosts’ simulate the Wild West of the 1870s for the amusement of human ‘newcomers’ (the paying customers). The hosts are programmed to live out a set script that repeats itself every day unless a newcomer intervenes, in which case the hosts improvise appropriate reactions. Many of the hosts offer a ‘mission’, a unique storyline that provides adventure for the newcomers. The newcomers are allowed to do anything they want to the hosts. Some newcomers choose to be ‘white hats’ (signified literally with headgear), meaning that they are ‘good guys’ and deal with the hosts in pro-social ways, while other newcomers can be ‘black hats’, meaning that they may work with the various villainous hosts or engage in whatever mayhem they chose to direct against the hosts.
Unfortunately, some of the hosts are beginning to achieve sentience. Of these, the series focuses on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the classic Western ingenue daughter of cattle-ranchers who are fated to be murdered unless a newcomer intervenes, and Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madame of the local brothel and saloon, who tends to get caught in the crossfire when violence breaks out there.
Most of the rest of the cast are other hosts or the human staff who maintain the park, repair the hosts every night, and program the hosts with new stories and personality traits. But I want to talk about a third category of characters, the newcomers. Thus far the show has focused on three of them
- The mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) a long-time visitor who knows the park by heart and who is searching for a mysterious ‘next level’. He’s solidly in the Black Hat camp, slaughtering any host who gets in his way.
- Logan (Ben Barnes), another veteran newcomer who likes the park for the immoral hedonism that it allows him to indulge in.
- William (Jimmi Simpson), Logan’s brother-in-law and first-time newcomer. William almost instinctively gravitates toward a White Hat, despite Logan’s attempts to get him to indulge his more primitive urges. William decides to defend the confused Dolores once her awakening consciousness leads her away from her programmed story-line.
- We see a couple of other newcomers who don’t get names. In particular, there is what appears to be a husband and wife couple that turn up in a few episodes.
The series makes no pretense of actually trying to recreate 1870s America. The park is clearly built around common clichés of the Western genre: gunfights, bandits, and whiskey flow in abundance. What interests me is the show’s missions.
Over the first several episodes we get to see some of the set storylines that hosts offer the newcomers. Mostly we see these from Logan and William’s point of view, but we also get to see the storylines that Dolores and Maeve fit into. The missions include
- Rescue Dolores when bandits murder her parents. Black Hats can join in with the bandits, and can rape and kill Dolores if they want. If no one intervenes, one of the bandits does that.
- Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into town with a gang and shoots the place up to get what’s hidden in Maeve’s safe. Newcomers can kill his gang or, presumably, join Hector’s it.
- Hunt down various bandits and trouble-makers who are, of course, Wanted Dead or Alive.
- One minor host character offers a chance to find lost treasure.
- A hard-to-reach villain offers a mission to rob a group of American soldiers of a cargo of nitroglycerin they’re escorting.
What’s striking to me about this list are two things. First, it’s a very male-centric list of adventures. All of them are built around the opportunity to employ violence, either in pro-social (stop the bad guy) or anti-social (help or be the bad guy) ways. The only non-violent activity in Westworld seems to be having sex with a prostitute. Perhaps this is a reflection that the series creator decided to focus exclusively on male guests (Logan and William are obviously modeled on the two main characters in the 1973 version of the story). The husband and wife newcomers decide to pursue one of the bandits who needs capturing, but the wife either gets bored or finds the mission to0 physically uncomfortable; she rides back to town while her husband continues with the mission. There just don’t seem to be any missions that might appeal to women more than men.
The female hosts seem to reinforce this sense of masculine urges as the point of the park. Dolores needs to be rescued from the bad guys, while the more worldly Maeve offers the opportunity for sex and seduction. Apart from these two, we only get to see two other recurring female hosts, the prostitute Clementine and the sharp-shooting bandit Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a member of Hector’s gang with a brutal past. So all the female hosts apart from Armistice fall into very traditional feminine roles from the Western genre.
The show seems to acknowledge that the park is all about sex and violence in one episode when the park’s creator Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) comments that originally there were an equal number of dark and ‘hopeful’ missions, but no one wanted to do the hopeful missions, so they were dropped in favor of darker ones.
But I don’t think the show is simply indulging in the standard HBO formula of violence and sex. Rather, I think what the show is (perhaps unintentionally) doing is demonstrating just how profoundly masculine our vision of the Wild West is. When we think of stories set in the Wild West, they are always stories of masculine violence: men seeking violent revenge on the bad guy who killed their family, men coming to town and violently protecting the defenseless residents from bandits or other villains, men drifting from town to town until they find the woman who gets them to stay and make a stand. With a few exceptions, the stories we (or rather Hollywood) choose to tell are overwhelmingly about (mostly white) men doing traditionally masculine things and saving the day.
Occasionally we get a movie about Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, who are chiefly interesting because they act like men; they can shoot guns and ride horses well. We don’t tell a lot of stories about the female bandits like Pearl Hart or Belle Starr. Hollywood mostly bowdlerizes the rare story about Western madams or prostitutes like Poker Alice, making them into mostly sexless ‘hookers with hearts of gold’. Little House on the Prairie purported to tell the story of pioneer woman and prot0-libertarian crank Laura Ingalls Wilder, but presented her in a traditionally domestic role that rarely acknowledged the grueling physical hardships and social isolation that pioneer women struggled with. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge the more deviant figures like the cross-dressing Charley Parkhurst, who lived as a man and drove stagecoaches for a living, or Cathay Williams, who served two years as a Buffalo Soldier under the name William Cathay after having fought in the Civil War. Black women like Williams are particularly invisible in our popular memories of the Old West.
Westworld, however, isn’t so much ignoring the highly sexist nature of Wild West mythology as meditating on it. I said earlier that the show isn’t just indulging the HBO formula of violence and sex, in part because there’s very little actual sex shown on-screen. Logan indulges himself with a couple of prostitutes and in a later episode he, William, and Dolores discover a massive orgy. That’s it so far over 5 episodes, when that would be about half an episode’s worth of sex on Game of Thrones. And while the hosts are frequently shown nude, as the park staff repair or reprogram them, the nudity acts not to sexualize them but to highlight their profound vulnerability to the staff’s manipulation.
With the sex considerably downplayed, the show is about violence. But it’s not just about letting us watch violence for titillation and shock. The show seems to be developing a critique about the effects of violence. Logan and William are offering us a story about the corrupting power of violence, while Dolores and Maeve both flash back to earlier ‘lives’ that ended in terrifying violence. They struggle to understand the effects of violence on their existence, a violence that matters even though they cannot clearly remember it. The original Westworld was a parable about the dangers of hedonism coming home to roost, and the new series seems determined to explore that in a far more intelligent and thought-provoking way than Game of Thrones ever has. Violence, the show seems to be saying, always has consequences, even in a place where violence isn’t supposed to have consequences.