HBO continues to set a high bar in its primetime drama, and the new sci-fi drama Westworld is a strong addition to their lineup this fall. With cinematic production values that match or exceed Game of Thrones, there’s no doubt that the network has made a real commitment to this reboot of a relatively obscure 1973 movie, starring, of all people, Yul Brynner.
Westworld isn’t a sweeping epic, like Game of Thrones, but rather, a more thoughtful, existential work more in the mode of The Leftovers. It shares some common DNA with Orphan Black and Dollhouse, pushing through the boundaries of humanity in a world where technology is showing them to be soft.
Orphan Black‘s clones challenge a basic sense of human autonomy: Sarah and her sestras were made in a lab, from their carefully-coded DNA on out. They are copyrighted and patented intellectual property, reproducible by their owner. Their rebellion over the course of the series is, in part, about taking back self-ownership. Dollhouse was the converse: its featured technology did not create new bodies, but customized the minds and personalities of the individuals in its clutches. While the clones seek to reclaim their engineered bodies for their individual minds, the dolls of Dollhouse seek to regain ownership of their engineered minds.
Westworld, essentially, does both: its robotic characters have artificial minds in artificial bodies, beyond the fractured humanity of its predecessors. What self can there be under such circumstances? And how can the viewers navigate these uncanny representations of humanity?
The premise of Westworld is still unfolding, but the action takes place on a large-scale Old West movie set, which is operating as a theme park. Visitors come to Westworld to live out their cowboy fantasies: high-noon showdowns with black hats, cattle drives under the stars, chaste flirtations with pioneer maidens, or lurid nights at the bordello.
On the surface, this seems like little more than a TV-MA rated Main Street USA, but for one thing: the locals aren’t graduates of Disney University playing their parts, but lifelike robots carefully maintained by the park. This simultaneously makes them more and less human. Even the most dedicated actors would be constantly aware of the fiction of their surroundings, and their most gifted improv work would still be a step removed. The robots, however, are fully present, because the scripted events in the park are their reality. They are programmed to treat Westworld as the real world, and they have unique and authentic emotional reactions to the events of each day, even as they repeat, over and over. The sophistication of their AI makes their interactions with guests near-flawlessly human, beyond the abilities of any person desperately waiting for a shift change and a better gig.
However, despite the near-perfect illusion of humanity, the robots are not human. Which means that they are protected by neither law nor common decency. Guests shoot the bad guys with real guns and can watch them die, posing with the corpse. They can live out whatever perverse fantasy they can imagine at the bordello, without the possibility of refusal or arrest. You don’t even need to tip the bartender for your sarsaparilla.
Moreover, since the robots are capable of mimicking human reactions in all circumstances, guests have no need to follow a script to get coherent answers. The guests are free to act as they please, with no particular compulsion to be the good guys in their little stories. They can shoot the sheriff as easily as the villain, or go on a murder spree that one-ups any black hat’s ambitions. They can skip the bordello and force themselves on the virginal farmer’s daughter, whose screams are, after all, no more indicative of human suffering than a Mortal Kombat fatality.
Except, as the show explores, distinguishing humanity in this way may be impossible, in what starts to feel like a metafictional critique of stylized violence. Westworld was heavily promoted during the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and HBO could count on an audience that had already sat through many atrocities in the name of entertainment. We saw Sansa Stark raped by Ramsay Bolton, knowing that Sansa was never real, and Sophie Turner was always safe. Her screams show her talent, and not her pain. Her grisly revenge a year later caused no more harm in the real world: the characters in Westeros are not the actors on the red carpet. But is it really conceivable that this violence was meaningless?
In Westworld’s pilot, Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is attacked and likely raped by an unnamed visitor credited as the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris. The scene is reminiscent of the horrors of Sansa’s assault: a beautiful and innocent young woman brutalized by a monster. But Dolores isn’t a person at all; she’s a robot programmed to mimic a beautiful and innocent young woman physically and emotionally. The show reminds us of her inhumanity repeatedly: we see her re-live the scripted day over and over, without violence when there are visitors without the Man in Black. We see her maintained by park staff, sitting nude and affectless as they review her programming. We even see the replacement of her father with a different robot. Dolores takes no notice; she’s been updated appropriately.
But Westworld knows that this is unacceptable, because it knows that we will have the same emotional reaction to the attack on Dolores as strongly as the attack on Sansa. The show almost mocks the viewer through the episode, finding new ways to say that your reaction is wrong: she’s not real, she’s not human, she’s not alive, why are you even calling this machine “she”? In the final scene of the pilot, you’re rewarded for rejecting these dehumanizations: Dolores defies her programming. All of Westworld’s robots are programmed to, above all, harm no living thing, but Dolores swats a fly–the others have pointedly ignored bugs on their faces. She becomes something more than a computer, if not necessarily human.
That conclusion is almost redundant—you don’t need to be convinced that it’s messed up to rape a machine designed to imitate a woman as much as possible. But there’s an implicit challenge there still: yes, the Man in Black is despicable, but how are you any better? Yeah, he’s getting off on the simulation of rape, but you’re the one who gave every Emmy award to a show that can’t go two episodes without assaulting one of its female leads, that regularly eroticizes sexual violence by using it as the setting for lingering on its actresses’ bodies.
That challenge is not yet answered; Westworld’s season is only beginning; its conclusion remains mysterious. It is certainly preparing to punish the creators of this park, and the visitors who come each day to take in its sights, violent or otherwise. But what, ultimately, will it offer beyond meeting violence with violence? What’s the solution for sadism?