The Gears Beneath the Skin

Hatred Disguised as Hope in HBO’s ‘Westworld’

Westworld’s narrative and philosophical sleights of hand have ensured that audiences overlook the first season’s bedrock of cultural fuckery. With all the advanced tech and deepish thoughts on consciousness, Westworld still can’t envision a world with truly strong women, or enlightened images of indigenous people.

To coverup the story’s lazy cultural assessment, show runners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with stars Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton have each in their own way basked in the sheer righteousness of the network, the cast and crew for being so brave by dramatizing for global audiences counts rape and racial hatred. Some characters make occasional gestures of agitation, or limp commentary on the park’s hedonism, but they’re few and far between and lack the muster to hold audiences, let alone fellow characters, accountable for the unnecessary perpetuation of culturally damaging images.

Comparing just three scenes from the first two episodes will help highlight the sort of self-awareness needed for a script to offer substantive social commentary. First we see Will and Logan dealing with how men treat women, then we watch Sizemore and Theresa neglect the humanity of indigenous people, and finally, Kissy, the ill-fated bi-racial poker dealer who gets profiled for theft, tortured, insulted, and scalped.

Tragedy is not the only truth. There’s no ambition in writing women into power by overcoming specific sexual trauma — ascending from weak to strong. Real ambition writes a character for a woman to grow from strong to stronger.

When we first meet Will, at the start of episode 2, he’s waking up on the train heading to the park. A waitress walks by and another man, Logan, says, “Where we’re going, that’s a 2.” Will, unamused, says, “You’re being an asshole.” So here Guy 1 jokes about cataloguing feminine sex objects, while Guy 2 tells Guy 1 to knock it off with that locker room talk. Audiences can learn now, only because Guy 2 speaks up, that Guy 1 is an asshole. Audiences can identify with either Guy while following along with the option to be a little more like Guy 2: respectful of women.

Then we have Sizemore, the pipsqueak writer of the park’s storylines, and Theresa, the quality assurance hawk and corporate spy. In episode 2, Sizemore demands a fleet of androids for his fresh narrative featuring new bodies to fill the ranks of the Ghost Nation, Westworld’s resident tribe of menacing natives. In the scene these android-natives stand like dioramas in a museum wearing loin clothes, war paint and beads. Sizemore berates a technician for crafting an ugly face.

“Regal strong, virile, aquiline, this is what I asked for.” Sizemore says, “This is what you give me? Did you just grab a cock from the body shop and jam it between his eyes? Start over. ”

Then Sizemore complains to Theresa, he needs more androids. “It’s not exactly a savage hoard with 20 savages is it?”

The unveiling of the new storyline, titled “Odyssey on Red River,” is probably one of the moments where Joy, Wood, and Newton believe the show does the good work. But the context of the entire show, all ten episodes, lends no irony to Sizemore’s description of how the storyline finds guests “besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens.” The script offers no room for reflecting on Sizemore’s bigoted, hidebound analysis of what audiences desire.

Folks are more likely to get distracted by the Sizemore’s hyperbolic introduction (“This storyline will make Hieronymus Bosch look like he was doodling kittens”) or think their mind’s been blown by Anthony Hopkins, playing the park’s co-founder, Ford, waxing on about about how we each always-already know who we are.

And now poor Kissy. Back in the brothel during the pilot episode, we see the hosts programmed to discriminate. The white barkeep interrupts Kissy from heading home for the night.

“I’m beginning to think you’re getting soft of me.” Kissy says.

“We’ll it’s only account of you being half cornhusker. You tell me which half is which, and I’ll search that half.”

Maybe the chuckling white man retrieves stolen goods from Kissy, or just plum steals from the guy. Either way the writers chose to make one of the few POC characters of Westworld just another thief, or just another victim of racial discrimination.

And what does the barkeep mean by “cornhusker”? The word is most obviously used as the name of the University of Nebraska’s football team. It has roots as a description of white American laborers, but cornhusker also has ties with the Sioux tribe. So he’s saying next time he’ll search only the white half, or maybe only the native half.

This scene proves the writers have gone out of their way to bring unexamined, ulterior racial discrimination into the fantasy word. It’s a 30 second moment, and mumbled. Now earlier in the same episode we see an innocuous interaction between the alabaster Dolores and a quaint black family. She clearly harbors no racial ill will, so the treatment of Kissy could have been a moment of revelation for the world-building the Westworld because the creators have chosen to inject racism into the android programming. The only problem is that the writer’s didn’t program any characters to reflect on this choice.

The whole show falls flat thanks to the same theory that breathes consciousness into androids. The audience identification with the show, our cornerstone, our consciousness of Westworld itself, is the tragedy of being a witness.

And if we think the pat down and passing reference to cornhusking are unsubstantially racialized, Ed Harris’ monologue during the first episode assures us of Kissy’s native identity. Afer slitting Kissy’s throat and torturing him, but before scalping him, the Man in Black says,

Who said anything about you playing [the game of Westworld]? You’re livestock, scenery. I play. The others they just to get their rocks off, shoot a couple indians. There’s a deeper level to this game…There’s a lotta wisdom into ancient cultures. Perhaps its time to dig deeper into yours.

While Joy, Wood, and Newton would like to believe the show’s essentially inspired by moments like Will taking time to check Logan, the roughly ten hours of Season 1 are actually fueled by disguising atrocities like Sizemore’s violent and verbal bigotry as a radically cold, hard look in the mirror.

Have heart: some folks have been writing about the monstrous insensitivities — like the fact that William/Man in Black, a core character, is primarily motivated to rape Dolores ad nauseum because she doesn’t love him back. Even The National Center Against Sexual Violence has shook its finger at the Caligulan orgy in episode 7 (for HBO’s “building a legacy of rape culture entertainment”), but the bulk of the thinkpieces out there really just want to know if the androids poop.

Earlier this year HBO released to the press advanced screenings of the first few episodes, so even before Westworld’s premier, reporters voiced clear unrest at the Television Critics Association. The network had committed once again to cross-wiring its drive for entertainment with the generic rhetoric of enlightened storytelling.

Show runner Lisa Joy responded to critics of the show’s violence against women:

Westworld is an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature — you know, we explore paternal love, romantic love, and finding one’s self. But also the basest part of human nature. And that includes violence. That includes sexual violence. Violence and sexual violence have sadly been a fact of human history since the beginning of human history.

Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the show’s oldest android, Dolores, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter and reflected the same themes:

It’s absolutely very rough. I don’t like gratuitous violence against women at all, but I would wait for the context in which it’s being used. As the show progresses, the way it’s being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head. The roles for the women on this show are going to be very revolutionary. It’s very gender-neutral. I would ask, as somebody who is an advocate against any kind of abuse or violence and is outspoken about it, to give it a chance and wait to see where it’s going. I think it will surprise people.

Actress Thandie Newton plays Maeve, the madam of the Westworld’s brothel who gains sentience and fights for freedom from inside the administrative nucleus of the park. Whenever a robot is decommissioned, needs a tuneup or a cleaning, they’re stripped naked and sent to this hub. Newton spends most of her screen time naked.

Newton recently sat down with Tavis Smiley, who introduced her by complimenting her “body of work,” with a conspicuous pause after “body.” And he does it again, emphasizing the word, “body” with a toothy grin. Perhaps Newton thought it would be rude to slap Smiley’s hand on his own show, because she gave him a pass, sighing after saying, “Oh, that lexicon.” She later insists that working with this script, unlike so many other projects in Hollywood, allowed her to pay the bills without betraying her loyalty to social justice.

I was impressed with how ambitious [Nolan & Joy] wanted Westworld to be in looking at the drives that are leading human beings over the cliff of existence. For me its this drive towards mass suicide, because so many of the problems that we’re facing are interconnected, weather it’s rape of women, rape of the environment, all of these factors suppressing life, suppressing joy, suppressing love, are the things that will lead to our extinction.

But Westworld only appears to be visionary. Joy, Wood, and Newton each believe that by scraping the bottom of humanity’s barrel and dramatizing base violence, Westworld accomplishes an ambition for radical image making for the 21st century.

But women in film and TV can earn empathy through their humanity without being victims of rape and sexual abuse, without being objects for male gratification. Briefly: Olivia Pope (Scandal), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder), Diana Christensen (Network), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy). And what’s more, the constant sensationalized trauma of Westworld tells us nothing we don’t already know from the news of real life trauma. Briefly: JonBenét Ramsey, Emma Sulkowicz, Donald Trump on Access Hollywood, and #NoDAPL.

In Episode 9 of Westworld we glimpse the inspiration for the androids’ core coding: tragedy. The park’s co-creator, Arnold, believes that a “cornerstone” memory of trauma fully congeals the identity and even the consciousness of a host, making it more believable for the guests. Tragedy is truth. As enlightening as this sounds, and from Anthony Hopkins’ mighty banter it really does, the conceptual gimmick proves only to excuse Westworld’s attempts to make female androids super believable with backstories of rape and lives of constant abuse.

The whole show falls flat thanks to the same theory that breathes consciousness into androids. The audience identification with the show, our cornerstone, our consciousness of Westworld itself, is the tragedy of being a witness.

Tragedy is not the only truth. There’s no ambition in writing women into power by overcoming specific sexual trauma — ascending from weak to strong. Real ambition writes a character for a woman to grow from strong to stronger.

Westworld is clever but culturally clumsy. For all the narrative sleights of hand audiences also won’t notice the persistent maltreatment of native lives. Starting with Kissy, the show sustains neglect with the Ghost Nation, which exists as either roving menaces or mannequins in a museum diorama. Back in the nucleus, as dehumanized androids, they’re beaten and slurred.

If Westworld were actually the social commentary imagined by Joy, Wood, and Newton then we’d find commentary in the text itself.

HBO’s Westworld stands as the media corps’ newest evaluation of what audiences desire. Read Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, NYTimes and a range of publications here on Medium to hear the majority voice of the people zeroing in on the show’s slick tech, dense plot, and philosophies of mind all while zooming past its reckless representation of women and indigenous people. If not to target our personal and viewing pleasure, for our own outright enjoyment, HBO has allowed for the unnecessary violence against women and subjugation of natives lives because they now most of us don’t care enough to stop watching. They know it wont affect viewership. And they’re right.


I’ll leave you with three funny videos from the last year or so. Each in their own way lays bare a sort of in-the-text self-awareness that saves them from their own problems. Trafficking in the symbols of fuckery without creating room for reflecting on the fuckery only perpetuates that fuckery.

First we have the new trailer of Baywatch, then an anonymous recording of a drag show, and finally Key & Peele’s sketch “Dicknanigans”

1)

“It’s up to us to restore the Baywatch brand”

— Why is she running in slow motion?

— You see it, too?

2)

Culturejamming like this goes to work by putting different symbols into familiar forms. Semi-nude, male ballerinas with dog masks spotlights the goofy pageantry of a Rockettes show, an American classic.

3)

Two critics start the skit mumbling about context. But there is no context, all we get is text: two performers ponderously smacking each other in the crotch. Evan Rachel Wood asks us to wait for the same justifying context that also never arrives.

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