On HBO’s Westworld, which premiered on Sunday, wealthy guests pay to act out their fantasies in an amusement park-slash-resort designed as an immersive simulation of the Old West. Westworld’s “hosts” are extremely lifelike robots who act out scripts written by the park’s creative team. For the guests, Westworld provides a valuable service. As one longtime visitor tells his newbie friend, it’s not all about “guns and tits and all that mindless shit.” Westworld, he vows, will show him who he really is.
It’s not the first time a character defends Westworld as more than a round of cheap thrills. Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, Westworld is ambitious, provocative, and visually striking. But like HBO’s previous original drama, Vinyl, it veers too close to perpetuating the impulses it aims to critique. By the end of the fourth episode, as far as I’ve seen, Westworld feels less like a story about artificial intelligence and the development of consciousness than a parable about the escapist — and exploitative — nature of prestige cable TV.
In Westworld, guests can do anything they want to the hosts — fucking and shooting are popular menu items — but the hosts can’t really harm the guests. As an act of kindness, the robots’ memories are wiped clean every day, so Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the farmer’s daughter, won’t remember being dragged into a barn and raped by a veteran visitor known as the Gunslinger (Ed Harris).
The hosts remain blissfully unaware they’re living the same routine on a loop, which also means we’re treated to that shot of Dolores being hauled, kicking and screaming, into the barn to be raped more than once; we’re 15 minutes into the pilot the first time it happens. The park’s guests and engineers may be aware that the hosts aren’t real people, but we quickly come to care more about the innocent robots than the callous humans who control their fate.
When the hosts begin to show signs of developing independent consciousness, it’s hard not to root for their uprising — particularly for Dolores, not only because of her tragic fate but also because of Wood’s incredible, nuanced performance. When the park’s head of programming, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), instructs Dolores to “come online,” it’s positively spooky to watch Wood’s mechanical blank stare light up with human emotion in seconds flat. “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world,” Dolores intones. “I choose to see the beauty.”
Dolores is plainly the Madonna to Westworld’s bevy of whores, a dynamic that could (and seems intended to) be employed as a comment on the limits of women’s roles in life and onscreen. But in practice, the women of Westworld take a backseat to the men. The second episode introduces Logan (Ben Barnes), a longtime visitor determined to show his future brother-in-law, William (Jimmi Simpson), a good time. Logan is a cad who just wants to fuck and kill, but William is hesitant to dive into Westworld’s den of vice.
According to Logan, William’s problem is that he’s “talented, driven, and inoffensive.” From the start, we know he’s noble because he refuses the advances of the beautiful Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), a prostitute, citing his fiancée. And yet William has fantasies, too — not of indiscriminate whoring and violence, but of honor and valor and good-guy heroism. (He chooses a white cowboy hat, of course.) He’s finally persuaded to pick up a gun when someone attacks Clementine; soon, the saintly Dolores becomes his damsel in distress, fiancée be damned.
We see the odd female guest at Westworld, and Logan tells William, “Not like your sister didn’t ride her share of cowboys when she was here.” But really, why would a woman want to come here? An entire genre of film can attest to the appeal of the Old West as the ultimate male fantasy. Like so many of HBO’s programs, particularly its dramas, the park is billed as a unisex adventure but is pretty clearly designed for men. It’s not as universally appealing as its engineers would have us believe.
In the first half of the pilot, two programmers examine Clementine in a cavernous underground lab where the artificial beings are maintained. In her “offline” state, she’s perched on a stool, naked, her eyes and lips made up, her skin glistening with some kind of robot goo. We see several shots of her perfectly round breasts as the programmers discuss a new update that has enabled the hosts to use different gestures. Later in the episode, we see Dolores in a similar situation, and although she’s also sitting naked on a stool, we only see her body from behind — a rather more tasteful nude. Thandie Newton — another host and the madam of the park’s brothel — is also shown naked, in the third episode, but her body is obscured by shadows and only revealed in brief, partial shots.
The exposure of these actors’ bodies is in line with their characters: We get an unobstructed view of the whore, a slightly more hidden view of the madam, and just a glimpse of the good country girl. And yet it’s also perfectly in line with the structure of power in Hollywood, where the higher up you are on the call sheet, the more control you have over your body and how it will be used on camera.
In later scenes between Bernard and Dolores, she’s wearing the same outfit she wears in the park; why can’t they all be wearing clothing all the time? In one scene, the park’s creative director and co-founder, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) admonishes an employee for covering a host with a sheet; yanking it off, he cries, “He doesn’t get cold. He doesn’t feel shame.” In another scene, William asks the beautiful host who welcomes him to the park if she’s real or robot. “Well, if you can’t tell,” she replies, “does it matter?”
Maybe not to the fictional programmers of Westworld, but to us — yeah, it does matter. “This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real,” the park’s narrative director, Lee (Simon Quarterman) tells Theresa, the operations manager (Sidse Babett Knudsen). But as viewers, we’re fully aware that we’re not watching artificially engineered humanoids but actual human beings. A casting call for Westworld background actors mandating nudity and consent to explicit sexual situations that recently surfaced in The Hollywood Reporter provides a stark reminder that no matter how awesome and mind-blowing these concepts sound on paper, they require real human bodies attached to real human minds to bring them to life.
Westworld’s engineers and guests can assuage their guilt by reminding themselves that those naked prostitutes dressing the set aren’t real, but viewers don’t have that luxury. It’s hard not to imagine a boardroom full of HBO execs when Theresa reminds Simon, “We’ve got more rich assholes to gratify tomorrow.”
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.