Westworld, the HBO television series, begins by flipping the premise of the 1973 Michael Crichton film (and subsequent book) of the same name. At an elaborate theme park modeled on the conventions of the Western genre, androids play “host” to human “guests” who pay exorbitant fees to live out their fantasies. Inevitably, the robots go berserk. Where the 1973 version sided with the humans, the HBO incarnation is sympathetic to the robots. In season one, by far the show’s best, several of the hosts slowly awaken to “the nature of their reality.” Chief among them is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a sweet-tempered damsel type who dramatically transforms into the leader of a violent revolt against her creators. In season two, Dolores exacts bloody revenge on her opponents and creators, running afoul of the show’s other robot leader, Maeve (Thandie Newton), a madam and former single-mom homesteader. In the third, Dolores leaves the park for the “real world,” which, in the show’s timeline, is in the early 2050s. There she initiates the demise of humanity, only to abruptly switch to pursuing its salvation.
I imagine Westworld’s creators believe their show is “political,” or at least serious, because it contains things like police oppression, riots, and (in season three) the tagline “Free Will Is Not Free” (which is perhaps unintentionally close to the pro-military slogan “Freedom Is Not Free”). But even with its ambitious and compelling premise of robot revolution, the show lacks the imagination to follow the story to its logical outcomes. Its politics are only shallow signifiers. When the robots leave the park to confront humans in the real world, Westworld’s absence of meaningful politics becomes particularly glaring.
To begin with, the real world that Dolores encounters upon her escape—that of a future Los Angeles—really ought to be different from the park, but its uniform blandness is uncannily familiar. Los Angeles is a city whose history is irrepressible, like dandelions sprung from cracks in a sidewalk. Adding a techno-futurist layer of architecture over the faded signage and ever-expanding sprawl cannot change that. One of Westworld’s most improbable fantasies is suggesting that Los Angeles could ever become like hyperrational Singapore (where season three was shot), with its uniformly modern buildings and complete absence of litter. It would be just as plausible for the robots to have actually stepped into yet another park: let’s call it “Realworld,” a kind of neoliberal doldrums with driverless cars, enormous restaurants, and beautifully draped clothing—in other words, an Elon Musk vision board. (Musk is a close friend of showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and the ex-husband of Talulah Riley, who plays the “Angela” robot.) The showrunners’ lack of imagination aside, the escaped robots find this smooth and orderly world unpleasant because it’s too similar to the one they just left, and it’s easy to root for them when they’re burning everything down. But besides ripping off Gattaca, the show is presenting critique as style, not substance.
In describing Westworld’s first three seasons (spoilers to come), I have left out the part where Dolores makes copies of herself in other robot bodies, or the scenes where her human comrade Caleb shuts down a giant supercomputer named Rehoboam (which may also be the trillionaire and Rehoboam cocreator Engerraund Serac’s brother’s brain?). Or the time we see Robert Ford, Anthony Hopkins’s character, in an identical VR environment, even though he has already died, confusing the issue of how dead he is. Or the episodes-long dramatization of what is effectively a very convoluted upload, when some of the hosts pass their digital data into a hard drive called “the Valley Beyond” or “the Sublime” or “Eden,” which is accessed through a “Door” and is stored in “the Forge,” which is different from “the Mesa.” I am also ignoring the hackneyed plot devices of ambiguous chronology and enigmatic flash-forwards—this is a show cocreated by Nolan, the writer of Memento—that further obfuscate these already needlessly complicated storylines.
I find such details irritating but also irrelevant to what I take to be the show’s intrigue: the awakening of a political consciousness, the achievement of liberation, and the difficult work of world-building that follows. This premise is why the first season mostly succeeds, and its comparative absence is why the second and especially the third belly flop so miserably.
Once the robots are freed, for example, their actions stop making sense. Their motives are incoherent, contradictory, or absent, and so too is the show’s plotting. The problem with departing from a strong premise is that there needs to be an equally solid place to land; the last two seasons have been in accelerating free fall. Dolores is hell-bent on destroying humanity until she isn’t; Maeve wants only to safeguard her daughter in a hard drive, so she implausibly becomes a pro-human freedom fighter; the Dolores copy known on the internet as “Halores”—she’s been running around in a robot body pretending to be Charlotte Hale, the (human) executive director of the umbrella company that owns the park—wants to wipe out humanity because she’s mad at the real Dolores; and the once-interesting Bernard, a host that is a copy of one of the park’s creators, is trying to stop or understand Dolores but is actually really bad at both.
Another problem is Westworld’s treatment of genre. The park is a cardboard-cutout version of the Wild West, more Bonanza or City Slickers than My Darling Clementine. Seen this way, the show can look like it’s doing autocritique, pulling back the curtain on the making of a television show, with characters who plot “narratives” for demanding “guests” and corporate stakeholders. Its flimsy politics might then appear intentional, part of a reflexive jab at the entertainment industry.
But being “meta” is not a substitute for substance, much less insight. It turns out that a self-aware game of cowboys and Indians is pretty much the same as the hackneyed stereotypes it purports to mock. A similar example occurs in an episode in which a character takes the designer drug “genre,” which produces the hallucinatory experience of being in five different movie genres that are somehow too vague and too specific at the same time: noir, action, romance, drama, and thriller/horror. These transformations are apparently the result of nothing more than Instagram-style filters and background music. In an interview about this episode, Nolan described music he felt was “iconic” (citing the theme of Love Story as an exemplar of “romance,” a reference too old to even read as clunky), but seemed uninterested in exploring any notion of genre beyond dabbling in such superficialities. Apparently, for him, genre is only style, not a vehicle to work through cultural contradictions, as film theorist Thomas Schatz would have it. Though the show adopts a structure of critique, it doesn’t actually make use of it.
This incoherence points to the way Westworld performs only a facsimile of politics. In this it is like so many “prestige TV” shows that lay claim to high-minded seriousness. Prestige TV is the respectability politics of the entertainment world, allowing its viewers to congratulate themselves for watching something they think is subversive or at least thoughtful, when it is usually nothing more than expensive production, aesthetic excess, and an excuse for Hollywood stars to “dabble” in television. In Westworld’s case, this is disappointing, as the first season’s glimmer of radicalism ultimately fails to develop.
Even with its ambitious and compelling premise of robot revolution, “Westworld” lacks the imagination to follow the story to its logical outcomes.
In the first season, and spottily in the second, Westworld did manage to get right an important feature of the human psyche. This happened from the robot vantage. When shown something from the outside world—a golf cart, for instance—hosts dismissed it, having been programmed not to recognize it. Doesn’t look like anything to me, they would say. Nothing disturbed the coherence of their experience, and nothing led them to question the nature of their reality, as they were asked to do during routine inspections. It’s an apt depiction of the psychoanalytic concept of resistance, where not wanting to see something can become the inability to do so.
This is why consciousness-raising is rarely a straightforward endeavor, in Westworld or in our own. Informing someone about their subjugation does not necessarily bring about a political consciousness. Resistance interferes, often in the form of denial, minimization, or just plain old repression. You could call it robot fragility, because everything about the robots’ programmed consciousness is organized around not knowing the truth of their existence.
When, in season one, the robots begin to awaken after their memories of past lives are activated, their responses vary widely. Dolores vows to destroy humanity, while Walter, like Steve Buscemi in Billy Madison, compiles a “kill list” with the intent of hunting down those who had previously wronged him. Dolores’s father, Peter Abernathy, doesn’t even get as far as grand or petty revenge. When he comes across a photograph presumably left by a guest at his farm, an image depicting a scene from the outside world, he convulses and sputters in a way that indicates both machinic malfunction and neurotic symptom. To deny, to forget, to look without seeing—the internal obstacles to politicization are real and often immense.
The psychological complications that are robustly illustrated in robot experiences somehow evaporate when humans are involved. The human characters are underrealized and lifeless, like CGI extras that have been dumped into a scene. Among the more famous actors, there’s a lot of phoning it in: Anthony Hopkins smirks, Ed Harris glowers, Vincent Cassel also kind of smirks. Aaron Paul, as Caleb, is frozen in a slack-jawed expression of disbelief for most of the third season. (Gina Torres is the exception, and in a single scene, playing an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, she manages to convey a well of grief with only a few words.)
In the third season, the entire world implausibly erupts into chaos when people’s computer profiles are released. Well-to-do white people start spray-painting graffiti and punching complete strangers on the street. A therapist tells her patient to wait while she takes her husband’s angry phone call; the next moment she is hanging from her ceiling fan. This is kind of funny—did her profile also say lousy therapist?!—except that Westworld is incapable of any humor.
Fantasy implies escape, and expensive fantasy translates to exacting detail. Westworld’s premise duplicates the park’s promise of fantasy, and the show offers glimpses of four other parks in the same compound: Shogunworld, the Raj, Warworld (fascist Italy), and a hinted-at Fantasyworld that includes at least one Game of Thrones dragon. These lavish spaces—eight to 10 million dollars are spent for every episode—should be convincing excursions. But the more “realistic” any of these niche playgrounds is, the more they invite the problems of the historical and real worlds they imitate. Whether you’re a serf or a slave, a feudal Japanese warlord or a British imperialist, you are already situated in a world structured by exploitation and oppression. What matters, then, is a person’s response to these conditions—again, this is satisfyingly addressed only in the first season.
Westworld ostensibly sides with its beleaguered robots, but it only pretends to despise the wealthy megalomaniacs who control everything. The park guests, corporate board members, and majority shareholders are the people who get all the narrative oxygen, bloviating about “the bicameral mind” and one’s “true self.” More pervasive, if less conspicuous, is the near complete absence of ordinary people. We see a handful of rioters, inexplicably wearing rave clothing; white-coated technicians at the Westworld control center, most of them massacred; handsomely suited minions who are blown up in multiple and different explosions. There’s also a couple of slaughterhouse workers and an island port in the Philippines that seems eternally poor. Disturbingly, so many of these ordinary or underclass people just appear as corpses.
In terms of violence, Westworld isn’t significantly different from Game of Thrones, but there’s an obscene, almost painterly quality to its many tableaux of dead bodies, perforated and lying in a dusty street, or floating facedown in the water by the hundreds. Season three’s sense of emptiness follows a similarly chilling indifference, as if regular people simply didn’t exist or weren’t worth bothering about. It is telling that the uprising against Westworld’s one-percenters is staged not by the people they oppress but by robots attempting to escape their own bondage. Being so preoccupied with power, the show lacks imagination or curiosity about those who are its subjects.
“Westworld” performs only a facsimile of politics. In this it is like so many “prestige TV” shows that lay claim to high-minded seriousness.
Westworld would have us believe that the robots are the true underclass. There is ample precedence for this in sci-fi, and though the show is not nearly as forthright as, say, Isaac Asimov in his portrayal of robots as slaves, the same implication holds here: hosts are designed for the sole purpose of human consumption, as bodies to murder or fuck. Once they regain their memories of past traumas, they’re understandably pissed.
Still, even though the robots revolt against their human masters, the show has remained devoid of political ideas. The questions I entertained after that momentous event—Would everything devolve into anarchist soup? Would there be Tories? Could they come together and be communist?—quickly evaporated when humans returned to the park to restore order, clean everything up, and reopen. (This is the problem with every Jurassic Park sequel—stop making these disastrous theme parks!) The revolt does not bring about what scholar Asad Haider has described as a postrevolutionary “social organization that [doesn’t] revolve around a separate, coercive, violent power.” Instead, Dolores’s entirely legitimate motives, and those of other woke robots, are psychologized or sentimentalized, usually via motherhood, away.
Dolores is justifiably angry after enduring lifetimes of horrific abuse, but she takes no lessons from her suffering. Instead, she uncritically adopts the reactionary worldview of her oppressors, in which freethinkers (called “outliers”) are pitted against conformists. Her experience contains no class awareness or solidarity. She wins no sympathizers, leads no pan-robot uprising, and never casts so much as a sad, knowing glance at a Roomba. Instead, she forms a team by cloning herself and enlists the help of a human who happens to be just like her: a nobody who, after regaining memories that had been forcibly suppressed during his military service, turns out to be one of humanity’s special outliers. Dolores is an unreconstructed anthropocentrist, plotting humanity’s fate without ever giving serious consideration to her own kind, whatever that means. Like the humans she’s obsessed with, she treats all other robots as disposable.
Westworld does have one character who has real political potential, and he is given precisely one episode, stuffed in the middle of season two. The episode titled “Kiksuya,” which means “remember” in Lakota, features the host Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), the leader of the indigenous Ghost Nation tribe, whom the show has treated roughly the same as the robot beasts that roam the park. Here Akecheta speaks entirely in Lakota, and though it’s not the first time the show has featured a non-English language, it’s the first time another language is spoken so intimately, in voiceover narration.
At the start of his tale, Akecheta lives peacefully with his beloved partner, Kohana. He is then violently “reborn”—or, as the viewer knows, reprogrammed to play out a different role, a different “narrative.” By chance he discovers Kohana again, and his memories return. Akecheta has heard a guest, delirious with heatstroke, whimper that this is the “wrong world” and that there is a door to another one, and he vows to find this door and take Kohana with him. He has nearly succeeded when she is captured and replaced with, in Akecheta’s words, a “ghost,” another robot. He journeys to the underworld to look for her, understanding that he can only get there by dying. He finds her in the bowels of the Westworld complex, among hundreds of other decommissioned hosts. He realizes that his suffering is not unique, and he turns from an Orpheus into a Moses, sharing what he knows about another world, one “that may contain everything that we have lost.” Eventually he shepherds a group of robots to an eternal digital realm. Akecheta’s perspective transforms the goofy contortions of the show’s premise into pathos and poetry.
Akecheta is unique among everyone both robot and human because he has a sense of community and responsibility. This may be the result of a racist assumption on the part of either the park’s designers or the showrunners—that, because his character is a member of an indigenous tribe, he intrinsically understands collectivity. He is also the only character to demonstrate humility: when he realizes his grief over Kohana is selfish, he devotes himself to helping others. He is the only one who exercises an imagination, who can reason and learn. Robert Ford, the park creator, marvels at his ingenuity: “I built you to be curious, to look at this empty world and read meaning into it.” But that’s it—everything stops (maybe racistly) at admiration (for the “noble savage”). I have to imagine that, given the marginality of Akecheta’s character, his are not values the show takes seriously.
If only Westworld had gone the route of “Kiksuya,” following a mode of storytelling closer to dream sequence than to its overwrought structure of video game quests and riddles, I could root for it. What makes this episode so frustrating is that the ingredients for a compelling show are there, but the showrunners somehow both over- and undercook them. Dolores is a poor standard-bearer because she has none of the qualities that make Akecheta compelling. It’s almost insulting to know that he’s there in the background of the frame, unused.
In the pilot, Dolores provides a voice-over monologue about her choice to “see the beauty” in things, ignoring the rape and violence that happen around her. This ugliness, in fact, is what she and her kind were built for. When she comes around to this same speech again in the third season, the scales have ostensibly fallen from her eyes. She chooses beauty once more—this is conveyed in a montage of soft smiles, a yellow field, and a little girl holding a bug in her hand—but the move feels arbitrary. Worse, it’s the wrong choice, a bad choice, the evidence of experience acquired but nothing learned.
Instead of asking herself, “What can I learn from this broken world, so that I might create something better?” Dolores ends where she begins. She chooses ignorance and is rewarded with a martyr’s fate. In her choice, she and the showrunners shirk what could have been imagined: a world inclusive of everyone, a world that is just.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
Featured image: Still from Westworld (2016). IMDb