The series is biting off some big themes, but they often seem to be working at cross-purposes
What is Westworld about?
I don’t mean that in a plot sense. In “The Stray,” the show’s third episode, the multitude of storylines I discussed last week continue to pile atop each other in a way that either works for you or makes you wish the show would calm down for three seconds. (The Man in Black mostly sits out this episode, so at least it feels slightly less busy.)
On a thematic level, however, there are a bunch of ideas competing for space within Westworld, and I’m not always sure they all serve the same ends. I’m not saying the show is unsatisfying or anything like that; it’s good for it to be exploring lots of thematic territory, and the more it sketches out its world, the more immersive it becomes.
But Westworld often feels like a mashup of several entirely different shows, which isn’t as satisfying. Immersion only goes so far. At a certain point, its themes and ideas have to start feeling like they exist organically within the show’s world, instead of because the writers are just really interested in them.
Here are three of the biggest themes “The Stray” explores, with some thoughts on how well Westworld is executing them.
1) We want our entertainment to have meaning, leavened with sex and violence
“The Stray” marks the first time I’ve understood the complaint some female TV critics have about Westworld, which is that it seems to cater almost exclusively to male fantasies. That understanding comes after William (Jimmi Simpson), one of the Guests, saves Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), one of the Hosts, from violent criminals who aim to drag her off into the wilderness.
It’s a transparently masculine narrative: Shoot the bad guy to save the pretty girl, then have her reward you with a kiss or more. And William’s not terribly interested in it. (He seems to be looking for something deeper than a quick sexual experience, perhaps because he’s got a fiancée back at home.)
But every “narrative” we hear about in Westworld seems designed to appeal to humanity’s baser impulses — and to men’s baser impulses in particular. It’s probably not an accident that the only female Guests we’ve been introduced to are wives rolling their eyes at their husbands’ pursuits.
I actually think there’s a lot to unpack here about art and why we consume it. By presenting shallow narratives that men will hopefully lose themselves in, Westworld the park seems to skip over anything with meaning in favor of quick violence and sex.
The choice to highlight sensation over deeper meaning — which was presumably made by the park’s leadership — is not, in and of itself, gendered. (You can imagine, for instance, a version of the park designed to appeal primarily to what are stereotypically thought to be women’s baser impulses.) But Westworld’s suggestion that the theme park of the same name seems of primary interest to men is gendered, in a way I find intriguing.
Buried somewhere within Westworld, constantly waiting to emerge, is a statement about quality television, genre fiction, and the HBO drama, where art is always seasoned with a little blood and nudity.
We’re seeing that formula in practice with the slow reveal of Ford’s new narrative, the one that is supposedly going to revitalize everything; it kicks off with a violent sneak attack in the dark that many Hosts don’t survive, one that plays almost like a horror movie.
And the more we get to know Ford, the more he seems like a TV showrunner who’s really tired of having to pull all of these strands together even though he realizes that’s his job. But where a showrunner would start wrapping things up, Ford can never do that.
We see, in a flashback to when he was working with a man named Arnold (whose name comes up in a deluded Host’s crazed soliloquy), that he’s been working at Westworld for a very, very long time — so long that going back to the early days requires de-aging Anthony Hopkins via largely unconvincing CGI. No wonder he’s a little exhausted.
2) Something about consciousness?
Westworld’s story about the park’s Hosts slowly realizing who they truly are is at once the show’s most fascinating and most frustrating arc.
Rather than belabor these points again, I’ll just restate that I’m interested in the series following the growing sentience and autonomy of the Hosts, but it feels like Westworld opened so early in the story that it will take forever to catch up to the point we already know we’re headed toward: the moment when the Hosts “wake up,” so to speak.
But maybe one of the Hosts has already awakened. If you were on the fence about Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) being robotic himself, it really feels like episode three all but confirms he is.
The method Ford uses to give Teddy (James Marsden) a new backstory when he needs Teddy for his new narrative is almost exactly the same as when he tells Bernard that, hey, Bernard is still really troubled by the death of his son. And Bernard, just like Teddy, suddenly starts incorporating the knowledge of that dead son into his conversations with Dolores.
Yes, there’s a video chat between Bernard and a previously unseen wife (played by longtime genre stalwart Gina Torres!), but c’mon. The scene is clearly meant to throw us off this scent, and she could easily be a program running in the computer. The Delos Corporation (which owns Westworld) can probably mock up a simulation like that in an afternoon.
The questions Westworld wants us to be asking about consciousness, then, are all about where consciousness comes from and why, exactly, Ford seems so intrigued by introducing it to the Hosts.
He mentions, offhand, a discredited theory called the bicameral mind, in which the ancients supposedly confused their own inner monologues with the voices of the gods, and he says that Arnold hoped to use such an idea to “bootstrap consciousness” in the Hosts. They got close, but they still haven’t managed the leap.
So what’s the endgame here? To me, it seems like Ford wants the Hosts to be conscious, so he can become their god, but I’ll admit that sounds like a plan with too many loose ends for a guy who seems to dot all his i’s and cross all his t’s.
And witnessing the early days of this process — where Dolores swoons when she breaks her programming loop and another confused Host finally just bashes himself in the head with a rock rather than continue seeking answers — is, ultimately, a little repetitive. Still, the consciousness stuff is currently the most intriguing part of the series to me.
3) The traumas suffered by oppressed people will eventually become too much to bear
The reason I’m so eager to see the Hosts become sentient is that once you establish that the Hosts are, in essence, a second intelligent species occupying the planet with humanity, you can really dig into the interesting parts of this story.
Intelligent robots who are effectively used as slave labor are an excellent all-purpose metaphor for pretty much any human injustice you want to explore, and Westworld is already engaging with everything from toxic masculinity to racism to class disparities.
But what’s fascinating (and tricky) about Westworld’s approach is that it has wedded its oppression metaphors to its consciousness storyline in a way I’m not 100 percent sure works.
The Hosts are waking up not just because they’re starting to realize what it means to be a “self,” but also because the weight of trauma — the same acts of violence and horror perpetrated hundreds and hundreds of times upon the same individual, for generation after generation — is writing itself so heavily upon the mind that it can no longer be ignored.
Take Dolores. She’s been dragged into the barn and raped so many times that the experience is imprinting on her and leading her to take preventative measures.
And once she fires upon one gunslinger (while eerily morphing him with the Man in Black), she realizes she knows how the rest of the story is meant to play out, allowing her to evade bullets from other gunslingers. Trauma leads to memory leads to prevention leads to autonomy.
And maybe that’s true! It’s as valid a theory for where consciousness comes from as anything else out there. But when it starts interacting with, say, the fact that Dolores has to be raped to wake up from her stupor, things get more complicated.
It’s always difficult to introduce this kind of trauma without misusing it, and while Westworld hasn’t crossed that line quite yet yet, there’s definitely a sense that Dolores’s rape is just a necessary evil because that’s what the plot requires, as opposed to something the show can explore more deeply in terms of how it defines Dolores as a character.
Then again, we’re only three episodes in. That I’m this engaged with Westworld’s themes and ideas at such an early stage is probably a good thing. But I’m antsy to get on with it already.