Why Westworld’s Violence Doesn’t Feel Gratuitous

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld. Photo: HBO

After watching the pilot of Westworld, which debuted Sunday night on HBO, I quickly concluded that if I had access to all the funds in all the bank accounts in the world, I still wouldn’t spend any of it to visit the show’s Sergio Leone–style theme park, even with a money-back guarantee that James Marsden would be present during my stay.

The patrons, or “guests,” of the Westworld within Westworld — an American frontier town open to high-paying elites eager to partake of pistols, prostitutes, and duels more omnipresent than tumbleweeds — have opted, quite literally, to buy into traditional American male fantasies and act them out. They may be protected from serious injury or death — bullets are automatically deflected before they can penetrate human flesh — but there’s still a palpable sense of danger in this compelling yet disturbing role-playing game atmosphere, especially where women are concerned.

Within the first 15 minutes of the pilot, Dolores, the dutiful android, or “host,” played by Evan Rachel Wood, is smacked around and dragged into a barn by the so-called Man in Black (Ed Harris), who clearly plans to rape her. That unfolds just a few minutes after one man (or is it a mandroid? The show deliberately makes it hard to tell) advises another that it’s totally okay to have sex with a fresh corpse because “she’s still warm enough. Nobody’s going to judge you for it.” (She’s probably also a robot, but still: Ew.) Going to Westworld is supposed to be a kick in the seat of the cowboy pants, a form of time travel without any consequences. But through 21st-century eyes, observing what happens there can feel jarring, a tad gratuitous, and often demeaning toward women. That’s entirely by design and in keeping with the very themes the show will explore in upcoming episodes.

As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his review and Laura Hudson noted in her recap of episode one, the creators of this series aren’t just being provocative for the sake of it. They’re provoking the audience to force us to consider why the guests of Westworld — and, by extension, those of us observing them through our televisions — respond to stories that skew toward aggressive, more traditionally “masculine” behavior. That’s one of the reasons why, as stereotypically male-oriented as this series may initially seem, it actually may have more of a female empowerment subtext than an initial glance suggests.

Lisa Joy, who co-created the series alongside fellow executive producer and husband Jonathan Nolan, said during a July Television Critics Association panel that the sexual violence in the show “is not about the fetishization of those acts” but about exploring those crimes “with dignity and depth.” In upcoming episodes, it becomes clearer she was speaking the truth. Westworld isn’t condoning rape or the way its faux reality operates; it’s asking us to consider why people are attracted to this particular type of immersive experience and why the crafters of that experience continue to cater to their whims. (Those offended by the brutality and nudity in Westworld also may also ask why so many HBO series continue to cater to those whims. Again, the series pretty much invites them to ask that question, although, depending on your perspective, that may seem like flimsy justification for indulging in more brutality and nudity.)

The robots are effectively sleepwalking puppets coded and programmed by Westworld mastermind Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) — who notably shares a name with the Western outlaw who shot Jesse James and later reenacted the killing in a traveling show — and his staff. That’s the excuse for their behavior. But what about the people who supposedly have free will, yet choose to blow tons of money on the opportunity to blow away mechanical antiheroes? What excuse do they have for getting such a charge out of so much violence? With each episode, these questions become more prominent and take on greater urgency.

While guests at the saloon-and-spurs fantasy camp are clearly attracted to its John Wayne vibe, Westworld also makes a point of showing us that those guests are not only men. Women pay to come here, too, and are just as eager to indulge in sex or shoot-outs as anyone else. Behind the curtains of this dusty road Oz, there are also female orchestrators working alongside the male ones; in the pilot, the member of Ford’s team who behaves most inappropriately with a robot is Elsie (Shannon Woodward), who clearly gets a charge from kissing the recently retooled Clementine (Angela Sarafyan). While what happens within the context of Westworld’s playacting may reflect the outmoded gender roles of 19th-century America, Nolan and Joy have been careful to portray the modern men and women as dimensional individuals who openly respond to similar instincts.

And then there are the female androids, who are key to the growing robot realization that there’s something off about their reality. The first character we see in the opening moments of the Westworld pilot is Dolores; it’s her ability to become increasingly sentient that concerns Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard and will be most central to the narrative going forward. “I believe there’s an order to our days, a purpose,” Dolores tells Bernard when questioned. But — and this hardly qualifies as a spoiler alert — Dolores finds herself increasingly questioning that purpose. She’s not the only female host who will do so. If the Old West, particularly as a fictional source of entertainment, is a patriarchal construct, it makes sense for the women to be the ones to start to topple it.