"Westworld" Metacommentary Part I: These Violent Delights
On the surface, "Westworld" tells the story of killer robots rebelling against their abusive human masters. On a deeper level, "Westworld" examines questions regarding free will and humanity, asking its viewers to question what makes someone human and the value of reality. Beneath that philosophical jargon, though, lies a meta-commentary on the nature of stories and how they relate to their viewers and readers. The unique setting of the show — a theme park full of pre-programmed robot characters with backstories, personalities, and drives — allows the sci-fi/Western to critique and assess the current entertainment landscape in our world, offering insightful and somewhat disturbing observations. Over several issues of The Commentator, this series of articles will examine this commentary and its ramifications on current TV and movies. First up: violence and sex.
Violence and sex dominate television and movies today. Movies such as "The Godfather," "No Country for Old Men" or anything directed by Quentin Tarantino contain an abundance of violent and bloody scenes, while films such as "Fifty Shades of Grey" are dedicated to the topic of sex. Many of these scenes become iconic; everyone remembers the horse head scene from "The Godfather" or the moment the will-they-won’t-they couple of their favorite TV show finally hooked up. Others send more of an artistic message; "No Country for Old Men’s" random violence serves as an antithesis of the Western genre and the philosophy of Tommy Lee Jones’ protagonist. As for Quentin Tarantino, well, those movies are just over-the-top fun.
Not everyone, especially contemporary critics, see it this way. Some of the most popular entertainment programs of the last decade have received criticism for their use of violence, gore and sex. Critics complain that shows like "Game of Thrones," "True Blood" and "Spartacus" use violence and sex as crude ways to grab their audiences’ attention. In fact, the explicit sexual content on "Game of Thrones" has become so typical that it warranted the creation of a new term — sexposition — which the Financial Times defined as “keeping viewers hooked by combining complex plot exposition with explicit sexual goings-on.” The show’s infamy even spread here to YU, where Rabbi Jeremy Wieder criticized The Commentator for publishing an article about "Game of Thrones," saying that “the show itself is deeply, deeply problematic.”
At first glance, it would seem that "Westworld" embodies the many criticisms of "Game of Thrones." The first shot of the pilot opens to a dark room that slowly illuminates to reveal a naked woman sitting on a stool. Other notable moments of the first episode include a rape scene, plenty of shootouts, a scalping and a close up of a man literally getting shot through the face. To say that the show contains explicit and graphic content would be quite the understatement.
Looking a little more critically, though, one sees how the violence and sex in "Westworld" takes a much different form than that of "Game of Thrones." "Game of Thrones" uses these types of scenes to show the brutality and harshness of its world. They become an artistic tool utilized to get its message across. Of course, art can take many forms, leading to much of the criticism of this approach. Other methods may portray the brutality of a world just as well as explicit violence and sex. "Vikings," which depicts a harsh and unforgiving world with a more subdued approach to violence and sex, serves an excellent example of this.
"Westworld" falls into an entirely different category. It uses these graphic scenes not to further its own narrative, but to comment and examine the nature of these scenes on other shows precisely like "Game of Thrones."
To make this more clear, I have to back up and explain the unique setting of "Westworld." The show takes place in a theme park called Westworld. Pre-programmed robots with backstories, personalities, unique and subtle character traits, motivations and drives inhabit the park. Humans — referred to as guests in the show — pay to enter the park and do whatever they want to/with the hosts. And I mean whatever they want. Outside the park, the audience watches as Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford and Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore create new narratives and characters, ensuring that the experience stays fresh and exciting for the guests.
If this all seems a bit familiar, that’s because we all experience this any time we turn on a TV. Through its setting, "Westworld" deconstructs and recreates the format of television and movies. The robot — or hosts as they are labeled on the show — parallel the actors and performers. The people up at HQ correspond to the writers, directors and producers, the crafters of the story. And the guests? They are us. They are the viewers. The writers and directors (the people at park headquarters) create characters and cast actors and actresses (create hosts), forcing them to do whatever they need to do to entertain the viewer and get higher ratings (entertain the guests in the park). This includes “killing,” graphic sex scenes and any other ridiculous thing that shows make their actors and actresses do.
None of it is real, though, and the viewer faces no consequences for their actions. At the end of the day, the cast will go home to their real lives, only to return the next day to do it all over again. So too with the hosts. Their sole purpose is to entertain the guest in any way possible, be it being killed or having sex with them. The guests don’t give a second thought towards their actions against the hosts. They are robots, programmed to feel whatever their programming (script) tells them to. They will not remember any of the horrors they went through, and will return to the park the next day as they are all programmed to do.
Therefore, whenever "Westworld" engages in explicit violence or sexual behavior, it does so not merely to attract viewers or make an artistic point, but rather to show the audience their own viewing experience through the actions of the guests. The guests and the viewers are one and the same. Violence becomes necessary because the show must reflect the violence of the TV and movies in our world. "Westworld" asks its audience — by positioning them as the guests — to examine why they love these types of scenes so much.
Granted, the guests live the violence and sex as opposed to the audience who simply watch it. While that may be a significant difference, it does not matter in this case. Both the guests and the audience ask for the same explicit content, just in different formats. Furthermore, with the development of VR technology, the boundaries between "Westworld" and our reality are shrinking. Do we really believe that those gaming experiences will be any different than what TV and movies, or video games, for that matter, give us now in terms of content? The short answer is no, but this is all beyond the scope of this article.
In an interview with Vice, Co-Creator Jonathan Nolan address the explicit violence and sex head-on. “This might be somewhat hypocritical, but Lisa [Joy] and I aren't terribly interested in portrayals of sexual violence onscreen,” he said. “Obviously, part of what the show is about is that, but it wasn't something we were interested in fetishizing. It is a show about violence, though, and we're asking the question, ‘Why is it that we like violence in almost all of our entertainment?’ Violence is in most of the stories we like to watch, but it isn't part of what we like to do — so why are [the guests on 'Westworld'] paying money to exercise that appetite?”
The same can be asked about our own television and movie programs. If we find it so disgusting and degrading to see these things in our true reality, why do we tolerate them in our stories? Why do we pay extra money to afford premium cable networks like HBO and Starz, two of the primary culprits of this new trend in violent and sexually explicit TV? By making the hosts the victims and crafting the show in a way that makes the audience sympathize with them, Westworld forces the viewer to ask themselves, why do they enjoy watching this? Why do we keep coming back to the same violence, the same sex? What does it say about us as a society?
I don’t have an answer to this question, and neither does "Westworld." Lee Sizemore, the park’s Narrative Director, and Charlotte Hale, Executive Director of the Delos Destinations Board, seem to believe that people love these types of stories for the sake of the violence and sex. “Most of the guests just want a warm body to shoot or to f***,” Hale tells the Man in Black, a important guest in the park. People are just looking for an escape, a place where they can find cheap thrills. And there is a lot of evidence for this argument. Just look at the ratings for "Game of Thrones" or the top box office champions. Even "Westworld" offers some guidance, with the ratings for the much more tame season two falling from the high season one numbers.
Robert Ford, the co-founder of the park, falls on the other side of the argument. He believes that people want more than cheap thrills and tricks. The viewers/guests may come for the violence and sex, but they stay for something deeper. They want meaning and understanding. “They [the guests] are not looking for a story that tells them what they are,” he tells Lee after rejecting the director’s latest narrative project. “They already know what they are. They are here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
The only real proof for Ford’s argument comes from the Man in Black. He serves as a symbol for the viewer that looks for something more from their entertainment other than the basic plot. Someone who seeks the symbolism, themes, philosophies and lessons that a show or movie can provide. He ignores the unnecessary violence and sex that the park offers. Instead, he searches for, in his own words, “something the person who created it [the park] wanted to express. Something true.” Yet, even though he does spend most of his time searching for this purpose, this maze, he still indulges himself in the spectacle that the park provides every now and then, going so far as to rape Dolores for no apparent reason in the pilot.
We may never get an answer to this question, and it definitely won’t come from an amateur critic such as myself. But it is still important to ask these questions and determine what these scenes and stories do for us as individuals and a society. You may fault "Westworld" for engaging in the behavior that they seem to criticize. You may call them, and me, hypocrites. But at least they understand what goes on around them. At least they ask the question.
Photo Caption: "Westworld" Logo