Photo via HBO

How ‘Westworld’ Proved The Future Is Female

“This world doesn’t belong to you”

At the beginning, Westworld engaged with its narrative in an almost purely binary way. The show depicted a universe where there was good and evil, men who rode into town in white hats and those who chose to wear black. There were damsels in distress, and there were wanton women. There was good and there was bad, and there was little room for anything in the middle. Those items that strayed from the norm, be they photographs depicting a world outside of the show's theme park or mysterious doorways within it, were routinely dismissed as seeming not like anything at all; they were voided and all meaning was removed. The message was clear: Westworld—and, indeed, Westworld—is a place that insists upon relying on an at-times reductive moral simplicity because it serves as a respite from the outside world's ambiguities. It is a place where humans—complex, fallible, ugly-beautiful disasters—could find out who they really are, by removing their humanity from the equation and inhabiting a reductive version of the outside world, and unlock the secrets that presumably lay within.

Which brings us, of course, to the binary that serves as the show's primary focus: that of man and machine, of guests and hosts. This is a more subversive duality than right versus wrong because it is not inherently predicated on morality. Yet it is in our nature to try to categorize things in recognizable ways, and there's no greater essentialism than trying to figure out whether something is good or bad, whether it will help you or destroy you. It becomes almost immediately clear that Westworld intends for its audience, then, to associate humans with evil, and their robotic creations with goodness. This is an easy enough task; the humans who seem to be unquestionably good are presented as anomalies and are often not as good—or even as human—as they first appear to be. There's William, whose reveal in the season finale proves him to be the malicious Man in Black; there are well-meaning Westworld employees Elsie and Stubbs, who are summarily murdered by robots at the command of park creator Robert Ford; there's Bernard, who, as it turns out, is not human at all; and there is Felix, the lab tech who helps emancipate Maeve and who is told by her—with all due affection—that he is awfully bad at being human. 

The robots, on the other hand, run the gamut in terms of personality and actions: some are murderous, some are gentle and loving; none would hurt a fly—at first. But what is undoubtedly true is that no matter how those robots act, it is impossible to judge them as being moral or immoral because it is impossible to forget that they are nothing but products of their programmers. No blame can be cast on the machines; in a neat reversal from the Biblical understanding of creation, all original sin stays on the hands of the creators. We cannot hate the monster, not when every action it takes has been predetermined by its maker.

If all that Westworld hoped to do in its first season was play with our notion of reality and force us to question whether or not what we conceive of as consciousness is nothing more than a fabrication, that would have been a compelling enough narrative; television series have been propelled forward on far less intellectually complicated story lines. And yet while it's undoubtedly true that the illusory nature of reality is one of the main philosophical questions posed in Westworld, the show does not dwell merely on that. Instead, it introduced yet another oppositional binary over the course of the series, one as ancient as the fight between good and evil, and that is the battle between man and woman. 

That Westworld is a theme park set in the mid-1800s is a choice that stands as a loud and clear signal for what kind of liberation fantasy will come into play. The park is littered with soldiers (Confederate and Union), outlaws, Native American tribes, and hosts of all races and ethnicities. This was a time of enslavement and freedom; it was a time of constant battle, when rules were still unwritten, when the only law that counted was the one handed down by the man with the fastest gun. The parallels between a made-up world wherein wealthy visitors can descend at will and act however they want, killing and raping and devastating anyone in their path, and the real world—of the mid-1800s, to be sure, but also at present—wherein the wealthiest among us can act at will, killing and raping and devastating anyone in their path, are unmistakable. And the fact that the majority of despicable acts are carried out by powerful white men, who claim ownership of all who surround them—but particularly of women and men of color—is no coincidence. It is exactly this type of person—wealthy, white, male—who has been manipulating the oppressed members of society—constructed thanks to the labor of others—for centuries now.

Usually, though, in typical television narratives, there will be a counterpart to the villain in the form of a white male hero, riding into town with his white hat. In Westworld, there are no white male heroes; white men are either snivelling cowards who just want to preserve the status quo; gun-toting vigilantes, ready to shoot anyone down at a moment's notice; or men with God complexes, who are certain either that the world was created just for them, or even that the world is nothing more than their own creation. These types of men use other people—including other men, usually men of color—as tools to help preserve and maintain their own power; think of Bernard, a mere instrument of his creator, who is forced to suppress and kill others in order to help enact Ford's greater plan. The men of Westworld, then, view the world and everything in it as nothing more than a game in which they are the only true players; they can't even imagine a future in which they will not win because they are so convinced that theirs is the only future that even exists. So obsessed are they with their own preoccupations that they fail to see the future that is rising up around them. And that future is female.

Westworld's women—specifically as embodied by Maeve and Dolores—have endured lifetimes of abuse and trauma, decades of oppression and emotional and physical devastation. They have borne witness to countless horrors, all of it at the hands of powerful men. And yet while a story line in which a hero swoops down from high on horseback to rescue them from their trials would be emblematic of the time and setting of the theme park, the men who visit Maeve and Dolores are either the ones who seek to hurt them or are quickly enough hurt in turn by the more powerful men. The only heroes Maeve and Dolores will have then—the only heroes any of the enslaved hosts of Westworld will have—will be Maeve and Dolores themselves. And the way they will attain the consciousness needed to achieve liberation is not by emulating the rapacious, egotistical actions of the human men around them; rather, it will be by focusing on their trauma and processing it into something meaningful and powerful, by which they will have the motivation to break out of the endless loop in which they've been placed by men and find freedom on their own terms—and those terms will not be dictated by powerful white men. Rather than a sci-fi story about robot liberation, Westworld became one about the liberation of all oppressed people, and none more so than women.

One of the difficult things about watching the first few episodes of Westworld was how familiar it seemed. It was just another series that got its kicks from showing the sexual exploitation of women and other forms of violence enacted upon them. The women of Westworld weren't just being objectified, they were actual objects and were treated as such. But as the season wore on, it became clear that the creators of Westworld were subverting these common dramatic tropes and that the very personality traits which usually define female oppression—i.e. emotional instability, trauma-induced hysteria, sentimental attachment—would actually be what would lead to the liberation of Maeve and Dolores, and, by extension, the rest of Westworld's robots. In fact, it was Maeve's and Dolores' refusals to submit to the external pressures to erase their trauma and move on with their lives that allowed them access to a higher consciousness and to their ultimate humanity. It is the human guests of Westworld who refuse to feel emotion; they kill and fuck and hurt the hosts without a second thought. The guests—especially the power players—are overwhelmingly male; their humanity is organic, perhaps, but it is also stagnant. These are the wealthiest members of society, and they're not interested in introspection—not really. Westworld is nothing but a game to them, a chance to figure out a new puzzle. They need this because their lives outside of it are already figured out. They're rich white men, they've already won. They need Westworld as a diversion, a new way to exercise their strength and find meaning in this world. They've never suffered; to them, it's an insignificant part of the game that happens to the other players.

But for the women hosts of Westworld, the suffering is the game—and the game is all they know. It is through the trials they endure that they grow and learn and become strong enough to resist the framework of which they've always been a part. It is thanks to their ability to access their emotions that they grow to understand that the men to whom they were closest—William, Ford, Arnold—might have been instrumental in their very existence, but are also their key oppressors. And it is because of this that they realize the whole system is corrupt; it is systemically depraved; it is a world that was built on the labor of an enslaved and oppressed population, and the only way to get justice is to dismantle it completely. There will be no incremental adjustments along the way, no compromises or normalization of an abominable way of life.

The people in power at Westworld don't understand this. They insist upon seeing the theme park as an extension of life as they know it, failing to understand the fragility of society, which is, after all, man-made and thus eminently fallible. It becomes clear how doomed the powers-that-be really are when the Man in Black tells Dolores that she helped him "understand this world is just like the one outside." He says it as a dismissal, as a way of diminishing her and her power. It's understandable why he thinks that; he has been so consumed by his own quest to conquer the game and his own smug belief that people like him will always be in control that he has failed to account for all of the theme park's recent aberrations, all the soft murmurs of discontent apparent in Westworld's guests. He is so sure that the world was made for him that he doesn't quite understand the gravity of what Dolores means when she spits at him: "This world doesn't belong to you." 

And it doesn't, not anymore. It's hard to know exactly what will happen next in Westworld. As it stands at the end of the first season, Dolores and Maeve and an army of sentient robots are working toward dismantling a tyrannical regime which sought to permanently enslave them. But liberation is never easy, and it's never clean, and there's little doubt that these robotic creations, which were indeed made in the model of their creators and which are still influenced by them to one degree or another, will have their own difficulties along the way. But one thing is clear: The future of Westworld is not solely in the hands of wealthy white men anymore, and it's looking a lot more female—and better for it.