Westworld, HBO’s brand new series, tells the penetrative, frighteningly possible story of an amusement park where androids essentially play world for the enjoyment of human patrons. The androids, which are virtually (but not totally) indistinguishable from their human counterparts, are designed with at least the appearance of desires, of the ability to love and to fear, in order to make the patrons’ experience more juicily satisfying—when they are fucked, they seem to like it; when they are killed, they show pain.
To Westworld management, the idea of consent and other human rights considerations are a non-issue. The androids were created for the enjoyment of others and the idea of their suffering is only that, an anthropocentric idea.
But surely the androids in Westworld seem to be suffering, like when Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is dragged to a barn to be raped by the Gunslinger (Ed Harris), or when handsome Teddy (James Marsden) is caught in a storm of gunfire, even if they wake up the next morning with no apparent memory of their yesterdays. But if they aren’t feeling pain, we in the audience certainly are.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy discussed the violence of the pilot and built in to the premise of the show.
Nolan pointed out that Westerns are largely presented as male fantasies, in which fictional characters enact what real men cannot. He continued:
We’re clearly, I don’t believe, anymore inured to violence than we ever were, despite being surrounded by the fictional versions of it. Evermore, we find violence just as abhorrent as we ever did. And yet we’re kind of fascinated by it. The sort of disposable and repeatable nature of the violence in our show, in which hosts can be brutalized, victimized, killed, then reset and put back into their world, it presents two ideas. One: wow, that’s f—ked up, and I hope they get a chance to escape, or that the guests at least get some comeuppance. But also, there’s a strange kind of strength in that. There’s something that [one of the robots] says in a future episode: “I’ve died a million times. I’m f—ing great at it. How many times have you died?” That question to me, the idea that the hosts are simultaneously the perennial perpetual victims of this place but also different and stronger, that it gives them a certain strength and marks them as qualitatively different than us, is very exciting on a character level.
Westworld is filled with a repeated sexual violence as well (the town’s brothel is a major destination, though any android woman is presented as fair game), one that may have been unbearable to watch if it hadn’t been so carefully treated in the pilot episode.
Some of the challenges of sexuality on Westworld is that we’re trying to tell a lot of different stories about sexuality, including stories about sexuality that aren’t based in reality because it’s about robots who can’t understand their condition ultimately, which changes the discussion... In terms of sexual violence, it’s not something we do a lot on [the show], and we don’t do it explicitly on screen in the pilot. But it’s something we wanted to explore because it’s something the guests are going to do in the park. There’s also an argument to be made that even if it isn’t an aggressive sexual assault, if the hosts are not self-aware of what they are, what does volition mean anyway? Isn’t it all sexual assault? It raises questions of consent on a greater existential level.
Joy reiterated that in the show, the point of writing in violent sexual encounters weren’t to satisfy a voyeuristic audience: “It’s not about dwelling on the details of it. It’s about eliciting the reaction of the person we’re empathizing with, which is horror at this abomination of an act.”
And these suggestions of trauma, rather than the actual viewing of them, are what morally separates the Westworld audience from Westworld visitors. We are not voyeurs of violence, rather, witnesses to trauma, willing to sympathize with the androids’ repeated injustices and await their eventual uprising.
Update: In another interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Evan Rachel Wood urged viewers to hold back judgment of the show’s violence until more information has been revealed:
“I don’t like gratuitous violence against women at all, but I would wait for the context in which it’s being used,” she said. “As the show progresses, the way it’s being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head. The roles for women on this show are going to be very revolutionary. It’s very gender-neutral. I would ask, as somebody who is an advocate against any kind of abuse or violence and is outspoken about it, to give it a chance and wait to see where it’s going. I think it will surprise people.”