The Ugliness of Westworld

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You might think, from the title of this post, that I don’t like HBO’s stunning new hit series Westworld, based on the 1973 film of the same name, which was written by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, but you’d be wrong. I love Westworld, the series, and I think it’s far better written and acted than the original (and I’m such a Yul Brynner fan that I’ll watch anything he’s in). That doesn’t mean there’s not some ugliness in Westworld, the theme park, where hosts are provided to supply the über-wealthy guests with all their fantasies-come-true, even if those fantasies involve rape, murder, and general pillage. There’s ugliness in the theme park, in the corporate headquarters with the people who run Westworld, and there’s a bit of ugliness in the actual execution of the show. If you watch enough of Westworld, I’ve learned, it might even reveal some ugliness in yourself.

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We’ve known from the premiere that there was going to be violence in the show. After all, the guests can do whatever they want to the hosts, who are robots, with impunity. Every time a host gets killed, s/he’s simply rebooted into the same story loop, ostensibly with no memory of what happened the day(s) before, or with any previous story loops. From the first show, however, we also knew that something was wrong with the hosts. It seems Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the mad-scientist-Frankenstein of the show, introduced something called “reveries” into the hosts’ programs, which allowed them to have more natural gestures, but also allowed them to access “memories” from previous “lives.”

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As with most humans who have been traumatized or violated, the hosts don’t recall the happy memories in their “dreams.” They remember the traumatic events: the rapes, murders, massacres. The more they recall, the more ugliness is revealed in this theme park called Westworld. The uglier the events that have happened to the hosts, who sometimes interact only with each other in some of the most brutal scenes, the more uncomfortable viewers get, wondering what kind of people would create a theme park where guests performed such violence against hosts who, though supposedly unfeeling robots, look so much like human beings that guests often cannot tell who is a host and who is a guest.

Until they kill somebody.

Since the hosts can’t kill guests, or so their programmers insist, then we have to assume that the guests are at Westworld, looking for adventure, in a Wild West World where they can be unfaithful sexually, where they can shoot and kill anyone who’s not also a guest, and where they can commit other acts of violence without consequence and without any harm coming to the guests themselves.

You have to wonder what kind of twisted mind would create such an ugly place for “entertainment.”

“Robert Ford” would be your answer.

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Despite his white-haired, grandfatherly appearance, Ford (Anthony Hopkins, in his scariest role since Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs) is not a nice guy. If he’s the God figure in this world, then he’s even scarier. Not only has he created these host-robots to be violated by the guests, he gets violently upset when he sees a worker who’s draped a covering over a nude host in headquarters. It seems it’s a rigid rule that the hosts must be nude while they are being repaired, questioned, evaluated, etc. by anyone who works for the corporation. Of course, Ford shouted that they hosts can’t feel anything except what they’re programmed to feel, so they can’t feel shame, embarrassment, etc, but the workers are still treating human-looking things as if they have no rights whatsoever.

Doesn’t that kind of attitude leak out into their work environment? I

would say Yes, especially given the way Ford bullies and threatens the employees, and given top manager Theresa’s cold treatment of Bernard, with whom she’s been having an affair.

Ford revealed that he knew about Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen) affair when she was attempting to persuade him to delay his new narrative, which is disrupting the work of his colleagues and the lives of the hosts, until after the Board had arrived. Theresa basically thinks Ford is insane and dangerous, and, as we learned in the latest episode, he may not be insane, but he is most definitely dangerous. In a frightening Reveal that validated viewer theories about Bernard, he was revealed to be a host. No, he’s not in the park itself. He’s in management. He’s a programmer. And he didn’t know that he was a host. After Bernard was fired by someone from the Board, who blamed him for the hosts’ going off-script to the point of violence, Bernard took Theresa to the isolated house in a forbidden sector of the park, where Ford’s younger self lives with his brother (more on this later) and his parents.

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Viewers guessed immediately that the little boy walking about the park with Ford in earlier episodes was a host, but they didn’t realize that he was a younger version of Ford himself. Bernard discovered the family accidentally, and we learned that Ford maintains them himself, and that he also adjusts their programming, to make them more realistic, i.e., to make his father a more violent alcoholic. The hosts have been at Westworld since the very beginning: it seems that Arnold, Ford’s original partner, who supposedly died in an accident in the park before it opened, built the little family for Ford, as a gift.

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So Bernard was not only unceremoniously dumped by Theresa after Ford bullied her, telling her that he’s never going to let anyone take Westworld away from him, but Bernard learned that the person responsible for the corporate espionage is Theresa, who’s been sending data out of the park via satellite relay, and then Bernard got the shock of his “life” when Theresa found the original drawings and schematics for “Bernard” in the basement lab of the isolated Ford-family house.

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After Ford coldly dismissed Bernard’s protests that he couldn’t be a host because he has memories of his son, and grief over losing his son, Ford instructed Bernard to kill Theresa. He did. Because, you know, Ford is God, and what God tells you to do…

Anyway, Bernard dispatched Theresa most violently, but we still don’t know whether or not Theresa is a host. After all, hosts are not supposed to be able to hurt humans. Bernard just killed Theresa. If she’s human, he went against his prime directive… Oh, wait… I mean, he’s gone off his original programming. Per Ford’s instructions. Does that mean that the hosts do have the ability to hurt humans but only if Ford says so? Or is Theresa another host? Even if she is a host, she certainly suffered after her discovery that Bernard is a host, that Ford had Bernard take her to that isolated location where she was “offline,” which is why some viewers believe she’s a host, for the express purpose of killing her.

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Bernard isn’t the only host who’s been suffering. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has been suffering ever since the early episodes, but viewers were led to believe that she was suffering because Bernard was surreptitiously meeting with her and having discussions intended to expand her moral and philosophical consciousness. From thinking that the world was “mostly good,” Dolores began to think there was “something wrong with this world, or with [her],” and to be so unhappy that she ran away from her family ranch, where the Man in Black (Ed Harris, in the most diabolical role of his career), affectionately known by viewers as MiB, raped her after helping kill her family members. Dolores is looking for meaning to her disturbing dreams, but she’s also looking for escape.

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Dolores doesn’t like this world anymore, and she wants out. She thinks William (Jimmi Simpson, below R) is the answer to her prayers, but William is not doubt going to be as cruel to her as he’s been to his business partner and future brother-in-law Logan (Ben Barnes, below L), having abandoned Logan to the hands of revolutionaries and war criminals.  William felt good about that, telling Dolores that he’s finally understood that Westworld is not supposed to get its guests in touch with the worst of themselves, but with what’s most true about themselves.

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So… William abandoned his colleague/friend/brother-in-law, has been sexually and emotionally unfaithful to his fiancée with Dolores, knows for a fact that he can’t live with Dolores because she’s not human… but he’s just gotten in touch with what’s “true” about himself, rather than with what’s “worst” about his nature? Lemme think about that for a while, okay, William, ’cause I think the “most true” thing about yourself that you just “discovered” in Westworld is that you are not a nice guy.

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If Dolores was disappointed in Teddy (James Marsden) when he wouldn’t take her away today or tomorrow or next week, but promised to do it “some day,” she has no idea how bad she’s going to hurt when William’s joyride at the theme park ends and he leaves to go back to the real world and his life “out there,” which he keeps repeatedly mentioning even though he’s noticed that Dolores is catching those remarks and wondering aloud what they mean. Talk about cruel. He’s even more thoughtless than the little boy who, after staring at Dolores in the premiere, said, “You’re not real,” disturbing her, but only momentarily. These guests are more than just physically violent and ugly to hosts: they’re emotionally ugly.

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Dolores’ old beau Teddy (James Marsden) is doing a lot of physical suffering in his new loop, but not as much as some of the hosts who are becoming victims of the notorious Man in Black — MiB — who has recruited Teddy to join him in his search for the Maze, a weird “map” he found inside one of the hosts’ scalp after MiB tortured and killed said host. MiB has been “coming to Westworld for 30 years,” which, not coincidentally, I’m guessing, is also the time they had their last serious malfunction with hosts, leading many viewers to questions MiB’s identity. Is he a host that has gained sentience? Is he a guest who’s become trapped in the park? Is he something more nefarious?

There are lots of theories — all neatly summarized by Elle McFarlane in her latest review — but I’m guessing that MiB is Arnold, who was Ford’s partner, who wanted to reach some real artificial sentience — which seems like a super-contradiction in terms, but I understand what it means in the context of the show — and who, not surprisingly, wanted to close the park and destroy all the hosts before Westworld even opened. Arnold died in an accident, but the fact that Ford has told no one but Bernard — whom we’ve just learned is a host — about Arnold makes me wonder if Arnold isn’t Robert Ford’s brother at the secret home in the forest.

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Because Ford addressed the little boy who takes walks with him as “Robert,” because Ford constantly intrudes in the lives and scenarios of the hosts in the park without seeming to bother any of the hosts, and because the Man in Black addressed Ford as “Robert” when they met in the park, and because Teddy prevented the MiB from killing/harming Ford, I’m beginning to suspect that MiB is Arnold, who theoretically could kill/harm Ford since he is an original host or is Arnold-in-a-host-body, who is searching for the great meaning in Westworld, not realizing, now that he is in the body of a host (I don’t even try to pretend that I would know how that happened) that his supreme sentient moment would be realizing that he is one of the creators of the world wherein he is trapped, and that, furthermore, his own brother Robert killed him in the “accident” after Arnold wanted to prevent Westworld from opening to the public.

Whew. 

Now that might make the MiB suffer.

Not that I should feel empathy for this guy, host or guest, since he’s intentionally caused so much pain and suffering to all the other hosts… but, what is it with all the ugliness on this show? In the park, in corporate headquarters, in its execution?

(So, I’m going off-script myself for a moment to complain that the fine and talented Thandie Newton has to do almost all of her scenes completely in the nude, while the males in said scenes are dressed. Shame on you, Westworld creators. I realize that the male hosts are also sometimes nude when they are in corporate headquarters, but most of the male actors playing hosts in the nude are only seen in passing, very briefly, and none of the other male stars of the show have had nude scenes, let alone extended nude ones, full-frontal, with dressed colleagues. I’m just saying. It’s ugly in the extreme. End of rant.)

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Maeve (Thandie Newton), who has become my favorite character in the show, is seriously suffering. After Hector helped her find the bullet lodged in her abdomen, where there was no scar, she began to intentionally die, even taking on guests for sex and baiting them till they killed her (I guess, technically, she’s committing suicide every day), so that she could end up back in the Body Department, where she once awoke during a procedure and “escaped,” seeing, to her horror, that there were hosts (some of whom she knew) bloodied and “dead” in a pile.

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Maeve has already been suffering with the knowledge, revealed by Felix (above center, with Maeve), who wants to be promoted to a programmer, that she has been “built,” and that all her dreams and her past lives are nothing more than stories created by the Narrative Department. Though Maeve questioned Felix about how he knew that he was “real” and she wasn’t, saying that they both felt the same, Maeve has taken her suffering and done something constructive with it. She’s blackmailed Felix and his partner into showing her as much of Westworld corporate as they thought they could get away with, and insisted that they change her programming so that she’s more intelligent than the hosts are designed to be.

For some reason, these guys are actually letting a host push them around and threaten their jobs. I know Felix wants to be someone more important at WestWorld Co, but, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why his buddy has let Maeve push him around. Sure, she threatened to gut him, but, as he kept insisting, she can’t hurt him.

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Maeve’s gotten quite ugly emotionally, but given the ugly scenarios the programmers have put her through, I don’t feel unhappy with Maeve. Instead, I feel proud of her, and applaud every new risk she takes, every new level of awareness, every act of threatened violence.

Wow. Why is that? Is is something ugly in me? I’m starting to wonder.

Especially after Theresa and the Board grabbed Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) from her in-park-storyline, brought her into corporate, and had some guy beat the crap out of her. It was horrifying. I got quite upset. I didn’t even know if I could continue to watch the scene.

Just then, mercifully, it ended. Corporate “rebooted” Clementine, and started the scenario again. Only this time, Clementine, who seemed to be “harboring a grudge” against the man who assaulted her, attacked and killed the man. When Security rushed into the room, ordering her to stop, she didn’t, so they shot her in the head.

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Here’s the problem I’m having with that scene, and it has to do with my own responses, which are, quite frankly, ugly.

When the guy was beating the hell out of Clementine, I got triggered, and thought I couldn’t watch any more graphic violence done to a woman.

A few minutes later, when Clementine was rebooted and began violently assaulting the man who had assaulted her, I didn’t feel anything.

Not a thing.

I actually thought the guy deserved it.

Then they revealed that he was a host that they’d programmed to hurt her for the purposes of demonstrating that the hosts are going off-script and “remembering” violent things that have been done to them and seeking revenge.

I was more concerned with the fact that I was upset with the violence done to the woman, but completely unemotional about the violence done to the man by the woman he’d hurt.

I know I can’t watch scenes of sexual violence, given my personal history with incest-rape, no matter if the sexual violence happens to women or men, but I never before was in a situation where I was triggered by violence being done to a woman, but then calmly watched — even applauded — her doing the same sort of violence to the man.

Yowza! What’s that saying about me, right?

Has Westworld, the show, just revealed something ugly about my own nature, like I’m an inadvertent guest?

Is that what the show was trying to do, or was it completely unintentional?

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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