“You’re in my dream. I designed every part of this place. Not a theme park, but an entire world”
So, let’s talk about Westworld. There’s only two episodes left of season one, and a quick Google search will tell you more than you need to know about the number of loose ends and untied threads that are keeping viewers interested. It’s become one of those shows that thrives off of the mystery, and explicitly fuels the collective investigatory powers of the internet with their sights set on decoding the mysteries that it continues to offer, while it seems to be hiding many of its secrets in plain sight—for those quick enough to catch them and post them to Reddit.
What I want to talk about is one thing in particular that Westworld seems to be hiding in plain sight: that the show appears to be exposing the ways in which, until now, “the West” was written under a very specific kind of control, and about and for particular characters.
Ford is one of the first clues. The story of what “the West” is/was in the popular imaginary has long been seen to be conceived in the minds of white males, and the films, culture, TV shows etc. that have come to embody it have tended to privilege white-male creative control, as well as hypermasculine stories. Can it really be so coincidental, then, that Westworld’s creator Robert Ford is literally an old, white man— the ‘father’ of the park itself, as well as all of its stories, new and old, and all of the hosts who inhabit it and enact them?
It’s clue one that suggests that this show might be revealing something about who gets authorial control of complex, masculine-oriented stories—especially if we’d like to go way, way back to the initial “architects” of the idea of “the American West” themselves, articulated most pervasively through popular culture. Again, it can’t be mere coincidence that Ford shares his name with another so-called “father” of the Western— and John Ford is the man so often credited with shaping what the popular image “the West” should look like. What a certain reading of Westworld reflects here is the influence that one man can have, and the importance of authorial control for communicating a single vision— a defined idea of what “the West”, its history, present and future, should look like, should be home to, and ultimately should authentically be, whether in the narrative arcs of Westworld’s park, or more broadly in popular culture as a whole.
This is the world in which people are encouraged to find, and to be their ‘true’ selves— as the tagline reads, “Live without limits”. In episode seven, while riding a train to the next step of their quest, William tells Dolores of his desire to live in his childhood dreams, in the stories he’d read, to find and be the more ‘authentic’, ‘real’ version of himself— a ‘reality’ he appears to be finding and achieving in the park, not in his actual outside-world life. For so long “the West” has been seen as a kind of “safety valve” (to borrow Jane Tompkins’ expression) for American (masculine) identity under pressure in an increasingly modern world, a place in which men should go to become men, to find their masculinity, to find their ‘real selves’ and experience what ‘real’ life and work should really be. William, and/or The Man In Black (depending on what fan theories you subscribe to) certainly have discovered the benefits of using the park as their own personal “safety valve”.
Despite the way Ford keeps reminding Bernard that this place isn’t “real”, many of its visitors recognise what the world offers them as real enough to be authentic and meaningful. Taking this careful choice of character creation and adding it to the entire premise of the show as a whole, Westworld does an interesting job of potentially exposing the artificiality (or at least selectivity) of what we might generally and widely perceive as the “real” western world, and the limited and selective perspective that its concept and foundations originate from. From this, it doesn’t take much to infer that what we are seeing therefore is a highly selected, privileged idea of what it was “really like” in America’s West; an image that has been authenticated again and again in the recycled Western images of film, television, literature, and so on.
But the show also seems to be, perhaps accidentally, portraying the backlash that can occur when attempts are made to wrest this power and control away from its original (white, male) creator.
In episode seven, Ford tells head of QA Theresa Cullen—who has been conspiring with the Delos company’s board of directors to usher Ford out of the way, and take control of the park out of his hands after over thirty years— that a “blood sacrifice” is required in payment for such a treachery. Earlier in the episode, board representative Charlotte Hale also tells Theresa that a “blood sacrifice” is required as one of the steps in the plan to encourage Ford to “retire” from his position. The latter “blood” is spilled by Clementine, a saloon-prostitute-host who is for one last time used and discarded, after outliving her usefulness and proving a particular point—that Ford’s overriding control of the hosts and their behaviour has gone on for far too long, and is now a danger to the park itself and its visitors. After seeing through the very-much-manufactured performance that these three women (two human; one host) have put on display for him—to prove he has outlived his position of trust and “fatherhood” over the park’s inhabitants—Ford responds with (calm and calculated, Anthony Hopkins-style) rage. Revealing a deeper level of control that extends to Bernard (gasp, also a host), the second “blood sacrifice” to be claimed by episode seven is Theresa herself— who dies as punishment for even attempting to conspire to remove Ford from the picture. Episode eight reveals that Bernard has similarly been put to use in removing his colleague Elsie Hughes from the picture too, who also meddled in Westworld’s affairs too much for its creator.
Thus, the backlash— and tantalisingly, it’s against women who have either a) served their purpose, or b) actively tried to take agency away from patriarchal control of Westworld’s western storylines.
But by episode eight there are suggestions that change might actually come, whether Ford wills it or not. It’s taken eight-hours (of sometimes eye-rollingly excessive, manufactured intrigue), but what began as a trickle—with Dolores slapping a fly on her neck—is slowly becoming a flood: the women of Westworld (and the real world) are trying to write their own stories. In one sense they’re failing to do so like Theresa, unlikely the last female character to be blocked by the male author, but Charlotte is taking up the mantle to wrest power and control from under Ford’s nose. By employing Lee Sizemore to write a story for one of the now-defunct hosts to smuggle him out of the park with valuable data, resulting in her/the company’s gain, she is here trying to subvert Ford’s control in a more subtle way— albeit by using the other male “writer” on staff to do so.
Or on the other hand they’re beginning to succeed. Dolores—who was Westworld’s first suggestion of the possibility of subversions to ‘the story’, but who has since in my opinion faded into the show’s many textures a little— has now gone totally off script and into the wild with William to find her own story, the one that she remembers about her true “home”.
But it’s Maeve where the real interest for me now lies: as she so boldly asserts, “Time to write my own fucking story”. So while Dolores is searching for meaning, for her “home” and her deeper, true self within “the maze”, whatever it may be, Maeve is now creating her own destiny. Both are disregarding the park’s politics and behind-the-scenes power play, and are playing within the limits of the world and its narrative— exploiting the video game-ness of it to see how far it can be pushed until it breaks. Dolores might not totally understand yet, nor wilfully realise this, but she does want to understand her memories. Maeve wants out, and she’s getting out, and it looks as though she’s planning on taking others with her.
By exploiting the code of the (game) world itself, the women of Westworld appear to have found ways in which to wrest control—big or small—from its creator and director, to begin shaping or telling their own stories.
There are any number of interesting plot threads to read into Westworld right now—multiple timeline theories, the way it teases the viewer into wondering who is or isn’t actually “real”, and forces us to question what actually makes a human and what makes a “host”—, but for me this might be the most interesting. Intentionally or not (and I’m really not sure which of the two it is), Westworld has illuminated something that everyone probably knew or assumed and yet until now was never really foregrounded as part of the Western’s narrative— men control the stories here, in this man’s world, and God help anyone who tries to take that power away from them. It’s hard to read the show as the definition of a feminist text, but this narrative thread suggests that the way in which female agency has begun to subvert the “classic” western narrative, and the historic way “The West” has been written by men, to the exclusion (or at least marginalisation) of anyone but (usually white) men, shows how significant parts of it could be.