Despite the pretensions of our more civilized age, modernity has not conquered the primal desires of the human male; it hasn’t even tamed them. It has, however, channeled them into a virtual sphere through media such as pornography and video games. That has lowered the cost of acting out these desires—but also muted their pleasures.
This prompts the question of whether virtual reality will ever deliver an experience that feels exactly like the real thing. And if it does, what will be the effects on the human psyche and human idealism? The new HBO series Westworld explores these questions in suitably creepy fashion.
The show’s namesake is a theme park—set in the Old West in the years immediately following the Civil War—populated by cyborgs (“hosts”) who so closely resemble people that the viewer finds it hard to tell the difference. Each day in Westworld starts the same—on the same date, with the same hosts, all engaged in the same activities—but tourists in the park can influence how the day proceeds. Though their backstories, mannerisms, and temperaments have been finely calibrated by Westworld’s programmers, the “artificial” personal and internal lives of Westworld’s hosts prove to be more subtle and intricate than those of many of the park’s tourists.
Of course, the critical question is whether the hosts can think and feel, or are just acting out an elaborate script. An honest answer to this question may prove horrifying, given that the hosts of Westworld are raped, beaten, and murdered by tourists on a daily basis. (Though their memories are wiped every few days, preliminary evidence suggests that hosts are haunted by repressed memories of torments endured.)
This sort of conduct is not only normalized in Westworld, but actively promoted by the park’s marketing division. Few male tourists leave the park without having sex with an attractive female host, and the park holds little appeal to women. It would be pandering to suggest that women are less lecherous than men, but it is safe to say that few fantasize about inflicting indiscriminate violence or sleeping with passive automata.
Westworld’s chief creative director, Dr. Robert Ford, insists that, despite appearances to the contrary, the hosts are not sentient. But the well-being of the hosts is not Ford’s concern. This brilliant and menacing technocrat—who, appropriately, is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins—wants to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence. His motivations are a subject of intense fan speculation. Perhaps he is driven by an irrepressible intellectual curiosity, or perhaps he hopes to use the hosts to achieve some sort of political or military power. Regardless, Ford’s work, and that of his top subordinate Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), is directed at intensifying the hosts’ humanity.
Each host is equipped with an “analysis” mode, in which he or she converses with Westworld scientists about his or her thoughts and feelings. Dr. Ford and Bernard use these conversations (which the hosts soon forget) to burrow deep into a host’s mind, looking for signs of emotional and creative breakthroughs. Both men claim they use “analysis” only to ensure that the hosts stick to their scripts. This is implausible, although the more personable Bernard’s motivations for drawing out the hosts’ humanity are surely more benign than Dr. Ford’s.
One of Ford’s most successful creations is Dolores, a young woman. A trope of traditional femininity, she is devoted to the men in her life and pliable to their will. She lives with her mother and father, with whom she enjoys a tender and loving relationship. Her on-and-off boyfriend, the handsome and battle-hardened yet wide-eyed and unworldly cowboy whom she calls Teddy, does not garner any skepticism from Dolores. She just wants a man she can fall for without inhibition. That man could easily be, and often is, a Westworld tourist.
Dolores is a young woman designed to indulge the fantasies of the male tourists of Westworld. Though portrayed by 29-year-old actress Evan Rachel Wood, she cannot be more than 22 in the show, and is probably younger. She has gray-blue eyes, ashen skin, slightly tussled golden-blonde hair, and a wholesome, modestly plump figure well-displayed in the snug blue peasant dress she wears. Through her appearance and persona, she manages to project both feminine innocence and a concealed but visceral sex appeal. Dolores is, in other words, a male fantasy, a fantasy accessible to the weak, modern Western male.
William, a first-time visitor to Westworld, is a perfect specimen of such a man. Though a thoughtful person with a gentle temperament, William is nonetheless bullied by his brother-in-law into attending the park. Once there, he declines to engage in the standard hedonistic romps, but begins to pursue a relationship with Dolores. William sees himself as her friend and protector—and she needs plenty of protection from the ravages of Westworld’s crueler guests. She becomes intensely attracted to William. He must have suspected this would happen, designed as she is to gratify male tourists.
There is something contemptible about this relationship. If the game were not rigged in his favor, it seems implausible that someone like William would attract someone like Dolores. What is wrong with this sort of manipulation if Dolores enjoys it or is indifferent? And what impact does William’s ability to play out these fantasies have on his dealings with women in the real world?
There are of course some for whom Westworld’s simulated experiences fail to satisfy. The sadistic Man in Black (Ed Harris) is a regular at the park who has spent the last 30 years seducing and raping Dolores and other female hosts, and hunting down hosts programmed to emulate Wild West outlaws, whom he mows down in spectacular shootouts. (The guns in the show are designed not to kill tourists.) But for the Man in Black, the standard pleasures of Westworld have begun to wane. He now searches for a hidden “deeper level” to Westworld that Arnold, its original creator, developed before his death. This deeper level apparently offers experiences that, while carefully choreographed by Arnold, entail real risk-taking and even the possibility of death.
Fans speculate that the psychotic Man in Black is in fact a future version of the good-natured and obliging William, hardened by decades of sex and violence in Westworld. There is some frail evidence from the script to support this theory. But it is mainly attractive as an expression of the idea that uninhibited, technology-fueled hedonism can dehumanize. Or, more accurately, it can return men to the primitive instincts of their forbears.
Westworld is, like the theme park that shares its name, an imperfect source of entertainment. The scenes outside the park are generally a bore. With the notable exception of Ford’s, the personal lives of Westworld’s programmers (which account for a hefty share of screen time) are utterly conventional. But the scenes in the park are absorbing, with a distinctive eerie ambience that I hope does not ebb as the show progresses. And Westworld is more thematically rich than any other ongoing television show. I have already considered the consequences of venturing to the outer limits of hedonism; Westworld also asks questions about the nature of consciousness and the meaning of life in a deterministic world.
Many regard the show’s on-screen violence as gratuitous—they are right, but they miss the broader point. In any case, there is something here for viewers of every philosophical persuasion.
Matt Cockerill is a freelance writer from Chicago.