by Austin Hwang
Westworld is an HBO TV series that premiered on October 2, 2016. The show was created and directed by Jonathan Nolan with the help of his wife, Lisa Joy. The story takes place in a futuristic world where wealthy guests can buy access to a park full of androids called hosts. The androids hosting the guests at the Wild West-themed park were designed to look indistinguishable from real humans. Though they are androids, as the story progresses, it becomes more apparent that these androids are capable of thinking for themselves and questioning their reality. While the hosts are programmed to be unable to harm the human guests, the guests are free to do anything to the hosts including hurting, killing, and raping. The hosts are forced to live in this violent world oppressed by the human guests.
The story focuses on an anomaly in the hosts’ programming which threatens the fail-safe mechanism that prevents hosts from harming the guests. This anomaly reveals the dire consequences of an empowered group of formerly oppressed androids. The programmers running the theme park struggle to resolve the issue resulting in their reduced control over the androids. As their control over the hosts is threatened, the humans face the potential threat of vengeful androids.
Historical and Cultural Context
The creator of Westworld was inspired by the 1973 film directed by Michael Crichton that went by the same name, Westworld. The premise of the 1973 Westworld was similar to the modern version. The story centered around a wild western themed amusement park hosted by androids indistinguishable from humans. Again, the androids in the 1973 Westworld are oppressed by their creators and forced to live in a violent world where the guests are able to inflict harm upon them without fear of retaliation. In this film, an android is infected with a virus that allows it to injure other humans. The newly empowered android rebels against its creators and seeks to harm the humans who have previously done the same to other androids.
Androids in films are commonly seen straying from their intended function due to a developing conscience. Films initially portray androids as mindless drones that humans have absolute control over; however, the major conflict in these films always involve the android’s conscience overriding their programmed actions. This is a direct reference to the master-slave relationship that existed during the time of slavery. Slave owners viewed their slaves as less intelligent beings whom they had complete control over. However, the main cause of the downfall of slave owners is the rising number of organized rebellions and demonstrations of independence by the slaves. In this way, films that involve androids typically attempt to convey the themes of slavery through these links to the past.
Both the modern and original Westworld touches upon the concept of violence breeding more violence. The androids in both the film and the TV show gain a level of consciousness capable of desiring freedom from their state of oppression. In order to obtain this freedom, they resort to their newly acquired power to inflict harm on their oppressors. Both shows demonstrate the lure of violence and how it captivates an audience. The wealthy guests are attracted to the prospect of entering a violent world where their actions have no negative consequence on their lives. Violence also captivates the audience of the show itself. As spectators of these violent spectacles, the audience of either the 1973 film or the modern TV derive entertainment from the violence in the show and the concept of oppression. The similarity between the modern version of Westworld and the 1973 film reveals the consistency of this formula of violence and oppression in media. The 1973 Westworld drew its audience in with the violent plot line in the same way that the HBO TV series has as well. This continuity in our society’s behavior highlights the lure of violence in media and the effective ways that producers manipulate this aspect of film to attract viewers to modern entertainment.
Themes and Style
Violence and oppression are the major themes that Westworld explores through its many references to history and use of symbolism. For example, the entrapment of androids in the park and the subsequent violence they endure are obvious depictions of slavery. In the scene where Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, speaks with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) about the anomalies created by the new update in the hosts’ code, the creation process of manufacturing the androids is shown to the audience to initially label them as sub-human. In addition, during this scene, the co-founder of the park, Robert Ford, even refers to the hosts when talking to Bernard as “our creatures.” This scene highlights the artificial nature of the androids; however, as the story progresses, the audience is exposed to androids expressing human emotions such as grief, anger, and terror. This is a similar theme seen in slave history. Slave owners viewed their slaves as sub-human tools of labor rather than individuals. Because of this viewpoint, it was easy for slave owners to punish slaves and force them into cruel labor. However, it was fact that slaves developed their own culture and eventually expressed their desire for freedom through rebellious acts. Westworld references this aspect of history to construct the question of morality. The audience is forced to formulate an opinion on the morality of the human characters inflicting injuries on androids who are convincingly human.
Fig. 1. Robert Ford discusses the anomaly in hosts’ code with Bernard. Video clip by camai. “Westworld scenes of Dr. Robert Ford (Part 1)” Online video clip. YouTube, YouTube, 14 Dec. 2016. Web.
Westworld also addresses the consequence of violence in its narrative. The ambiguous quote, “These violent delights have violent ends,” is often repeated throughout the series. The quote is first uttered by Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) who was once playing the role of a professor who knew of Shakespeare. This quote is actually from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence says this to Romeo in order to warn him of the possible consequence of his reckless love affair with Juliet. In the same way, it is as if the androids are warning humans that their violent actions within the park will lead to the suffering of equally violent consequences. Violence in Westworld breeds more violence. The cycle of violence is perpetuated by the sense of revenge. The reckless violence that the human guests engage in causes harm to the android hosts. When the android hosts remember the numerous ways in which they were harmed by human guests, they are fueled by their sense of revenge and are more willing to engage in violent actions themselves. The show explicitly reveals its message about violence to the audience in this way.
Westworld emphasizes its violence through its cinematography and ensures that it highlights the brutal impact of punches and the gore in gunfights. Because of this, the audience becomes uncomfortably familiar with the deadly nature of the park’s guests and the harm they inflict on the hosts. Once the hosts show signs of retaliation against humans, their violent actions become justified to many spectators as they reflect on the harm done to them by humans. Because the audience is so familiar with the extreme violence from the emphasis at the beginning of the show, they become desensitized to future acts of violence and are more willing to accept its presence in the show.
The series shows how violence can be watched by the audience without flinching; however, once the audience has a closer look at the effects of that violence, it is then that the audience reconsiders the morality of that violence. In addition, it brings up the question of the negative impact the prevalence of violence in media has on the society. Westworld warns modern viewers about the possible consequences associated with our “violent delights” in the form of media entertainment.
Westworld is without a doubt a violent show that is unafraid of graphically portraying such scenes. What many critics are fascinated about is the appeal of violence and its effects on our society. In Larry Fitzmaurice’s interview of Jonathan Nolan, the creator of Westworld, Nolan even stated that he recognized that the TV series is violent and that he would like to know what it is about violence that is so appealing to the audience. In Brit Bennett’s “Ripping the Veil,” she observed that society has become more desensitized to the violent history of slavery. Because of this, the concept or themes of slavery are more often used in a plot to entertain an audience. Violence is specifically used to captivate an audience with its spectacle.
The prevalence of portraying this type of violence in entertainment has been viewed to negatively impact our society. Paul Duncum, a professor at the University of Illinois, states that violent media invokes more violent media in the future due to the effects of habituation and desensitization to violence. Duncum cites research in his “Attractions to Violence and the Limits of Education” which revealed that violent media is a significant factor in increasing a person’s aggressive behavior after exposure. Thus, he believes that the increasing amount of violence in media today is at a problematic level that affects an educational environment. This supports the reason for the longevity of violence in society and the reason why violence perpetuates more violence. This relates to Elizabeth Alexander’s claim in her “Can you be BLACK and Look at This?” She claims that the effects of slavery still linger today. The circulation of media in which black people in particular are inflicted pain is linked to the appeal of public beatings and lynching of slaves in the past. Likewise, the appeal of the violence in Westworld seem to reflect this type of mentality. The community has become desensitized to the implications of violence and merely consider its entertainment value. The prevalence of violence in modern entertainment only acts to sustain people’s desire for violent spectacles. This shows how the effects of slave history lingers in today’s society. Rather than deriving entertainment from harming other citizens in public, society has resorted to viewing these spectacles through fictional worlds in media. However, the fact remains that such a spectacle is actively desired and consumed by the public despite the potential negative consequences.
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Bennett, Brit. “Ripping the Veil.” New Republic, 2 Aug. 2016, newrepublic.com/article/135708/colson-whiteheads-fantastic-voyage.
Duncum, Paul. “Attractions to Violence and the Limits of Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 40, no. 4, 2006, pp. 21–38. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4140205.
Fitzmaurice, Larry. “How the Creators of ‘Westworld’ Built a Violent World of Robot Cowboys.” Vice, 30 Sept. 2016, www.vice.com/en_us/article/yvebxw/westworld-jonathan-nolan-lisa-joy-interview.
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Orr, Christopher. “Sympathy for the Robot.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/10/sympathy-for-the-robot/497531/.
Taylor, Henry, and Carol Dozier. “Television Violence, African-Americans, and Social Control 1950-1976.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1983, pp. 107–136. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2784315.
slavery, Westworld, Jonathan Nolan, oppression, violence, HBO TV series, entertainment, rebellion