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What Westworld can teach us about surviving a broken system

It’s the Western we need in 2016.

Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) in Westworld
HBO

[Many spoilers for season one of Westworld follow.]

Westworld's penultimate episode had several reveals, but its most significant moment is a small one. Maeve (Thandie Newton) — a robotic Host out for revenge on her makers — asks for help from the bandit Hector (Rodrigo Santoro). Since it requires him to “break into hell,” it’s a big ask. But when he realizes the safe he’s risked everything to steal is actually empty, it’s proof that something’s wrong. It breaks his programming enough to remember Maeve; he answers, “I’ll go.”

It’s significant because Hector isn’t special. He has none of the legacy code Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) received from long-deceased Westworld co-founder Arnold, or the sheer drive that sparked Maeve into consciousness as she connected her traumas. He’s actually the park’s most broadly sketched character, a flashy nihilist unaware of the machinations behind the park. Hector just wakes up to injustice the way most people do: Once you break a pattern, you can see where the trap was. It’s terrifying to him — he has tears in his eyes — but having woken up, he can't stay as he is. The safe is empty; it’s always been empty. He accepts the fight that comes next.

Beneath the creation myths and B-movie revenge of its first season, Westworld uses its characters — and the trappings of the Western itself — to explore the burden of conscience in a flawed system. And in the finale, everyone’s plot hinged on a single, central truth: In a broken system, everybody’s broken.

The park’s so imbalanced that we know the Hosts will have to revolt to get justice, and it takes 10 episodes to understand just what they’re up against. But the outcome is never in doubt. When you wake to an injustice, Westworld wants you to fight — whether or not you can win.

Westworld is designed to remind us of broken systems

Westworld, as a park, is the pulp-novel West: Native Americans are nearly invisible, women are obliging, and bullets never hurt a guest. For visitors, the park experience echoes the first generation of movie Westerns, which was in love with the mythical blank slate of a West in which heroic gunslingers tried to bring order to chaos.

Westworld conveniently ignores the real, appalling history behind the suggestion of an empty frontier: the victimization of the Hosts that makes this false romance possible. But half the point of Westworld is that stories this convenient are usually rotten somewhere. As the genre cinematically evolved, Westerns became concerned with the violence and oppression required to keep control of the “lawful order” in an unjust system — and that’s the reality undercutting the glamour of the park in Westworld.

Of course, in any unjust and oppressive system, a privileged few are going to have a great time. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is the most obvious offender here, using his power in the park to openly terrorize Hosts for his own gain, on a misguided quest that availed him nothing. But he’s allowed to keep trying because he’s a Delos majority shareholder, and because he has the support of the back office. (The entire workshop setup, from keeping Hosts naked as a dehumanizing tactic to omnipresent surveillance, is designed to keep anyone at Delos from sympathizing with the product.) Board member Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) plays corporate-espionage games, uses the Hosts, and blithely accepts a body count. And Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) sits at the very top of the pyramid: He’s controlled the park since before opening day, from the overall narrative to the Hosts’ core programming.

The Man in Black is oppressive privilege personified.
HBO

And Westworld doesn’t differentiate between types of brutality visited upon its Hosts. Dolores suffers at the hands of older archetypes, and Maeve suffers the technological violence of memory erasure — a parallel tension between the overt villainy of the classic Western and the institutional horrors of the new West.

But one of the keys to Westworld is that it believes in the fight against the system. One of the reasons the antihero became such a popular figure in later Westerns is because the archetype was a vessel through which the genre could question its place in the wider cultural canon. Over the years, the Western as a genre became uncertain there was any way to win; the noble gunslinger gave way to the fatalist who knew better than to believe they were the good guy.

Dolores goes through this disillusionment in real time, as her dreams of escaping to a better world are stymied by people who hope to use her for their own ends. Maeve’s grim reckoning has more in common with Yul Brynner’s Chris from The Magnificent Seven; both of them recognize the patterns that so few can escape, and are still relatively powerless. (“We lost,” Chris says. “We’ll always lose.”)

The Westworld Hosts shaking off their programming is a parable about discovering a social conscience while living in an oppressive system. The unanswered question of Westworld's finale is where the Hosts go from here.

In Westworld, as in life, stories have the power to establish privilege

The many nesting narratives of Westworld Arnold’s legacy, the origins of the Man in Black, the Hosts’ memory loops — explore the power of story to establish privilege. The guests have unlimited privilege, both as a perk of their visit, and because they know the position the Hosts occupy in a way the Hosts can’t. What the guests do with that privilege tells us who they are; to the last, they abuse it. There’s a reason the key delineation between the human good guys and bad guys is whether they’re able to empathize with the Hosts enough to fight for them.

Those allies are thin on the ground, and the show suggests that’s because it’s difficult to acknowledge inequality when you benefit from it. Delos lab technician Felix (Leonardo Nam), when faced with what he’s done, opts to help Maeve escape the park despite the risks. But William (Jimmi Simpson), who originally sees himself as Dolores’ savior, becomes more interested in the power he holds over Hosts than in helping them. And the finale reveals that Ford's known all along that the Hosts were fundamentally aware, and chose to stifle that initiative until he could exploit it.

Maeve and Felix in Westworld
Felix’s guilt help facilitate Maeve’s escape from Westworld.
HBO

Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) gets turned into a particularly bitter object lesson. When we first meet him, he’s smart enough to realize the Hosts are more alive than they seem, but he opts not to intervene. By the time he realizes he’s actually a Host himself and he’s been siding with the wrong people, Ford’s exploited his code to make him kill his lover, and then himself. Bernard’s privilege, his humanity, was provisional; it was conditional on collaboration with the people in power. When he questioned the system, it came back to bite him — not least because the things he assumed made him different than the Hosts turned out to be a lie all along. He’d been fed the same story as everybody else; he’d swallowed it just the same.

Stories are powerful tools, as Westworld goes out of its way to remind us. In the finale, Dolores and Teddy’s (James Marsden) heroic reunion turns on a dime from heartbreaking farewell to cynical fundraiser. Turns out even Dolores’ awareness had been programmed ahead of time; Ford made her painful awakening a pageant for Delos investors. She’s still being exploited by those who can use her story for themselves. The underlying tragedy of Dolores' consciousness is the necessary loss of faith in everything she’d once taken for granted. (When you accept that the safe is empty, you accept the reality of how many people colluded to make you believe you wanted it.) Dolores’ new objective puts her moral compass at risk. The question for next season is how much of it she’s willing to give up; her next fight will be to understand — and then hold on to — who she is.

Maeve doesn’t waste much time on the moral compass part. Her concern is how to harness these stories and twist them in her favor. She overtly manipulates her narrative in order to break free of it; even when it turns out Ford’s been nudging her toward a coup all along, Maeve fights to control her story. Among the Hosts, her work for the second season might be the hardest: Since she claims to be above reprogramming Hosts for blind loyalty, she’ll have to convince them of her cause by waking them up, one at a time.

This is the Western we deserve in 2016

Westworld knows its audience. It knows we understand the classic-movie West was never real. The park gave guests (and us) a convenient story with recognizable patterns, right down to the wide-open landscape as a counterpoint to the tight, fixed loops of the Hosts. It spent the season alternately emphasizing and breaking those patterns, playing for disparate outcomes.

Anthony Hopkins stands over Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden in the Westworld season finale.
Take that, classic Western-movie mythology.
HBO

What narrative urgency there was came from the characters (and the audience) realizing they’re trapped in a system, and how vital it is to question the things you’ve taken for granted. Even the show’s face-value narrative isn’t exempt from this; the closest Maeve gets to supervillainy is telling Hector he doesn’t factor into her plans beyond helping her escape. Hector accepts it — being a flashy nihilist can come in handy — but it definitely leaves Maeve with something to prove to us. We don’t want her to become the sort of overlord she was escaping; she’ll have to break that pattern, too.

Westworld deconstructs a system that’s balanced on myths we know are already broken. The classic-movie trappings of the park remind us that the more entrenched a story is, the harder it is to escape. (Just look at the Native Americans, who were either mystics or murderers — right in line with stereotypes of first-generation Westerns — and the Host army emerging in the season's final moments, every ghost of the West confronting us at once.) The Western is a genre about how we impose stories; when we deconstruct it, we’re left with questions about the sort of stories we want.

As Westworld’s park comes crumbling down, the scariest subtext is that this is the Western we deserve, and its most heartening subtext is that even breaking a pattern can sometimes be enough. The safe is empty; it’s always been empty. Westworld wants us to understand that we’ve been programmed, and accept the fight that comes next.

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