HBO's Westworld will make you question your own humanity

The show takes robots to a disturbing new level

(Image credit: HBO)

HBO's new epic drama Westworld begins with a woman sitting naked in a grey-lit lab. It is not a sexy scene. The woman, who turns out to be Evan Rachel Wood, is injured, but her face looks glazed and blank. When she speaks — "I'm sorry, I'm not feeling quite myself," she says in a drawl — she's told to drop the accent. Her diction becomes neutral and she becomes emptier still, so blank that a fly walking across her eye in a toe-curling close-up elicits no response.

This is a small, unexpected taste of body horror that hints at what Westworld promises to be: not the uncanny valley we expect from shows where androids and robots imperfectly mimic humans, but a real honest-to-goodness literal valley where robots perform humanity much too well. So well that it worries us. It makes us feel bad for watching.

Westworld was developed by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (along with J.J. Abrams) as a live-action John Ford Disneyland. Based on Michael Crichton's 1973 film of the same name, it's a full-immersion Wild West theme park where anything goes. "Guests" can do whatever they want with (and to) the robotic "hosts" in the park. Kill, rape, steal, join posses, look for bad guys, watch the ranch girl paint. People can come with their families — as one guest says he did — but it's telling that he came back alone, wanting to play the game a different way: "Went straight evil," he says of his second visit. "Best two weeks of my life."

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Theme park stories — Crichton's especially (you'll remember he also wrote Jurassic Park) — are almost always about American decadence, about our pathological pursuit of thrills. This version of Westworld is no exception. It's intent on theorizing that compulsion toward dangerous fun, but it's also interrogating the darker edges of pleasure in ways that don't let us off the hook as spectators. As we meet the cast of hosts — Thandie Newton's weary madam Maeve, Wood's cowgirl Dolores Abernathy, her father Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), her pretty boyfriend Teddy (James Marsden) — we might be slightly disturbed by just how watchable they are. And by the fact that they're going about their days talking to each other even when no guest is watching. But we are.

The show ropes us into complicity in more than one way. You know that hokey TV convention in which you start a show or film by bringing the protagonist into a new environment? The idea is that the newcomer's inexperience authorizes some necessary exposition: You can explain to him how the world works. Westworld appears to do just this. When we cut away from poor Dolores, the show introduces us to Teddy and uses every visual cue to trick us into identifying with him. Here's the handsome star riding into Westworld on a train. Years of viewing experience have trained us to believe that he's the guest through which we'll experience Westworld. He is not. He has come to Westworld to die, like he has thousands of times before, so a guest can enjoy raping Dolores after killing him.

Twice, then, we've been tricked into accidental sympathy with the robot hosts: once from the clinical side, with a deactivated and depersonalized Dolores whose nakedness is, frankly, uncomfortable, and once from the pleasurable side. Teddy's fooled us into thinking not just that he's human but that he's the protagonist! If you thought Ned Stark died abruptly, think of Teddy, who's dead mere minutes into the first episode.

It's a clever way to induct viewers into the show's explicit discussion of narrative tropes. We're privy to the park's concerns about various storylines: The engineers have realized that a guest's pleasure is amplified when it comes at someone's expense. "I never understood why they paired some of you off," says Ed Harris, the show's most sadistically interesting guest, as he prepares to kill Teddy and rape Dolores. "Seems cruel. And then I realized, winning doesn't mean anything unless someone else loses. Which means you're here to be the loser."

It becomes clear that the Prospero in charge of the park, Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), is deeply invested, not just in these narratives, but in the sorts of unnecessary flourishes that make them breathe. Park employees approach the storage facility containing the deactivated hosts with weapons, but Ford hangs out with decommissioned robots, listening to them prattle. His most recent "update" to the population of hosts equips them with a set of gestures called "reveries" that let them seem more real while they're talking. How? By letting them access a memory: They can effectively introspect while conversing with the guests. But these reveries appear to be letting the robots access those previous memories too well, so well that they start to snap under the horror of all they've endured.

If all this talk of storylines and gestures is starting to sound a little Hollywood-meta, it should. That first scene, featuring a naked Evan Rachel Wood, is an apt and deliberate metaphor for the price of entertainment. It's about the indignities of acting and the pleasure we, the viewers, take from the actor's suffering. If you replay that scene in your mind with that filter, the dialogue feels a little on the nose: The actor is, after all, actually naked. She is (literally) not feeling quite like herself. The director is in fact telling her to drop the accent. That Wood is not a robot — that she feels things — only makes the off-putting spectacle worse.

And for all that Westworld offers a thought experiment, it keeps collapsing into the literal in really interesting ways. Everything Wood's character Dolores says sounds at first like a sweet, sunny, platitude until you consider how horribly it reflects her real conditions. "There's a path for everyone," she says. (The hosts are programmed to run on loops.) "Your path leads you back to me," she says to her beau Teddy, "I know things'll work out the way they're meant to." They will indeed, because they're scripted. And the way things are meant to end is with Teddy's death and her rape.

The show relishes these winks: "At one point or another, we were all new to this world," Dolores says, a sentence that acquires additional resonance when we learn, in a fascinating twist, that she's the oldest host in the park — and the one with the deepest (and presumably the most dangerous) well of memories. "The newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are: to be free, to stake out our dreams." Dolores reflects that "there's an order to our days, a purpose," and these empty phrases get harder and harder to listen to because of the ugliness of their context. And because we watch her wake up, over and over again.

I do have questions: How do the guests distinguish other guests from hosts? It seems, based on Teddy's futile shots at Ed Harris, that the guns don't work on human bodies. But there are knives in Westworld, and water, and a thousand other sources of danger. What's to keep one guest from treating another like a host and knifing him on sight for no reason? And the Dolores fantasy appears to be a popular one — what's to keep two guests from fighting for access to the same storyline? There are hints that guests can somehow identify the hosts, but it's not yet quite clear how.

Still, the show seems extremely thoughtful about what it's doing — and in showing us the Dolores Wakes Up scene as many times as it does, it invites us to spot what seems like her slow awakening. It's an extremely subtle transition, but here she is at the beginning, unburdened by disturbing thoughts about her reality:


And here she is waking up at the end:


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Lili Loofbourow

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at She's also a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books and an editor for Beyond Criticism, a Bloomsbury Academic series dedicated to formally experimental criticism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues including The Guardian, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.