Westworld, HBO’s $100 million sci-fi Western extravaganza, is being billed as the heir to Game of Thrones, and judging by last night’s premiere, the show certainly gives Westeros a run for its money when it comes to titillating viewers with explicit sex and violence. In the first episode alone, Evan Rachel Wood’s character is violently dragged offscreen (presumably to be sexually assaulted, although we don’t see it happen), while we watch a bunch of others die in a bloody shoot-out.
Yet in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wood cautions viewers to not to jump to conclusions too soon.
“It’s absolutely very rough. I don’t like gratuitous violence against women at all, but I would wait for the context in which it’s being used. As the show progresses, the way it’s being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head. The roles for the women on this show are going to be very revolutionary. It’s very gender-neutral. I would ask, as somebody who is an advocate against any kind of abuse or violence and is outspoken about it, to give it a chance and wait to see where it’s going. I think it will surprise people.”
I have seen the first four episodes, and while I don’t want to give too much away, I agree with Wood that things are more complicated than they seem. Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi novel, is set in a futuristic amusement park full of “hosts” (lifelike robots, like the one Wood portrays) who are used as playthings by “guests” (essentially tourists on vacation) who want consequence-free violence or gratuitous sex. The park is, in many ways, an outlet for its guests’ darkest human impulses, and our identification with its human players becomes increasingly troubling once we realize that the hosts are more conscious than they had initially seemed.
Beyond the world of the park, we also have the Westworld staff (led by Anthony Hopkins’s park creator Dr. Robert Ford), who are responsible for building the hosts and programming them with backstories. As Matt Zoller Seitz suggests, the way the park overseers mobilize the hosts as puppets in pre-scripted narratives feels a lot like writers deploying characters on a TV show. Those meta elements become increasingly prominent over the first four episodes, and the show forces us to ask complicated questions about our role as spectators and what it means to relish in the show’s baser instincts. Westworld may be provocative, but it’s also smart: Wood rightly suggests we give the show a chance to peel back its layers.