This article contains major spoilers for the first episode of Westworld. Content Warning: rape and graphic violence.
If a piece of media exists solely for the viewing pleasure of the audience, can we dictate what that pleasure should be? And what do we morally owe the characters and creations within these narratives if they do not exist in reality? HBO’s latest show, Westworld, poses many questions with no easy answers.
Westworld never attempts to fool its audience into thinking its titular landscape is real. The title sequence of the show establishes a sci-fi future where bodies can be printed and controlled. Westworld is a staged old-West-themed reality populated by characters, known as “hosts.” These hosts are robots made of flesh and blood—their bodies were printed and their minds programmed to take on characters and play out storylines. Tourists, known as “Newcomers,” are actual human beings from reality who pay to spend time in Westworld. When host Teddy Flood (James Marsden) steps off of a train and into Westworld, a Newcomer couple next to him remarks on how accurate it feels—and that it should be for the price they are paying to be there. These tourists can do whatever they want while they are there, such as go on adventures, participate in storylines, and sleep with the carefully programmed prostitutes. Alternatively, tourists can partake in activities that would be absolutely forbidden in reality: theft, murder, rape. There are no consequences in Westworld; hosts cannot harm Newcomers and the hosts exist in a narrative loop. Every morning they reset and live out their designated programs, their routines only ever interrupted by the choices of tourists or outside forces.
What makes Westworld such an intriguing show is not the potential for disaster in the programming of the world (which we see in the first episode), but the moral and ethical implications behind it. In the first act of the show, the Man in Black, a Newcomer played by Ed Harris, murders protagonist Dolores’ family. When she and Teddy arrive, the Man in Black kills Teddy and drags Dolores off to a barn where it is implied he rapes her. She resets the next day, her family alive and unaware of what was done to her, but such a jarring act of violence cannot be forgotten by the viewers of the show.
Later in the episode, the Man in Black kidnaps the casino card dealer, Kissy (played by the late Eddie Rouse) and bleeds him out to the point of death. The dealer is also Native American, which brings up further ethical questions. The futuristic reality in which Westworld is set is established as a future with plenty of diversity and apparent equality of all races, genders, and sexualities—but the Man in Black makes reference to Kissy’s native origins as he tortures and ultimately scalps him. This act, following the harrowing rape of Dolores, indicates that the Man represents not only physical violence, but a deep-seated racism and toxic misogyny that all of society’s “advancements” could not eradicate.
Westworld populates a world with robots and allows humans to interact with them at their own discretion—no rules, no consequences. But what becomes immediately clear within the first episode is that given the freedom to do anything, people fall quickly into moral depravity—a theme we’ve been seeing more and more often since The Purge became a cult hit. Even seemingly innocent Newcomers descend easily into violence: A Newcomer couple disrupts a robbery storyline when the husband shoots the host bandits. He experiences a moment of anxiety, followed by a total giddiness in which he exclaims to his wife that he really shot someone in the neck. She notes delightedly that one of the hosts is still twitching in the throes of death. They prop up the bodies to take pictures with as souvenirs.
This doesn’t seem to be an obvious commentary on how people can easily become desensitized to violence—rather, it seems to suggest that given the opportunity to be violent, people will eagerly take it. The implications of this go beyond the first episode. This tendency towards evil suggests that the real life outside of Westworld, is clearly more problematic than any of its inhabitants care to admit. As viewers, we are also forced to contemplate whether or not the very existence of Westworld is ethical. The hosts are humanoid robots with no apparent thought beyond what is programmed into them, so this is not a Truman Show or Snowpiercer sort of staged world where actual human lives are at stake. However, does that even matter? Is there humanity inherent in the humanoid?
The show works to demonstrate that this is an intricately programmed alternate reality where hosts can be decommissioned, reprogrammed, and recharacterized. Their memories can be overwritten. Their bodies can be healed. Many hosts have lived multiple narratives as a variety of characters without hitch—but this cannot change what we, the audience, have seen. The injustices and inhumanities forced on hosts may be forgotten to them, but not to us as viewers. It’s unlikely that we will ever sympathize with the tourists who perform legally sanctioned acts of evil. But we, as viewers, are hardly better: since our role is purely voyeuristic, this means that we are Newcomers, too.