In Sunday’s premiere episode of Westworld, HBO’s series update of the 1973 Michael Crichton chiller set in a futuristic theme park, Evan Rachel Wood’s spunky, spirited animatron Dolores Abernathy suffers mightily at the hands of Ed Harris’ mysterious Man in Black.
Her fellow female “hosts” in the park, especially those who work at the beer hall, don’t fare much better. Neither do a solid number of male hosts who are the favorite targets for the park’s visitors’ — the robots call them “newcomers” — who are free to behave however they please for a thousand bucks a day. That often entails shootin’ ’em up, tossin’ ’em back and enjoying the favors of as many of the ladies as they please, whether they prefer those ladies to welcome their advances or not. In Westworld, your partially scripted adventures play out however you decide.
Cringing? You’re not alone. Even before the series bowed, TV critics — female ones especially — took the show and the network to task for what they justifiably worried could become yet another example of television’s increasing appetite for unnervingly vivid brutality.
Here’s the rub. Westworld executive producers J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy intended the series to question not only our increasing love affair with technology, but what that technology is doing to our own humanity. And why hyper-realistic violent entertainment — their own show included — is so enticing,. So it really possible — or wise — for them to avoid being as truthful as they can about how utterly savage humans are capable of being toward one another, even if some of the humans aren’t actually human at all? And since we’ve yet to learn the ramifications of the offenders’ behavior, are we being too quick to judge?
“Westworld is an examination of human nature,” Joy told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July. “We explore paternal love, romantic love, the finding of one’s self — but also the basest part of human nature. That includes violence. It includes sexual violence. Violence and sexual violence have, sadly, been a fact of human history since the beginning of human history. There are people who engage in violence, people who are victims of violence, and it continues until this day. So when we were tackling this project about a park in which the premise is you can come there and do whatever you want — whatever desire you have with impunity, without consequence — it was an issue that we had to address.
“Sexual violence — not only for me, but for everybody on our team — is an issue that we take very, very seriously,” she continues. “It’s extraordinarily, extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. So in its portrayal, we really endeavored for it to not be about fetishization of those acts. It is about exploring the crime and establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story — and exploring their stories, hopefully with dignity and depth.”
We asked Nolan, Joy and Wood to expound on those ideas.
CGM: Much of the early discussion about the show revolved around the level of violence, violence toward the female characters especially, though I didn’t see anything I truly felt was gratuitous in the two episodes I screened. I suspect the idea here is that if you’re going to truthfully and unflinchingly address the frailties of human nature and what technology is doing to that, you can’t shield viewers from what the truth looks like? Talk about balancing that element of Westworld‘s storytelling knowing you still needed to make a watchable and entertaining series.
Jonathan Nolan: You’re exactly right. The show is an examination of those darker impulses. It is a question that Hopkins’ character has been dealing with for a long time. He’s built a place in which he hopes people will come and indulge their dark side — but also their light side. It’s not a test. But he’s built an open environment, and I think, as he says in the fourth episode, he’s been disappointed to realize that, for the most part, the balance seems tilted towards the guests wanting to indulge in that violence.
That’s very much the question that the show is asking: If you could go to a place where there are supposedly no consequences, how would you behave and what would that say about you?
It’s very much what the show is about and what the show is asking questions about — why are we the way we are. As the hosts come to consciousness and come to realize how much violence is in our soul, they’ll ask that question themselves: How are human beings capable of so many beautiful things but also capable of so many ugly things? It’s the fabric of the show in a sense. But we wanted to try to engage with that in a way that wasn’t explicit or gratuitous, necessarily, but in an interesting and dramatic and engaging way as possible.
Evan, talk about that scene with Ed in the premiere and the horrors that she and other female hosts endure. What do you personally hope is the bigger lesson from Westworld‘s graphically violent scenes?
Evan Rachel Wood: I think it’s an easy target, and I think — because of other things that have been on television — everyone is assuming a lot of things about the show that just aren’t true. I would ask people to wait for the context and to see why we are exploring those things. There is a very big problem with violence against women and with gun violence — and that’s exactly what we’re exploring on the show. We’re showing the crimes for what they are and it’s very much a comment on all of those things and why we find them entertaining and why they are a problem.
That’s not Westworld‘s fault. That is the world in which we live. If you really have a problem with it, I would spend less time attacking a television show and actually go out and try to make a difference in the world and make real change that way. As a survivor of abuse and as a woman, I would never do a show or anything of that nature if I thought it was for exploitation or to be gratuitous. It was explained to me in detail before we did anything why it was happening and where the show is going.
I think we’re very much going to turn those things on its head. I know what playing this character did for me and I know what she’s going to do for other women, and I think it’s going to be revolutionary. People need to just sit tight. They are absolutely right to be angry about those things, but I do not think that this is the show it needs to be directed at.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9/8CT on HBO. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.