How 'Westworld' Plays with Our Attraction to Trauma Stories

Westworld programs its hosts with traumatic backstories to make them more interesting for guests—and viewers.

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Oct 26 2016, 4:15pm

Photo courtesy of HBO

In the middle of "Dissonance Theory," the Man in Black (Ed Harris) demands answers from Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), one of Westworld's feared killers; she has a full-body snake tattoo, and he wants its secret. She tells him the story of Wyatt, the man who slaughtered her hometown and forced her to play dead in her mother's blood in order to survive. Revenge has been the backbone of her life since.

But we've seen Armistice before, and this wasn't her story then. Wyatt's new, a backstory plugged into the narrative by the park's director Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who loaded her up with the trauma because it gave her something to do. She suffered so greatly because it might make her more interesting to the guests.

As Westworld barrels through its first season, its underlying concern isn't the inevitable android revolt against the technicians and guests at the world's dustiest theme park. It's aiming to crack nothing less than its own narrative. The biggest catalyst for change—the trauma of the hosts finally boiling over—examines how story works on us, its audience. It deliberately frames its plot as a living thing that makes us quietly complicit in its creation. Then it asks what our comfort with trauma stories says about us.

The good news is, we don't have to wade through a lot of A.I. ethics first; this isn't a show that spends sympathy on the back-office folks. The only moment we sympathize with operations leader Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is when she finds herself pinned by Ford's sociopathy—the moment she feels as malleable, and disposable, as a host. Instead, this show is concerned with using the meta of its own setup to play with the level of remove that goes into a story. The series's first big twist was the reveal that roguish Teddy (James Marsden), coming back to town to see his erstwhile love Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), isn't a guest, but a host. And it's disturbing—not because we're rooting for Teddy to save Dolores from the murderous Man in Black; her story's too circular for saving her to mean much—but because of all the time they've spent alone, performing for no one but each other, killing time until Dolores's trauma starts.

There are always particular dangers in turning women's trauma into shock-value plot points, and there's no denying the women of Westworld suffer deeply. The trick is that Westworld recognizes the implications of its choices and makes sure we don't understand enough to tune out the trauma. With the exception of Teddy, male hosts so far tend to taste death only once. Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton) suffer again and again, and with every reset, we lose our surety by degrees: about their sanity, about the dangers they're in, about the passage of time—about the choices made in the storytelling process.

For Dolores, the cycle is effectively a single day unless someone intervenes; now that someone has, she's beginning to see the cracks in the world around her. Maeve, a major attraction in the center of town, is on a more accommodating clock, though she's still been murdered enough that she has a sheaf of fever-dream drawings of maintenance agents. In fits and starts, she's remembering something even earlier. It's the kind of trauma that makes you turn on your captors, and Maeve's been put forward as likely to oblige: She's already woken up violently in the workshop, and in "Dissonance Theory," she held a bloody proof of concept and declared outright that nothing here matters. She knows she's in a narrative, now—she knows someone has repeatedly let these things happen. The implication of these parallel trauma narratives is that Dolores will find answers, and Maeve will seek revenge.

But Westworld is less interested in that story than in how such stories are constructed. It reminds us just how many people are involved in any given beat—the narrative overseers who watch an Impressionist hologram of the park, the designers tweaking personality traits to make hosts more palatable, the new attraction on the horizon, return guests who follow storylines like they're themed lines at a rollercoaster. Given these tools, we understand Armistice as a sleeper agent: Her trauma could either be exposition for the Man in Black, or the thing that wakes her. And since we know more than the office does, by setting us up to sympathize with the hosts, the show makes us acknowledge how we usually read trauma in a story, and the degree to which we accept it. We understand that what's happening to Dolores and Maeve is wrong. And with Armistice, we feel how unsettling it is to insert trauma in retrospect. Out of long experience with such stories, we recognize these traumas as their narrative engine. Westworld asks us to examine our role in accepting that; it makes us the guests. Here, it plays with how an audience engages a story—what works best, what we seek out, and what gets fed to us because it's familiar.

We watch Dolores's small-stakes tragedy play out again and again, knowing it isn't even performance for the crowd—it's just the familiar West swallowing its heroes.

It's fitting that the set piece for all this is the American West, an inherently fraught archetype. In Westworld, the heart of the West is Dolores; the show lingers on her one-day loop outside the tourist traps, under the endless sky that manages to feel like it's caging them. We watch Dolores's small-stakes tragedy play out again and again, knowing it isn't even performance for the crowd—it's just the familiar West swallowing its heroes. It reminds us of the story being told, and the choices from others that brought Dolores to this point. It reminds us of the care taken to construct the hosts' trauma, because it means more to kill them when they think they have something to lose. We're rooting for the hosts when the revolution comes, because it's the only story they can make for themselves.

Follow Genevieve Valentine on Twitter.

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