The Violence in 'Westworld' Teaches Us Something About Ourselves

The recurring bloodbath in HBO's Wild West A.I. thriller isn't gratuitous.

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Oct 24 2016, 2:24pm

Photo courtesy of HBO

In the first hour of Westworld, HBO's new Wild West A.I. thriller, a woman named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is sexually assaulted; a Native American man, Kissy (Eddie Rouse), gets his throat slit and head scalped; and a would-be bandit's face is blown off at point-blank range. Countless other acts of violence play out across the titular theme park, populated by androids programmed to follow certain story lines and interact with the human "guests," each of whom have paid $40,000 per day to visit the dusty simulation of an American frontier town.

After watching the first episode, one could be forgiven for assuming Westworld is just another in a long line of gory HBO bloodfests. Many critics did, and initial reviews took a dark view of the violence overload, especially of the gendered aspects therein, to the degree that a room of critics asked producers and HBO execs to defend it earlier this summer.

"It's a little bit different than Game of Thrones, where it's human-on-human violence," HBO programming chief Casey Bloys countered. "Is it something we think about? Yeah, I think the criticism is valid... It's not something we're wanting to highlight or trying to highlight, but I think the criticism is 'point taken' on it."

While it's certainly smart for creators to actively engage with this criticism—especially in an era where Hollywood so often misunderstands and exploits sexual violence, it's a mistake to conflate Westworld's violence (in particular its gendered sort) with that of shows like Game of Thrones or True Blood, in which brutality is ubiquitous for its own sake. To trivialize these horrors as mere titillation and not the painfully instructive breadcrumbs they're meant to be is to ignore the show's fundamental purpose: to explore the contours of human morality when unburdened by consequences.

To illustrate the gulf between the two interpretations, consider the social science example of 1971's now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Funded by the US Office of Naval Research and aided by the Palo Alto Police Department, university psychology professor Philip Zimbardo divided 24 middle-class, self-proclaimed nonviolent, mostly white men into two groups and assigned them one of two roles: prisoner or guard. Over the next six days, both groups internalized their roles so totally that they began exhibiting behavior that suggested they'd forgotten it was an experiment in the first place. The prisoners started asking for "parole," offering to forgo their participation stipend, despite the fact that as participants they were also allowed to quit at any point (and still get paid); the guards, meanwhile, quickly began psychologically abusing and humiliating their charges. Many volunteered to work extra hours without pay.

Though the Stanford Prison Experiment was meant to explore the power of authority and social roles over individual identity, in the context of Westworld, it speaks to what people will do when given permission, even encouraged, to be cruel. (This isn't a perfect analogy, considering the prisoners in Westworld actually are prisoners—and, as far as the guests believe, aren't real.) Typically nonviolent people—people like smarmy dirtbag guest Logan (Ben Barnes) or his mild-mannered brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson)—can be convinced to do awful things if they believe conditions require it of them. Comparing the bloodiness of Westworld to that of Game of Thrones, in essence, is like holding the intent behind the Stanford Prison Experiment—admittedly an ethically questionable project—up against the intent of the soldiers who committed atrocities at Abu Ghraib. The 1971 experiment involved incredibly unpleasant behavior, but it was conducted methodically (and consensually) to reveal truths (or as close as you can get to a truth with social science) and provoke more questions about human nature. Abu Ghraib was unfettered barbarism doled out for fun. (Put simply: bad idea.)

Let's revisit one of the most protested instances in light of this comparison: In Westworld's pilot, Dolores's sexual assault by the Man in Black (a billionaire veteran guest played by Ed Harris) ultimately becomes a touchstone for Dolores in her "awakening" to self-awareness when, in the third episode, she finds and uses a real gun on her attacker. It should be noted that although the traumatic experience of a sexual assault is heavily implied, it never plays out on the screen (nor does Kissy's scalping), a subtle yet important distinction when compared to the full-frontal atrocities committed by, say, Prince Joffrey.

Moreover, as we soon discover, raping and murdering the "stalwart gunslinger's girl" is an actual story line programmed by the park's architects for guests to act out, if they're into that sort of thing. In fact, nearly all of the violence being acted out in Westworld (save the Man in Black's businesslike brutality with Kissy, the specific purpose of which, it seems, will eventually be revealed) is quite literally programmed, because it's what the park guests come for—which, if anything, is biting, extremely meta commentary on screenwritten gratuitous violence itself, as well as our appetite for it as viewers. Assuming Westworld exists in the future, the gendered violence guests act out tells us that rape culture also persists into that future, that these are still fantasies deemed acceptable, even if only in virtual reality scenarios. (In a way, Westworld is nothing more than Grand Theft Auto VR: Sweetwater .) The common bloodthirst of guests is contrasted with what is perhaps the most disturbing violence of all: the cold, unfeeling indifference with which Westworld employees regard their artificial charges, despite the fact that they look, feel, and act almost identically to human beings. Choosing to be cruel, Westworld tells us, mutilates our own souls whether or not the receiving party is programmed to feel it.

Choosing to be cruel, Westworld tells us, mutilates our own souls whether or not the receiving party is programmed to feel it.

It bears repeating that watching Westworld isn't the same as visiting Westworld—except that, in a way, it kind of is. Like these fictional billionaires paying tens of thousands of dollars to indiscriminately rape and murder women for kicks, every horrific scene we choose to watch (or imagine) adds another contour to our own identities.

"Westworld is an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature—paternal love, romantic love, finding oneself—but also the basest parts of human nature—violence and sexual violence," showrunner Lisa Joy told that same room of critics this summer, confirming that every moment of atrocity was "heavily discussed and considered." "Violence and sexual violence have been a fact of human history since the beginning. There's something about us—thankfully not the majority of us—but there are people who have engaged in violence and who are victims of violence."

Ultimately, we are supposed to feel morally compromised watching rich people inflict these horrors upon enslaved androids day in and day out—that is, if we (not unlike William) consider ourselves decent human beings. We ask ourselves whether we would do the same, whether we would find fun in it, whether we have it in ourselves to be the prison guards. The answer, of course, is yes.

Follow Devon Maloney on Twitter.

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