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There's a Good Reason for All the Nudity on 'Westworld'

Unlike 'Game of Thrones,' the popular show’s nudity serves not so much to desensitize nudity, but to desexualize it.

by Ilana Masad
Dec 1 2016, 4:20pm

All photos by John P. Johnson/courtesy of HBO

Warning: Spoilers to episode nine ahead.

On last week's episode of Westworld, the two timelines theory was basically confirmed—the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and William (Jimmi Simpson) are the same guy, just 30 years apart. Neither of them—nor any other human character—has been naked on the show, which is sort of odd, since nudity in HBO shows is nothing new. Maybe this Sunday will reveal some human dong, but I doubt it, so let's assume that episodes one through nine are indicative of how HBO is playing coy with its audience and using nudity in an entirely different way than any other show they've run.

Think pieces galore have already been written about Westworld nakedness, from Kevin Fallon over at the Daily Beast calling the single orgy scene "a waste" to the very legit criticism about the offensive sexualization of host Bart by Kathryn VanArendonk in Vulture. However, both those scenes—the orgy and the unfortunate focus on Bart's large penis, both in episode five—still follow the very, very careful trend of nudity that has been present throughout the show.

If you remember the promos for Westworld, you'll remember how strange they were—based solely on them, I believed the show was going to be horrible. I couldn't see how the creepy glass rooms would manage to tie into the Wild West bravado being played out. In the earliest promo, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was visibly naked, sitting in one of those glass rooms we've come to know so well. When the hosts are naked in Westworld's maintenance areas, they are always inflectionless, doll-like, still—robotic, basically.

Without exception, nudity has been reserved for the hosts, whose humanity (whatever that word means) we're supposed to feel conflicted about more and more as the show continues. Though nudity is not taboo on HBO, it has long been a tool of titillation; here, it's a different kind of tool, one that is used to shock. Seeing a mass of naked people standing perfectly still—the hosts who've been retired—is upsetting. It calls to mind other images we associate with mass nudity that is completely still: photographs of Holocaust victims or the dead, for instance. The context is extremely different here, but that's the point.

We identify with the hosts' bodies, so unflinchingly exhibited, with all their flaws: different-size breasts, lopsided penises, wrinkles and sags. The hosts serve, for the audience, both as a sort of cattle—either being used and maintained or retired to pasture—and as uncomfortably human-like when they exhibit vulnerability or emotion. It seems that Westworld is trying not so much to desensitize nudity, but to desexualize it (the glaring exception being Bart's scene).

The humans in the show are never naked. The most skin we've seen from them has been in the scene from episode six, where a bunch of guests and employees are hanging out near a pool, getting wasted. Second to that are Theresa and Bernard getting sexy, but even then, we only see them in acceptable post-sex-wear, and besides, we can no longer count Bernard in the "human" category.

Putting aside the question of whether hosts are just as human as we are, if not more so, the way the showrunners and directors have chosen to utilize their bodies has been fascinating. Rather than sexualize the hosts, their nudity is made benign, clinical. And as soon as they become more sentient—this is especially noticeable with Maeve (Thandie Newton)—their bodies are seen less and less, as if modesty is reserved for the thinking, or those who can feel shame at nakedness. When Maeve begins to plague her technicians (inexplicably both named after cartoon cats: Felix [Leonardo Nam] and Sylvester [Ptolemy Slocum]), the camera angles begin to favor her face, hide her breasts whenever possible, and show her naked from the back more often. Full-frontal is reserved for when she's trying to avoid suspicion by pretending to be a blank, willing host as she's wheeled down the halls on a gurney. We also haven't seen Dolores naked for a while. In early episodes, we saw her sitting nude several times, but she has also been gaining consciousness (though we don't know which timeline that's happening in, yet).

The park itself is also free of nudity, creating another dichotomy—real world versus park. In the real world, the hosts are naked and inhuman; in the park, they're meant to be entirely believable characters to the guests, and along with that comes (relative) on-screen modesty. One of the early indications of this strategy was the extremely powerful and disturbing rape scene in episode one. The Man in Black pulls Dolores by the scruff of her dress into the barn, and we hear her screaming. We know what's about to happen. We assume he's raping her, and it's horrifying, all the more so because we don't see it, so we can't tell ourselves it isn't real, it's just acting, it's just pretend. We never see Dolores's body used in that way. We only see it in the neutral setting of the glass rooms. Even hosts having consensual sex with one another in the park don't take their clothes off, as proved by Maeve and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) as they bone while being burned alive in episode nine. The one exception here is in the town of Pariah, where the orgy—as scary as the contract was for the extras participating in it—served mostly as a characteristic of the place, which was supposed to be a depraved corner of the world.

One last element to the show's nudity goes back to early-season reviews, back when it was exciting to think about the show as a kind of combination of LARPing and a MMO, with the hosts being NPCs (non-playable characters) and the guests being the gamers (albeit the worst of them). Video games rarely show their NPCs nude. There were controversies surrounding the explicit sex scenes and mini-games available via mods in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and GTA V (which we could compare to a guest going into a room at the brothel), but the fact remains that neither includes full nudity anywhere within the main game itself. And so, too, in Westworld—again, barring the orgy scene—we never see nudity within the park. Outside it, however, the hosts are designable, malleable characters, and they sit in front of their designers when tested and reconfigured, just as a game designer might have a blank slate of a character on her screen that looks more like a nude clay model than the dressed character it will be in-game.

We've been desensitized by the sex and violence in premium-cable shows like Deadwood, Rome, and most notably, Game of Thrones, but Westworld seems to be going against that trend. Instead of glorifying nudity as sexual, it is showing it as a vulnerable, baby-like state of blankness, merely the default setting that all bodies come with.

Follow Ilana Masad on Twitter.

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