This is a piece I wrote awhile back but never posted. I’d planned to use it to help fill the quiet on the blog as I was writing my book (yay!) but, well, I just kinda forgot. What can I say? Life was busy. But with Westworld Season Four arriving this weekend, I figured it was the perfect time to share it! Enjoy!
This last HBO show I became completely obsessed with was Westworld. As I started it just months after I watched (and raved incessantly about) The Leftovers, my brother was worried I’d fall into the “HBO Cult” and become one of those people who ONLY talks about HBO shows. Granted, this fear was more prevalent and the reality more pervasive in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s before the rise of streaming services changed our experience of TV. But David’s fear/warning was valid all the same and I agree; “those HBO people” can be SO ANNOYING. Thankfully, while I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about Westworld, HBO never fully consumed me. There are still plenty of things I like to think and talk about. So, let’s think and talk about HBO’s Westworld, shall we?
Based on a 1973 film of the same name written and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld is a three season show (with the fourth arriving soon) which looks at an Old-West themed amusement park called Westworld. Guests pick their “Old West” apparel, sling their guns across their hips, and venture out into the “frontier.” There are saloons and cattle runs and wide open plains and gun fights and bounty hunting and brothels and basically anything you want to do. In the park, guests interact with advanced A.I.-run robots called “hosts” who populate Westworld. The hosts exist on “loops” – or narratives they act out each day, with the ability to improvise built into their identity so they can interact freely with guests, following the guests’ lead and/or taking the guests on various adventures.
The show is thoughtful and challenging. It’s one of those shows you keep thinking about after you finish each episode. At its core, it’s this brilliant commentary on what it means to be human. The end of the second season and much of the third really dives into the question of the nature and existence of free will, too. As I finished the first episode I thought, “This is kinda like someone watched Ex Machina and Jurassic Park and wondered, ‘What if they had a baby…?’ and then made this show.” Given Crichton’s involvement (which I caught in the credits of a later episode), the similarity was more organic than I knew! The show came recommended to me by Lauren, one of my closest friends and someone who’s been responsible for such strong recommendations as Penny Dreadful, The Leftovers, Fleabag, and Outlander (the novels, I won’t watch the show) over the years.
When I told Lauren I was thinking of finally starting Westworld she told me, “I think you’d like it. It’s deep and has a lot to say about humanity, but it’s also violent and terrible at times. Like most HBO shows it really dips into the hedonistic, nihilistic side of humanity and although there are brilliant female leads, they are sometimes given the HBO treatment – turning women crazy or sacrificing them to tell the white man’s story. It’s beautifully made, though. There are many twists and turns and the second season in particular has two extremely moving episodes.” I would agree with her assessment. On the female leads note, I love Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) is one of the most engaging, dynamic characters I’ve ever met! I’d also add it is perhaps the best use of nonlinear storytelling I’ve ever seen. It’s just magnificent. There is SO MUCH to think about, deconstruct, and discuss with this show. But I’m going to leave the majority of those questions to the side for now. I’ve only watched the series through once and, while I can’t stop talking about it, I’m not quite ready to dive into a written analysis of its theology or philosophy or ethics. There’s only one thing I really want to talk about right now and it’s the very first issue the show led me to ponder. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw the first episode.
Would I go to Westworld if it were real? While we’re on the subject, would you?
I truly love my brother David the most of all. He is so cool! I hope one day to be as cool as he is.
[This ^^ is what happens when you write around your family and leave your computer open and unattended on the table. I’ve decided to leave it in as a memory. And, to be fair, David is pretty cool. Back to the subject at hand…]
In the show, the park’s theme/tagline is “Westworld – Live Without Limits.” Guests see it all over upon their arrival. I’m sure it’s all over their marketing campaigns in the “real world,” too. Once in the park, you can do whatever you want. You can enjoy a quiet vacation on the sprawling hills out on the prairie, riding your horse and chatting with locals. You can hunt big time outlaws like “Slim” Miller or the enigmatic Wyatt whose actions rightly earn him the name “the Deathbringer.” You can drink what you want, eat what you want, go where you want, talk to whomever you like, have sex with whomever you like and, if it’s your thing, kill and mutilate whomever you like however you like, too. The hosts are programmed to fight back, to respond as they would in “real life,” but they can’t really hurt you. So, I could kill a host’s family, drag them by their hair to a barn, brutally rape them, and then cut them open and leave them to slowly bleed out and die. Then, the Westworld staff will collect the host, repair it, and put it back in its assigned loop in its assigned narrative the next day. I should note the horribly dark example I just described isn’t indicative of my own inner bloodlust (we’ll explore that in a few moments). Rather, I’m outlining a scenario we experience as part of the opening sequence of the first episode of the first season for an example.
As this is an HBO show, the majority of the guests at Westworld (or at least the majority of the guests the viewer sees at Westworld) go on wild killing-and-fucking sprees. There’s that hedonistic nihilism Lauren was talking about. Like there is just so much killing and fucking (I use “fucking” intentionally as there is no “making love” happening in Westworld). The show certainly advocates a dark view of human nature. Again and again the show says Westworld allows its guests to live without consequences. In Westworld, you can do whatever you want with no ramifications. The thesis Westworld seemingly puts forward then is, if the majority of humanity were turned loose without rules and restrictions, we’d become murderous, lustful, rage-filled creatures, killing and fucking with abandon.
Thinking about Westworld as a show is fascinating. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and discussing the show’s messages about humanity and the way the plot plays out. But thinking about Westworld as a real vacation destination makes me reflexively shudder. Don’t get me wrong, I can totally pull off the cowboy aesthetic and would look damn sexy and totally badass in a long duster coat, boots, and hat. But even so, I just don’t think it would be a healthy move for me.
First, as I’ve written before, through therapy I’ve learned how central my empath part is in my internal system. Often, my empath part is very highly blended. For example, in any movie with some “big monster” attacking some city – be it Godzilla or King Kong or Jaws or any kaiju-adjacent creature at all – I always side with the “monster.” It’s just following it’s instincts! We humans treat the environment like shit and then we treat anything that doesn’t fall into our vision of how things should be as a threat. Jaws was just swimming around! We’ve no more right to the water than that shark does. If anything, you could argue the shark has more of a right to the water than we do as a) they live in it full time, b) have been around longer than humans, and c) live in a far more harmonious relationship with nature than humans do. I always get sad when the humans attack “the monster” and I’m always not-so-secretly hoping the humans all get eaten or squashed or both. When the creature gets hurt or dies I always get sad.
On a related note, Kalie and I tried playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time over lockdown. On the very first night, our group descended into “the Sunless Citadel” to begin our adventure. Right out of the gate we had to kill these non-sentient slime wall things. I was frustrated by our group killing all of them. Why didn’t we just kill one or two and then walk through the hole? Why did they all have to die? I was told that wasn’t how D&D works. So the next week, I decided to go all in. I tried to embrace what I was “supposed” to do. We had captured a goblin who wasn’t offering much helpful information on the two lost kids we were trying to find. So I began cutting off his hand and didn’t stop until he told us what we needed to know. What in the holy hell is wrong with me?!?!?!!??!!?!! Seriously, what in the actual fuck?? When I realized he couldn’t live with the wounds we left him with, I made sure to mercy kill him. Then – and I need to underscore this is not exaggerated for comedic effect or anything – I thought about this goblin every single DAY for months. I wondered if he has a goblin partner and little goblin kids who will never see him come home again. I was wracked with guilt for what I did. Was I just “playing the game”? Or was I using that as an excuse to release my own inner, darker nature? And even if this was “how you play,” was it worth it?? And is that even a justification?? Isn’t this just the Banality of Evil??? Oh, I was just doing what I was “supposed to do,” right? Yeah, me and the Nazi war machine…FUCK ME.
This night (and our D&D career) happened about two years ago and I still feel bad when I think about it. In the weeks and months that followed? I was so anxious and I felt sooooo much guilt about it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed D&D (though I’m happy to be one-and-done; I can’t imagine playing again). But I felt sad and bad at least a little every day for months after that night. It made me reconsider who I am and who I want to be and how I’m living my life! For real! I had to develop this elaborate backstory for my D&D character (he’s got three children with two different women but he’s a horrible father and partner; unable to emotionally connect or commit – so he takes whatever jobs he can, killing and robbing whomever he has to, to send money home for the kids he can’t ever have a loving, caring relationship with) to make myself feel at least semi-ok with the killing I had to do in D&D.
And this is me killing an imaginary creature that only exists in my mind. He was just made up by our Dungeon Master! But his death, and my callous role in it, haunted me for months. So I can’t imagine killing a bunch of hosts would be fun (or healthy :8) for me…or even something I could bring myself to do. I can see myself booking daily therapy sessions for weeks once I got back from Westworld.
Also, I think I’d feel bad about what other people were doing with and to the hosts while I was there. It’d be a vacation that, far from being relaxing or exciting or fun, would leave me questioning human nature. And no one wants that on their holiday! I would like to say if Westworld was real, we wouldn’t see people acting as terrible to the hosts in real life as we do in the show. However, a large segment of our population refused to do something as simple as wear a mask when they go outside or socially distance from those they don’t know or stay home unless they had to go out to help fight a global pandemic and protect other people’s lives. Sadly, that wasn’t an isolated incident. We otherize. We legislate with callousness. We make idols of guns. How much empathy can we as a people really have? I’m not saying everyone would become a fucking-and-murder-fueled monster in the live-without-limits life of Westworld. But I think more people would than I’d like to see. And I think that would make me sad and require more therapy sessions to process, too.
Do you know what I honestly imagine myself doing if I went to Westworld? I’ve thought about this a lot. I imagine going to the Mariposa Saloon (and brothel) in Sweetwater, paying Maeve or Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) for a night with one (or several (or all)) of Maeve’s prostitutes…and then just sitting in the room and talking with them. I’d ask them about their lives and their hopes and their dreams. I’d order us a bunch of food and tell them they could eat what they want and just sleep that night. I’d overpay and tip heavily for their time and then just let them rest. For one night they could just be. I’d remind them, no matter how many of the guests treat them, they had worth far beyond their bodies and, even if life is hard now, it won’t always be. I’d apologize for the societal structures that have led to their life in the sex trade (and for a society that treats hosts like this (even if they don’t recognize themselves as hosts)). I also know I couldn’t carry a weapon and I’d spend a lot of time situating myself between people with drawn guns trying to negotiate peaceful settlements over disputes as opposed to letting them kill the host…much to the chagrin of the other guests, I’m sure. Everyone would hate me and I’d kind of hate myself for being there but I’d try and use my time in a way that made me hate myself less.
So no, while the show is brilliant and intriguing and I’m looking forward to Season Four, I don’t think I’d go to Westworld if it was really a thing. I can wear cowboy clothes whenever I want but the park wouldn’t be healthy for me. I think I’d rather go literally anyplace else instead. I’d prefer a vacation where I come back with pictures that make me smile…not pictures that make me sob over the state of my soul and weep as I consider the true nature of humanity. I’d much prefer kitschy souvenirs and/or a new t-shirt to existential angst bordering on hopelessness.
What do you think? If Westworld were a thing, would you go? Or would you be booking alternate vacation options with me? And if you went to Westworld, what would you do? Are you made of sterner cowboy material than I am?
As with my piece on Jane Foster: Valkyrie and how the Avengers are always jerks to the Hulk, the majority of this piece was written at Grandma’s in the summer of 2020, as the family spent our days and nights with Grandma once she was released home to hospice care. So a special thank you goes out to my cousin Jaelyn for her help as a research assistant (re: Googling things for me (as Grandma didn’t have WiFi) when I was too lazy to pull my phone out and Google it myself) and my cousin Jordan and brother David for offering editorial help (re: reading over my shoulder as I typed and questioning certain word choices).
 This piece was originally written in the summer of 2020 when life in lockdown brought more time for TV watching and more incentive for TV experimenting because all there was was time at home. I watched both The Leftovers and Westworld during lockdown.
 Interestingly enough, while I was completely invested in this show as I watched it, it’s not a show I’ve felt drawn to rewatch. If you had asked me when I was in the midst of it, I’d’ve told you I’d watch it again and again and again. However, I think a mix of the emotional heaviness of the narrative and the plot sort of redirecting to a more generic “action show” in Season Three ultimately shaped my desire, or lack thereof, to revisit it.
 Incidentally I did, in fact, stop thinking and talking about Westworld. I hardly think about it at all now unless I’m in a conversation about Westworld or I see something about the upcoming season. If you’re curious as to what I’m watching now, I’m in the midst of the Fourth Doctor’s era on Classic Doctor Who and I am BEYOND IN LOVE with Disney+’s Ms. Marvel.
 I no longer think about this goblin daily. But even now, this poor goblin and his widowed partner and fatherless children cross my mind every few months and every time they do, I mourn him and feel deep regret over my actions. This is 100% true and not my trying to be funny/sarcastic.
4 thoughts on “Would You Go to Westworld If It Were Real? Would I Go to Westworld?”
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Yes. YES! What his life could’ve been… *sigh*
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I’d go to a Westworld where the social experiment was we were all on our best behavior or the park was being used as like a tester for things like how to solve hunger, care for the sick or deescalate from war. Guess that wouldn’t make a good hbo show though. I’d definitely still want Anthony Hopkins in charge though 😁
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Oh yeah, without question – Anthony Hopkins would have to be in charge.
And I am really intrigued at this setup! While it may not make a good HBO show, I still think it would be fascinating to explore on a show or in a novel or something. Or even in real life! Do you have Michael Crichton’s email? You should get it because I think you two need to talk about developing this idea…