We look at how HBO’s Westworld acts as an apt allegory for modern-day television
Nine episodes into the first season of Westworld, one thing has become perfectly clear by now – this show is many things. Sparking countless fan theories and internet discussion, it has demonstrated the writers’ excellent understanding of how to create an engaging television series for this day and age. This is not an article about the theories or speculation – the first season is almost over and the puzzle is beginning to assemble itself. Knowing full well that keeping a mystery is incredibly hard to impossible with all social media platforms hollering theories about the show, the creators of Westworld has written the show specifically with the intention of sparking such theories. Having that in mind, we can ask ourselves something else; did the fictional creators of the theme park also design it the same way that a television writer designs a series?
It is an incredibly meta way of thinking about it, but the similarities are all there – Delos create their characters, they give them backstories, they create narratives, and, more often that not, they do not consider their creations to be real people, which allows them to kill them off, reassign them and deal with them in any way they see fit without a shadow of remorse. Just like any television series, the Westworld theme park exists to entertain its audience, a.k.a the visitors. It is designed in a way that’s supposed to give a thrill, to place its visitors in a false sense of jeopardy so that they can come out of it with new experiences and a rush of adrenaline. In a way, it is a more pumped up version of watching television.
So what does it all mean? It could be that one of the things Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are trying to do is show us an allegory for modern television and what it means to write characters and stories. In her brilliant article, Lili Loofbourow speaks of episode 5 and how it showed us the town of Pariah that can easily stand for a setting of a typical HBO show – a town of “outcasts, delinquents, thieves, whores, and murderers”. It is a place that is ripe for presenting exploitative violence and nudity, which the HBO execs know to be a formula for a successful show that would gain high ratings and enforce the HBO brand (looking back on shows like Game of Thrones, Deadwood and others we can see clear patterns of it). That is also what the Delos writers knew when they designed it. “Some of the park feels like it was designed by committee or market-tested,” Logan says to William, referencing network shows that like to play it ‘safe’. “Everything out here is more raw. But it doesn’t come cheap. Rumor is they’re hemorrhaging cash.” According to Loofbourow, that is a reference to the more expensive, ‘gritty’ kind of cable television. In this sense, the show explores and criticises the division in modern television, comparing network and cable and their own respective pros and cons.
The critique of HBO can also be seen in Lee Sizemore, the leader of the narrative department at the park. A smug white man in his mid-30s, Sizemore can easily be seen as one of the many HBO’s writers and showrunners that consider their shows to be the pinnacles of television. Always confident in his writing, deliberately writing storylines that are meant to terrify and shock the guests (see his cannibal storyline), and constantly sporting a sense of superiority over others, Lee comes across as one of those artists that aren’t truly artists. Dr. Robert Ford has a similar opinion of him, thinking him to be unimaginative and dull in his writing. Not to name names, but it is indeed very easy to draw comparisons between Lee and certain two showrunners of a highly popular current HBO show that have used their writing to purposely shock and terrify their audiences multiple times. The critique of such writing comes in the very first episode of the show, where Sizemore’s character Hector is supposed to burst into an epic speech after ravaging the town, but is shot at point blank range before he can even begin. That way Westworld makes its own meta-commentary on television.
Another aspect of television writing the show explores is characters. Teddy Flood is a typical spaghetti gunslinger whose goal as a host is to reunite with his lover Dolores and protect her at any cost. That is his only purpose, and that is how Westworld’s staff wrote him. They did not even bother to give him a backstory – it was enough that the guests knew it was a dark one. It is very much how we get introduced to characters on any television series; we don’t know their backstories straight away, but they are revealed later, as the show goes on.When they finally do, the characters get more depth because then we know the motivations for their actions. In the third episode of Westworld, Dr. Ford decides to give Teddy a backstory – he is now seeking revenge on a man named Wyatt, and that drives him forward. Incidentally, the moment when Ford gives him a backstory is also when we, as the audience, find out about his backstory, which makes us connect with the character more – even though there was no backstory before to begin with. Westworld plays with around with this, and also with us. Because it knows how television works.
Finally, the show makes use of subversion to make commentary about the way characters are written. The host named Dolores was made as a completely archetypal rancher’s daughter, a damsel in distress that just waits for a man (see paragraph above) to rescue her. Her entire existence is based around living in her perfect loop, with no intentions or goals, an existence that only serves to advance the storylines of men around her. That is very much how many women were written on television before (although that has been changing in the recent years). In that sense, Dolores was never meant to feel like a real person – she was built as an archetype, as someone to fit an old mould. However, she soon begins to discover much more about herself than the creators of the park intended to – she gains new dimensions, she becomes someone who still has the personality she was given, but who also has a lot more than that. She is able to stand up for herself. She is able to be independent. She is not a shallow character anymore – Dolores finally becomes a real person, no longer bound to a pointless, predetermined, male-driven loop. And that is how a television character should be written.
Westworld is definitely a lot of things. In the days of modern television, this show stands as a conceptual commentary on what television is, what it isn’t, what it was and what it could be. It is a new brand of TV writing in itself, some kind of meta-television if you want. But the interesting thing is that being all that, it still makes us care for the characters, feel for them, and be invested in their storylines and backstories. It is good not because it’s ‘meta’, but because of the simplest things that have always made good television good. If it didn’t make us feel things, it simply wouldn’t be worth our time.
Image credits: HBO