America Meets Its Darkness: A Look at HBO's Westworld
Maryann Price singing "I'm an Old Cowhand" with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. She knows all the songs that the cowboys know, 'bout the big corral where the dogies go, 'cause she learned them all on the radio, yippee-i-o-ki-ay. There are fake cowboy visitors in HBO's new series Westworld too, but they're not so nice.
by Gaius Publius
I'm a fan of science fiction, especially when it reflects and comments on the state of our national affairs — and our national affairs are definitely in a state. Which brings me to the new HBO series Westworld.
Westworld is derivative in some ways. It takes off from a pleasant mid-1970s film entertainment by Michael Crichton and starring Yul Brynner, also called Westworld, in which an android-populated theme park goes chaotic and androids starts killing the visitors. But this new version adds in much of the violence and dark tone from HBO's excellent, realistic Western drama Deadwood, plus a lot more brutal sexuality than the earlier film, similar to that in Game of Thrones and other recent productions.
Yes, the visitors to the original Westworld theme park could "encounter" the saloon girls at will, all of whom would be willing, and shoot up the android locals, but that part was downplayed in the film. As Rick Perlstein amply documents in Nixonland, America of the 1970s was starting to come to grips with its darker self, with the world of the My Lai massacre and police brutality, of brutal sexism and incentivized social conformity, and it dealt with that encounter by trying to turn away, by trying to re-enter the world of American myth that Ronald Reagan ultimately shepherded us to.
Just one example: The 1968 My Lai massacre was prosecuted, sort of, but what was done, there and elsewhere, was never absorbed, understood or metabolized as a wider problem within the American psyche — particularly the male American psyche, since the soldiers involved in all these massacres were indeed male. So the pushback, the effort to start the forgetting, began. As early as 1970 mainstream propagandists were working to blunt Vietnam era awarenesses and counter-cultural challenges with, for example, "folk" groups like entirely anodyne New Christy Minstrels, who were introduced at Super Bowl IV as "young Americans who demonstrate — with guitars."
Bottom line, in the 1970s the country was in the process of trying to sanitize itself, and there was an ongoing public "discussion," both explicit in public conversation and implicit in the media and public entertainment. The original Westwood was part of that effort, if unconsciously. As I said, a pleasant entertainment, and in fact a watchable film.
America Meets Its Darkness
America today is a much different place. The Reagan Revolution is over — Reagan, the agent who engineered our re-entry into American counter-factual myth — and the brutal facts of our darker nature are now coming home to stay, in the form of murderous counter-strikes from abroad and at home, and an economically induced opioid-and-suicide crisis that won't cease until our rulers cease the economic pressure that drives it.
Which they will never do. And which everyone knows they will never do, everyone at least who watched the determined effort to destroy the Sanders campaign by anyone with a stake in the status quo. Trump voters, those not driven mad by demons of race, have parallel fears.
In short, America is having dark dreams about itself, and those dreams are beginning to be represented even in mainstream entertainment, like the new Westworld.
Here's what Rolling Stone critic Rob Scheffield says about this series:
What 'Westworld' Says About America Right NowIn this Westworld, the androids who permanently inhabit the park are not the villains, but the victims of "rich assholes who want to play cowboy" — victims of wealthy visitors who see others in the world as toys for their entertainment (sound familiar?). And now those toys, previously unaware of their own low status in a world they thought was theirs, are starting to wake up.
HBO's big-budget reboot of the Seventies sci-fi movie is really about masculinity – and Rob Sheffield thinks it could not be more timely
In a better time for this country, Westworld would feel a lot more like science fiction. Instead, this HBO show is a bloody, pulpy, breast-intensive satire of the American male psychosis at its most demented. It's set in a futuristic theme park where guests pay thousands of dollars a day to live out their Wild West fantasies, which mostly involve shooting or torturing the robot "hosts" who populate the park. Saloons, whorehouses, six-shooters and Stetsons: all an excuse for the clientele to act on their most depraved urges. One of the human masterminds behind the park sums up the guests as "rich assholes who want to play cowboy." The robots bleed real-looking blood – buckets of it, in fact – but it's all fun and games as long as they don't really feel or remember anything, right? Like the replicant hunters in Blade Runner would say, they're just skin jobs.
Except what happens if these hosts develop their own consciousness – androids who dream of electric tumbleweeds?
How's that for a concept that perfectly captures the times?
More from Scheffield:
Evan Rachel Wood, by the way, is easily the best thing about Westworld – she's the spark of raw humanity who makes it all compelling. Her Dolores is a doe-eyed rancher's daughter who exists to be either rescued or abused, depending on the whims of the paying costumer. And since it's usually abused, she lives out the same loop over and over again, a loop that ends as her blood gets wiped away and her memory gets reset. But before the technicians send her back to work on the bunny ranch, they test her with one query: "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" As long as she keeps saying no, she qualifies as a good little robot sexpot. Except she's unmistakably showing signs of logging memories and figuring out what's going on, which means she's showing signs of becoming disturbingly human.And something else, something that Scheffield isn't saying, is that Wood's character is learning to lie to the technicians about what she knows — a detail that gives the series an added dramatic punch.
You'll need to be clear about the premise before you begin to watch, though; the pilot is confusing. I think the film-makers were counting on the grit and gore to keep you tuning in until the tragedy of that world becomes clear. It's not immediately obvious, for example, who's not an android and who is, and I almost stopped watching. But if you're forearmed with enough information, you won't make that mistake.
"Minds destroyed by madness"
This isn't so much a movie review as a nation review. Like Allen Ginsberg, we are watching, not just the best minds of this generation, but also the worst "destroyed by madness," trapped in a world they can neither tolerate nor change. The Sanders-side electoral rebellion has failed, for whatever reason, and the Trump-side uprising, fueled by the radical mix of forces that drove that rage, will likely be snuffed there as well.
Where do the American people go from here? Do they endure till they die in the hole they live in, dreaming of "freedom" via thirty-second offroad truck commercials? Or do they do something else? What will Evan Rachel Wood do after the third or fourth brutal rape, somewhere in midseason, when she realizes she doesn't have to execute her programming and can execute ... something else? Will her reaction be sanctioned by law, or by the keepers of the world she can't escape? The dramatic possibilities, in the series at least, are endless and exciting.
I don't expect to say the same for the larger Westworld that created the smaller one, certainly not with the word "exciting" attached.
"But I saw you and you saw me, mostly"
Let's end, however, on a cheerier note, with the scat-singing of the above-mentioned Maryann Price, performing a song I call "But I Saw You and You Saw Me, Mostly," but which Dan Hicks called "Shorty Falls in Love" or here, "Another Night."
Ignore the odd laughter and applause — it's a rehearsal for the Flip Wilson comedy show on what may be a crowded practice set.
We sped around the world
To see what we could see,
But I saw you and you saw me mostly
To see what we could see,
But I saw you and you saw me mostly
Eyes for each other and not for the world. Maybe there's a lesson there.