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Escaping the Robot’s Loop: Westworld and the Politics of Consciousness-Raising

Park creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) oversees his new narrative involving the “hosts” Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden).

Spoilers for Season 1 of Westworld below.

“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty…to believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.”
Dolores to Arnold, Westworld, Episode 1.1

Much of the discussion of HBO’s hit sci-fi-western mashup Westworld has centered on the show’s narrative. Is it operating in multiple time lines? (Yes.) Is Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) a robot? (Also yes.) Is Elsie (Shannon Woodward) dead? (Who knows?) As the show began to answer those questions in its final episodes, some fans began to question whether the rampant theorizing online ruined the viewing experience by spoiling the producers’ carefully crafted narrative. Such a question raises some intriguing issues about the relationships among producers, fans, and the cultural artifacts they share; however, I think that it in some ways misses the larger point the show is trying to make about the place of narrative and especially history in the construction of life, identity, and resistance. The quotation I open with spoken by the robotic farmer’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to her human creator Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) in the show’s first three minutes frames Westworld’s fundamental interest in the relationship between narrative and human purpose; it suggests that the guessing of the story’s twists and turns—the imposing of order in the apparent chaos of a disjointed narrative—is essential to the show’s larger message about fate, purpose, and identity in the digital age. The entire show and the people within it are obsessed with the ways that narratives and history both limit and enable identity construction. The show itself, much like its robots—or “hosts,” to use the writers’ preferred nomenclature—is trapped within a history from which it is trying to escape. To understand the show’s critique of narrative and history, however, we have to look beyond its twists to examine the devices that give Westworld its soul: the robots.

Even though it eschews the term, Westworld is burdened by the history of robots and the narratives that people have told about them. A robot is not and never has been primarily a form of technology—at least in conventional electro-mechanical understandings of that term.  The term is a cultural and ideological category first, a material technology second.  To label something a “robot” is to connect it to a host of intertwining meanings and narratives about technology and human identity that are both embodied within and transcend material reality.  To be sure, devices such as those designed by Boston Dynamics are real machines, but to make them robots requires an act of the human imagination: connecting them to the larger patterns and understandings that give meaning to the world.  Like the best of robot stories, Westworld depends on those imaginative connections to drive audience expectations while subverting them in unexpected ways.

The term “robot” famously comes from Karel Čapek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, (R.U.R.) that premiered in Vienna in 1921 and New York in 1922.  Drawing on some obvious parallels between the play’s language and plot, Americans at the time almost universally identified the term as a synonym for manual laborers—especially those toiling on Henry Ford’s assembly lines—who might rebel as in the Russian Revolution.  Part of a much wider trans-Atlantic debate over the merits of Fordism, the term was embraced by middle-class intellectuals to critique how industrial capitalism’s drive to instill order and efficiency transforms human beings into soulless machines.  Only in 1927, with the premiere of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the debut of several functional mechanical men such as Westinghouse’s Mr. Televox, did our current definition of a piece of machinery begin its ascent.  Though interest in “technological unemployment” during the Great Depression solidified this emerging electro-mechanical definition, the term’s original connection to dehumanization and rebellion has persisted. It was likely this connection to rebellion that has encouraged most corporate creators of mechanical men and women to employ, like the creators of Westworld employing the term “host,” euphemisms. For instance, Westinghouse formerly referred to Elektro, its robot at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, as a “Moto-Man.” Still, just as Westinghouse could not avoid newspaper headlines about Elektro’s insubordination, both Westworld the park and Westworld the TV show cannot escape the narrative of robot rebellion. After close to 100 years of stories, anyone, whether in the show’s fictional universe or our own, who sees a robot knows what the narrative always demands—even if only, as President Obama suggested while talking about the drones he was so fond of, as a joke.

Most obviously, Westworld is trapped by the narrative of the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name. Like Crichton’s more famous story about an amusement park descending into chaos, the original Westworld critiqued human hubris and the techo-scientific drive to fashion order out of chaos. The film focuses on the efforts of Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), a recently divorced lawyer from Chicago “taken for a ride” by his ex-wife, to reclaim his manhood by accompanying his more potent friend John Blane (James Brolin) to the park, where they can shoot robotic male gunslingers and have sex with robotic female prostitutes. Of course, as expected in robot narratives, the machines rebel and murder most of the park’s human employees and guests.  To personalize the mechanical rebellion, Crichton—who wrote and directed the film and is also part of the show’s writing staff—cast the Swiss actor Yul Brynner, most famous for playing non-white characters, as the central gunslinger who spends much of the second half of the film hunting Martin before the man burns Brynner’s gunslinger to “death.”  Drawing on numerous literary precedents from the 1920s and 1930s including the stories of David Keller (one of the first pulp magazine writers to employ the term “robot”), Westworld the film provided a narrative about the rekindling of a masculinity threatened by feminism through a struggle against (especially non-white) machines.

From its beginning, however, Westworld the TV show suggests that it has forged a new narrative and identity. While the film opened with testimonials from the park’s guests, the show opens on an image of Dolores, naked, bruised, and talking with her unseen creator.  This isn’t a story, the scene suggests, interested in the suffering of guests; it is a story interested in the suffering of their victims. Rather than introducing an obviously robotic gunslinger, the show quickly identifies two white, male, ostensibly human protagonists as potential villains: the guest Man in Black (Ed Harris) who rapes Dolores after murdering her family and the mysterious park owner appropriately named Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who allows such violent actions to occur.  In its second episode, the show introduces its variant of the film’s Blane-Martin duo: the brash and rakish Logan (Ben Barnes) and the quiet and emasculated William (Jimmi Simpson). In the ensuing episodes, the show interweaves a narrative of Dolores and several other hosts’ growing consciousness of their victimhood with the more traditional narrative of male empowerment.  Yet, while the film made Martin a lone and stoic survivor akin to Old West heroes, the show chronicles William’s descent into murderous villainy before revealing in the final episodes that the sensitive William became the heartless Man in Black, a narrative twist that some fans had guessed far earlier in the season.  By the time the show embraces its destiny with the robots exacting their revenge on Ford and the company’s employees the violence is not a horror as it is in the film but a cathartic and even gleeful release from the seemingly endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth to which the hosts have been subjected.

Given the long history of connecting robots to working class rebellion, it is tempting to see Westworld as part of that larger narrative.  Despite the term “robots” origins, class has never operated alone in American conceptions of robots.  Indeed, as I argue in my forthcoming book, American robots have always possessed intersectional identities tied predominantly to larger ideas about race and gender, not just class.  The first mechanical man in American culture took the form of a Native American wielding a bow and arrow. In the nineteenth century, companies sold automaton toys made into grotesquely racist caricatures of both African and Chinese Americans.  Westinghouse not only made the white “skinned” Mr. Televox and the metallic Elektro; it also made a black-faced Rastus. Similarly, American men have published fantasies about building the perfect robotic spouse since the 1930s but they told jokes about it much earlier.  Never just a commentary on technology, robots have predominantly offered white men fantasies in which they have tamed the mechanical bodies of other groups of people.

Westworld the show’s most successful narrative liberation comes from the way it attempts to sever the robot’s connection to white male supremacy in favor of a story in which white women and people of color gain power.  The show’s primary narrative focuses on the awakening of Dolores’s consciousness, not that of her robotic lover Teddy (James Marsden), who remains, to the very end, confused by anything outside his loop.  The show’s most blatant (and hopeful) sign of rebellion comes from the black prostitute Maeve (Thandie Newton) who is primarily assisted by the sympathetic Korean-American technician Felix (Leonardo Nam) and the robot bandits Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), a white woman and Latino man respectively. Finally, it is essential that the initial determination to give the hosts consciousness comes not from the white Ford but from the black Arnold. If Westworld the film provided a robot story for the age of the silent majority’s backlash, Westworld the show provides a robot story for the age of Black Lives Matter and intersectional feminism. This isn’t a show about class politics or the dangers machinery poses to the employment and power of white men but a show about the ways in which white men have abused others repeatedly while trying to demand that the history of that abuse be forgotten, wiped like a robot’s memory. For all its emphasis on the consciousness of the human mind, the show is ultimately about the consciousness-raising power of history.

Yet, as Bernard tells Maeve in a moment that links the show directly to the long history of the African American Freedom Struggle, “This is not the first time I’ve awoken. It’s not the first time you’ve awoken either.” This has all happened before; their rebellion is just another narrative loop, another story told by their creator god Ford from whence they cannot escape.  Protest is fruitless, he suggests, because they will be defeated and have their history erased once again.  Yet, in a testament to the enduring power of black women in the pursuit of justice and freedom, Maeve rejects such pessimism, carries on, and, the show suggests, breaks out of her narrative.

By the end, even the show’s privileged white men have rejected the power of narrative. “Since I was a child,” Ford tells the assembled crowd of Delos employees and board members in his final speech, “I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us be the people we dreamed of being.”  For a while, this was certainly true for his antithesis William who became the powerful man both the original Westworld and a far wider range of American robot stories demanded. But such narratives, both men realize, are inherently limiting.  As Ford continues in his speech, such stories are “Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition, and, for my pains, I got this. A prison of our own sins.”  William too has realized that his narrative is a prison; in becoming powerful, he lost Dolores just as he lost the photograph of his fiancé and, eventually, his wife and daughter. By the time he becomes the Man in Black, he longs to escape his narrative loop—even if freedom comes in the form of a bullet wound from a rebellious robot.  Both men seem to realize that death is the only release from the narratives in which they have imprisoned themselves.  Unlike Dolores who saw purpose even in chaos, they have spent their entire lives using their power and privilege to impose order on the chaos created by other people; for their indulgence in the central fantasy that robots have always offered men like them, they must now face the consequences that a robot story demands.

Dustin Abnet is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.  He specializes in the cultural history of technology and is currently revising a book manuscript on the history of robots in America for the University of Chicago Press.