Movies & TV

Trapped in a Dream: The Escapism and Spectacle of Westworld

In Westworld, you can live your Wild West fantasies with little to no consequence, and for a cable subscription, you get to sit back and relax as humans and robots search for hope and purpose.
IMAGE HBO
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From the start, Westworld has been marketed by HBO as "the next Game of Thrones,” another Sunday night prestige drama of epic proportions with an omnibus cast. These shows, along with The Walking Dead, take place in fantasy worlds or dystopian (or utopian, depending on your perspective) futures, providing peak escapism for the audience, but still keeping them grounded by rooting the fantasy in common and relatable content: romance, violence, mystery, redemption, et cetera.

The difference with Westworld is that it's more aware of its role in event television than its peers. Westworld, both the show and the park, epitomizes escapism and spectacle. For what’s probably an exorbitant amount, you can live out your Wild West fantasies with little to no consequence. And for a cable subscription, you get to sit back and relax as humans and robots search for hope and purpose.

The very first scene of episode one, "The Original," opens with the question, "Do you know where you are?"

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Dolores, the park's oldest host, replies, "I'm in a dream."

It's a clue to how the audience and even park guests should perceive Westworld.


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The difference with Westworld is that it's more aware of its role in event television than its peers. Westworld, both the show and the park, epitomizes escapism and spectacle. 

"Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't," to quote Bernard/Arnold, as he reads a passage from Alice in Wonderland (another story of a blonde, blue clad-heroine lost in a strange world).

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The multiple timelines are introduced without any sepia tones or swirling transition effects. Like the park hosts, the seamless shift from past to present makes it impossible to tell when things actually happened, much like Maeve's and Dolores' (and later on Bernard's) respective breakdowns as they get caught up in memories of their previous storylines or builds.

But in dreams and in television, we seek escape from reality, so our subconscious and TV showrunners create vivid and imaginative spectacles in which we lose ourselves.

Game of Thrones has been facing growing criticism for pointless violence and sexual assault and Westworld seems to be a taking a few jabs at their HBO sibling.

In episode two, "Chestnut," park director Robert Ford says, “The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details.”

"Cheap thrills" and "parlor tricks" are not enough, he continues, addressing the park's narrative head, Lee Sizemore.

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Sizemore, much like Game of Thrones' showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, continuously get flak for seemingly preferring mind-bending plot twists and huge-scale battles over nuanced storytelling.

It's no surprise Sizemore takes great pride in a storyline involving Hector Escaton's gang raiding the town of Sweetwater, the most theatrical, borderline ridiculous, scene of the second episode, which is complete with slow-mo and dramatic music. What should have ended with a thrilling monologue from Hector is comically cut short when a guest shoots him dead.

The whole thing went off-script. Better than witnessing an intense heist scene is when the actors or characters improvise. Who knows what could happen next?

Ultimately, the audience wishes for Dolores and the other hosts to go off-script and achieve consciousness, forming an exciting sense of unpredictability in the storyline.

The season, more or less, concludes in that manner. Dolores finally "awakens” and goes on another shooting spree, only this time, no voice command (except her own) is required.

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Even more nihilistic is the fact this show makes the audience aware of how complicit we are in violence and depravity in film and television. 

The finale's title is "The Bicameral Mind," which is an actual hypothesis in psychology by Julian Jaynes, arguing that “the human mind once assumed a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be ‘speaking,’ and a second part which listens and obeys—a bicameral mind.”

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Jaynes goes on to say, "Until roughly the times written about in Homer's Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external 'gods'—commands which were recorded in ancient myths, legends, and historical accounts. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which "sang" the poems: the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry."

It's disturbing to think our ancestors could have been like Westworld park hosts, but even more when you consider this: our role as part of the Westworld audience feels like a response made with a bicameral mind.

The showrunners provide us cues on how to process the plot and characters, but we also go through a maze of our own, searching for what is "real" as we theorize multiple timelines and symbolisms in the series. Finally, the showrunners affirm us with the season finale. As the robots realize their capabilities, we also realize the endless possibilities of the park and of the show.

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The difference is that we got to do it from the comfort of our couches, while the park hosts, who, according to Ford, have to endure decades of suffering for things to click in place. It's an incredibly cynical and nihilistic thought from the likes of Jonathan Nolan, who has "love" at the core of films like Interstellar and The Prestige (a must-watch if you want his meta commentary on filmmaking as stage magic).

Even more nihilistic is the fact this show makes the audience aware of how complicit we are in violence and depravity in film and television. You face little to no consequence watching it all unfold on your screen. The park guests share a similar privilege, knowing the hosts get patched up and safely returned to their loops the next day.

Critic Todd VanDerWerff on Vox.com says it well, "This is a savage satire of the very idea of meaningful television. If you primarily read this through a political lens, well, the plight of oppressed people being turned into entertainment offers plenty of food for thought."

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But underneath the repetitive monologues, epic battles, and jaw-dropping twists of Westworld, lies an awareness—a consciousness of prestige and event television.


But underneath the repetitive monologues, epic battles, and jaw-dropping twists of Westworld, lies an awareness—a consciousness of prestige and event television.

We get to indulge in every imaginable fancy through dreams and fiction with the assurance we get to return to "reality" when we choose to do so. And this is how William a.k.a the 'Man in Black' serves as a warning for those getting too engrossed in one's fantasies. He’s happily trapped himself in the park for what appears to be a long time.

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In the season finale, he tells Dolores, "Remember, you're the the one who said this is the only world that matters and you were right. So I took your advice and I bought this world."

"All of this is a lie," he continues. "But we can make it true, don't you want that, Dolores? One true thing?"

In Westworld—as in Memento and The Prestige—Nolan underscores the importance of storytelling and the different roles the storytellers and the audience play. He compels us to wonder what is real and what is not.

But as park host Angela asks then newcomer William, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

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About The Author
Anna L. Golez
Anna L. Golez is a Bacolod-based writer who consumes far too much pop culture. You can find her yelling about it on Twitter.
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