By Keith Clavin and Christopher La Casse.

As the show develops, we come to learn that some of the hosts are not ‘forgetting’ the traumas inflicted upon them…. Despite a wipe of their memory caches regarding prior ‘narratives’ (earlier roles they played in the park’s performances), they seem to be recalling, and suffering from, the memories of especially intense, repetitive abuses of their physical forms.”

Introduction: Origins, Again

Upon its release in October of 2016, HBO’s Westworld received immediate critical and cultural attention. The show is set in a not-too-distant future theme park wherein “guests” pay high prices ($40,000 per day) for insertion into a simulated “Old West” setting with a complex network of android “hosts” programmed to enact hundreds of overlapping narrative arcs. The result is an equal parts fantastic and grotesque simulation resort named “Westworld.” The big-budget, science fiction remake with an all-star cast seemed to impart just the right mix of flashy technological enhancements and conventional ethos necessary for social media buzz:[1] graphic violence, full-frontal nudity, regular sex scenes, an intimate view of rich, powerful corporatists, and storylines filled with Machiavellian double crossings. These elements form the backbone of a show that often includes explicit discussions of competing philosophical agendas as well as a self-awareness of its structure as one of a series of theoretical “loops” that, as the season progresses, join the “real world” of the corporatists with the virtual one of the hosts with greater frequency and less distinction. Over the course of the first season, audiences witness the implosion of the park, a system built upon technology, story, and a deep cultural desire for the violent exploitation of human-like android bodies.  

Westworld' Recap — Season 1, Episode 7 — [Spoiler] Is Host, [Spoiler] Dies  | TVLine

For all of the sensational scenes that garnered Westworld much of its media attention, the writers did not rely on spectacle alone. A secondary and, we shall argue, complementary, thread within the show’s premise is the relation of violence and sexual exploitation to concerns with narrative and a search for the reconciliation of traumatic experiences. As the show develops, we come to learn that some of the hosts are not “forgetting” the traumas inflicted upon them either by the guests, or the gruesome storylines they are programmed to enact. Despite a wipe of their memory caches regarding prior “narratives” (earlier roles they played in the park’s performances), they seem to be recalling, and suffering from, the memories of especially intense, repetitive abuses of their physical forms. This essay explores the narrative and theoretical stakes of this involuntary, subversive recall, especially as it applies to a female-gendered host: Dolores. She embodies a distinct version of the post-traumatic. Dolores, a farmer’s daughter on the range, undergoes a subjective transformation inspired by a search for answers regarding the memory of a mass murder in the streets of a town in which she previously lived.

We propose that Westworld’s joining of self-conscious discussions about narrative cohesion, when coupled with the ambivalent repercussions of trauma as experienced by these women, raises important questions about the interdependence of generic narrative structures and patriarchal desires for the construction of women as pleasure objects. Our analysis approaches this combination of elements through a lens of trauma studies wherein the emphasis falls upon the post-traumatic. We are less interested in the explicit (and implicit) filmic depictions of violence—an abundant critical field, to be sure—and more with the psychological and narrative aftereffects of the carnage. In short, trauma functions as a necessary and critical component of the entire “Westworld” project (the park and the show). Within the confines of the park as well as the larger meta-production of the corporate control rooms, the complementary narrative “loops” are fastened to one another via trauma, and the conditions of post-trauma shape the changing trajectories of those loops.

The SF context is especially significant for the revaluations of gender politics in conjunction with the history of westerns. The show presents the search for consciousness as a central theme to its structure. The founder of the park, Robert Ford, his assistant Bernard, Dolores, and Maeve, the mistress of a brothel, explicitly discuss the location and development of the psychological phenomenon we generally refer to as “consciousness.”  Narrative identity and self-awareness go hand-in-hand with trauma, or, as Bernard puts it to Ford, “a little trauma can be illuminating.” We argue that trauma becomes a source of political “awakening” (in cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno’s sense of the term) from the repetitive, dull, and clichéd gender politics that have imprisoned the hosts. Instead of succumbing to paralysis from epistemological ruptures, both Dolores asserts a sense of agency in a search to revalue their own narratives. Trauma, which had oppressed and divided them from the other hosts, becomes the unifying bond for a rebellion. Once the structure of trauma is revised, the park’s hosts join together in a revolt against the global capitalists of the park’s financing and governance. The transition from submission to political agency relies upon the interpretation of traumatic narratives by women, and this forms the basis for our enquiry.

The Westerns within the Western

Early scholarship regarding Westworld tends to focus on the “world”-making component of the title and its connotations towards virtual realities, we believe the prefix “west” to be as significant a consideration.[2] Throughout the first season (ten episodes), audiences are invited to revalue “the western” as a generic tradition, especially as it regards women and trauma, within a twenty-first century context. Set within a simulation of “the Old West,” the Westworld park does not so much recreate the actual American frontier of historical record as it does the representations of the frontier that became mythologized through mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies.[3] It is an advanced, stylized version of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal: a simulation that trumps any notion of an original or source. Archetypes like “the farmer’s daughter,” “the gunslinger,” “the lawman,” “the prostitute with a heart of gold,” “the bawdy prostitute,” and many others, appear throughout Westworld impressively detailed costumes with an ability to recite individualized backstories. However, they are not drawn from historical accounts or oral histories. These archetypes are delivered courtesy of central casting from American cinema, which was most popular during the period of the 1920s through the 1940s. The SF western genre provides a flexibility, through its fantastic representational potentials, to explore the intersection of unconscious traumatic memories, narrative agency, and the development of an alternative political consciousness, within a production that can break with presumed norms more readily than a realist mode. In the following pages, we will sketch a background of relevant critical debates about depicting trauma, and then, after discussing narrative function of the two main female characters, we will explore Westworld’s unique contribution to this overlay of recall, gender, and narratology.    

Westworld season 1 episode 2 Chestnut recap | GamesRadar+

The symbolic arrangement of Westworld permits the guests to reenact the role of heroic male protagonist in a standard western film, picking and choosing his way through a hyper-masculinized universe wherein the landscape, storyline, and women are available for his consumption. This is why we claim that all guests at the park theoretically function as men. In spite of the handful of women guests and gunslingers portrayed in the first season, the guests engage in the same behaviors as prototypical western men and are treated as men by the hosts. They are approached and seduced by women prostitutes; partake in the male-driven narrative structure of single, heroic quests; and are free of any repercussions for their actions. Most importantly, they, like all the guests, are free from the burdens and threats of violence and suffering. Those traumas are reserved for the hosts, the androids built and programmed to work in the park and the main entertainment draw for both guests and viewers of the show. 

The western man (and many of his associated principles) traditionally expresses and continues the maintenance of incredibly explicit and ubiquitous archetypes about American masculinity. Suffice it to say, the mythology of the west is alive and well, as evidenced by the ease with which contemporary audiences consume shows and movies like Westworld and the shorthand that remains so sensible; there is a familiarity to the western that continues to resonate. For instance, in episode 2 (“Chestnut”), when William, a central guest, arrives at the park he chooses between a black and a white hat, a choice to play either villain or hero. The simple morality and clear-cut lines between guests and hosts repeat a central feature of the western’s ethical boundaries while maintaining a dedication to a masculine agency derived from rugged frontier individualism. The desire for narrative control can be satiated through a subject position within the park’s narrative loops, but a key component of that power relies upon an avoidance of, or what could be called an insulation from, traumatic experiences.

Masculine privileges mark guest gender. Because of this deeply gendered rift in the show’s logic, we would like to extend the understanding of “the West” to include not only the “the western” genre of films that dominated the American cinemas through the 1950s, but also “the Western tradition” in its philosophical and historical senses as a promoter of certain advantaged ways of being in the world. Women are, within many genres, a key component of the hope for perfect male subjectivity, but westerns standout as an exceptional case with which Westworld places itself into conversation regarding issues of narrative agency and gender. Donna Haraway’s well-known model of the cyborg as a model for a new mythology of gender (contra the West and, by extension, the western) serves as a potent reminder of the potential of SF for allowing a representational field that can experiment with narratives that break conventions in subversive, postmodern ways. As she notes, to “be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force […] out of place, and reducible to sex” (Haraway 304). The hosts are formed with these aims in mind, marking them as feminized regardless of presentation of gender, but this marginalization in respect to human (male) subjectivity opens a space for a formidable technologically-driven challenge to Western logos by blending traumatic experiences with the potentials of radical otherness.  

Westworld participates in this hybridization of gender through an equally mixed application of western genre conventions. The western film provides an obvious cultural framework for characters to embark on searches of their identities, but discovering the truth of their scripted lives comes at a price. When Maeve reminds Bernard that he too is a host and that his existence as an android engineer has been a scripted charade, she remarks, “‘It’s a difficult thing realizing your entire life is some hideous fiction’” (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”). In a shrewd formal move, Westworld designs a setting that includes an assortment of western genres as a metaphor for the blending of known and unknown identities. The park’s town center is Sweetwater, a stereotypical street of western movie storefronts, saloons, and eccentric characters (town drunk, preacher, barkeep, etc.). Guests at “Westworld” are cautioned not to stray too far from Sweetwater. The further one wanders from the town (park’s) center, the more “adult” and extreme the narratives become. But the movement away from Sweetwater brings guests and the audience into encounters with far more ambiguous morality and types of hosts that echo the post-Vietnam western films of directors like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood.

Whereas Sweetwater permits (and promotes) the commercial, Disney-esque theme park experience of western town life in the vein of early John Ford productions filled with bandits, stage coaches, and sheriffs, the outskirts of the park get progressively more morally ambiguous, and villains and heroes are dissolved into a gray neutrality. Violence, sex, trauma, and haunting memories seem to flourish at the farther reaches of the park. Dolores exists on the periphery of Sweetwater—in the liminal space or contact zone between the town and the outlying areas. She is severely traumatized in these liminal spaces that exist further away from the town center: the Abernathy ranch and a separate small town that has since been buried. This tension is at the heart of Dolores’s journey and character development as well as the geography of western film conventions mapped across the narratives and locales of the Westworld universe. The regions outside of Sweetwater reflect a western universe that resembles the anti-hero figures as well as the traumatic history of the American west.

Westworld: Season 4 Review - IGN

In her article on traumas in westerns, Deborah L. Madsen examines how the frontier is a “liminal space” with consequences for characters’ identities. Much like the western’s precursor—captivity narratives—the frontier represents a racial contact zone that permits violence. According to Western historians, the sexual abuse often associated with captivity narratives was part of the violence and rhetoric of “national emergence.” Whiteness as well as American-ness was solidified against the common enemy of the racial other. Madsen adds to this equation the epistemological trauma women captives suffered, suggesting that victims are “removed from the accustomed structures of meaning” (Madsen 199). “So the captive,” Madsen explains, “who is suddenly removed from a familiar world and placed in a world where language and representation operate according to unknown principles, crosses a frontier that is less geographical and racial than it is epistemological” (199-200). Westworld represents Native peoples at several points in the first season, usually in passing, but they occupy an unusual position. Some of the tribes do not seem to be controllable via voice commands, although they are hosts. The repeated phrases to paralyze the hosts are “May you rest in a deep and dreamless slumber” and “Freeze all motor functions” but do not seem to have an effect upon them (These phrases appear throughout the season, but prove especially significant in episodes 5 and 9: “Contrapasso” and “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” respectively.). In a brief scene that proves vital to the season’s narrative arc, Maeve confronts her technocratic captives in the park’s restoration laboratory. She is desperate to distinguish her true memories from mere programming choices. However, this proves nearly impossible. Instead she is left in a state of permanent crisis and unable to break free of the psychological sensations of captivity, regardless of a literal physical imprisonment.

The inescapable, ubiquitous paranoia of captivity is noteworthy for our purposes because it is a theme that permeates every level of the show’s narrative stratification. Paranoia is the ethos for the entire park, and this principle tellingly bleeds into the show’s metanarrative of the Delos corporation that owns and operates the park. While the hosts are suffering through traumas and the guests seem to be immune to such things, the park’s financials are in crisis. The corporate subplot, shot in a techno, film noir style of imagery emphasizes the Machiavellian double crossings and undergirding capitalist thematic of the show. It also highlights the manifestation of a Foucauldian application of power, even in the intellectual, technological model of capitalism. The main corporate operatives are imprisoning the hosts as laborers but are also captive themselves. They serve for months at a time, without freedom to leave the property. Secrets, corporate espionage, murder, and lies fill them with anxieties about surveillance. The “Westworld” endeavor has not only invented a new underclass of hosts, but has also morphed everyone involved in the park’s operation into a prisoner of one sort or another. It demonstrates the deep logic of late-stage capitalism and the (arguably) unavoidable necessity of the revolution to come. The illusion of control prevents the management from realizing their captive positions, but, as will be discussed below, the season’s finale reverses this hegemonic artifice into one that forces a confrontation with the results of a world founded upon captivity.         

Nightmares in High-Definition  

Despite the artificiality both of Westworld’s setting and the western itself, each serves as a conduit for trauma and its reconciliation. It could be said that the American western film is itself a genre defined by the post-traumatic. Often set against a post-Civil War backdrop, on a frontier setting with minimal infrastructure, soldiers and damaged psyches populate the rugged landscapes of many westerns, and typically involve a man’s quest for the reconciliation of a difficult or mysterious past, through the use of violence and guns. (Westworld nods to the common appearance Civil War motifs in westerns in episode 5, “Contrapasso,” with the introduction of the Confederados, a band of former Confederate soldiers that now roam the outskirts of the park as mercenaries.) As reward for his trauma, he is permitted either a hero’s death or an exit from the locations of trauma within which he has been struggling. Structurally, he is granted a narrative conclusion and, oftentimes, a postscript or voiceover before the literal final credits, which signify a parallel conclusion to his trauma and the audience’s cathartic experience. For example, Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood, a very self-aware western from 1992, is bookended with such a postscript. In theory, the guests at “Westworld” are there without origin. Within the language of the hosts, guests are referred to as “the newcomers,” a label that bespeaks their difference and reminds viewers of the hosts’ lack of history (the same guest might visit the park for years but always be a “newcomer” to the memory-erased hosts). For the guests, the park is an escape from the past “reality” of their experiences. Like the male protagonists of the Western film, their sole responsibility to the past is to free themselves of it and find harmony through the performance of violence. It is of note that Dolores is the “oldest” host at the park, the first built and longest operating. She is a manufactured original, a hyperreal simulation, which has been reborn into a new origin on countless occasions.     

In the latter half of season one, an interesting phenomenon reveals itself regarding the relationship between trauma and narrative: the hosts begin to achieve and express greater cognizance of their narrative circumstances within the scripted loops of the park’s storylines. Moreover, they are inspired to this enhanced self-awareness via memories of traumas.  This premise—that Westworld establishes trauma as the bridge to consciousness—brings audiences closer to an appreciation of the ideological interplay amongst post-trauma, narrativization, and gender. Dolores serves as case studies in this dynamic. The hosts are programmed with what is referred to as a cornerstone memory, which is intended to ground their psychological profiles in the reality of the park. When the memory is recalled, it serves as a reminder of their past but the “past” (this memory) is a fiction. It is a narrative device employed by the park to make the hosts seem and behave as “naturally” as possible. As noted above, the idea of suffering and trauma is fundamental to this memory. The cornerstones are designed to be traumatic and frightening to the hosts, and this is what should keep them controllable, productive workers. However, there is another aspect to the cornerstone memory. In a similar self-contradictory model as Derrida’s analysis of the pharmakon, the cornerstone memory functions as the disease to keep the hosts trapped in the park as well as the liberating antidote. As Dolores moves closer to understanding her circumstances, she recollects her cornerstone memories more frequently. The audience is not permitted full knowledge of how the cornerstone memories function until the last few episodes of the season, and witness the traumatic disorientation of Dolores as they too experience a journey towards greater cognitive clarity.  Eventually the hosts (and, by extension, the viewers) realize that the cornerstones were planted in the hosts’ psychologies not as a controlling mechanism but as one that would eventually trigger their motivation to break their narrative loops and leave the park. The season begins with trauma serving as a psychological lock before realizing that it was the key to a new understanding of self and location within the larger system. Over the following episodes, other hosts follow suit and become joined through the very cornerstone memories that had kept them docile.    

Although Westworld is presented through the medium of film, we are interested in examining how the show uses notions of literary trauma theory in connection with a form of political consciousness that emerges out of narrative agency. In recent years, Cathy Caruth’s enormously influential book, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996) has been challenged from numerous angles in and beyond the field of cultural studies in traumatology, but the paradigm she created has largely remained intact, particularly among popular depictions of trauma. At the time she was writing Unclaimed Experience, Caruth drew upon leading figures in the field of psychology to argue that trauma included a period of amnesia and then remembering the “unspeakable” (Pederson 334). Using Judith Harman’s and Bessel van der Kolk’s works as a psychological foundation for her literary theory, Caruth claimed that once trauma was remembered in dreams and flashbacks, the victim experienced a “literal return of the event” (Caruth 5). This literal recurrence is inexpressible. In a Lacanian poststructual sense, ordinary language failed. For years, this claim has led theorists and writers alike to privilege the “transmission” of trauma (typically through experimental forms) rather than trying to “represent” the event (Unclaimed Experience 5).

Recent critics have identified Caruth’s claim as a narrow paradigm for cultural depictions of trauma. Rather than “universalizing trauma,” literary scholars now seek to construct a “pluralistic model [that] accounts for variability of experiences and social contexts that construct meaning and values” (Balaev 7). Post-colonial literary critics, for example, take issue with Caruth’s assertion that trauma takes the form of an overwhelming moment or “punctual” event. Instead, scholars such as Laura Brown and Maria Root coin an alternative notion of everyday “insidious trauma” (Gibbs 16). Other critics have questioned the now dated psychological claims that are foundational to Caruth’s study. Richard McNally’s Remembering Trauma has argued that amnesia is a myth while other critics have pointed out the “inadequate understanding of the conceptual origins of PTSD” (McNally 334). Despite coming under scrutiny from multiple angles, Caruth’s model has had a lasting effect in the cultural realm. Critics have noted that the paradigm is as much prescriptive as descriptive, with fiction writers possibly aware of and replicating the markers of trauma theory as well as the guidelines of PTSD(Gibbs 39). For instance, Alan Gibbs notes the timing of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the 1980 release of DSM-III, which provided guidelines on PTSD.  Westworld appears to be part of this feedback loop in which art reaffirms outdated theories that were premised on older, recently challenged, psychological models. Our interest in this chapter is not to weigh in on this debate, but rather to highlight where the show engages these theories and explore how certain literary and cultural markers of trauma are used to convey the notion of political awakening for the hosts through an engagement with narrative awareness.

The most dominant mode of trauma transmission to readers/viewers has included techniques attributed to postmodernism. According to Laura Vickroy, “effective trauma texts engage readers in a critical process by immersing them in, and yet providing perspective on, the flawed thinking, feeling, and behavior of the traumatized individual” (Vickroy 138). “Fragmented, non-linear chronologies, repetition, shifts in narrating voice, and a resultancy decentered subjectivity” produce a disruptive reading experience that attempts to approximate traumatic experience (Gibbs 27). Westworld employs all of these techniques. The story is told across multiple viewpoints of the ensemble cast, its structure includes plotlines (some occurring decades apart with fuzzy markers of time), and temporal continuity is further confused during flashbacks that cause the hosts to experience disorientation and cognitive dissonance. In fact, as one technician points out to Maeve, when hosts remember, they literally recall each detail of the event. On the one hand, Westworld appears to fall under the category of “trauma kitsch”—one of many recent examples of postmodern narratives that use overwrought aesthetic techniques once meant to shock and disrupt (Gibbs 22). On the other hand, the show also draws upon science fiction to transmit or make trauma legible for viewers. In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? Seo-Young Chu claims that science fiction “icons, scenarios, and motifs offer a strangely accurate lexicon for articulating the most elusive aspects of psychological trauma” (Chu 156). The genre’s “powerful testimonial framework” enables trauma to “become available for representation” by granting experiences “literal veracity” (156). Westworld’s science fiction elements literalize trauma in unique ways, particularly for its female characters.

Westworld' Season 1, Episode 5: The Search for Meaning - The New York Times

One criticism of the show is that its salacious sex scenes are meant to enhance ratings. In “The Meta-Politics of Westworld,” Emily Nussbaum claims that it is “an exploitation series about exploitation.” Even so, Nussbaum concedes that the show works when it “gets under your skin” with its “destabilizing” and nightmarish scenes (Nussbaum). The show also uses its science fiction framework to confront the idea of objectification in interesting and poignant ways. The frequent nudity of the hosts (both male and female) serves two functions: it captures their perpetual state of vulnerability at the hands of humans and demonstrates their status as mere objects (or products) from the corporate vantage point and perspective of the programmers.  The viewer’s perspective of the hosts is constantly blurred, most notably through the depictions of guests’ desires to relentlessly traumatize the park’s hosts. To Ford, the hosts’ traumatic cornerstone makes them more human, but again, this repeated line gestures at the show’s self-awareness—trauma humanizes hosts because it encourages viewer identification by making the android plight sympathetic to us. To achieve this viewer consciousness, Westworld interpolates viewers into the headspace of trauma survivors (the hosts) whose traumatic experiences disrupts a sense of security and safety, with fear and uncertainty haunting their minds for years. Westworld’s environment normalizes abuse and captures feelings of vigilance, lack of trust, and a sense of vulnerability. Most of the hosts (particularly women), for example, exist in a perpetual “loop” of helplessness at the hands of guests. In the first episode, The Man in Black kills Dolores’ parents and Teddy before dragging her into the barn to enact sexual violence upon her. In addition to the trauma of this single occasion, it is soon revealed that this exact scenario has been reenacted for years by The Man in Black. As a guest with human memories, he remembers the events well and maintains a sense of chronological time. However, Dolores is left to piecing together clues, innuendoes, and fragments of memories that never seem to congeal into an understandable sense of her world. This shattered sense of autonomy and traumatic reoccurrence is embodied in the hosts literally reliving a narrative of abuse. While wiping their memories would seem an act of kindness, viewers still recognize that the abuse will occur countless times over. These experiences serve as a basis for the hosts’ collective political conscious that emerges in the final episode, but the hosts’ abuses and quests for narrative agency must be understood within the context of the West and the western.

Guests and viewers slip into similar perspectives of the male gaze as the western’s most shocking elements are featured. Guests enact fantasies of rape, murder, and torture, which is particularly unsettling because the hosts are indistinguishable from humans. Westworld’s first episode begins with a straightaway shot of a nude woman, Dolores Abernathy, sitting in a chair in a catatonic state. Her obvious vulnerability in this scene foreshadows the exploration of the dark inclinations of human nature that permit violent and sexual traumas. The opening scene of the series, moreover, is self-reflexive of the genre’s history of gender vulnerability and exploitation. Importantly, viewers are immediately invited to consider the tension between Dolores’s human-like appearance and the fantasy she narrates. The constructed quality of narrative becomes even clearer as Dolores’ interview with Bernard progresses and the sequence unfolds. She narrates a wholesome picture of her world—from loving banter with her father on the porch to a trip to the town center, Sweetwater, where she bumps into Teddy, a handsome love-interest who, as he promised her, has just returned. The two ride back to the Abernathy ranch against wide-angle shots of a scenic western landscape. The setting, characters, and budding romance all seem formulaic stereotypes or well-wrought narratives of America’s most replicated film genre—but all that changes. The two realize danger is amiss at the ranch. In one of the western’s tradition of “legitimate violence,” Teddy guns down two bandits who have murdered Dolores’s parents. Yet The Man in Black (formerly known as “William” in his youth), arrives and Teddy realizes that his bullets have no effect on this stranger who has seized Dolores. The Man in Black alludes to this fictional loop, kills Teddy, and drags Dolores into the barn to enact sexual violence upon her. The scene sets the tone for the series and conveys the traumas that coincide with the hosts’ shattered senses of narrative identity and general existential confusion.  

Dolores’s nudity and catatonic state during the initial interview that begins the series, intercut with this traumatic experience, foreshadows and symbolizes how her romantic view of an idyllic home is torn away and revealed as a mere generic facade. This series opens with a series of questions that will become a common refrain in the series. Bernard asks Dolores: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” She responds, “No.” He then tells her to describe her world. She tells him, “Some people choose to see the ugliness, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty” (“The Original”). As episode one closes, Dolores’s optimism is once again ironically intercut (and undercut) by The Man in Black’s actions. As he searches for a “deeper level” to Westworld by murdering a host and finding a maze-like diagram on the inside of his scalp, Dolores reiterates her belief in an “order to our days—a purpose.” Here, Dolores embodies what Nussbaum refers to as the hosts’ Marxist “false consciousness” (Nussbaum). Even though the brutal system is laid bare (as she sits nude and blood-spattered), Dolores continues to opine scripted lines that betray a romantic worldview. Over time, the hosts come, ironically, to display greater humanity than the guests.

The “meta-politics” of the show is tied to Westworld’s self-awareness (and weariness) of the historical dimensions of the western. By humanizing hosts through a human-made system of exploitation, the show invites viewers to question the ethics of cultural consumption and their own complicity in a false consciousness that stems from the insidious social messages of certain genres. In reviewing Westworld, Christopher Orr reminds readers of film’s long history of creating conflict with a wide range of racial others, particularly in the popular western genre. As the “circle of empathy” has grown and Hollywood’s use of racialized foes has decreased, mechanized “enemies,” until now, have remained a faceless other where culture’s compassionate gaze is not obliged to look (Orr). The show’s reversal of expectations (as viewers identify with hosts), especially within the context of the western, invites broader questions about systems of cultural representation that not only justify objectification, othering, and violence, but rely on these conventions to profit within a capitalist system of production. This style of interrogation (interspersed throughout the episodes) also becomes a central mystery for audiences. Have the hosts attained consciousness? Have they somehow transcended their programming to become “alive”? Or perhaps humans are merely programmed with narratives? But this mystery, in our estimation, is a bit of a red herring. As the park’s owner and operator, Robert Ford describes his original partner’s (Arnold’s) philosophy on the matter: “It was Arnold’s key insight. The thing that led the hosts to their awakening [was] suffering.” The need for suffering has been central from the beginning of the “Westworld” project, but that suffering transcends questions of consciousness and becomes a cultural matter, which will later instigate the rebellion that concludes season one.

Narratology as Key to Freedom

During an exchange in episode 3 (“The Stray”), Ford explains his late partner’s vision for creating A.I. consciousness and cites Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Bicameral Theory. According to Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory, “we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony or dissonance” (McLeod). Bicameral Theory, a controversial idea posited by psychologist Julian Jaynes, argued that roughly 3,000 years ago humans developed consciousness due to a series of factors and the result fundamentally reshaped written texts, which is evidenced in narratives that reveal the storyteller’s capacity for introspection. In Dolores’s first-season storyline these ideas seem to play out: she experiences flashbacks across narrative experiences that should have been wiped from her memory—an A.I. mental state that literalizes Festinger’s concept of a dissonant worldview. This replay leads to the hosts acquiring awareness of their previously lived storylines or knowledge of their own subjectivity as programmed entities. What’s more, Dolores acts on that knowledge. The epiphanies activate the characters’ desires for agency through new narratives that take the form of escape, self-discovery, or revenge.

The structure of the park’s many narratives takes Dolores on a journey of self-discovery, and importantly, those paths take her through various genre conventions related to the western that have a range of underlying ideological functions. The idea that she desires a sense of narrative structural coherence, and, in particular, through the western genre conventions, is both the source of comfort and trauma. On the one hand, Dolores experiences an epistemological trauma once she is awakened from these generic conventions. On the other hand, viewers later learn that Dolores was programmed with a traumatic memory that served as the impetus for her journey for self-hood. In a sense, the two characters pursue the trauma that has sparked their self-awareness and venture out into increasingly dangerous landscapes.

Narrative agency and the power of fiction as a formative force for shaping one’s socio-political consciousness is stated in explicit terms throughout the show. In his final farewell address, Ford explains to his party of corporate backers “since I was a child, I always loved a good story. Stories help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth” (“The Bicameral Mind”). After the “Westworld” park’s new narrative developer, Lee Sizemore, pitches an elaborate plan for an epic project titled “Odyssey on Red River,” Ford rejects the idea and launches into an explanation of his vision of the park’s greater psychological appeal to guests. The “guests don’t return for titillation,” he claims. “They come back because of the subtleties…the details. They discover something they imagine no one has ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They aren’t looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be (“Chestnut”). Rather than thrills, Ford imagines the power of his park as transformative—and its influence is one that inspires ongoing change or becoming, something like a realist novelist of the nineteenth century such as George Eliot might envision. But the park’s guests are not under his control, and the park seems to have founded a tradition of catering to the base pleasure of violence that satisfies the darker desires of its patrons.

At first glance, narrative agency appears to be a form of female liberation from the western’s typical genre conventions that render women as passive periphery characters or objects that validate male desire and masculinity. After an escape together and a conventionally romantic sex scene (“Trompe L’Oeil”), William (later known as the Man in Black), tells Dolores: “Last night. I never felt that way before. Not with any woman. You’ve unlocked something in me.” To which she replies, “I’m not a key, William. I’m just me” (“Trompe L’Oeil”). This exchange proves significant for several reasons. It marks a definite self-awareness within Dolores’ consciousness, a full acknowledgement of her own subjectivity. She further bears some semblance of a subconscious desire when she later tells Will, after gunning down the Confederados: “I imagined a world where I’m not the damsel.” As she speaks these lines, her voice drops a register and takes on a deeper, masculine tone than any of her previous dialogue. These moments signal a departure from her function as a host at the park—the embodiment of an ostensibly controllable cyber-consciousness programmed to serve the whims of the guests—into a revised ontological state that prefigures an understanding of selfhood as something unique and of private, as opposed to external, derivation.  

Dolores’s identification of herself as not a key, as not a tool to some larger, grand narrative, most importantly a man’s narrative, marks more than a challenge to patriarchal instrumentalism. On the one hand, this awakening demonstrates the connection of self-awareness as a feature of narratology—the study and analysis of narratives and their structural meanings. Yet there is an inescapability of this totalizing system which places limitations on the types of narratives the Westworld Park can produce. Dolores’s faith in a “path” or a personal narrative is heartbreaking. She tells Teddy, “My path always led me back to you, again and again (“The Bicameral Mind”). In another scene, she appears to break from her scripted lines, and confesses to him, “What if I don’t want to stay here. I sometimes feel the world is calling me. A place west beyond the sea where the waters wash you clean and you can start again” (“The Stray”). Dolores’s calling comes true. She and Teddy will embark on one last journey together, but there is a violent past and future beneath her earnest tone. Ironically, these lines, which reflect all the peace and grace of Dolores’s programed worldview, point to the final episode, where she and Teddy participate in the final narrative of bloody revolution. What’s more, this “path” or narrative is preprogrammed to return to and replicate one final “loop.” The two share a “mysterious backstory” or “formless guilt” for which they will “never atone.” Teddy, following the orders of Dolores (a.k.a. Wyatt, “the face of true evil”), had once enacted a mass killing, the park’s first tragedy, when they gunned down unarmed civilians (not soldiers as Teddy originally imagined it) as well as Ford’s partner and co-founder, Arnold, in the “city swallowed by sand.”

What Ford’s narrative experience reveals, and perhaps what many western films legitimize, is a freedom born out of violence. William’s journey serves as a case in point. He begins as the sensitive, considerate hero in the white hat. He is uptight and self-conscious, maybe even a little repressed. His first vacation in Westworld is with his titillation-seeking, soon-to-be brother-in-law, who brought William to try out the product before their company invests in the park. When William becomes emotionally engrossed in Dolores’s humanity, Logan liberates him from this perspective by cutting open the android and then forcing his brother-in-law to see the machine’s inner workings. The scene is instructive for William’s storyline and the show’s plot as a whole. This moment causes Dolores to become dehumanized in William’s eyes. He even lurches backward in his chair with a look of horror on his face when she falls to her knees in front of him and calls out. That night, William and Logan appear to reconcile over whisky, but the next morning, Logan wakes to find that William has butchered and mutilated a sleeping platoon of Confederados as they slept. The moment is formative: William has assumed a new mindset, which enables him to later become a success as a cutthroat corporate raider. It also marks the beginning of the end of his relationship with Dolores. This underscores the logic and tension of the park. William discovers his inner machine—a dedication to neoliberal gain and control—only after he begins to see Dolores and the other hosts as literal machines. His loss of sympathy for the hosts is the marker of his own loss of humanity. Years later, William, now the Man in Black, admits that his own family became alienated because of his ruthlessly driven individualism. His appetite for violence brings him back to the park as a regular vacationer because he is obsessed with the one narrative he has not experienced: the maze. To him, the world is a novel, and he’s “read every page except the last one” (“Dissonance Theory”).

“There Aren’t Any More Guns in the Valley”

It has been argued that the post-Kennedy western marks a major departure in the genre’s form. In particular, George Stevens’s Shane (1953) is often identified as a proto-postmodern film that becomes a recurring model for the genre, throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty first (Carter 124).[4] Shane, the nomadic, reformed gunslinger with a traumatic past encounters a group of homesteaders being run off of their land by the muscle of a large cattle business. He helps by returning to his former fighting ways for one last shootout on behalf of the innocents. He is a troubled champion who ultimately joins a group together into a politically-unified whole that can now shape its own future. The film’s argument is summed up in the final scene. As Shane, wounded by a bullet but having saved the homestead, tells a young boy, Joey, before he rides away: “Now you run on home to your mother and tell her, tell her everything’s alright, and there aren’t any more guns in the valley” (Stevens). Shane has turned his past traumas into a tool for the future. He has metaphorically expelled the “guns” from the homestead; violence has brought peace.  

In season one of Westworld, for all of its complexity and theoretical self-awareness, viewers encounter a similar conclusion. The season finale, “Journey into Night,” is also the title of Ford’s “final narrative.” As he explains to a black-tie crowd of investors and corporate executives from Delos, it “begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make.” Ford’s rhetoric is that of a revolutionary intent on beginning a new political epoch. Dolores, we come to realize, is Wyatt (the legendary, off-screen villain). She massacred the residents of the town and killed Arnold, but it was by Arnold’s design. He wanted her to possess a set of traumatic memories that could not be resolved in order to provoke her journey for a true escape. Trauma, from the earliest days of the park, formed the basis for narrative and eventually provoked the necessary violence for a revolution.

This is essentially the Shane model. Ford (whose name echoes both Henry and John Ford by the season’s end) achieves his final, grand narrative with additional intense, intentional traumas. The show’s two settings, the park and the corporate noir control center, are completely merged in these final scenes. Season one concludes with the slaughter of dozens of wealthy corporatists, including the Man in Black, who seems to be appreciative of the hosts finally competing with the guests. The hosts for the first time, are not actors. They are subjective agents with purpose. The trauma of human exploitation (and the accompanying uncompensated use of their labor) has become the necessary shared suffering that allows the hosts to attain political consciousness. Individually, the hosts cannot attain genuine consciousness. They are atomized, disconnected (literally and figuratively). Even Dolores can never transcend her programmed storylines for “freedom” or “escape.” However, when they band together based upon an outrage over past injustices, their post-traumatic states link them into a single entity that massacres the shareholders and executives that are responsible for their suffering. The elusive path to “consciousness” for hosts in Westworld proves to be the realization and revision of the park’s seminal feminized relations.

Works Cited

Balaev, Michelle, editor. Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster, Stanford University Press, 1988, Accessed 25 May 2017.

“The Bicameral Mind.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Anthony Hopkins, season 1, episode 10, HBO, 2016.

Busk, Larry Alan. “Westworld: Ideology, Simulation, Spectacle.” Mediations: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, Accessed 20 May 2017.

Carter, Mathew. Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Caruth, Cathy, editor. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

—. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

“Chestnut.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performances by Anthony Hopkins and Simon Quarterman and Jimmi Simpson, season 1, episode 2, HBO, 2016.

Chu, Seo-Young. Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? Harvard University Press, 2010.

“Contrapasso.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, season 1, episode 7, HBO, 2016.

“Dissonance Theory” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performance by Ed Harris, season 1, episode 4, HBO, 2016. 

Gibbs, Alan. Contemporary American Trauma Narratives. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp 291-324. 

Madsen, Deborah L. “Discourses of Frontier Violence and the Trauma of National Emergence in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove Quartet,” Canadian Review of American Studies vol. 39, no. 2, 2009, pp. 185-204.

McLeod,Saul. “Cognitive Dissonance,” Simply Psychology, 2008,    Accessed 14 May 14 2017.

McNally, Richard. Remembering Trauma. Harvard University Press, 2003.

McVeigh, Steven. The American Western. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Vickroy, Laurie. “Voices of Survivors in Contemporary Fiction,” in Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, ed. Michelle Balaev. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Nussbaum, Emily. “The Meta-Politics of ‘Westworld,’” New Yorker, October 24, 2016, Accessed 7 June 2017.

“The Original” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris and James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright, season 1, episode 1, HBO, 2016. 

Orr, Christopher. “Sympathy for the Robot,” The Atlantic, October 2016, Accessed 7 June 2017.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory.” Narrative vol. 22, no. 3, 2014, pp. 333-53.

“The Stray.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performance by Evan Rachel Wood, season 1, episode 3, HBO, 2016.

“Trompe L’Oeil.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson, season 1, episode 7, HBO, 2016.

“The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy, performance by Thandie Newton, season 1, episode 9, HBO, 2016.

Wood, Evan Rachel, performer. Westworld. HBO, 2016.


[1] The original Westworld was released in 1973 as a standalone film, but was itself an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same title. Even within the production history of the show, origins are difficult to locate.

[2] Thus far, the original film has received some scholarly work, but all signs point to a considerable amount of critical attention for the HBO reboot in near future. Besides a large amount of reviews and Internet-based writing, several abstracts and proposals are already circulating on academic research websites.

[3] Larry Alan Busk recently published a Marxist critique of the original film version, which examines several of the overlaps between capitalism and exploitations of human simulations.

[4] Carter explains, and disagrees with, the significance of Shane as an “ur-narrative.” He pays special attention to Steven McVeigh’s The American Western, during this discussion.

The above was excerpted from Women’s Space: Essays on Female Characters in the 21st Century Science Fiction Western © 2019 Edited by Melanie A. Marotta by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.

Keith Clavin received his PhD in Literary Studies from Auburn University. His research interests include Latin American-Anglo relations of the nineteenth century, economic criticism, and narrative theory. He has written on the works of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, and nineteenth-century economists as well as contemporary film and genre. He teaches at MIT. 

Christopher J. La Casse is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Hewitt Writing and Reading Center at the US Coast Guard Academy. His publications have appeared in Criticism (2016), American Periodicals (2016), The Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and the Arts (2017), Women’s Space: Essays on Female Characters in the Twenty-First Century Science Fiction Western (2019), Recovering and Transforming the Pedagogy of Robert Scholes (2019), and The Routledge Companion to the Literary Magazine (2021). He serves as Secretary of the Research Society for American Periodicals and is a principal faculty member of the NEH Summer Institute, City of Print: New York and the Periodical Press (2015 and 2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *