I Watched the Westworld Pilot and It Felt Like a Big Pile of Wasted Potential

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I know I promised I would write my review of the Westworld premiere as soon as humanly (robotically?) possible, but instead I’ve spent the past 24 hours wringing my hands about it. I’m just so … disappointed.

It’s not that the Westworld pilot is bad, per se. It’s just that it could have been so much better. Sometimes that feels even worse than watching something that’s outright bad.

Now, a caveat: I only saw the pilot. I didn’t get to see the first four episodes, as many other critics did in advance of writing their reviews. Pilot episodes present unique challenges. There are a lot of characters and plot points to introduce in a short time. So, I’m not docking points for the fact that the first episode felt a bit rough around the edges in terms of pacing, editing, and over-explaining the show’s premise. I also will forgive the fact that many of the actors seemed to lack chemistry with one another, because that may improve as the show goes on. Instead, I’ll try to focus my criticisms on the broader themes and direction of the show, since those aspects already seem… concerning.

Westworld takes place in a far-flung future in which all diseases have been cured. This fact, among others, gets buried in a long chunk of exposition that the great Anthony Hopkins has the unfortunate task of delivering. It’s a good thing Westworld has Hopkins, by the way, because he far outpaces his colleagues when it comes to tossing off even the most clunky expositional moments. He plays the enigmatic Dr. Robert Ford, the mind behind a haunting line of robots who look and exactly like people. But they’re not people. (Or are they. You know where this is going.)

Unlike, say, the antagonist of Ex Machina, Dr. Ford has serious reservations about his life’s work, and he seems to mourn his creations’ lot in life. He believes the human race has had their day, and that the robots deserve better–perhaps even to overthrow us or abandon us, Battlestar Galactica-style. This could explain why, in the pilot episode, Dr. Ford introduces an “update” to his robots’ programming that gives them a little bit too much self-awareness about their robotic state. Whether it’s subconscious or intentional sabotage on Ford’s part remains to be seen.

Giving these robots self-awareness does pose a huge problem, because said robots are unpaid workers who – if they had self-awareness – would doubtless choose a life of free will rather than one of disadvantaged toil. Specifically, these robots work as face characters (called “hosts” within the world of the show) at a theme park called Westworld, which has a setting reminiscent of the American Old West. It’s left vague as to which exact decade of the Old West’s history the park hopes to evoke; this allows the guests to enjoy a romanticized, occasionally anachronistic version of the distant past.

This introduces some confusing contradictions right off the top, though. For example, in the “real” Old West, systemic racism ran rampant. But the futuristic tourists of Westworld include black families and Asian families, and the “hosts” have obviously been programmed to treat all of these tourists with equal respect. (Sort of like how the actors at a Rennaissance faire don’t act exactly the way people did in medieval times. For example, they bathe. Usually.) At the same time, though, the robots have been programmed to be kind of racist, sometimes. There’s a Native American robot character who has a white robot boss who says racist comments towards him and treats him badly at work. This happens when no human tourists are there to see it. So, have the robots been programmed to be sexist and racist and socially outdated? How far does this go, exactly? It’s not made clear.

Back to the plot: the first act of the pilot revolves around what appears to be a romance between Evan Rachel Wood’s robot character Dolores, and James Marsden’s robot character Teddy. This was my favorite aspect: Westworld is a story about robot rebellion that encourages us to sympathize with the robots, not the humans. It also does something revolutionary for robot-centric stories, by allowing two robots to talk to one another about something other than a human. (This is a jokey robo-ethics version of the Bechdel-Wallace test that I didn’t invent myself, but I’m not sure who did; I’ve been hearing it for a long time now. Anyway, Westworld passes the test.)

I’ve written about robot stories many times before here at The Mary Sue–specifically, how often heroic robot characters end up getting forced to work with humans, or to be the only robot on an otherwise all-human team. It’s very, very rare that we see robots working together in a way that’s depicted as positive and relatable. Westworld does do this, which is why I wanted to love it. The human characters who surround the robots in this story get presented as villains who imprison them and don’t respect them. Ironically, Anthony Hopkins—who so often plays villainous characters—comes across as a robot ally in the pilot episode, rather than a villain, but time will tell as to where his allegiances lie.

Unfortunately, Westworld doesn’t display much nuance when it comes to depicting its robot rebellion themes. Westworld has a lot more in common with Dollhouse than Ex Machina in terms of both ethos and narrative structure. Like Dollhouse, Westworld hopes to navigate the themes of sex work and consent. But, also like Dollhouse, Westworld‘s writers and creative team seem flummoxed about how to approach said themes. The pilot episode of Westworld opens with a human character killing several robots (all fine by the rules of the theme park) and then raping a robot (also fine, according to the theme park’s rules). The robots undergo extreme humiliation and torture at the expense of the human guests, and then, the robots’ memories get wiped and their bodies get repaired. The next day, they awaken with no memory of what has happened to them (until Dr. Ford starts giving them the power to remember some things, which is what sparks them to rebel, slowly but surely).

The pilot repeats this premise several times: robot wakes up, robot gets horribly tortured and/or raped, the robot’s creators bring them back to home base, they take off all the robot’s clothes for naked interrogation time (why do they get naked? it’s not specified, but I’m guessing it’s so that the programmers can more easily dehumanize the robots), the robot gets memory-wiped–lather, rinse, repeat. I already felt convinced before the show had even started that the robots deserved better lives than what they’ve got, but Westworld really wanted to hammer the point home by showing the torture/memory wipe process over and over. I get the impression from the teasers for future episodes that there’s going to be a hell of a lot more rape and torture and murder coming up! And more naked interrogation scenes. You know, just to be sure that you really get how fucked up the robots’ existence is.

Viewers of Dollhouse will recall that it had the same premise (well, with fewer naked interrogations). Except that in Dollhouse, humans would sign up get their memories wiped, rather than robots. The central question remains the same, though: is true consent possible in this scenario? In Dollhouse, we’re meant to understand that the humans who sign up to be “dolls” get a fat paycheck at the end of their contract. On Westworld, however, the robots serve humans for as long as their parts still function, and if they start acting up, they get shut off and retired to a spooky underground storage unit. (By the way, this makes no sense, even within the world of the show—why not keep the chassis but replace the CPU? The show brings up questions like this, but doesn’t effectively answer them. I can’t tell if that’s because the showrunners have never built a computer before, or if it’s because Dr. Ford is intentionally deceiving his colleagues, or what. The science doesn’t hold up at all on this show, so if you like hard sci-fi, that’s going to bug you.)

The Dollhouse comparisons go beyond just the premise of the show. Even the casting structure bears a strong similarity. The robot-making corporation has a female British higher-up who wears high-fashion skirt suits, just like Dollhouse did–except in Westworld, the role gets played by Sidse Babett Knudsen rather than Olivia Williams. (Technically, Knudsen is Danish rather than British, but it sounds like she’s putting on a British accent for this role.) Similar to Dollhouse‘s Topher, Westworld has a nerdy game-designer-type guy who’s in over his head, this time played by Simon Quarterman. Oh, and also like Dollhouse, we’ve got an older, paternal black guy working for the robot corporation, played by Jeffrey Wright, who sympathizes with the dolls—err, I mean, robots–and seemingly hasn’t decided which side he’s on in this ongoing moral struggle. Just as Boyd ended up being the moral center of Dollhouse alongside Echo, I could see Wright’s character serving a similar role here, with Dolores as the Echo-like figure.

One big difference is that Dollhouse didn’t have Anthony Hopkins. Well, that, and Dollhouse was written by Joss Whedon, as opposed to by Lisa Joy Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. So Westworld is more Dark Knight than Avengers–more gravitas, fewer quips–but it does still come off as though the creative team watched Whedon’s show and wanted to see if they could do the job better.

It’s too bad that Westworld didn’t learn more from Dollhouse‘s missteps. Focusing on the robots rather than their creators helps, but it doesn’t get at the larger structural issue, which is about consent and attitudes towards sex work. Since this show purports to take place in a far-off future where all diseases have been cured, are we also meant to believe that other forms of structural oppression have ended, as well? Is sex work now legal, in this future? How have gender norms, and attitudes towards sex work, changed? How have race relations changed?

Westworld desperately needs to answer these questions, since their entire show is about robot sex workers who act out roles from an openly racist, sexist time period. Unfortunately, the show takes a more retrograde attitude towards sex work overall, framing it as an inherently degrading act that no one would choose to do if they had free will. Within the theme park, there’s a fictional Old West bar featuring drinks, gambling, and robo-ladies of the night outfitted in corsets and bloomers. Early on in the show, James Marsden’s robot character goes to the brothel, which is also a bar, but he’s only there to get a drink. He demurs a proposition from one of the women by saying that he doesn’t like to pay for sex. The brothel’s madam Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) quips that, actually, every relationship Teddy ever has will be a transactional one, and that at least in her brothel, the costs will be clearly demarcated rather than hidden.

This line, which gets delivered early on, gave me some hope that the show would have some nuance, since Maeve’s making a very straightforward point about advocacy for sex work. But the show falls short of acknowledging what’s really going on here, which is that every single robot character is engaging in unpaid emotional labor (and many are also performing sex work) for the tourists. They’re all participating in an unequal transaction, since they’re not getting paid at all; Maeve receives fictional money in her theme park, but in reality, she’s not getting paid for her work at all. More irritatingly, the show’s pilot chooses to illustrate this unfairness by revolving its main plot around the rape of the pure, virginal, blonde, angelic, farmer’s daughter Dolores – a character who is not “supposed” to be seen as a sex worker, I guess, and who must be defended by the men in her life (Teddy and her dad).

With that, Westworld takes what could have been an interesting debate about labor politics and turns it back into a sad story about a virginal blonde getting raped by an evil, mysterious stranger. The moral complexity introduced by Maeve, who is played by a black actress, gets undercut by the fact that the pilot revolves around the idea of “saving” Dolores. But, really, neither of these women is getting paid, and neither are any of these other robots.

Teddy still gets to be seen as a “good guy,” and our Robot Hero, because he says he doesn’t want to pay anyone for sex. But don’t all of these robots deserve a whole lot of wages for the work they’ve already done, here? I mean, sure, he could “save” Dolores and the rest of the robots, assuming that they all want to leave—but shouldn’t they also be fighting to get what they’re owed?

Money is never brought up in the pilot episode, by the way. How much does it cost to go to the park? How much do the robots cost to make or to repair? Who is paying for all of that? What is the rest of this futuristic society like?

My questions don’t end there. Why build expensive robots for the theme park at all, instead of just hiring actual sex workers and paying them? There’s no way that human workers would demand a higher salary than the costs that it must entail to build and maintain these robots. And what would even be the difference?

The main benefit of having robots in the park, as opposed to humans, is that they can be tortured and killed very realistically, then repaired and rebuilt again. Aren’t all diseases cured, though? Can humans be rebuilt, too? And why cater so heavily to the niche audience that really wants to act out this particular type of power fantasy? Is there really a market for theme parks where you get to kill someone, or a whole lot of someones, or watch a whole lot of other people get killed? Westworld wants me to believe that there is a massive appeal for this, but I don’t get why. Going to this park seems traumatizing; participating in the violent events of the park seem even worse. One of the main “storylines” in the park invites tourists to hunt down and murder a serial killer. Do the guests get a side of therapy with that?

More importantly, I don’t like that Westworld equates sex work/desire for intimacy/emotional labor as being equally “bad” and reprehensible as the desire to kill someone. The fact that all those very different vices get placed into the same category, with no real navigation about the differences between them, makes Westworld a much weaker and less compelling show than it otherwise could have been.

The pilot of Westworld seems surprisingly sex-negative given that the entire show is about sex, consent, and sex work. There are many human characters who have sex with the robots and talk about how great it is, but always in terms that objectify the robot characters (referring to them as “it,” etc). It’s not just men who pay for sex work at the theme park, either. There are two human women who have a conversation about how they don’t want to have sex with Teddy because he’s too “good,” and they prefer to have sex with the “bad boy” robots.

Based on that, I guess this show takes place in a future version of our world where gender politics have changed to a point where women actually feel comfortable hiring sex workers. That’s not the society in which we currently live; it’s very rare for women to do that. In our current society, women often don’t feel that even engaging in casual sex, let alone admitting to sexual desire, is acceptable. Does Westworld actually delve into this new world of interesting gender politics? Nope. Those two women have a throwaway laugh line, which is mostly a joke on them for having the “wrong” kind of desires. Also, their desires are never brought up again, or shown in any way; we don’t get to see them having sex with two “bad boy” robots. Instead, we get to see many human men having sex with female robots, sometimes non-consensually. (Arguably, none of the sex is consensual, since the robots’ situation isn’t presented as being pleasant for them.)

Westworld also includes a scene in which a human woman kisses a female robot. This kiss is presented as a shameful secret, and also, the robot in question does not consent to the kiss. As a result, I have no idea what we’re meant to take away from that scene, or from Westworld‘s larger portrayal of the future of sexuality and gender politics. If this is the future, it’s a grim one: instead respecting consent more, the human race apparently does away with the concept entirely, placing both sex and violence into the same category of “shameful vices”, and builds an expensive nightmare that allows all of it to be “legal,” albeit still immoral.

I don’t necessarily mind the fact that the robots (especially the women robots) are constantly naked on this show, or that they are frequently beaten and killed in blood-curdling ways. (One particular scene in which a Native American robot gets tortured and berated struck me as the most disturbing, personally. If I hadn’t been watching this for work, that’s the point at which I would have given up and done something else with my time.) In general, I can stomach scenes like these if I feel like the work has something to say. But I’m just not sure Westworld knows what point it wants to make, beyond, “look how messed up this is!”

It’s possible that the show will get better, that stronger themes will emerge, and that the show won’t continue to depict sex and violence as interchangeable. It’s possible. I don’t think it’s very likely. But it is possible.

If you liked Game of Thrones and the rest of Jonathan Nolan’s work, though, then you may well adore this. I’m sure it’ll be a huge success for HBO. I’m just sad that a show that is clearly meant to be about marginalized people organizing and rebelling is still primarily focusing on the shock value that comes from watching them get humiliated and tortured and exploited.

I want to like this. I love robot revolution stories. This show is “for me,” insofar as anything ever could be. But it’s also, clearly, not for me.

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Image of Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).