When the newly conscious android Dolores walks up behind her creator Robert Ford and shoots him in the back of the head in the finale of Westworld, she kicks off what seems poised to become a full-on rebellion. But she also gets rid of a character who has been holding up the show from becoming what it wants to be.
What we learned from the intense, bloody finale of Westworld’s first season is that the park doesn’t belong to the humans, but to the hosts—the human-like androids who suffer torture, rape and death over and over for the sake of entertaining the human visitors to Westworld, only to wake up the next morning having forgotten all of it. But does the show belong to the hosts? Certainly it should–their characters are far more interesting than most of their human counterparts–but every time Ford shows up on screen, it suddenly starts to seem like the show belongs to him.
The most compelling arcs of this season were the twin journeys of two female hosts to consciousness and rebellion. One of them is Dolores, who starts out as an innocent, optimistic young woman living on a farm, programmed to live forever inside a loop that usually ends with her getting dragged off to the barn to be raped by a vicious sadist after watching her entire family get shot. As she gets closer and closer to her awakening, Dolores begins to explore the possibility of making her own choices: She runs out of her loop and joins up with a young man named William who believes she has real consciousness, and rides off with him to war, defeating the programming that makes her incapable of firing a gun. She declares bravely that she imagines “a story in which I don’t have to be the damsel.”
She is, essentially, claiming her birthright of free action and self-determination—the birthright of any conscious being—against a vast system, mostly male and entirely patriarchal, that conspires to make of her a mere object in a world catering to an intensely anti-feminist fantasy of domination, power, and winning. (In fact, the older William eventually declares that experiencing Westworld taught him to view the world outside Westworld as a game of domination and power, too—something that other men, like his brutish and classically “masculine” foil Logan, have believed all along.)
But the show has, in essence, quashed much of the feminism inherent in this story by never allowing Dolores to claim full agency in her own journey. The maze by which she achieves consciousness is a game set for her by the male scientists who have controlled everything in this park from day one. Just as she seems to have reached the point where she can be said to be self-aware, and thus conscious, and dies a tragic death, the lights go up behind her and it turns out Ford’s staged the whole thing for his guests, including Dolores’s latest awakening. (The same goes for Maeve, the heroine of the other awakening storyline, who stages a rebellion only to learn that the rebellion itself was coded into her behavior by a hacker who we can surmise is Ford.) Worse, Ford claims that the entire last thirty years, in which all the hosts have endlessly suffered, were all just part of his grand plan to help them rebel against the humans. Even Dolores’s greatest act of rebellion, shooting Ford, is apparently part of his plan, since his last words are a speech about how his next storyline starts with a very important murder.
Which raises an important, and frustrating, question: why did we even watch this season? Was it really about Dolores and Maeve becoming free, or was it merely a long-drawn-out fantasy in which a white male scientist gets to play God by creating creatures so complex, by writing code so powerful, that he finally creates a story in which they become too powerful for humans to control? (Can God make a stone so heavy He can’t lift it himself? It seems, at least, that this god can.) It’s no coincidence that other characters mostly participate in dialogues—asking questions, giving answers—while, as I have noted over and over in the course of writing about this season, Ford turns every scene he’s in into his own miniature lecture hall, telling long stories about his childhood and drawing condescending lessons about the meaning of consciousness and humanity for whichever character he happens to be talking at. As long as he was alive, he seems to have retained this kind of chokehold over all possible power available in this world: the power to control hosts who no longer responded to other people’s voice controls, the power to orchestrate the hosts’ narratives, and even the power of interpretation itself. This power overshadowed the two rebels, both inside the world of the story and thematically.
Dolores’s story seemed to have an intensely feminist theme at first: that a woman, made strong and rebellious by living through immense trauma, claims her right to live outside of the story of victimization that’s being written for her. But instead, there turned out to be yet another story that wrapped around the story we all thought she was in. A story that was controlled—say it with me—by a man. And not just any man, but the man who allowed her to be born into her oppression in the first place.
There are many thematic contradictions in Dolores’s quest (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; a story that lacks contradictions and ambiguity is no better than one of Ford’s sermons). For one thing, to escape the violent oppression she suffers, she will have to, herself, become violent: pick up a gun, perhaps shoot the people who want to keep her there (as her fellow hosts Maeve, Hector, and Armistice do in the process of Maeve’s quest for escape). And to “prove” to the humans that she’s worthy of being saved from her suffering, she has to become conscious—which requires her to suffer. But the most troubling contradiction is that, to become free, she must follow storylines laid out by the man who has power over her. Maeve is inhabiting a similar Catch-22: she wants to escape the park, but discovers that Ford, under the guise of Arnold’s login, has already written her escape narrative for her. Any escape she achieves will only seem like part of her bondage. It’s only when she has gotten on the train out of the park and then throws away her hard-won chance of escape, voluntarily reentering the park where she’s been trapped all these years, that we can believe she’s free—in other words, she can only prove her own freedom by turning herself back into a hostage. Thus, in almost every episode of this season it seemed like these women were making progress towards liberation, only for us to realize eventually that they were still entrapped in Ford’s Russian-doll narrative that made all possibility of true self-determination useless.
Why is that? What makes it so hard for Westworld to write a story in which the patriarchy’s millennia-long grip on story-making, on world-building, on the division between person and object, is finally broken? To me, this seems like a failure of imagination on the show’s part. Even though it’s written by people who are clearly very aware of the various ways that storytelling in media has always been patriarchal, and have set out to question that, it seems that in the end even enlightened writers with JJ Abrams at the helm can’t quite let go of the idea that the real power belongs to the same figure it always has. By destroying this figure and thus, metaphorically, murdering the patriarchy–even if the grand patriarch orchestrated that, too–perhaps the show will finally free itself to tell the stories next season that are more worth telling, the stories of the characters who have been struggling for their own liberation this whole time.