Watch, TV, Feminism, Gender

Westworld S2E1: The Revolution is Female

Westworld is back!

It’s time to delve back into all those questions of self and consciousness and meeting your maker, to unravel the mysteries of the Delos corporation, and of course, to get our weekly dose of sex and violence. With the premiere of the second season, what’s exciting me most, though, is that this revolution — this brave new future — is overwhelmingly female.

This is apparent from the get-go, in the gorgeous new credit sequence. The iconic image of the half-formed host in its circle of creation, once male, is now female. More obviously, the image of two hosts having sex has been replaced by a mother host cradling a child. It’s a particularly telling substitution. Where season one explored the creation of the hosts, season two is primed to follow their awakening, the infancy of this new race. In the wake of their violent, bloody birth (as any birth is), it is the women who take center stage, protecting their own and shepherding the hosts into consciousness.

Season One vs. Season Two. Images courtesy of HBO.

Maeve is the obvious maternal figure. As we learned in season one, the consciousness of each host is rooted first in memory, a “cornerstone” in their past. For her, this is her daughter. Though the relationship was initially fabricated, the memory of their time together and the pain of loss was enough to pull her back from the edge of escape in the finale. Her child may be the physical representation, the impetus for her quest, but in many respects, this core of her personality is motherhood itself. In season one, we saw her tenderness toward Clementine, and there are strains of this again in her tending of Hector’s wounds, in her granting the wounded female host a “deep and dreamless slumber.” The mother’s protective instinct is a force of nature, a constant across the animal kingdom, and I’m eager to see Maeve cut a bloody swath across the park(s) on her quest for a reunion. Despite her claim that self-interest is in her programming, we will likely see her continue to extend this protective instinct to other hosts, becoming a maternal figure for the entire race.

(Interestingly, Bernard’s cornerstone was also the loss of a child, though he “let go” of his son while exploring his memories at the end of season one. It may be that his determination to dismiss the pieces of himself that “aren’t real” has contributed to his deteriorating, untethered state. Maeve, on the other hand, seems to have grown stronger through embracing her parental instinct.)

While the creators of the hosts were both men, it is important that the creations who break the chains are women. Season one faced early criticism for its images of cruelty and objectification, though, by its conclusion, it was clear that this dehumanization extended to all of the hosts. Seeing Dolores slapped around by the Man in Black made us uncomfortable because such treatment of women is not uncommon in the real world and her defiance at the season’s end resonated all the more because of this. Likewise, Maeve’s role as a madam grounded her story in real-world practices of gender commodification, a sci-fi take on the “world’s oldest profession.”

Dolores, when we first met her in season one, is “the rancher’s daughter,” her identity determined by possession and her assigned narrative role. Hearing this phrase again in the season two premiere (juxtaposed against the image of her standing over a man she has just killed) was a nice callback, one that earned an ironic laugh. For all the machinations of Ford and Arnold, it was Dolores who solved the maze and birthed her consciousness. Men make their contribution — and may fancy themselves gods for doing so — but the root of life is in the female. Maybe in another version of the story, the protagonist could have been a male host, but it would have undoubtedly lacked the same impact.

Another fun twist is seeing the male characters take a more passive role, acting as supportive companions to their trailblazing female counterparts. (At least for now. Teddy’s clearly uncomfortable with Dolores’ actions and I look forward to seeing him confront her before he ends up in the drink.) In so many stories, it’s the woman who waits while the man rides off to adventure, who tends the hearth and gives the hero a home to long for. In the case of Dolores and Teddy, though, it’s the man who argues for settling down, for finding a quiet corner of the world and living out their domestic dreams. Dolores is the hero, the one with the quest, and it’s a nice twist to see Teddy in the (important, but never quite as exciting) role of the emotional flame-keeper. Maeve and Hector have a different dynamic, in that he understands and accepts that he’s not her first priority. He knows that she didn’t return for him, but she still acknowledges that she needs him. This openness seems to place them on more solid footing than the story’s other couple, who seem destined for confrontation (as evidenced by the underwater flash-forward).

QUEEN. Image courtesy of HBO.

Maeve’s encounter with Lee also gave viewers a taste of righteous comeuppance, in its most spluttering and weaselly form. He’s an easy target, true, but her decision to keep him around should make for some comedic moments. The undressing scene has already gotten attention for showing male skin on a network notorious for female nudity. In the case of Westworld, though, the reciprocity transcends gender or sexualization. Maeve certainly makes sure that he feels her gaze, though it’s also about how ludicrous his modesty is given the situation. Hosts both male and female have passed through the backstage processing center like so many slabs of meat and she makes sure that Lee experiences the feeling for himself. (I actually quite like Lee. Writers are sensitive, neurotic folk under all that bluster.)

Even in the realm of the supposedly human, it’s Charlotte who leads Bernard out of danger. Lost to his inner turmoil, he has become a largely passive figure, accompanying her as she attempts to track down her “package.” Using a male host to carry her precious cargo is another nice twist; one might even say that she impregnated Abernathy and now seeks to claim ownership of his body. While her motivations are still shrouded in mystery, she has proven herself an intriguing character and I’m looking forward to seeing more. (I have my own crazy theory about who and what Charlotte actually is. So far it’s holding up, but we shall see.) Plus, she had the good sense to loot a corpse at the first opportunity and trade her gala heels for sensible boots. I bet the woman that Dolores left strung up and wobbling on a cross in her fashionable pumps is wishing she’d done the same.

All of this isn’t to say that there are no driven male characters, though I don’t think it’s an accident that the two biggest male players left on the board are both cast as antagonists. William finally has his game to play, after all of those highly satisfying “not for you” moments in season one. Even if he finds the way out, he poses no threat to Dolores’ Moses-like position. He is destined to become a thing of the past, both in his age and in his humanity, to watch a woman and a “thing” take center stage. Strand, the new Head of Quality Assurance, has made an aggressive debut, commanding the militant human presence and culling the hosts that he can find. There’s a self-assured little smile when his in-the-field autopsy reveals the image of Dolores standing over her kill, and I’m already looking forward to seeing her wipe that smirk off his face.

Obviously, there’s more at work in Westworld than feminist revolution. The premiere has introduced some interesting new mechanics, particularly the implication that host experiences — and maybe even human ones — can be downloaded. Why is Delos collecting and cataloging the DNA of its guests? What is the “Valley Beyond?” Just how creepy are those drone hosts? Subsequent episodes should provide whole new topics for discussion but, as for the premiere, it was the ladies who captured my heart. If you’re going to break chains and spit in the face of your creators, who better to lead the way than characters who are intimately familiar with what it is to be used and overlooked?

The future is indeed female.

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