Reader donations, many as small as just $1, have kept In These Times publishing for 45 years. Once you've finished reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support this work.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the disturbing power of HBO’s Westworld makes more sense. There’s uncanny force in all those shots of androids waking up again and again, not knowing they’re still in a kind of dream. Those false awakenings that disguise persistent states of unconsciousness resonate uncomfortably with our own condition prior to November 8. Blindsided by Trump’s victory, it’s hard not to shudder when, in the ﬁrst season ﬁnale, one android warns another who’s convinced she’s ﬁnally fully conscious of the horrors of her reality: “You’ve ‘woken up’ many times before.”
We’re sure our eyes are open now, but how many of us on the Left thought we were already conscious of America’s violent rage and political apathy? How many of us believed we were actively sounding the alarm, only to realize how inconsequential our eﬀorts had been?
I had no idea, during the ﬁrst episodes of Westworld, why I was ﬁnding it so dreadfully compelling. The show’s basic premise is well-trodden turf for sci‑ﬁ and horror: characters who act like self-directed individuals are actually automatons controlled by other forces, a la Blade Runner or The Matrix. In Westworld’s iteration, human “guests” pay top dollar to visit a high-tech theme park where they can live out their fantasies of old-time adventure in a Deadwood-like frontier town. There, they interact with android “hosts,” who act in movie-like narratives that provide seemingly spontaneous opportunities for consequence-free mayhem.
Yet, somehow, Westworld has found some fresh, unsettling angles. The show plunges us immediately into identiﬁcation with the androids (a tremendous improvement over the 1973 ﬁlm Westworld, which keeps us ﬁrmly aligned with the guests). The ﬁrst words we hear over a black screen are “Bring her back online.” We then see Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) — the rancher’s young daughter, who’s actually one of the park’s oldest hosts — completely nude, seated in one of Westworld’s corporate labs, knees knocked awkwardly together like a discarded doll. She’s subjected to a series of gently probing questions asked by an oﬀ-screen character with a deep male voice. Later we recognize it as the voice of Bernard (Jeﬀrey Wright), the head programmer in charge of creating and maintaining the androids.
His key question, repeated often in the show, is, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
“No,” says Dolores. “Not nearly enough” would be my post-election answer.
And therein lies the lure of Westworld: It forces us to reckon with the fact that the androids might not be the only ones tragically estranged from reality. The discomfort this produces doesn’t depend on the viewer developing a sudden urge to run Turing tests on their loved ones. There’s plenty going on in the ster-ile oﬃces and damp basements of West-world’s corporate operations to make us break out in cold sweats because it’s eerily reminiscent of a reality we know.
Take the quiet encounters of deceptively docile nude androids and clothed techs in glass-walled lab settings. They are some of the most threatening and compulsively watchable scenes in the show. But why? I’m enough of a damaged academic to automatically think, “Well, if the answer ain’t Freud, it’s Marx.”
It’s Marx. Westworld leads us to empathize ﬁrst with the amnesiac androids, who suﬀer merciless abuse by day and are patched up, memory-wiped and rebooted, by night. But through them, we come to recognize that Westworld’s human workers, who believe themselves to be in control, aren’t doing much better. Behind the scenes of the park, we see the techs toil in windowless quarters, jaded and furtive, rightly afraid of their bosses. As they tinker and converse tensely with the androids, we see a shockingly literal illustration of Marx’s notion of “estranged labor.” Workers alienated from their labor will come to see its product as “something hostile and alien,” in Marx’s words, a powerful object with a separate existence. In short, work sucks the life out of us and puts it into whatever it is we’re paid to produce. This nightmarish scenario plays out in the scenes between the android Maeve (Thandie Newton), a shrewd brothel madam, and the hapless techs growing more horriﬁed with each encounter. They feel exploited by the Westworld Company they work for and have been exploiting the androids in turn, prostituting them out for extra cash. But they’re increasingly out-matched by the objects they work on. We measure Maeve’s perfection of form against their ungainly physiques, and as she blackmails them to gain greater powers, her strength and brilliance against their weakness and stupidity.
To whom does this alien object confronting the worker belong? To the “master of labor” — the capitalist, that is. Overseeing Westworld’s hosts and guests are the corporate honchos vying for power, and we are encouraged to guess who is really running the show. Is it Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the surviving creator of the park, who seems privy to all information circulated within it? Could it be the park’s board of directors, unseen as yet but represented by the ruthless Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), who disdainfully informs icy head of operations Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudson) that all the hosts are worthless junk compared to the park’s intellectual property?
At the same time, we wonder which of the seemingly powerful ﬁgures aligned with the capitalist “boss” class will “wake up” to ﬁnd themself a controlled and exploited subordinate implanted with false memories. Again and again, Westworld exposes how characters’ understandings of themselves and their roles within the power structure of the park are dead wrong.
Looking back at Season 1, we can see the show is structured as a disturbing game based on the Marx-inspired concept of “false consciousness,” with characters trying to maneuver their way out of that wrongheaded state toward an accurate mental representation of the world. The operations and borders of Westworld are obscured and mystiﬁed, even to formidable ﬁgures such as the Man in Black (Ed Harris) seeking the “deeper game” in the park. Most characters’ exploitation by those in power is terrifyingly obscure to them.
Bernard, in particular, seems to represent perfectly the pontiﬁcating professional-class Left in Trump’s America, ensnared in the tragically arrogant conviction that it sees clearly what the exploited workers cannot grasp. In the end, his vantage point is just as compromised, to disastrous eﬀect.
The key to Westworld’s impact is the viewer’s identiﬁcation with the androids: the deepest sleepers, the ones who will have to come to consciousness many, many times. Recent events have demonstrated that we on the Left need a lot of practice at this kind of awakening, which is ironic given the way we tend to imagine ourselves as politically astute and aware. Like the androids, we’re now forced to reckon with the annihilating truths we sensed we’d have to face when we ﬁnally, fully woke up.
When you contribute, you're not just giving a gift—you're helping publish the next In These Times story. Will you join your fellow readers, and help fund this work by making a tax-deductible donation today?