December 11, 2016

Once Upon a Time, Westworld and the Abused Woman

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:25 am by chavalah

Warning—spoilers commence!

I was expecting to have more shows and films to talk about in this winter 2016 pop culture wrap up, but I ended up covering a lot of that through my #NaNoBlogMo project last month. I also find that I have a lot to say about these two shows, particularly about the theme stated above, so let’s get started.

Once Upon a Time, season 6A

Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) and Belle (Emilie de Ravin) in OUAT, season 6A

Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) and Belle (Emilie de Ravin) in OUAT, season 6A

I’ll be the first to admit that OUAT is not a prestige television show, and it has its share of narrative problems. The plot often twists on itself, creating maguffins and backstory contradictions in order to amp up the drama. But we all have our forms of escapism, and the strong ladies of this show do it for me. I don’t mean “strong” by way of kicking ass—though they often do—but “strong” in the way that they are front and center on the show, within complicated narratives that are about them as people, not some dude. This season, Emma is struggling with her moral compass and letting her loved ones in, as she senses a dark future ahead of her. Regina is fighting her darker half, which is now literally separated from her, and has trouble forgiving her sister her indiscretions. Snow White’s attempts to build a peaceful identity for herself are hindered by a new curse that she shares with Prince Charming.

And then there’s Belle, who is finally learning to stand up for herself. Obviously women aren’t the only ones with big roles on this show, and her husband, Mr. Gold, is our main antagonist. He’s kind of like a mob boss, keeping a brutal grip on his own power in town, while his wife has largely been clueless. But this year the blinders are off and she’s been awake for most of this half season, yay, and doing what she can to protect herself and her unborn child. She even succeeds at this when Gold literally has her locked up, through magic or other means. Plus, she’s a librarian who often relies on what she learns in books. Booyah. 😀

Ultimately this is a family friendly story, and Mr. Gold has enough dimension for maybe redemption to be possible. I’m a little wary about where they are leaving us before the hiatus, where out of nowhere, his mother pops up as an uber bad gal. Seems like a convenient way to distract Gold from atoning for his own sins. But I’m in this for the long haul, and expect to have some fun!

Westworld

"The Man in Black" (Ed Harris) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Westworld

“The Man in Black” (Ed Harris) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Westworld

Westworld is also a story that puts women front and center in the form of the innocent rancher’s daughter, Dolores, and the cynical brothel madam, Maeve. They are robots, or “hosts,” in a western-style theme park designed for human guests, largely men, to be able to play out their darkest fantasies. That means, for Dolores and Maeve, that they are constantly victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, with their minds seemingly wiped clean between encounters so that they can fit their designated roles.

It goes deeper than that, of course. Dolores’s arc this season takes her through a “maze,” a storyline that her creator made for her to confront her own inner consciousness. Maeve seems, in Hunger Games terms, to “know who the true enemy is;” she wakes up in a behind the scenes repair shop and manipulates some employees in an attempt to escape the park entirely.

I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a show that’s been so cynical about human nature. The guests come to the park, in their words, to find themselves, and at best they are hedonists, at worst they are psychopathic mass murderers. Maybe the worst of the worst are the parents, who insanely think it’s a good idea to bring their kids to the fringes of this place to fish and hike and camp out. Meanwhile, at the behind the scenes facility that keeps the park running, backstabbing runs rampant, and employees routinely throw physical tantrums or urinate on company property when things don’t go their way. Not to mention all of the murder cover-ups.

The outside world is described as a place where we have eradicated all diseases—except, it seems, for whatever killed Arnold’s son—and people live this meaningless existence where everything goes their way and nothing seems real. I suppose I can assume that “people” in this case are the ones who can afford to spend $40k a day in the park; war and poverty may still exist, but these self-absorbed rich folk perhaps write a philanthropic check, but generally just ignore all of that.

Westworld’s exposition, particularly around Dolores’s storyline, is incredibly clunky. It’s like the series was written merely to spawn conspiracy theories rather than tell a story in its own right; they went out of their way to be melodramatic and confusing about the time-hopping bit. Racist narratives involving Native American tribes, Confederate soldiers and Mexican freedom fighters exist on the sidelines to get characters from point A to point B. Presumably, this also fits into the guests’ needs for a stereotypical western experience.

One thing that kept me watching was how similar Dolores was to Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. Both women started out innocent, and spent several episodes being abused by men. And both women give chilling speeches that strip away the power of two of their primary abusers—Ramsay Bolton in Sansa’s case and “The Man in Black” for Dolores. But I’m worried that the GoT showrunners might take Sansa in a similar direction to that which Dolores travels—basically giving her an extreme personality. She can either be innocent and pure, or ruthless and dark. In Sansa’s case, she’s pretty much run out of enemies. The people geographically closest to her now are her own family. “Dark Sansa” would not only be overly simplistic, she’d also be framed as being in the wrong.

But Dolores exists in a narrative of literal white hats and black hats. The humans are the bad guys, and the show doesn’t seem to question using violence against them. They are pretty much sadistic stick figures, after all.

Dolores may be here to start a revolution for the hosts, but her awakening was framed in terms of confronting her deepest self. This says to me that the show is saying that violence is her best option for self-enlightenment. She finally decides on “who she must become”—firing upon the park’s board members and embracing the murdering-psychopath-Wyatt storyline that Arnold gave her long ago. And no matter how self-directed Dolores’s actions might be in the finale, she certainly got there because the current park director, Robert Ford, egged her on. This doesn’t feel like full freedom for the character.

Not to mention the major conceit that Westworld is trying to pull off—because the humans are so one dimensionally evil, the revolution can never be real. In the real world, there are no sides that are completely white hat vs black hat. Real revolutions, even started for the noblest of causes, never end up completely pure; the quest for vengeance and power always brings corruption.

Maybe there is hope for a more humane future in the next season. Faced with the choice of leaving the park forever or reuniting with her daughter from a previous storyline, Maeve chooses the latter. This also feels very Hunger Games to me—that the best way to overcome a tragic past is to embrace your interpersonal relationships. Whether or not Maeve has achieved full consciousness I don’t know; I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Thandie Newton is ever seated across from herself. 😛

But here’s an unexpected high note in this season; I don’t know if the showrunners agree with me on this, but a conversation between Ford and Dolores seems to infer it. He shows her Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” and points out that Gd appears out of a structure that looks like the human brain. Ergo, Ford says, “the divine gift,” eg consciousness, doesn’t come from a higher power, but from ourselves. Considering that consciousness means embracing violence, at least in the final episode, perhaps the show is giving a boon to religious people. Naysayers have often equated violence with following religion, but religious adherents—most of whom are women—aren’t naturally violent. The inclination to do violence comes out of a personal understanding of the world and one’s place in it. I may be way off course with what I’m “supposed” to take away from this show, but that’s what sticks out to me.

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3 Comments »

  1. Claudia said,

    I have a different take on Westworld, and keep meaning to write it up. But Yes, Maeve achieved consciousness when the MiB killed her and her daughter (she reached the center of the maze…couldn’t calm down in the repair shop, etc…). That’s why she’s one of the few the Ford has chosen to lead in the revolution.

    And yes WW has all the tired old tropes, but it comes at them from an angle, The way it portrays William/MIB as the selfish spoiled man of privilege. He doesn’t want the hosts awakened for their own sakes, he wants them awake for HIS sake. The 3D portrayal of women, POC….I love this show.

    • chavalah said,

      I guess the only thing that gives me pause about Maeve is what Bernard told her about her new “escape” storyline. And what you said about Ford basically choosing her for this role. But then again, from what Bernard said it seemed like she was supposed to get to “the mainland” to do something, and she chose to stay behind for her daughter. Those daughter scenes were all so powerful and and I get where you’re coming from about her awakening. I love this character, and Bernard, too! I think you’re spot on about MiB. I thought past William’s transformation into a mass murderer was a little abrupt, but I guess he’s the stereotypical “nice guy.”

      But the violent, simplistic world building and character development for most everyone else kind of turns me off. This show keeps saying it wants to be about human nature and self-awareness, but the answer is almost always to pick up a gun. I want a story for Dolores where she overcomes her past by more than just becoming a vengeful vigilante. There’s more choices for women than just being a damsel or a murderder. But maybe next season will make things more complicated.

      And I’ll be your cheerleader to write out your thoughts on Westworld! 😀

  2. […] start on a positive note, I appreciated that my fears while watching Westworld turned out to be unfounded. Well actually, I should have been concerned about something […]


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