‘Westworld’ Season 1, Episode 5: Orgy

CW: mention of sexual assault, discussion of consent. TW: abusive relationships, slavery allegories 

After I spent Halloween weekend catching up on HBO’s latest drama Westworld, I had a completely different post in mind. I wanted to focus on the episode’s climactic moment when lead Evan Rachel Wood revealed a key step in her character Dolores’ development. For those of you who care about spoilers, now is when you should stop.

Evan Rachel Wood as host Dolores Abernathy

Evan Rachel Wood as host Dolores Abernathy

When asked how she could shoot other hosts, Dolores replied: “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” This was not my favorite Dolores moment by far – the word “damsel” is too cliché at this point. But honestly, that is exactly what Dolores is fighting against. She doesn’t want to be at the mercy of humans, of men. This moment shows how much she has changed since episode 1, since she first wanted to learn how to use a gun. In this moment, Dolores sheds a whole new light on the character’s arc and what I believe to be the show’s central debate: what is consent. But instead, audiences are fixated on the latest episode’s orgy scene, because nudity is of course far more dangerous than the horrific treatment of half the show’s characters.

Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in "Westworld"

Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan

The show, which takes place in the futuristic theme park Westworld, centers around realistic robots and the humans that use them for entertainment. As the robots, or “hosts,” become more advanced, they become increasingly more human. But in this case, the robots don’t take over the world with their superior intelligence, at least not yet. Instead, as they begin to develop memories, they start to relive the trauma their human abusers have inflicted upon them. And so, the hosts’ enslavement becomes all the more devastating. It’s only a matter of time before the hosts begin to act out as the orcas did in SeaWorld and begin to harm and even kill those responsible for their abusive captivity (if you haven’t seen the documentary Blackfish, go see it now). And to be honest, I don’t think anyone would blame them.

I expected people would have issues with the show’s nudity and sexual violence. As with many HBO shows, most of it could be deemed gratuitous (although I would argue that it reinforces the hosts’ vulnerability and shows how the humans dismiss the undeniable humanity of the robots). Unsurprisingly, most of the nude characters are female, but the first episode alone featured more male nudity than the first few seasons of “Game of Thrones.” The show also depicts brutal sexual violence against the female characters (something I’m sure we’d all like to see less of in the media and in reality), but in a way that is oddly extremely constructive. Unlike Game of Thrones, Westworld uses the concept of sexual assault to show just how terribly the hosts are treated. It all serves as a jumpstart for a character’s development and the show’s critique of the theme park as well as our current rape culture, not to mention the essence of humanity itself.

But no, people were upset about the fifth episode’s orgy scene – arguably one of the more consensual scenes of the show, if you ignore the question about whether or not the hosts can consent, and the fact that we never see the female hosts actually paid for their services. So, this is the scene everyone’s upset about? Not all the other disturbing and grotesque things we’ve seen up until this point? Yeah, that makes sense. This particular complaint isn’t an issue with censorship – it’s a comment on our society’s priorities. Instead of focusing on the show’s complex female characters or brilliantly interconnected storylines, we want to fixate on one of the most innocuous moments of nudity in the show. Did people forget this was on HBO?

I’m not gonna sit here and claim that the show has no faults – there are more than I can go into right now. I believe it has made efforts to counteract these problems (the lead cast isn’t entirely white), but along with the rest of television, the show has a ways to go. Yes, the violence is extreme and the camera does linger longer on the female bodies, but these issues are more systemic and I’d rather focus on what the show’s accomplishing as opposed to the general state of Hollywood. Because honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen a mainstream show use a “female” storyline to embody its core premise.

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