Last night marked the season finale of Westworld, HBO’s confusing and gratifying sci-fi show. Over the last 10 episodes, the show has pulled the viewer through a mind-warping, multi-timeline, plot-twist bonanza, spitting us out at the brink of a pretty massive event: the violent uprising of the hosts led by Dolores, who after decades of trying has truly gained sentience. Presumably.
One of the things that really sets this show apart is its female characters, or at least its female hosts, particularly Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the girl-next-door-turned-self-actualized-gunslinger and Maeve (Thandie Newton), the cunning brothel owner who’s going to fuck some shit up as she makes her great escape from the park.
As dynamic and commanding as these characters are, they both unfortunately suffer from a huge issue that affects almost every aspect of the show: its lackluster character development.
But first, what makes these characters so great to begin with?
Tahirah: OK, so I definitely didn’t love Dolores until a couple of episodes into the series. I was annoyed that she always got saved by Teddy, and then Teddy always died. And, then William came along and saved her ass too? I was like, how many times can this woman get saved? But then when she shot up all those Confederate soldiers and was like, “I just imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel”—that’s when I was like, OH OKAY DOLORES. SHE IS A CHARACTER TO WATCH. When did you guys first fall in #love with Dolores?
Charles: I’ve been on team Dolores from the jump mainly because she’s been serving us looks since episode one. Some love the curly sidehairs, some hate them. I’m 100% here for em.
Isha: I fell in love with Dolores at the same exact point you did. It's interesting, though, that she had to literally say out loud that she was not going to be a damsel anymore for any of us to believe her, and to actually take her seriously as a character. She’s either crying or killing—we don’t get to delve into her character too much until the end, an example of how character development, as Zack Handlen at A.V. Club points out, seems to have been sacrificed in the name of keeping the audience in the dark.
Tahirah: I was waiting for her to drop her canned good the next day and look around for someone to pick it up, to be honest.
Charles: TAHIRAH. Condensed milk is heavy.
Tahirah: I know that’s why I double bag it. (Note to Dolores.)
Isha: I think it's great that Dolores is the only host we know of so far that actually gained sentience completely on her own. (Maeve is stirring shit up, but it turns out somebody *cough cough Ford* was just programming her to do that.) But it is kind of weird that Dolores' lesson this entire time was just "Believe in Yourself!" “Find your own voice inside your head, not Arnold's!” It's generic, and not in a deep, universal-story kind of way. But it is something that I think could only work with a female damsel character. Only women need to be told to listen to themselves to the point that it’s a plot device.
Charles: In a lot of ways, Dolores fills that very traditional role of the hapless, confused protagonist who’s just wandering through the world in real time, acting as a cipher for an audience that’s similarly deeply unfamiliar and/or not woke to the world that she’s living in.
But, as opposed to a lot of characters who simply go through the motions and become aware of their surroundings, Dolores’ self-actualization has always felt incomplete and mess. And rather than simply shutting down, she just toughs through it and deals with things as they come. Like “Oh, I’ve been stabbed by a dude–bro and now I can see the machinery that makes my body work. Shit, alright.”
Isha: Arnold and Bernard’s concept of gaining self awareness as a result of suffering, toiling even, is hella Hegelian (I only made it like half way through Phenomenology, but it’s in there!) But when it came to Dolores’ suffering it was sometimes hard for me to figure out what exactly she had been suffering through? It seems like the vast majority of her suffering came from William/Billy/The Man in Black throughout his various visits. WHICH OKAY, let’s talk about the Man in Black and his monstrous relationship with women, and how much of this show is driven by that alone.
Charles: So, after an entire season of wondering who the hell the Man In Black actually was, we ultimately learned that he’s a man with a flair for black leather who high-key hates women, but somehow doesn’t understand that about himself.
We’re made to understand that his coming into the park was driven by the loss of his wife (which, sad) but all he seems to do in the park is hurt more women as he struggles to solve the park’s deeper mystery. Like, at no point in the show is it ever suggested that the MIB has to be a murdering monster-rapist, that’s just who he chooses to be.
The more time I spend thinking about him, I keep asking myself who the character was for, audience-wise. As a narrative mystery, he had the potential to be so much more compelling and interesting, but ultimately he was just another HBO Man Villain Working Through His Problematic Feelings™ who didn’t add all that much to the story.
Tahirah: I will never forgive Lisa Joy, Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, and all of HBO for making me think that Logan was the bad guy when it was really woe-is-me William. I could have had a crush/bae/eye candy all season in fine-ass Logan, but instead I was rooting for William to find Dolores and ruin Logan.
I should have known who William really was when he tried to play the “nice guy” in the beginning. That’s always a sign. William needs to be sent that “It’s not that deep, fam” meme every day for the rest of his life. His character was so boring, I was not impressed. He had no depth, he just had the need to win over other people, to win the game. I’m not really sure if Westworld is a game to win.
But on the terrible person William aka The Man In Black is: In a sense, he was the epitome of the ideal guest, right? The one who gets so lost in this world that they never leave? He’s entitled and only sees this world as ~his world~. Even though time and time again the hosts kept telling him it isn’t his world, that the maze isn’t for him. He’s the epitome of an entitled man and then he blames Dolores for the monster he's become, when that’s not really the case. Unlike the hosts, the guests in Westworld act out of their own free will.
Isha: And let’s not forget that he came back to the park mourning the death of his wife, who killed herself to escape him, not to get a breath of fresh air but to see how much of a monster he really is. He kills Maeve’s daughter in front of her and kills her as well just to see if it would make him feel something. This of course fritzes Maeve, who, in her immense suffering, jumpstarts her journey towards self-actualization.
It would be one thing if there was more purpose behind the two best characters undergoing the biggest transformation of a show. But nope. It’s just a “Nice Guys Finish Last” story’s logical endpoint: William. And his motivation is just your everyday unbridled misogyny.
But back to Maeve! Honestly, I was a little annoyed with Maeve’s character—not only was she such a typical streetsmart prostitute who yearns for something more, but she used to be a mother and has a lingering maternal instinct. So it seemed like a mishmash of two overused character tropes, and they’re both pretty lazy. She becomes a better character the further she gets from her roles in the park. Because like all Westworld characters, Maeve isn’t a great character because of who she is or what backstory she has been given, but because of what she does and how she wields her power. (The only immaculate character on this show is Felix.)
Tahirah: I told myself that I was going to like Maeve no matter what she did or who she killed, cause I’m a huge Thandie Newton fan. But I agree with you, Isha. A lot of her character (or storyline, if you will) is lazy and so cliche. But then she confronts the idea she isn't the witty, fast-talker that she thought she was, that every single thing she says is programmed. And she’s like, “Actually, fuck this.”
Isha: Yes, the moment when she takes control is fantastic. But part of what bugs me about Maeve's brothel backstory is that it reinforces the idea of sex as an exchange of power and not an intimate part of who someone is. I know it's just a TV show, but sex as power—whether it's something the hosts to do each other to titillate the guests, something the guests do to the hosts, or something the lab workers at the management facility do to the "sleeping” hosts—it's unhealthy and it's old.
Charles: Right, like, her story ultimately was going to lean on the idea that she was Sweetwater's top sex worker, with the subtext being that she had to be smart in order to run her business. But there's no reason she couldn't have just been a mother with those same smarts raising her daughter.
Isha: That might be the pinnacle of the male gaze, tbh: Women's empowerment coming not from economic success as a brothel owner or independence from raising a family, but whether or not they give sex.
Charles: There’s an alternate version of this shows in which Maeve recognizes the manufactured nature of her memories and feelings about her daughter and, understanding that, makes a point of trying to ignore them as best as she can. The idea that she would have had all of these revelations about her existence and then, after working so hard to carve out a space for herself in the larger world, would give it all up for another host feels…odd.
On the one hand, you can make the argument that Maeve is laying the groundwork for other hosts to understand one another as being part of a family of sorts. But on the other, there’s the fact that she’s making decisions about a memory and life that aren’t central to her identity. A few episodes back, Ford explains to Bernard that all hosts have a cornerstone memory upon which their entire personalities are built and that those memories can’t really be removed.
Unless the murder of Maeve’s daughter is her cornerstone and the technicians did a shoddy job of writing over it, then I’m inclined to believe that that life isn’t necessarily her cornerstone, which makes her desire to go back for the kid less of a clever twist within Westworld’s story and more of a lazy use of maternal instinct being a woman’s ultimate driving force.
Isha: The feminine mystique strikes again.
Tahirah: Yeah, I just thought it would have been more compelling if Maeve was like fuck this, I’m leaving to go and get my life, walk amongst humans.
Isha: So, the best characters of Westworld made all their progress by enduring the violence of men, which was intense enough to override their programming. Great. I guess this brings us to the ultimate question of Westworld. Is this unique, high-quality prestige drama, or is this, um, trash?
Charles: Let’s not kid ourselves. Westworld is unabashed trash that benefits from having incredibly high production values and a cast of actors who are captivating as hell. The show itself isn’t really trying to poke and prod at any sort of deeper meaning beyond: “What if we’re the real automatons here?” and that’s perfectly fine. It’s a bawdy, tawdry drama about white men playing god with artificial humans who, upon gaining consciousness, realize that they’re being fucked over. Is this a particularly deep story? Nah. But is it a fun one to watch? Hell yes.
Tahirah: I agree with Charles. Westworld is both trash and entertaining to watch. The acting is so so good, and I’ll be sad if Anthony Hopkins doesn’t come back as a host or something, because he’s the ultimate villain. I’m definitely going to keep watching. I mean maybe the takeaway is: 1. No one is really in control of their destiny. 2. Reddit should be writing HBO sci-fi television shows. 3. We’ve come a long way, but we haven’t quite moved past this idea that the root of every woman’s life on screen comes from either a tragic event or old-school trope.
Isha: Westworld is officially crowned Problematic Fave of the Month. I really enjoyed it, and I’m going to keep watching it. It is disappointing that it’s taken so many jaw-dropping plot twists and gives a seemingly genuine deep dive into what artificial intelligence and creating consciousness could actually look like, only to still end up underwhelming. It clings to the same ol’ tropes we always see. Nonetheless, I’m happy to see Dolores fuck some shit up, the rich, fancy humans get thrashed by these angry hosts, and of course more milk. Ultimate takeaway: We are all Wyatt, and also always double bag your cans.