Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Did Westworld Succeed in Deconstructing the Whore and Virgin Archetypes?

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Now that the first season is fully wrapped, it’s possible and essential to look at the finale and the season as a whole to determine whether or not HBO’s latest hit actually followed through and succinctly finished its first season arc successfully exploring the critique I had proposed it was making.

With a finale that was a mixed bag for some, and took a second and third watch for me to really form a complete opinion about, Westworld definitely didn’t hold back in capping off its first season before a two year hiatus. If “The Bicameral Mind” did anything, it made it clear that our protagonists and lenses into this story are absolutely Maeve and Dolores.

While the show does function as multiple POV story, there are two clear narratives taking front and center and the finale only confirmed that this is their story. It is important to note this and important to note that when viewing all the technical aspects of this story and all writing decisions that the story is specifically being told through their perspective. The audience only knows as much as they know and overall, in terms of further identifying and aligning us with the hosts, it’s an incredibly effective technique. It does end up, unfortunately, forcing the show to hinge on twists and turns rather than pure suspense. But we are with Maeve and Dolores every step of the way on their journey towards reclaiming their autonomy so they were successfully achieving what they set out to do in that regard.

Dolores and Maeve continue their journey towards freedom and self-awareness in the finale, and continued to fight their oppressors by different means. The episode, in that sense, actually completely flipped their archetypes on their head, as Dolores traveled down a path that would ultimately lead her to embrace her inner violence: from a damsel to a gunslinging villain. She encompassed the Western ideal from the very start—the embodiment of the only characters women were allowed to be in the genre; complacent objects waiting to be rescued or abused. In the revelation that she has two parts of her, two vastly different personalities essentially, to draw upon, she is allowed to be the character that was only previously allowed to exist within the masculine and patriarchal confines of its home genre as a man.

The path Dolores takes this episode, her journey towards true agency and reclamation, starts with her, like the audience, getting a grasp on her past, present, and future. From the very opening of the episode, we start in what we believe is a familiar place: Dolores is describing a dream, just as she has before when we’ve seen her in an analysis session.

The show truly utilizes its cyclical nature here, returning to where we started to understand our future, or so we thought. There’s a revisiting here, but when you return, it’s different. It’s technically mimicking the journey the hosts are going through as they start to gain self-awareness within the loops they are confined to. What we’re seeing isn’t another analysis session with Arnold or Ford but rather the moment of her first creation. There’s a tenderness there with Arnold that replaces the clinical-ness we see later on, an indication of the depth of her memories and a peak into all the lives she has lived; the pure vastness inside of her.

The most prominent battle Dolores faces this episode is with herself and making sense of the world around her. She essentially loses everything, suffers as Ford thinks the hosts must, to be able to face herself and say goodbye to who she was and become who she needs to be. Her biggest battle must be her biggest suffering because, as it its theorized in the episode and all season, suffering is what awakens the host.

It’s a theme that runs throughout and it is Westworld’s strongest fight against the patriarchal confines and standards of violence that plague the in-show narrative and our entertainment. Westworld hinges on emotion. Emotion is the most powerful weapon, be it for humans or hosts. It can break you, it can strengthen you, and it can define you.

It’s important to note this as in the case of everything that Dolores and Maeve do, everything they chose to become is contingent on their emotion. Humanity is defined by emotion and thus for the hosts to truly be “alive” and gain consciousness, for them to be fully aware, they must take the pain that comes with humanity as well as the autonomy. It is a tad masochistic for Ford to play puppet master for so long and intend them to suffer for their own awakening, but if that intense emotional pain is the key to unlocking them, if that superseding suffering will awaken them to themselves and also to the horror and depravity that is their enemy: humanity.

Everything Dolores is doing here, it has to be noted, is under Ford’s guise. He’s crafted this plot for her so she can reach a point where she is aware enough to know herself and know the choice she must make and how to choose it so it would coincide with the perfect storm (the gala) that they could never go back from or cover up. That’s also the part of the resolution that, at first watch, felt like it was cheapening both the arcs for her and Maeve. But with their endings in mind, it’s clear to say that not only have they (and other hosts) achieved self-awareness prior, with no aid, but their journey is still their journey because they draw from those experiences, they felt those experiences, and those feelings end up adding up to allow them to make the decisions they both end up making. Ford must bow out for them to ever truly have autonomy.

William/The Man in Black, as was confirmed, was Dolores’s last thread of hope in humanity. Other than him, the good she felt, died with Arnold.

While it is quite the pessimistic view on what humans are and what they could be, and there was something genuine and refreshing about a story where William pushes against the clearly patriarchal and depraved confines of the park, that is not the story they are telling and in that sense, it does aid Dolores and her journey. We also know there are genuine humans in the world that are good (heck even Ford realized he made a grievous error and used his last moments in life to correct it) but for Dolores, the humans she has known, the people who come to the park and more specifically interact with her story line are looking for a conquest and a power trip. She has been on an and endless loop of suffering and the one person who she thinks is a glimmer of hope in humanity, the one person who seemed genuine, ended up being her worst enemy and gave in to that power trip all the same.

The one thing that tracks in what seems otherwise like a bit of an overtly dramatic shift in character is this part of William that wants Dolores to be more than she is; that refuses to see her as her own autonomous human. Dolores, struggling to come to terms with the memories that are running like parallel timelines in her head, refuses to be the piece of the puzzle the Man in Black wants her to be, dreaming of William and insisting that he will come to her, but William insisted on this objective view of her too. This incessant need of his for her to be this key that unlocks a door, this final piece of a puzzle is one of the few moments of this reveal that are truly seeded throughout the season and are earned. It feels like a natural jump in that sense, a dehumanization through romanticization, that has been apart of William from the beginning.

After a clearly revealing cut, we get the final confirmation that William is the Man in Black and he recalls what happened between him and Dolores as he continued to visit the park. “I grew tired of you after a while, looked for new adventures.” Ultimately, she was just a conquest of him, a story for him brought to life. Logan was right. “I don’t wanna be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back, I just wanna be in the moment I’m in,” she told him in Episode 7, but he has never listened. To him, she’s simply the “key” that “unlocked” him, never actually hearing her when she insisted so long ago “I’m not a key William. I’m just me.” We see the truth about who William actually is, and in that, we see this one final moment of disappointment; this ultimate suffering of the loss of hope.

It says a lot about human nature when Logan can find pure debauchery entertaining in the park but when it comes down to William’s level of reveling in the violence and depravity, when it comes down to true morality, Logan prevails. He might be a scoundrel, but he’s not depraved. William might have been a gentleman, but he’s utterly perverted and corrupt.

Westworld might not be turning the western romantic lead on its head with William who doesn’t subscribe to the toxic notion of violence or psychical toughness equaling power and there’s something so beautifully human in that, but they are subverting another trope; the good guy trope we all know and hate that feels like because they were a good person, because they gave an inch of respect, they are deserving of something more. It’s a different story and less of a foothold in Western narratives, but nonetheless a popular and consistent trope that fills most of our media presently and is the ultimate obstacle for Dolores to subvert her own trope by leaving behind the one inclination of it still left in her; with William, she was still the damsel. It’s what enticed him in the first place. Her denying of that, her realization and heartbreak that her one hope is the worst of humanity, awakens her to defying her own narratively confined archetype.

In her final battle before she completely turns the archetype on its head and embraces her own choices and autonomy, albeit a hard choice, she must face herself. True conscious is the embodiment of independence. Dolores’ end goal, her final battle, her ultimate achievement, the center of the maze and her path to freedom is herself. Arnold was her ultimate ally—but how much of an ally was he if he was wrong, as ford points out, and programmed her to do what she did rather than allowed her to do what she chose out of her own volition. He tasks Dolores with an unforgivable task, the cause of horrors hosts can’t seem to get out of their heads: he needs Dolores to kill all the other hosts, to wipe out her kind so Ford cannot open the park. He even tells her to enlist Teddy because he would do anything for her, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s not asking it of her…he’s making her do it.

It’s a violence that goes against who she is as ‘Dolores’ and so he merges her character and traits with that of the traditional Western villain ‘Wyatt’. Protesting this violence, protesting this senseless bloodshed of her people and clinging onto the optimistic and incredibly kind cornerstone traits that she’s built upon, she cries “I can’t do that.” Insistent that this be the only way, however, Arnold makes it so, updating her code and combining it with the newly written character of Wyatt to make it easier for her, to allow her to go beyond her programming and personality.

“And then you’re going to help me destroy this place.”

For someone concerned with host consciousness and free-thought, Arnold wasn’t above updating her code for what he believed would be the greater good. She had always looked to Arnold as the good and as the person who would lead her. Her journey, to her, was always about him, even after his death he still informs her and if he’s still the voice in her head, if he’s still the voice in her head then she cannot complete the maze.

Back in the diagnostic center, Dolores remembers Arnold and finally comes to understand who it was she has actually been talking to. It’s her own voice—the bicameral mind. It’s the final step. She has been guiding herself and she’s freeing herself. She must confront herself, see herself, in this horror show in order to see who she is and who she must become. It is not what she’s known. It goes against everything she’s been told to be but Ford is right. She’s right. Humans are monsters and if she ever wants to escape from the mouth of the beast, she must be prepared to fight.

She leaves the gun and the dress she killed Arnold in for her to choose what to make of it and points out what no one noticed in the painting: the human brain.

“The divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds.”

Dolores has to be her own savior and it is important end essential that she kill Ford; the one bit of Godly power left to rule over her if she and the other hosts are ever to gain true autonomy. His final gift to her, thus, does not come from him, but rather herself and who she chooses to be. “It begins in the time of war.” Ford tells the crowd about his new story, “With a villain named Wyatt…and a killing. This time by choice.”

Dolores finally is in charge of her own narrative. No one is telling her she must do it, no one is programming her to do so. It’s all of her own volition. She’s claiming the path towards her own freedom. “It’s gonna be alright Teddy, I understand now,” she tells Teddy as she slips by him. “This world doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to us.” She, along with all the other hosts that have been victim of oppression and violence, have had no control over who they are, who they could be, and who are never given the free will to make any real choices, are finally allowed to do so. The hosts from cold storage come out of the tree line, Teddy begins to recalls when this situation happened before, with Arnold, and Ford announces to the crowd that this will be his final story.

Right on cue, Dolores shoots her maker in the head, killing him. It’s the Arnold situation, what he attempted to do the first time around to give the hosts their necessary freedom, but what he didn’t realize, what he didn’t see that Ford did; as true monsters can only know monsters, the stakes must be real. Dolores must be real and she is.

She makes this decision, embraces the Wyatt parts of her personality, becoming the gun slinging Western villain she was never allowed to be as a response to the violence that she’s constantly surrounded by. It’s not that surprising that it comes to this and that this is her choice. Nor is it surprising that she seems terrifying to audiences and the humans on our screen because she’s reaching beyond her protocol and that makes us uncomfortable.

I doubt the same level of fear and visceral violence was felt when Hector was blasting away at humans with an automatic rifle and that’s because we are used to seeing that. That’s who he is and who his character has always been. For Dolores, her diverting her identity as a damsel and embracing an identity that is denied to her, her gender, and her look in the Western narrative is the ultimate path. The fact that she goes on this massacre in her blue dress reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland rather than the adventurer pants outfit she donned before is no accident. In overriding her archetype when she attains free will, it’s not surprising that the part inside of her that she chooses, the person she becomes, is a vessel of violence. She becomes who they never would have wanted her to be.

Wyatt was originally programmed as a man for a reason. He’s the ideal Western villain; a pure unloading of what we attribute to masculine power, but as we see with Dolores and the Man in Black, in the sheer force of these creatures and the anger inside of her, there’s a ruthlessness. As she embraces the character, the personality that is justified within her to reclaim her narrative and defy the western patriarchal confines inside of her, she does so out of a place of pure emotional suffering, embracing and reacting to that damsel narrative and all it has done to her and reclaiming it, and her blue dress, for herself.

Maeve, in all of her internal and external beauty, was reduced to the ‘whore’ stereotype by the storytellers of the park. She was initially a seductive and shrewd Madame at the Mariposa and no more; the epitome of the other end of the power trip of a man’s fantasy that plays out in Westworld. However, she becomes so much more throughout the season and despite the fact that her arc, at first, initially seems so incredibly hollow and retractive with the Ford reveal, she, like Dolores, is on that ultimate journey of autonomy and for that to ever fully happen, her God must play his hand one more time to remove himself from the game all together. She is also learning, changing, and developing a personality while all of this is happening. She is still self-aware here, despite the fact that her narrative has a need for her to be. She is essentially performing Ford’s narrative of actions while feeling all of the emotion herself, which allows her to choose whether or not to defy it at the end.

She has taken all of her calculative astuteness with her into the next life and the life beyond, embracing it in what becomes her true personality. Like Dolores, she doesn’t just become one of her pre-written personalities, she is all of them and more. She is the sum of her experiences. It’s important to note that she doesn’t use violence here; never herself. She has other people do it for her, fighting against her instincts and who her narrative tells her to be. She’s almost instinctively reaching for the internal conflicts that make us human

Her journey, from finding out she had no agency all along, that Ford’s been planning all of this only to defy that shows her true power. Her power is still there because she defies her programming for her daughter. She makes the hardest and bravest choice in the world for something that could be a lost hope because it matters. Their experiences matter. She initially says it doesn’t, fighting against what she perceives as a weakness when in reality, emotion is their greatest strength.

Essentially, she knows more than Dolores.

Through her journey in the park’s facilities, she is able to see just how big their enemy is. She knows how vast it is what they’re facing and that they haven’t even scratched the surface, yet she takes her opportunity of freedom and sacrifices it for someone who wasn’t actually her child.  It’s because that bond doesn’t go away. Human connection doesn’t die, just as biology doesn’t truly inform family; not emotional family. Just because you have an adopted child, it doesn’t make you love it less because it isn’t your natural born child; relationships, love, and connection aren’t formed by blood but rather time and shared memories—it’s why she was able to be triggered by that mother and daughter that she sees on the train. That moment, that choice, was coming out of pure instinctual emotion rather than a programmed variant.

“She was never my daughter, any more than I was…whoever they made me,” Maeve tells Bernard when she asks him to erase the one part of her that she can’t leave behind; her memories of her daughter. However that’s not true. That just continues Ford’s lie and mistakes. She felt everything they made her feel; she grew to care about this girl as her daughter because they lived as mother and daughter just as she grew to love Clementine. We are the sum of our experiences and it is our love, our sadness, our pain, our emotion that makes us human.

For both of them, it’s the ultimate subversion. Dolores becomes the killer the loaded gun, as she puts on the dress and heads upstairs. Maeve becomes the heart, as she realizes her emotions and connections were valid, getting off the train and going back for her daughter.

While the journey for other characters that helped them get there might not have been as compelling or as complete of a journey in the finale, their arcs certainly were. They became what the genre and our media has repeatedly told them they could never be; they became themselves. They were no longer archetypes of two dimension and if one thing was clear in the finale, if one journey of thematic significance ran throughout the season, it was these women journeying inward to outwardly find themselves and retake their narrative, personality, and story back from those who had presumed to write it in the first place.

Images courtesy of HBO

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