If you have not yet seen HBO's latest Sunday night stunner series, Westworld, let me begin by saying that it belongs on your must-watch list. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, the show centers on a Wild West-style theme park where guests (a.k.a. "newcomers") can embed themselves into a community of sentient androids (a.k.a. "hosts") to enjoy shoot-outs, saloon life, or a little raping and pillaging, among other things — with zero repercussions. The twist is that — as you get to know the hosts and realize that something deeply nefarious is going on in the park — you're compelled to wonder if the artificially intelligent lifeforms are in possession of more humanity than the visitors who come to fulfill their oft-sadistic fantasies. To watch Westworld is to confront a dark question: How do people really behave when they think no one is watching? There is one particular scene in the premiere that shines a light on this darkness for viewers to inspect up close. In it, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) — the sweet, innocent-seeming host at the center of the series — finds her father murdered and watches her beloved shot to death by the Man in Black (Ed Harris) on the front porch of her family home; then she is cruelly dragged by her hair into the barn, where we know she is about to be raped.
We learn a lot about the park, and the series itself, from this two-minute scene. The Man in Black has been coming to Westworld for 30 years and raping Dolores — who always wakes up the next morning having no recollection of what happened, an amnesia that is both disturbing and comforting. He (and presumably other) newcomers pay money to fulfill their fantasies, free of consequence. "You can’t hurt the newcomers, but they can do anything they want to you" tolls the voice-over as the door closes on the barn. You can still hear Dolores screaming. It's a chilling juxtaposition between what we can see and hear. The scene has predictably renewed conversation about how popular entertainment (including HBO series like Game of Thrones and now Westworld) use sexual assaults as gratuitous plot catalysts that effectively propagate rape culture. Rape has certainly been controversial on GoT, even as an HBO exec tried to neutralize criticisms by claiming that rape is more or less cancelled out by the series' equal-opportunity violence. It should go without saying that this is not how it works. But the problem is that it still doesn't go without saying, and that powers-that-be do not consistently seem to remember that portraying violence against women on TV should coincide with a high-bar responsibility to get it right, which is to say add to the conversation about why it is so wrong. So the question is: Did Westworld get it right in the premiere? Depends on who you ask. The first email I opened up this morning arrived from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which called out HBO for "building a legacy of rape culture entertainment," for potentially re-traumatizing viewers who have experienced sexual assault themselves, and not least of all for disrespecting women at large. The NCES is not entirely off the mark.
But I'm not sure I entirely agree with the critique, either, at least specifically in regards to Westworld. The scene in last night's premiere — which, for the record, consists of moments leading into up to an implied rape — for better and worse, tells us a lot about this world. It is not ancillary to the plot: It IS the plot. And while that may not make the visuals of a woman being dragged by her hair toward an impending assault any less horrifying, it is not violence for the sake of violence so much as it is violence for the sake of creating empathy for a character. The scene shows us who she is, what she has survived, and what she is up against. And though I would never make a case for using rape as a tool for building empathy, I will say this: In Dolores' case, the scene forces viewers to ask a question that seems very much central to the series. When a real human man assaults a machine that looks like a person — that seems to feel and grieve like a person — is that rape or something else entirely, though perhaps no less gruesome? Actress Evan Rachel Wood, who portrays Dolores on the series, voiced her thoughts on the subject to The Hollywood Reporter today. "I don't like gratuitous violence against women at all," she said. She also urged critics to hold off until the full context emerges. "As the show progresses, the way [violence is] being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head." Sexual violence on TV can go two ways: It can serve as a shameful exploitation, or it can be a conversation starter about why rape has any entertainment value in the first place. In my opinion, Westworld does the latter: Dolores' rape tells us something vital about the world she lives in and why we're right to feel so uncomfortable about the theme park's premise. Is the scene hard to watch? Yes, of course. But it's supposed to be. It's also supposed to stir up some very important questions about what falls under the umbrella of "entertainment value." That's why, for now, I'm holding off judgement — and planning to tune in again next Sunday night.