With the premiere of season 2 of Westworld, the show’s oft-quoted Romeo and Juliet line, “These violent delights have violent ends,” was finally manifested into a reality. For decades, the hosts of the Westworld park had been subjected to human visitors’ violent delights, relentlessly. In season 1, we see the extent to which humans would lose their humanity when given a playground excused from the burdens of guilt and morality (and mortality). Humans raped, pillaged, and shot the hosts; the hosts were repaired for another day of degradation.
Then came the hosts’ eye-for-an-eye rebellion, made possible by a change in their core code that had previously prevented them from using violence against guests. At the end of season 1, the hosts stormed a dinner brandishing weapons; in the season 2 premiere, we see what they achieved. The aftermath of the hosts’ carnage was sprawled out throughout the park. Bloody, contorted bodies littered the ground near overturned tables, outside Sweetwater’s saloon, in control centers.
As if corpses being reduced to set decoration weren’t enough of a statement, we also saw multiple instances of the massacre unfurl. While Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) hide out in a barn, three hosts play homage to William Tell by attempting to shoot an apple off a trembling woman’s head. When they inevitably miss — which was clearly the point of their game — Bernard and Charlotte watch her blood seep through the barn door slats. Later on, some guests waltz right into a trap and are executed by Angela (Talulah Riley).
Most memorably, however, is Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) debut. In a wide-open field, a steely-eyed Dolores gallops atop a horse, pointing a gun with impressive balance. Ahead of her, three human guests dressed in tuxedos and gowns run desperately. Alas, their cardio is futile. Dolores, our hero, our buddy, our pal, shoots them in the back. Their blood splays out in a red-tinted mist with a cinematic arc.
Dolores’ violence is carried out in tune to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” a telling song if there ever was one. On last night’s episode of Westworld, violence was an essential part of the “entertainment.” Not only were the hosts, like Dolores, gleefully taking human lives — the violence itself was the narrative spine of an incredibly popular show that, for all its puzzles and games, is generally considered “fun” to watch. And yet: I was not having fun watching last night’s episode of Westworld, at all. Was this because I’m officially becoming my mother, who watches all violence through slatted fingers? Or was it because, in light of the gun violence that continues to plague our country and its schools, these scenes of slaughter just seemed too real? My feelings were echoed by other viewers on Twitter.
It felt hypocritical for me, who proudly participated in the March For Our Lives, to watch scene after scene of petrified humans facing down rifles as if it were entertainment — and not also something that occurs on the news regularly. Sure, art and reality occupy two separate spheres; we shouldn’t censor creativity. But how do depictions of violence on shows like Westworld dull our sensitivity to violence, and even our empathy?
When the violence occurs on a fictional TV show like Westworld, we’re meant to accept the violence as a means of furthering the plot, and as an ingredient in the texture of the show. Instead of greeting this violence with horror as we would in real life, we greet it with complacency – or even with thrill. As Jonathan Nolan, the co-creator of Westworld, told The Hollywood Reporter, “None of us like violence in the real world, but we're fascinated with it onscreen.”
But after the show is finished and HBO switches to Last Week Tonight, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about another school shooting (or church shooting, or concert shooting, or any matter of shooting). In these instances, guns aren’t used to establish a plot point— these guns are purchased and used to carry out senseless mass shootings that don’t tie into a larger narrative arc. The violent show and the violent news are being conveyed through the same medium — TV — and yet we're supposed to read one as entertainment, and the other as horrifying.
All that said, Westworld is not the enemy. To some degree, Westworld has tried to make point about gun violence. When given the opportunity in the park, guests would become mass shooters and rapists. By suggesting that the impulse to enact destruction was in many of us, Westworld tried to introduce us to the deplorable beast within. Given such treatment, of course the hosts are enacting a bloody form of revenge.
But after last night’s episode, I doubt whether that provocative “point” is enough to justify the elaborate scenes of carnage. For so long, I accepted gun violence as an inevitable part of the prestige TV shows I loved. Now, when I watch violent scenes play out, I can’t drown out the stories of Parkland, and Las Vegas, and the Pulse Nightclub survivors with the sound of the TV show. I can’t be so easily and complacently entertained by the same violence in fiction that horrifies me in real life.
Yet Hollywood seems to function on the hopes that audiences won't be discomfited by the stark similarities between on-screen and off-screen violence. After all, many of the same actors who sent concerned tweets after Parkland also star in blockbusters that feature AK-47s. But as guns take more American lives, I find myself understanding the sentiment of director Michael Showalter's conversation-starting 2016 tweet, which he sent in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting: "Feeling angry at everyone including Hollywood movies that glorify gun violence. Liberal actors shooting guns left and right. Hypocritical." Each exciting movie shootout — including that thrilling one timed to music in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 — belies the greater hypocrisy at work in Hollywood.
That it took me this long to reflect on my relationship to violence and art is shocking — and shows just how inured I was, perhaps we all are, to its inescapable presence on our screens. Maybe it's time audiences and creators reconsider just how necessary each scene of graphic gun violence is for the ultimate aim of the show. Maybe it's time we think about what good this is doing for us.