In the Season 1 finale of HBO’s robots-run-amok sci-fi drama Westworld, shortly before he is – spoiler alert! – shot in the head with a vintage American revolver, Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Robert Ford delivers a rousing speech that also functions as the show’s thesis statement. “I’ve always loved a good story,” Ford says. “I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”
“If you read between the lines, there are so many metaphors for so many things,” explains Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood, who plays – spoiler alert! again – the android “host” who kills Dr. Ford and initiates a robot rebellion. “We are living in our own version of Westworld. This is a false reality that we’ve all agreed upon. None of this is real. We’ve just agreed that it is. So, suddenly, you start to question your own programming, and what’s learned and not necessarily true.”
Sitting in a Toronto boardroom on an unseasonably warm winter day, between long drags on an e-cigarette, Wood enthuses about Westworld with the wild, infectious, “Ya gotta understand, man …” enthusiasm of a teenager who has just smoked pot for the first time. As the actor animating Dolores Abernathy, an android damsel-in-distress in the titular futuristic western theme park, Wood is at the centre of the series’ ever-expanding tangle of mystery and metaphor – the contour along which the writers’ twists and turns are mapped. Yet, she is also, clearly, absorbed by the show’s world-building, its puzzles, its narrative and thematic conundrums.
This gives Wood the double distinction of being the star of a show hailed for its ability to spur obsessive fan engagement, and an especially obsessive fan herself. “Nobody realized how meta the show was last season,” Wood insists. “I’d be theorizing and people would be like, ‘Whatever.’ Now they’re listening!”
Such frenzied theorizing has become part of the process of engaging with certain episodic entertainments (Lost, Game of Thrones, True Detective, Twin Peaks: The Return). The enigmas of Westworld are so essential to its appeal that it becomes impossible to imagine “just” watching it. Obsession is its de facto mode of appreciation, to the point that co-creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan recently announced that Westworld’s forthcoming second season comes with plans to deliberately stymie and mislead Reddit speculators and others keen to spoil the surprise. “Reddit really annoyed them,” Wood says. “They’re not going to make it easy for them this season.”
One of Westworld’s major first-season plot twists saw Wood’s Dolores revealed to be the psychopathic “Wyatt” – a skilled soldier and programmed insurrectionist. It was the culmination of a winding, at times confusing, story line about Dolores being guided to full consciousness, aided gently by the one of the park’s creators and impeded by the maniacal “Man In Black” (Ed Harris). It’s a plot that saw Wood repeatedly beaten, bloodied and sexually assaulted. And it suggests a deep incoherence in Westworld. How can the show, which presents itself as an allegorical critique of violence and the brutality of the American psyche, indulge in so much of its stock imagery? To what extent is the appeal of Westworld the HBO show the same as that of Westworld the fictional theme park depicted therein?
“We’re trying to show real consequences,” Wood responds, noting that she suffered an existential crisis after filming on Season 1 wrapped. “And it’s really hard to watch, and it’s brutal and it’s really hard to do. A few cast members will weep after takes. We’re not trying to make this cool in any way. We’re trying to show how what we put out into the world comes back to haunt us.”
Wood’s phrasing calls to mind Freud’s “return of the repressed” – the notion that ideas that have been ignored or suppressed will avenge themselves in time. For Wood, Westworld is all about the repressed, with the theme park’s artificially intelligent hosts standing in for any group forced to hew to prescribed social narratives. It would be easy to proclaim that androids have thus replaced zombies, pop culture’s favourite go-to metaphorical ciphers. And indeed, Westworld can sometimes feel like the Costco of premium cable storytelling; a place where heavy themes are sold off in bulk.
But there’s a particularity to Westworld’s critique that feels especially timely. Caught between its Wild West trappings and its futuristic setting, Westworld lands smack in the middle of right now. More than an underdeveloped appraisal of wanton gun violence, Westworld deals specifically with the dismantling of patriarchy. The park’s hosts suffer under the genius male egos of their creators, and are subjected to the macho posturing of visiting guests. It’s fitting that Wood – who has been open about her bisexuality, her own experiences with sexual assault and her repudiation of Woody Allen, who directed her in 2009’s Whatever Works – lead this charge. Wood saw something in Westworld’s plot of revolution and social upheaval reflected in recent headlines. “Playing that character while 2017 was happening was a trip,” she says.
The tendency to connect a cable sci-fi series to a present moment can, however, prove misleading. Pop-culture texts can seem thematically vague and generic enough to be always applicable, to any moment whatsoever. What distinguishes Westworld is that it is precisely about this desire to make sense, to build thematic bridges between a fictional theme park and the real world, to fit a story or a season of television in some grand narrative architecture. Lies can sometimes tell a deeper truth. But sometimes – spoiler alert! one more time – they are just lies. What’s satisfying about Westworld is how even the best laid theories are stymied, suggesting that not every story can be crammed into some archetypal structure, and not every puzzle can be solved. It is, to use Wood’s word, “meta.”
And if Wood – star, superfan, advocate and avatar of the socially marginalized and repressed – is to be believed, that frustration will only mount as fans crash the gates on Westworld’s second season.
“A lot of the twists, there’s absolutely no way to foresee them,” she says in what sounds like a challenge. “Your brain will never go to the places where the show is going to.”
The second season of Westworld premieres April 22 on HBO Canada.