The western tradition
As we were watching the premiere of Westworld last week, my wife turned to me and said: “Why would they make it a western park?” Or maybe I asked her—I can’t quite remember. But it’s a more interesting question than it sounds. When Michael Crichton’s original movie was released in the early seventies, the western was still a viable genre. It had clearly fallen from its peak, but major stars were doing important work in cowboy boots: Eastwood, of course, but also Newman, Redford, and Hoffman. John Wayne was still alive, which may have been the single most meaningful factor of all. As a result, it wasn’t hard to imagine a theme park with androids designed to fulfill that particular fantasy. These days, the situation has changed. The western is so beleaguered an art form that whenever one succeeds, it’s treated as newsworthy, and that’s been true for the last twenty years. Given the staggering expense and investment involved in a park like this, it’s hard to see why the western would be anybody’s first choice. (Even with the movie, I suspect that Crichton’s awareness of his relatively low budget was part of the decision: it was his first film as a director, with all of the limitations that implies, and a western could be shot cheaply on standing sets in the studio backlot.) Our daydreams simply run along different lines, and it’s easier to imagine a park being, say, set in a medieval fantasy era, or in the future, or with dinosaurs. In fact, there was even a sequel, Futureworld, that explored some of these possibilities, although it’s fair to say that nobody remembers it.
The television series Westworld, which is arriving in a markedly different pop cultural landscape, can’t exactly ditch the premise—it’s right there in the title. But the nice thing about the second episode, “Chestnut,” is that it goes a long way toward explaining why you’d still want to structure an experience like this around those conventions. It does this mostly by focusing on a new character, William, who arrives at the park knowing implausibly little about it, but who allows us to see it through the eyes of someone encountering it for the first time. What he’s told, basically, is that the appeal of Westworld is that it allows you to find out who you really are: you’re limited only by your inhibitions, your abilities, and your sense of right and wrong. That’s true of the real world, to some extent, but we’re also more conscious of the rules. And if the western refuses to go away as a genre, it’s because it’s the purest distillation of that seductive sense of lawlessness. The trouble with telling certain stories in the present day is that there isn’t room for the protagonist that thrillers have taught us to expect: a self-driven hero who solves his problems for himself in matters of life and death. That isn’t how most of us respond to a crisis, and in order to address the issue of why the main character doesn’t just go to the police, writers are forced to fall back on various makeshift solutions. You can focus on liminal figures, like cops or criminals, who can take justice into their own hands; you can establish an elaborate reason why the authorities are helpless, indifferent, or hostile; or you can set your story in a time or place where the rules are different or nonexistent.
The western, in theory, is an ideal setting for a story in which the hero has to rely on himself. It’s a genre made up of limitless open spaces, nonexistent government, unreliable law enforcement, and a hostile native population. If there’s too much civilization for your story to work, your characters can just keep riding. To move west, or to leave the center of the theme park, is to move back in time, increasing the extent to which you’re defined by your own agency. (A western, revealingly, is a celebration of the qualities that we tend to ignore or dismiss in our contemporary immigrant population: the desire for a new life, the ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and the plain observation that those who uproot themselves and start from scratch are likely to be more competent and imaginative, on average, than those who remain behind.) The western is the best narrative sandbox ever invented, and if it ultimately exhausted itself, it was for reasons that were inseparable from its initial success. Its basic components were limited: there were only so many ways that you could combine those pieces. Telling escapist stories involved overlooking inconvenient truths about Native Americans, women, and minorities, and the tension between the myth and its reality eventually became too strong to sustain. Most of all, its core parts were taken over by other genres, and in particular by science fiction and fantasy. This began as an accidental discovery of pulp western writers who switched genres and realized that their tricks worked equally well in Astounding, and it was only confirmed by Star Trek—which Gene Roddenberry famously pitched as Wagon Train in space—and Star Wars, which absorbed those clichés so completely that they became new again.
What I like about Westworld, the series, is that it reminds us of how artificial this narrative always was, even in its original form. The Old West symbolizes freedom, but only if you envision yourself in the role of the stock protagonist, who is usually a white male antihero making the journey of his own volition. It falls apart when you try to imagine the lives of the people in the background, who exist in such stories solely to enable the protagonist’s fragile range of options. In reality, the frontier brutally circumscribed the lives of most of those who tried to carve out an existence there, and the whole western genre is enabled by a narrative illusion, or a conspiracy, that keeps its solitary and brutish aspects safely in the hands of the characters at the edges of the frame. Westworld takes that notion to its limit, by casting all the supporting roles with literal automatons. They aren’t meant to have inner lives, any more than the peripheral figures in any conventional western, and the gradual emergence of their consciousness implies that the park will eventually come to deconstruct itself. (The premiere quoted cleverly from The Searchers and Unforgiven, but I almost wish that it had saved those references until later, so that the series could unfold as a miniature history of the genre as it slowly attained self-awareness.) If you want to talk about how we picture ourselves in the heroes of our own stories, while minimizing or reducing the lives of those at the margins, it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it than the western, which depended on a process of historical amnesia and dehumanization from the very beginning. I’m not sure I’d want to visit a park like Westworld. But there will always be those who would.