“Westworld”, HBO’s adaptation of a 1973 film of the same name, premiered on Sunday and it is a western. The show is other things too including JJ Abrams style mystery box, AI parable, meta-critique of HBO and entertainment at large. But more than all of that it is a western and it is about westerns.The open episode, too cleverly titled “The Original”, introduces us to a western-style theme park populated by robots-cum-synthetic-humans, called Hosts, programmed to play any number of stock western characters – the farmer’s daughter, the barkeep, the bright-eyed newcomer, the bandit, etc. Guests pay top dollar to live out their western fantasies in the Westworld theme park, consequence free. The show’s driving tension manifests as the Hosts gradually begin to realize the true nature of their existence and purpose.
In order to understand how “Westworld’s” sci-fi portion informs the western themes and setting we need to talk a bit about one of the giants of western cinema – John Ford.
No figure defines western film like John Ford, who according to IMDb enjoys 146 director credits, and no image defines John Ford like his doorway shot. If you don’t know what I am referring to you know it when you see it. Most famously it appears at the beginning of Ford’s best movie, “The Searchers” (1956).
Ford situates the camera in the homestead looking out of the doorway onto the wild untamed west. The door is used to frame both John Wayne, the archetypical western hero, and the matriarch Martha Edwards, as they stand on the threshold between civilization and the frontier, reality and myth.
The “Westworld” pilot mimics this shot. The opening sequence features Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy greeting the sunrise in an open doorway looking out on the western landscape her figure in silhouette against the morning sun as she bubbles with youth and optimism.
On the textural Ford’s Doorway is simply a striking shot – the contrast of the dark and the light paired with the hint of unexplored possibility and adventure while showcasing our hero ready to face the coming challenges. The framing draws the eye to our lead character before we cast our attention to the landscape. The doorway shot is just sound technical filmmaking. Ford evokes the essence of the western – exploration, adventure, heroism, the journey, the unknown, the myth.
Looking through that doorway onto the western plains we feel like we are on the cusp of freedom, as though we are starting something large and important which is where the shot resonates thematically.
Ford places the audience within the homestead, this physical intrusion upon the untamed countryside. Civilization’s assertion, however feeble, of ownership and dominance. The effect distinguishes the doorway shot from the more common western landscape shots which revel in the majesty and mystery of the American west.
Here the doorway provides a literal window into the west while also containing it, fixing the land within the doorframe itself. Just as the cowboys draw fences around cattle and lasso horses, the homestead – western expansion’s raison d’etre – endeavors to contain the frontier itself, the very land. Ford is showing us that the entire west is the American’s unknown untamed backyard but it is still America’s backyard. We have not conquered it. Yet. The potential is ours and all we have to do is take it, conquer it, exploit it.
Pulling back to the metatexutal, the doorframe doubles as a camera frame. The rectangular movie screen has been upended and miniaturized. As the audience views the hero in the (camera)frame the hero views the landscape in the (door)frame. We are echoed on the screen. And just as Ford’s square-jawed cowboys tamed the west, Ford tamed the western.
Because the myths that Ford brought to the screen were just that – myths. Fiction. The west wasn’t unsettled. It was populated by entire nations of Native Americans. The western hero was, at best, a typical laborer and, at worst, a murderous invader. As the audience observes the observer observing, Ford forces us to consider our understanding of the American “settler” and his false distorted view of the American west as his land for the taking and, in turn, our false distorted view of the western hero as a noble adventurer and by extension our baseless concept of American history as a project built on and toward freedom and progress.
Ford’s Doorway does not lead to the mythological American West. Ford’s Doorway leads to the crushingly real American Lie.
Thus, as the humanoid-robotic Hosts of “Westworld” come to understand that their entire concept of reality and self has been premised on a series of baffling lies so to does Ford and “Westworld” encourage the audience to reevaluate our understanding of western myth and American history.
That is to say, the Hosts are taking their first steps through Ford’s Doorway, as Dolores literally does in the pilot’s early moments.
This theme of undermining the lies that our entertainment taught us runs throughout the episode. On several occasions the theme park’s managers reference how easy it is to distract the guests with trivial sex and violence. The Hosts are growing to realize their place in the world because the park’s director (who is named, not coincidentally, Robert Ford after, presumably, both the filmmaker and the coward) programs learned moments of humanity into the Hosts’ subroutines. Memories of past lives come to influence the present life.
Two park employees speculate that even if this semi-authentic humanity could be attempted safely the outcome isn’t even desirable. The Guests – the audience members – do not want humanity. They want the myth. We want myth. The consequence free gunplay and whoring. And when you introduce humanity, memory, learned behavior into the equation the myth unravels.
What fun is a pulp western if the Indians have families?
As we explore the truth of the Old West and the history of American expansion the myth become unsustainable. We pass through the doorway of our safe but invasive homestead and we find not a theme park but a killing field.
For “Westworld’s” pilot our past cannot be erased and our sins will return to destroy us even if we bury them underground. Our media and entertainment can serve the dual role of both obfuscating our past, by creating the faulty myths in the first place, and also crystallizing our true memories and actual shared histories through artifice and art. We are only one episode in so “Westworld” has plenty of time to plunge into the regrettable depths of producer JJ Abrams’ mystery box but for now the show invites us to remember the past and warns of the perils of forgetfulness.