Westworld and the Frontier Imaginary

Lina and Mike have been obsessed with Westworld over the last two months, and in this essay, they share their reflections on the first season of the series as it came to an end last Sunday. There are mild spoilers ahead, but the two authors keep the discussion focused on the major themes of the TV show as understood through a Borderlands history perspective. We hope you enjoy it. -ed

Westworld, set in the American West in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, tells the story of a futuristic amusement park where many of the “cast members” (to borrow a term of Disneyworld parlance) are not human, but rather humanoid robots.  In the narrative, there are frontier towns, Mexican outposts, renegade Confederate soldiers, violent indigenous tribes, and endless lines of gunslingers and prostitutes. They serve the wealthy clients who pay large sums to visit the park and indulge in the bacchanalia and bloodshed on offer. Undergirding this scifi-western fantasy, dozens of levels beneath the surface, is the infrastructure of the park, built by its director, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and run with the help of his chief deputies, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa Cullen (Sidsi Babbet Knudsen), whose departments also vie for power, while references are made to impatient, faraway investors.

Some of us on the Borderlands History blog have been quite taken by this sci-fi thriller and believe we can learn something about the contemporary understanding and continued obsession with the frontier through HBO’s newest hit.  Moreover, we see that the show not only uses the borderlands region as a material space where sexual and violent fantasies are played out by park visitors and workers alike, but a metaphor for other historical and modern borderlands.

Like Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous address before the American Historical Association, Westworld is also deeply concerned with the frontier. Whereas Turner’s frontier was geographic, this drama’s is scientific. Both use some concept of the frontier to understand how culture and society are shaped. Violence becomes the catalyst for westward expansion in Turner’s imagination, and helps push major turning points for the narratives constructed in the park for its patrons.

For historians of the border, Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” attempted to end a linear history of discovery. However, borderlands historians have critiqued Turner’s vision because it denies the process of continental conquest that underscores the “project” of the United States as one not of democracy and republicanism, but rather empire and capital exploitation. American expansion continued unmoored from its territorial origins, to intervene in Cuba, and other Caribbean and Central American nations, as well as skip across the Pacific, consuming Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines as America became a two-ocean maritime power.

For viewers of Westworld, the frontier is depicted as a loop, where the consciousness of the robotic hosts is reset after every day, but nevertheless, hovers within grasp of sentience if given the right conditions. Three decades of scientific conquest in Westworld’s labs have blurred the borderlines between subject and object as the humanoids seem to express fears and hopes beyond the scope of a mere automaton.  Violence enables the boundlessness of these geographic and scientific frontiers.

The TV show’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, draw implicit connections to Disney parks and in many ways Disneyland was borne out of that same sense of unbounded American exceptionalism that justified westward expansion under the guise of Manifest Destiny.  Westworld is a space where dreams can be lived out; but which are only achievable through assiduous corporate management. Employees and supervisors go about their business in multiple levels of studios that craft new hosts, their clothes, weapons, and memories. It is scripted magic.

This parallel with Disney, however, can be pushed further. In the 1950s, America was the model nation for the West in a postwar world and Walt Disney became one of its chief emissaries. The park’s creator wanted to imagine a realm of dreams and fantasy. It was the public face of what would become a multibillion dollar corporation and culture-making machine. In the 1970s, the creation of Disneyworld went even further; the decision to open it part of Walt Disney’s desire for full control over his creation (something he lacked in the crowded space of Anaheim). Over time, the multiple parks in the Disney empire, perhaps not dissimilar to the worlds that Delos made in the TV show, aged with new layers building on top of the older ones like sediment in a geology of consumerism.

In Westworld, as in the founding myth of western expansionism, certain preconceptions pervade. The foundation, and point of reference of Westworld is the frontier town. To be a part of it, you must dress and act accordingly. Certainly, guests occasionally run amok killing hosts with abandon, but this violence and the construction of masculinity that goes with it, do not violate the unwritten rules of that space.

Beyond the frontier town, however, indigenous groups remain largely nebulous and silent. The dreaded “Ghost Nation” tribe is depicted in the drama as an over-the-top caricature of the “violent savage.” Moreover, playing on this ungovernable stereotype, in one episode, the humanoid machines that comprise this group ignore the voice commands of a park officer who had gone out in search of a missing colleague. The TV show paints a two-dimensional picture of the people outside the primary frontier town of the park.

Although the show’s creators hired a racially diverse cast, in terms of culture, each of the main characters are examples of the neo-Europeans that invaded this space and “made” the frontier over centuries. The true protagonists and antagonists are the Anglo and Europeanized characters, whether they be hosts playing the role of settlers and cowboys, or the scientists and product designers laboring patiently underfoot. From a narrative standpoint, they are the only ones the viewers spend time with. Everything else is mere window dressing to set the world of the drama.

Westworld’s anachronistic frontier becomes a space of emotional and psychological rebirth for wealthy patrons and park staff, but equally allows for the creation of consciousness among its humanoid robots. Likewise, the ever-expanding American nation drives past its geographical edges to create new frontiers and new spaces to exude its power.  As new storylines are developed and new boundaries made, domination and control reign supreme in both worlds. As other writers have noted in recent days, Westworld is a microcosm of American (and arguably global) culture, today; where identity is disconnected from place, and where facts do not standalone, but rather are created, and then erased when they become inconvenient.

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Categories: Essay Series | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Westworld and the Frontier Imaginary

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of December 4th, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Pingback: Westworld and the Frontier Imagination | christopherjhair

  3. Pingback: A Year in Review: BHB in 2016 | Borderlands History

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