How ‘Westworld’ season 2 turned female robots with zero agency into powerful and painfully human characters.
When the first season of Westworld debuted, the show was rife with casual violence and sexual assault perpetrated against female characters. The fact that these characters were AI didn’t help very much when it came to watching them suffer on-screen. Perhaps worst of all, although there were a few strong female characters in the form of humans, such as Elsie and Therese, the robot women were completely without any real agency or self-awareness in the beginning of this show. Their code was written to force them to act a certain way, say certain lines and live a certain life — and they blindly followed the script, unaware that the choices they made and the things that happened to them were completely out of their control.
So it’s understandable that many feminist viewers may have written off Westworld at first. After all, women have to deal with rape, violence and a lack of control over their bodies and choices enough in real life. Sometimes you want to watch a show that’s an escape, rather than a punishment.
However, Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood encouraged viewers to look past the initial treatment of female characters last season and be patient enough to see where the show was going with it. “As the show progresses, the way [violence against women is] being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head.”
Wood has personal experience with assault. She had the courage to testify in Congress about her own sexual assaults and resulting PTSD this past February. It was in support of an effort to secure a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors nationwide. Speaking to Congress, Wood said: “Even though these experiences happened a decade ago, I still struggle with the aftermath. My relationship suffers, my partners suffer, my mental and physical health suffer. Seven years after my rapes — plural — I was diagnosed with long-term PTSD, which I had been living with all that time without knowledge about my condition.”
Her experience is strikingly similar to that of her Westworld character, Dolores, in that they both suffered for years without answers or reparations. “Her journey mirrored so much of what I had been through and what I was going through,” she told the New York Times. “It gave me a strength that I did not know I had.” When she testified before Congress, she wore a locket with a picture of Dolores in it.
Wood isn’t the only one who found Dolores’ story arc empowering. In my previous article about Westworld’s first season for Crixeo, I wrote: “If Maeve and Dolores manage to buck the traditional tropes of female characters existing only to be assaulted or saved by men, if they manage to take charge of their destinies and save themselves, then maybe all the suffering that they (and the viewers) experienced will be somewhat justified.” Westworld season 2 is managing to do just that. In the first five episodes of this second season, we’ve watched as Dolores and Maeve not only come to terms with what they really are but also gain power — and delight in exercising it.
If you haven’t seen episode five of Westworld season 2 yet, spoilers ahead!
There is no better example of this than the fifth episode, “Akane No Mai.” The two main story lines in this episode follow Maeve and company as they navigate the dangers of Shogun World and Dolores and Teddy as their relationship evolves in a surprising way. Both Maeve and Dolores suffered great trauma, but just like people in real life, they’re each processing it differently. Dolores approaches it with a fiery need for comeuppance, while Maeve focuses her strength and energy almost entirely on finding her daughter.
In Shogun World, Maeve and Hector realize story writer Lee (whom they forced to accompany them on their quest) simply borrowed from Westworld to create identical Japanese counterparts. Maeve and her Shogun counterpart, Akane, share a story line, a love interest, personality traits and more. When they call him out on this, Lee protests: “We may have cribbed a little bit from Westworld. You try writing 300 stories in three weeks!” And yet, despite this meta-commentary on lazy character tropes in pop culture, Lee’s characters keep diverging from their written destiny right in front of his eyes.
When Lee argues with Maeve over her insistence on helping Akane, she fires back at him that she was wired to only care about herself and yet she still feels enough empathy for Akane and Sakura to pause her quest for her daughter to help them. She also overrode her programming to fall in love with Hector. One could argue that an AI robot overriding their programming to do whatever the hell they feel like is perhaps one of the most powerful representations of female agency imaginable. That’s not even mentioning Maeve’s sudden ability to control the other hosts using her mind, a power she wields with relish when needed.
Dolores, on the other hand, has no patience for empathy. At first she seems to consider Teddy’s suggestion that they abandon her revenge quest to live a quiet life together, and they share a tender, heartfelt lovemaking scene. But in the end, frustrated by Teddy’s softness and kindness and afraid his vulnerability will compromise her goals, Dolores reprograms his personality. Astute viewers may have noticed that Teddy’s character trait controls were adjusted to be more decisive, aggressive and courageous. These are typically seen as “manly” traits, but they also describe Dolores. Until this point I’d been enjoying seeing the show flip the trope of the woman in the relationship being the emotional, weaker one and the man being the violent, hardened one. It will be interesting to see how the switch to Aggressive Teddy affects their relationship dynamic going forward.
This show is demonstrating — via not just the hosts but also human characters like Elsie, Charlotte and the newly introduced Man in Black’s daughter, Grace/Emily — that there’s a variety of ways to portray strong, multifaceted female characters on-screen. In particular, by having Dolores and Maeve override their programming, Westworld is creating an empowering narrative in which we see women rise from the ashes of trauma to pave their own path. We have yet to see how it will end, but I’m happy to report that the women of Westworld have come a long way.