Westworld is Getting Old
By Phillip MaciakDecember 5, 2016
Is Maeve (Thandie Newton) the oldest woman in Westworld? She wakes up the same way every day, walks past a series of gruff, late-middle-aged, even elderly, men and robots playing shoot-em-up in the street on her way to work, stands at the bar sizing up a crowd of men and women ranging in age from desperate youngs to bloodthirsty olds, gets occasionally questioned by two dudes who look like present-day Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins, but rarely sees a woman her own age, let alone older. We, as viewers, have explored large swaths of this fabricated world, and, even at its edges, I don’t know that we’ve seen a woman old enough to be Evan Rachel Wood’s mother. We certainly haven’t spoken to one. Even the mysterious fortune teller in Pariah is played by a 34-year-old actress. A fortune teller—even archetypal crone roles are going to thirtysomethings! And they had Bernard brutally murder the only human woman over forty a few weeks ago. So unless Dame Helen Mirren is at the center of that maze, it’s likely that Maeve is somehow the elder stateswoman of Westworld.
The trick is, of course, that Maeve is actually closer to seventy than forty. And one of the only robots older than her is Dolores, who, ironically, appears about twenty years Maeve’s junior. All of Westworld’s tricks are about age. Or, rather, all of Westworld’s big tricks are enabled by the fact that, like Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, Anthony Hopkins gets older, but they (the robots) stay the same age. Its multiple timelines are contingent upon this fact. The only reason we could have the reveal last week about Bernard being a replica Arnold is that Dolores, with whom we see the real Arnold chit-chatting in flashbacks, never grows old. Dolores’ arrested development is also the crucial element to The Most Poorly Hidden Twist in the History of Twists: that William is really just a young version of The Man in Black. In this scenario, Ed Harris’ age works as a kind of mask or disguise, while Dolores’ eternal youth serves as a visual bait-and-switch. (It’s worth noting that, while the women stay the same age, both Harris and Hopkins get to have young, virile avatars onscreen to counterbalance their craggy mugs—don't want them to miss out!) Even in the world of (apparent) human people, the Annoying British Writer doesn’t immediately recognize his boss because she’s in her twenties and emerges out of the pool like Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (Attractive young women don’t run corporations! Sometimes the twists are sexist, and sometimes the twists use sexism—jk, that’s the same thing.) Despite a premise and an aesthetic that continually suggest to us that it's aware that it’s an HBO show and thus aware of all the misogyny and violence that have oiled that network’s brand for twenty years, Westworld is a show that would be literally impossible if its women aged. This show drinks young blood!
Ageism is among the oldest and cruelest problems in the entertainment industry. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Studio System routinely spat out actresses once they started flirting with crow’s feet, the inaugural masterpiece of the New Hollywood cast Anne Bancroft as cinema’s most legendary cougar even though she was only six years older than her prey, people turn to plastic surgery to fool casting directors, but, all the same, it’s hard to count the number of actresses who seem to mysteriously vanish after their thirtieth birthdays. Just this year, SAG-AFTRA pushed through a new law in California that requires the IMDB search engine to honor requests to remove age and birth dates from actor profiles. The law is being opposed as unconstitutional by a variety of groups, including IMDB, but whether it sticks or not, it’s a fairly dramatic piece of evidence that age discrimination is as bad as ever in show business. The Screen Actors Guild has spent millions of dollars trying to make it harder to Google how old an actress is.
And, at the same time, millennial Mandy Moore is currently playing a sixty-six year old woman on TV. This is Us is a lovely, funny, ruthless tear-extraction machine, built from the same weapons-grade family drama as NBC’s dearly departed Parenthood. It’s not as well-crafted as that show, but it is sufficiently heart-warming, and it will help Sterling K. Brown (American Crime Story’s Christopher Darden, delivering a standout performance here) to win infinity Emmys. Like Westworld, This is Us is operating with multiple timelines. The first timeline features Moore and Milo Ventimiglia as the new parents of triplets, and the second timeline features the adult triplets in the present with occasional visits from their mom.
For a basic family comedy-drama, This is Us has really gone overboard on end-of-episode plot twists. The split timeline is the reveal at the end of the pilot, but the arguably bigger reveal is yet to come. When, at the end of the second episode, we see the character played by Mandy Moore come to her son’s door in 2016 wearing a wig and old-age make-up with a different old man not played by Milo Ventimiglia, the shocking twist is only partly that her character is no longer married to the husband of her youth. The bigger twist, the one that packs the most visceral significance for our future experience of the show, is that, apparently, one of the series’ main characters will be played by a thirtysomething actor in sixtysomething drag. Dang! We say. Are we really doing this? Okay. Alright. Mandy Moore. For an aggressively normcore show, Moore’s casting is easily the weirdest thing on TV right now. I’m hoping Old Mandy Moore shows up in a dream sequence on the Twin Peaks reboot.
So, in that light, it’s not nothing that the co-lead—and, not coincidentally, primary sex object—of a bazillion-dollar prestige drama is Thandie Newton, a magnetic screen actress who happens to have been born around the same time as the original Westworld movie. (Rather than, say, Shailene Woodley aged up twenty years with CGI.) But every signifier of progress on this show doubles as a problem. Newton spends a majority of her screentime naked, so maybe that’s a bold act of resistance against ageism or maybe it’s exploitation. Maeve only transitions from supporting character to lead when she convinces two dopey bros to help her become a genius/ultimate warrior, so maybe it’s awesome that she’s a fortysomething female superhero or maybe it’s a problem that she needs to become an X-Man for the show to take her agency seriously. One of the primary routes she uses in order to make time to plan her revolution is tricking human men into killing her during sex, so maybe this is a woman in total control of her power or maybe this is just a loophole for HBO to produce more scenes of sexual assault.
Westworld received a fair amount of traction with us critics out of the gate for really really seeming like self-critique. Westworld would finally be the show that really gets the criticisms about sex and violence and race and gender and representation that we’ve been leveling at shows like Game of Thrones and Girls only to have them bounce right back off. But, from very early on, once episodes screened, it was clear that this is more an aesthetic of self-critique than an active, important, even existing part of the show. For instance, the mere fact that Maeve is a wise, badass seventy-year-old woman occupying the body of a sexy fortysomething, that Westworld’s god and prophet of old, its oracle, looks like Evan Rachel Wood, is both the initiating gesture and functional end of any critique of ageism the show has to offer.
Is it just a wacky coincidence that this show whose aim seems to be making visible the power imbalances and exploitative representations that undergird the genre and the industry also stars a group of beautiful women who are fucked and killed but never grow old or worse for wear? The fantasy of the Hollywood actor—manifest in Vulture’s occasional quizzes challenging readers to identify which picture of a seemingly “ageless” celebrity is older—is an unchanging, perfectly preserved physical appearance. Maeve and Dolores make possible a blistering takedown of that perspective, but nobody seems interested in pulling the trigger. Westworld (the show) seems to think it can be both Westworld (the park) and a critique of Westworld (the park), but it can’t be. Is there a “narrative” in the park that allows guests to subtly but devastatingly undercut the assumptions about race, gender, and age that shape the way everything else in the park operates? Of course there isn’t. That’s either the narrative, or it’s not enough.
Westworld is the purest of prestige TV shows in that it both looks immaculately like prestige TV and obsequiously caters to our desire to be the prestige audience. It flatters us by teasing the idea that it might subvert the dominant paradigms of this type of TV, that it might construct a counter-narrative to the misogyny plots that buttress this type of TV, that it is smart enough and clever enough to work both inside and outside the tropes of this type of TV. But it also knows that, when it doesn’t do these things, we won’t leave. The critical deconstruction of HBO is a luxury not a necessity for us, and it may send us off to tweet our rage at this failure or that betrayal, but it won’t necessarily send all of us away. It’s a sinister wager in that it bets that our objection to HBO’s house style is an affected one, that it drives our pronouncements but not our practices. Our main need is a puzzle box with high production values on Sunday nights, and, while we might wish Westworld were better, it’ll do till Winter comes.
In last night’s finale, we made a double turn. There was the turn to the endpoint of all this implied self-critique (the image fights back) and then there was the turn to even more orgiastic violence (the image sprays blood and guts all over the screen). Does our assumed approval of all of these deaths, our satisfaction when the robots’ bullets turn real, transmogrify this key component of the HBO aesthetic into a healthy box of Wheaties? And what does it say that Dolores’ consciousness arrives simultaneous with a desire and ability to kill? Narratively, I understand that this is a justified revolt, the breaking of chains, the dawning consciousness of robot identity and oppression, but aesthetically, it like any other HBO show. There is no getting outside of the loop for Westworld. And if HBO had really wanted to get outside of the loop, they wouldn’t have greenlit a series that just has a different angle on their bread and butter product. If you want out of the loop, watch Insecure, stream old seasons of Getting On or Doll and Em—not least because all three offer different, brilliant critiques and representations of age and gender—because Westworld is as loopy as they come.
So Dolores and Maeve’s dawning awareness will not allow them to escape the system. The only way not to see their self-consciousness as scripted is by accepting the show’s lawyerly technicalities on this point. Their minds were jury-rigged to blow at the appropriate time. Dolores delivered a nice monologue to the Man in Black in the cemetary, uttering prophecies about his bones turning to sand and the ones who will come who never die, and that seems like the beginning of something, the description of a reckoning with these violent delights. It seems like a recognition that her agelessness used to be taken advantage of by everyone from Ford to Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, but now it gives her the ability to transcend their petty, horny, dumb, mortal stories. Her youth allows this story to unfold in deep time. But, as Ol’ William notes, those were words scripted for Wyatt, old lines resonant in a different context, a recollection not necessarily a reckoning. And I don't think HBO knows how to represent deep time. The reckoning we see, inasmuch as it has played out so far, feels expected, too. What this show promised was new. What it promised was a story outside the whims of the gods that control what we see and how we see it, that flatter and feed our desires. This was a show that would take those gods, and their supplicants, to task for their lust and venality and hypocrisy—that would take us to task for those things. What we got instead was a story of new gods. Bloody, conventional, ageless and unchanging. Meet the new gods, same as the old gods.
I’m getting too old for this shit,
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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