The Strange Fate Of Queer Characters On "Westworld"
In a complex, often sexually explicit show that explores the boundaries of human behavior, there sure are a lot of straight storylines — and the few LGBT characters we do see are either coded as villainous or disappear without a trace. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)
In the pilot episode of HBO’s sci-fi Western Westworld, Shannon Woodward’s character Elsie does something odd. She’s a behavior specialist in Westworld's diagnostics department, programming robot “hosts” who populate the eponymous amusement park. When alone with one of the hosts, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), Elsie quickly glances around her to make sure no one is watching. Then she leans in and gives Clem a full, deep kiss, before pulling back, smiling, and touching her hand to her lips.
In a show that delights in sending its theory-hungry viewers into Reddit-thread deep dives after every episode, Elsie’s kiss could have been setting up any number of twisty reveals. Maybe Elsie’s in love with Clem. Or maybe this is the way she (wittingly or unwittingly) teaches Clem more realistic human reactions; we do see Clem in her reverie make the same fingers-to-lips motion Elsie does, giving us the first indication that the hosts’ memories are more labyrinthine than first meets the eye. Or maybe this is just the way Westworld lets us know Elsie likes women. Or that, as will be the case later with other employees, she has a complex relationship with the hosts. Or — actually, no real need to speculate any further. Because we’ve now seen the season draw to a close, and that kiss has been all but forgotten.
If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter of a story, according to Anton Chekhov’s oft-quoted dramatic principle, then that thing had better go off by chapters two or three. A rifle that never gets fired shouldn’t be hanging there in the first place. But Westworld, for all of its painstakingly elaborate plotting, did something many other shows have done before it: dangled a few big gay guns in front of its queer viewers in early episodes, only to have them remain strangely silent as the show erupted in a hail of gunfire.
Westworld ended its first season with a number of abandoned side plots and unexplored questions, most of which are being thoroughly dissected in the 5 billion dedicated podcasts that have cropped up since Episode 1. But Westworld’s bizarre treatment of its few queer and maybe-queer characters suggests a narrative laziness that supersedes the show’s more forgivably uneven moments, and undercuts its astonishing turns. Westworld wants us to obsess over its every detail — except, it seems, for the queer ones, which are hastily shoved into the narrative then abandoned with a half-shrug. In a show that’s about sex, gender, and power as much as it is about free will and the future of artificial intelligence, relegating queer characters to poorly formed afterthoughts severely limits the scope of Westworld’s investigation into what makes all of us human.
Take, for example, the character Marti, from Episode 3, “The Stray.” Try to see if you even remember who Marti is! You probably can’t — she was barely identified in the show. Played by Bojana Novakovic, she’s the guest Teddy (James Marsden) assists with some bounty hunting; she bursts onto the scene in a very gay vest and shoots a bunch of criminals in town, handcuffing the most valuable guy outside of the saloon so she can later reap her reward. Inside, Clementine offers Marti a discount on her services, and the two disappear upstairs. Now we’re getting somewhere. Not only is she written as queer, but Marti is the first (and only) human female guest to whom we’re introduced.
Westworld is the answer to every age-old straight-male fantasy: Here, you can kill all the bad guys and fuck all the women. Guests are empowered to satisfy their every violent and taboo craving, which will earn them valuable dudebro points. It’s easy to see why men would gravitate to this place — either because they’re already shitty assholes (like longtime park visitor Logan, played by Ben Barnes) or because, despite their attempts to stave off Westworld’s allure, they learn that life's more satisfying when you give in and go full bad guy (like William/Man in Black, played by Jimmi Simpson/Ed Harris). The far more interesting question is what would a woman — what would a queer woman — do with the amusement park’s many offerings at her feet? Through Marti, I thought, we’d finally get a female perspective on visiting Westworld.
Nope. Marti is instead used as a vehicle to get Teddy into play on his new storyline: hunting down Wyatt, the latest mysterious villain. Teddy and Marti’s party is ambushed by nightfall and surrounded by Wyatt’s terrifyingly outfitted men (for some reason they’re dressed like the Sand People), and Teddy tells Marti to get the hell out of there. “Here, take this,” he says, quickly handing her something cylindrical and silver — in all likelihood, it was the butt of a gun or a knife, but the handoff made me wonder if there’s some sort of emergency device guests can use when they’re in trouble to signal to park staffers that they need rescuing.
But the gun, if it is one, never goes off, either literally or figuratively — because Marti escapes into the night and we never see her again.
Watching the following week’s episode, “Dissonance Theory,” I was looking forward to getting deeper into Marti’s storyline, and perhaps even being afforded some time in her point of view. At the very least, I wanted to know if she survived the attack and made it back to town. But she’s gone without a trace. We know nothing about what her character is doing in the show, and we never see Westworld through her eyes; her development doesn’t come close to that of William’s, the human guest we get to watch do a complete emotional 180. There’s always a slight chance Marti could crop up in later seasons, but her story doesn’t seem like a mystery the show cares to solve.
Though we do get immersed in behavior specialist Elsie’s perspective early in the season, she eventually goes missing, too — and practically no one who works at Westworld gives a shit. Presumably, it was head programmer/secret robot Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) — through the manipulation of Westworld founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) — who manufactured the lie that Elsie has taken an abrupt, extended vacation. Ashley Stubbs, played by Least Famous Hemsworth Brother, is the only person who seems to care about Elsie’s disappearance, but doesn’t press Bernard after he brushes off questions regarding her whereabouts. At the end of Episode 6, “The Adversary,” we see Elsie attacked by an unknown assailant; by the end of Episode 8, “Trace Decay,” we learn that Bernard, under Ford’s orders, has strangled her.
Before her disappearance, Elsie was the only Westworld employee determined to figure out why hosts were going off-script and whether their erratic behavior had anything to do with data getting stolen from the park; she was well on the way to cracking the case. Elsie was pushy and clever and funny and gave off some great Ellen Page-meets-Nancy Drew vibes (although she also had serious flaws – more on that later). I’d have accepted her throwaway kiss with Clem more readily if we got to see Elsie further developed, but in retrospect that moment only sheds light on how undercooked her entire storyline is. There’s a definite possibility that Elsie is still alive — maybe Bernard, for whatever reason, quit choking her before she stopped breathing — but it seems likely that she met a grisly end before we could see her really triumph, which would make her yet another queer female character to get killed off in this very violent year for bisexual women and lesbians on television. Or at least, a potentially queer character; all we have to go off is that Clem kiss, which isn’t much of anything at all.
In Westworld, as they are in so many other shows, queer and maybe-queer female characters are disposable when they no longer serve the stories of (straight) men. Marti is a flimsy tool to get Teddy where he needs to be, and Elsie’s death can fuel Bernard’s guilt in the same way his killing of Theresa (Sidse Babbet) does. In the end, Marti and even Elsie aren’t very much better off than the robot women who are programmed to kiss each other as an added bit of spice for male guests’ pleasure during orgy scenes — they’re merely props, or some pretty window dressing.
But Elsie herself is just as guilty of reducing other characters to sexual objects. In one throwaway scene we really could have done without, she remarks upon a black host’s “talents” while he’s asleep and naked in her charge; as Kathryn VanArendonk notes in Vulture, it’s a gross and dehumanizing joke that turns the host, Bart, into a safe and controllable sex toy. The show doesn’t care to explore Bart’s sexuality beyond a racist punchline, just as it doesn’t care to give much narrative attention to anything other than straight sex and forcible rape. (Westworld offers up only one queer man: a skeevy employee who’s supposed to be cleaning up hosts but takes some time out of his busy work schedule to sexually violate the guy robots when they’re sleeping. Not exactly the most positive bit of queer representation.) What we’re supposed to be seeing as the future of sex looks not only underpopulated, but positively bleak.
In the end, the show’s most provocative storylines involve female hosts who will stop at nothing to free themselves from living through endless loops of sexual victimization and violence — the memories of which, in a cruel twist of irony, get them closer to consciousness: Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores and Thandie Newton’s remarkable Maeve are the two most humanlike hosts (besides Bernard) by the end of the season. There’s no clear reason why a show that raises questions about consent, about relationships, about who gets to wield gendered power and why isn’t bothered to push those questions too far beyond the limited bounds of straight pairings.
Westworld at large seems aware of how ridiculous it is to shove women into romances and sexual relationships with men purely for the sake of highlighting some piece of the male ego. In the season’s final episode, Ford dupes the party of investors and other Westworld bigwigs into thinking the big finale of his new storyline is just Teddy blathering on about hope for the future while Dolores dies in his arms, a saccharine-sweet oceanside take on Western love stories — when, of course, Ford’s actual new storyline is a real-life robot uprising, with Dolores taking glorious center stage. It’s disappointing, then, to see the show occasionally dip into the same sorts of heteronormative blind spots it devotes a portion of its finale to critiquing. Even in a fantastical world that explores the farthest reaches of human ingenuity and identity, queer characters just don’t seem to make the cut.
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