How Westworld Is a Feminist Masterpiece

Despite the avalanche of television content that hits our screens every year, it can still be rare to find a show that places women in prominent, active roles throughout its run. We’ve seen series like Killing Eve (BBC) and Mrs. America (FX) successfully present diverse leading women. Westworld (HBO) recently concluded its third season, and it’s another prime example of a show where poignant messages about women can be found in the subtext without the narrative specifically targeting a feminist vision.

Westworld initially takes place in the eponymous Wild West-themed park, a place where the ultrarich can indulge in any fantasy without consequences. The environment is populated by life-like androids (called “hosts”), programmed to fulfill the guests’ every desire, whether heroic, violent, or sexual. The show has a lot to say about consciousness, morality, and free will, as the first season finds the hosts seemingly waking up to the undue and endless horrors inflicted on them.

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL SEASONS OF WESTWORLD. 

The most curious thing about the feminist subtext in Westworld is just how obvious it becomes once we start to consider the nature of the show itself. Westworld began as a science fiction Western – both genres in which female characters have historically been given extraordinarily little agency. Looking back on the first season, it would have been easy to make a character like Teddy Flood (also a host) the protagonist. Picture it: Teddy, the sensitive, well-meaning cowboy gains sentience after he realizes the woman of his dreams, Dolores the sweet, innocent farmgirl, is subject to the violent delights of the park’s guest on the daily basis. Westworld cleverly subverts this trope, giving not only one, but two women the agency to break themselves free from the cycle of abuse.

The trauma that Dolores experiences in the first episode is one of the most shocking things to occur that season, and she certainly isn’t the only character who trapped in a cycle of abuse. The overarching plot could simply be interpreted as hosts rejecting their programming and rising up against humanity; instead, the show leads the viewers to realize that the hosts’ suffering is the cornerstone of identity, and the first step towards consciousness and independent thought. The audience can recognize their own knowledge and experiences of suffering in the feelings of the hosts, tethering our humanity to these androids more than the park’s guests ever could.

However, I think it’s even more important to analyze what happens to Maeve and Dolores when they are given all of the power. Both have broken down the archetypes that defined them in the first season (Dolores as the Madonna and Maeve as the whore), and it’s particularly satisfying to witness their choices of retribution in the second season. By Season 2, Dolores has merged with the personality of the murderous Wyatt. If we compare her arc with that of a Clint Eastwood character – cold, calculating, merciless, and often mysterious – we begin to see clear parallels with a war movie or Western. Meanwhile, Maeve takes on the sci-fi trope of Neo from The Matrix, with the power to control anyone and anything in her path, but instead uses it for the sole purpose of locating her host daughter in the park. If the first season examined the emergence of consciousness, the second truly began to exercise the agency and autonomy each character was given. Without realizing it, Dolores becomes almost paternalistic by taking away the choice of others, exhibiting many of the same traits that she originally fought against. Maeve emerges as one of the most compelling characters, capable of both extreme cruelty and extreme compassion. What I find most interesting, however, is how Maeve’s innate goodness can inspire others around her to find their own moral compass and strength, without the need to manipulate them once. It’s a fascinating statement on power and restraint. Neither woman is perfect, but that’s what makes them realistic, and human.

Westworld clearly didn’t develop a feminist subtext simply by placing women in leading roles. It takes more than a few lines in the script about equality. By giving Maeve and Dolores complicated, diverse viewpoints, they clearly drive the story with their own actions. In the conversations the two share in both Season 2 and 3, it’s clear that the two never would have seen completely eye-to-eye. However, both agree that giving others free will is the only way to move forward, no matter how imperfectly. Westworld is never without its shortcomings, but it’s hard to deny the masterfully constructed stories of powerful, complex women able to regain control over their minds and bodies, who eventually give the rest of the world a chance to exist in freedom as well.