This past Sunday night, HBO premiered Westworld, a new series from Jonathan Nolan that blends science fiction with the Western genre. With its meddling scientists, questions of dehumanization at the hands of technology, and the fragile boundary between human and machine, Westworld is a complete reimagining of the American West as a reflection of the anxieties of the 21st century. With a grandiosity that might be described as arrogance, the series represents an attempt to restore the West to its historical seat of glory as the premiere genre of American storytelling.
The melodrama, the mystery, the satire can all be traced to their origins in European culture, existing before the establishment of the United States as a nation. The Western, though, was born in America with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Where Europe had Rousseau and liberty, the United States had John O’Sullivan and manifest destiny — the philosophical concept that declared westward expansion of the American state to be a divine mandate, and which defined the growth of a nation not only by expansion of state capital but also the expansion of state land. But if the policies of expansion were bloodlessly decided in Washington, the matter of actualizing those policies was a bloody business, and with blood came glory.
The northwestern invasion of tribal lands brought fame to frontiersman like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the southwestern invasion of Mexico resulted in “Remember The Alamo!” This rapid expansion of the West would also set the stage for the Civil War through the 1830s and ’40s, as new territories one by one voted to annex into the Union. The very Missouri that swells in the classic Western folk song “Oh Shenandoah” would become the first official boundary between slave and free states. All territories west of where the Missouri River met the Mississippi were left to decide individually whether their new state would accept or prohibit slavery — a policy that was threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln, who vocally opposed the western expansion of slavery. Despite Lincoln’s declarations that slavery in the South would remain unaffected by the halt of slavery’s westward expansion, the southern slave states revolted, protesting that the loss of slavery in the West represented the equivalent of trillions of dollars in investment over time.
This fixation on the West in American politics necessitated the establishment of a mythos to match the region’s nation-building power. Fictional figures like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox became some of America’s first pop-culture icons, while songs like “Home on the Range” became a common language of national character. And if the heroes of these folk tales were secular gods of the American imagination, villains like Billy the Kid became a kind of American Hades — the leaders into the underworld of new social, economic, and technological phenomena like railroad robberies and boomtown saloons. By the time Thomas Edison patented the first film camera in America in 1897, the myth of the West had grown unbound with the nation for nearly a century — less like a genre, and more like it was a uniting public religion.
When the majority of the film industry moved to Hollywood at the turn of the century, Los Angeles itself held the appeal of a frontier town at the end of civilization, a small city of only about 100,000 residents. Some of the first narrative films ever made in America were Westerns — most famously The Great Train Robbery, but it’s also worth noting that D.W. Griffith made his racist epic Birth of a Nation using then-novel stylistic techniques he had pioneered in his popular Western one-reels. Early filmmakers from Griffith to his contemporaries Raoul Walsh, Tom Mix, and “Broncho Billy” Anderson fashioned themselves as iconoclastic additions to the Western mythos — masculine men of action who tamed the wild power of nature with their cameras.
Though Westerns were almost always set in the heyday of frontier towns, Western filmmaking was the center of 20th century experiments in cinematic technology. There were Westerns as film noir, Westerns in Technicolor, Westerns in Cinemascope, Westerns in 3-D, and eventually Westerns on television. And where most historical dramas remain married to the context of their time and setting, Westerns shifted in character with the nation. The black-and-white passion plays of Griffith faded in memory as more morally complex filmmakers like John Ford, Nicholas Ray, and Howard Hawks got ahold of the genre. As an officer in the Spanish-American War, Griffith was a veteran of a war of westward expansion, but Ford, Ray, and Hawks were reflecting a society shaken by two world wars, McCarthyism, and the hidden fault lines of state morality uncovered by the civil rights movement. If the early Westerns had been an affirmation of the American experiment, the great Westerns of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s from The Searchers to Johnny Guitar documented the seeds of doubt that time had planted in the American conscience. That the Western as a genre functionally disappeared from cinemas after the explosion of the Vietnam War was only natural — if the Cold War domino policy proceeded from the same understanding that the American state was the best keeper of the earth, Vietnam was the traumatic end to the frontier, the last gasp of American superiority in morals or in arms.
Though films like Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain, Meek’s Cutoff, and even the Tarantino exploitation Westerns represent significant updates to the Western genre since the end of the Vietnam War, most of those films focus on expanding the mission of the mid-century filmmakers whose influence still lingers over the genre. Just last month, MGM released a reboot of the 1960 John Sturges classic, The Magnificent Seven, in which the change most noted by audiences and the press was the inclusion of actors of different races and ethnic backgrounds in the band of outlaws. But if the genre has expanded in the diversity who enacts the roles in already familiar stories, the stories themselves haven’t changed, which is why the great innovation of Westworld is its explicit identification of the new frontier of American culture. Westworld reimagines the West as seen through the eyes of consumer technology, in contrast and in comparison with the increasingly digital human psyche.
Westworld is set in a world where virtual reality makes travel to the West a consumer attraction, updating the familiar dynamic that placed the frontier in an unreachable place in the past, instead orienting our vision of the West into the future. Westworld looks like the Westerns of the mid-century — the saloons, the whiskey, the shootouts, the overprotective fathers, the men in black, the world-wise hookers, and the plucky heroine — but in Westworld, these are only signposts. The characters of a John Ford movie might have been archetypal, but they were fully characterized within their stories and performed with a wide range of earnest feeling. Figures like Ethan Edwards or Doc Holliday were iconic in the sense that Ford created images for them to carry a world of internal meaning, so that John Wayne’s black silhouette caught in the darkness of an open doorway facing the emptiness of the horizon might become a chord of unrest that both strikes into his character and out into the desert itself.
By contrast, the characters of Westworld are trapped within the images of Western iconography. Whether we are watching the android Dolores or the human Man in Black, the characters are forever enacting roles. The androids are denied a choice in the matter, as they have been created for the benefit of the players who pay for the privilege of a virtual fantasy. The androids have a limited vocabulary of possibilities, their inner sense of free will is limited by the machinations of the scientists who control their every movement, and they lack the ability to control even their own response to danger. But the players, the supposed humans of the show, are no less bound by role. They follow narratives out of idleness, they attempt to simplify themselves into the familiar image, they live out fantasies only in mockery. In the final moments of the series premiere, as the depths of the android flaws are tested by the ever-reliable Dolores, Westworld seems to present a question. Which is more human — the being who has chosen inhumanity, or the being who persists without the knowledge of its own inhumanity? In our post-digital, post-national, post-physical world, Westworld sets the new frontier as the boundary of humanity itself.