'Westworld's "Contrapasso" Episode Suggests Dehumanization and Dante's Nine Circles of Hell
The narrative pivots and complicates the reality of Westworld in "Contrapasso". The show is about the most HBO-ized episode of an HBO drama ever produced.
Westworld’s fifth episode, "Contrapasso", is in some ways difficult to describe. On the one hand, it represents a pivot in the narrative, or rather, the further winding delineation of narrative threading. In an ironic juxtaposition, Westworld's story threading is actually about stories unraveling, and "Contrapasso" tackles this issue on both a visual and narrative front. Co-creator/showrunner Lisa Joy is credited with the teleplay (with shared story credit with Dominic Mitchell), and she pulls strings that ignite several pivotal reveals. While several previous episodes relied strategically on above the shoulders close ups of nude hosts in laboratory settings, Director Jonny Campbell intentionally pulls back throughout the entire episode. The raw flesh on constant display evokes a clear mood of dehumanization throughout "Contrapasso".
On the other hand, "Contrapasso" is about the most HBO-ized episode of an HBO drama ever produced. Perhaps it was a strategic marketing gesture to release the episode amidst the most white-hot political melodrama in US political history. Given the volatile 24/7 news coverage -- itself a narrative that seems too sensationalized ever to be taken seriously as fiction -- Westworld producers slipped past one of the most flaccidly erotic hours of television ever. To be clear, this is a second ironic juxtaposition that has some clear intent behind it.
To claim Westworld aspires to "high art" is an understatement. Westworld's writing team is obsessed with the classics, but unlike a lot of popular shows, the genre interests exhibited expand beyond literature and pop culture; it borrows heavily from classical mythology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. In tune with meditations on Enlightenment (a movement predicated on cultural blending religion and philosophy through artistic expression), the episode title "Contrapasso" summons thematic imagery and resonance from Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. In effect, the hosts represent dehumanized products in a hierarchy to service human visitors and programmers. Brought back to life only to suffer fantastically fatal atrocities over and over, they literally embody a livelihood comparable to the endless suffering of eternal damnation Dante envisions (e.g. Dante's Inferno). Because the hosts are both human-like and nonhuman, however, they exist in a liminal state betwixt and between the supposed virtues (and vices) of humanity. For this reason, the contrapasso comparison also registers with the theological identification of purgatory (see also Dante's Purgatorio).
Naturally, the purgatory argument is perhaps one reason some critics continue to draw comparison between Westworld and Lost. The other comparative reason being the show’s reliance upon complex, if not poetic, emotion experienced by visitors like William (Jimmi Simpson) and maybe even The Man in Black (TMIB) (Ed Harris) as well, although the cracks are suggesting hosts like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) are not too far behind. Also, it would seem that alleged humans like William, or even technician Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), find themselves investing more and more with lower caste AI due to an overall dissonance and dissociation with whatever world they otherwise inhabit.
Purgatory Holds (No) Purpose
I've teased the sub-genre of future shock in "Chestnut", and it's noteworthy that "Contrapasso" continues to feed ideas that the outside world visitors come from is lacking. In a rare conversational showdown that’ll benefit from repeat viewings, TMIB is joined at a saloon drinking table by none other than the chief architect of Westworld himself, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Ford has been increasingly tossing the name "Arnold”"around as of late, the newest open signifier MacGuffin for explaining, nay teasing the park’s origins. In the conversation, Ford and TMIB make passing reference to how outside culture has become so pacified by the mass meeting of social needs. In other words, society largely lacks purpose.
The same lack of purpose sentiment is echoed more covertly when Logan (Ben Barnes) insults William’s rise to executive vice president at their company. Compound these two examples with Bernard’s alienation from his wife, or TMIB's dark actions coming in from a CEO-type status, and the outside world resembles a number of broken and dissociated anxieties that arguably add contemporary resonance that’s distanced for comfort. Similarly, Lost featured a collage of characters bound by postmodern identity crises while searching for purpose or a more primal understanding of Self.
Hamlet Meets Frankenstein
"Contrapasso" begins with Ford back in the damp bowels underneath Westworld. Specifically, he meets his old "friend", the animatronic Old West barkeep with the handlebar mustache and thin sharp goatee. As viewers will recall, this character was briefly teased back at the season's beginning. It's clear from his jittery robotic posture shifts that he’s more than an old cowboy. He's a Model 1-type machine, with industrial ticks, limited vocabulary, and short-term programming. It's a fascinating figure, all the more so that Ford chooses to visit him anytime he's feeling nostalgic. Indeed, that's exactly where we find Ford focused as of late: in the past.
Ford essentially monologues about a childhood story involving an incident with a greyhound. The point of the story is that this fierce, elegant, beautiful racing dog prizes itself by instinctually chasing a material gray rag (at the race tracks). However, when the hound finally goes off script and devours a gray cat, its bewildered reaction renders both confusion and a step too far in its primal uncovering. The story is a clear metaphor for where this show is headed, and more intuitively, Ford's melancholy ambivalence toward this endgame. As the creator of t/his universe, he certainly bears responsibility, and yet he’s more than willing to tinker with and observe the chaos to come. The scenes where he talks to his creations (the Western barkeep, the boy in the desert, Dolores [Evan Rachel Wood], etc.) are all the more haunting and pivotal to Ford's villainous hubris.
Regarding technical execution, these scenes do a brilliant service for effectively refashioning the mad man soliloquy to appear as if it were character interaction and conversation, while in fact, it’s a single being of agency communicating to an inferior being programmed toward subservience and obedience. A flickering in the foreground, perhaps some type of gaslight furnace, lights this particular scene, as the background stays dark except for industrial backlighting. It’s a soliloquy, a fireside chat for a party of one.
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The Profane Underworld
At the outskirts of Westworld, Dolores stands amidst a graveyard of stick crosses. She seems to experience an internal voice, a male that commands her to "find me". Is this Bernard, who previously encouraged her to journey toward the center of the maze? It's close, but I highly suspect the voice is dissimilar. It also doesn't sound like her father or Teddy (James Marsden). Instead, I suspect it's the voice of Arnold, the unseen co-architect of Westworld, a character subject to digital and historical erasure.
The group comprised of William, Logan, Dolores, and an outlaw prisoner arrive at the outskirts of a town referred to as "Pariah" (Or Uriah, I can't quite tell after listening a handful of times. It also sounds like he says Orion, which is, of course, a theme the show's tapped into a couple of times.) Logan describes the location as a, "city of outcasts, delinquents, thieves, whores, and murders". The town looks less like an authentic western village and more so like an exaggerated adobe superstructure rendered by the Game of Thrones VFX team. This is no coincidence, as the depictions of life within its walls would make the saloon-brothel in the town of Sweetwater blush by comparison. Pariah is an antithesis to idyllic paradise (Dante's Paradiso). It might be better described as a hedonic den of sensual nonsense: an oasis of lust so over the top in visual aggressiveness; a hyper-sexualized haven where women literally walk the streets nude painted in gold. I can't tell if it's a parody of HBO's worst instincts, or a desperation grab in the event that thinking too hard about the sci-fi-isms and whether or not putting up with the western motifs turns off viewers.
In Some Alternate Universe, Stanley Kubrick’s Never-made Western Feels Complete
Regarding the elephant in the room when the group gets to Pariah, I originally thought I’d gloss over this as best I can. The series is all about visuals and digital culture and television as a medium and how technological upgrades are steeped in visual culture, so overlooking Pariah’s sensuous design seems disingenuous (like the town itself). In terms of Pariah’s storytelling function, the way the town (and specifically its inhabitants) are presented both making sense and seeming completely ludicrous at the same time.
I'm going to try to leave as much to the reader's imagination here as possible, but suffice to say: imagine an entire town where everyone comes to engage in seedy business, and the most obvious business exchanges revolve around the world's oldest profession. I can absolutely see the male park patrons -- which seem to be the dominant hegemonic presence in Westworld -- buying into such low-hanging fruit. Perhaps that's part of the point, as an extending allegory to William's ongoing temptations within Westworld. The majority of men here seem to fall prey to its vices. It's window-dressing but cranked up to an 11 on the overt scale. There's nothing left to the imagination in "Contrapasso" when it comes to the focus of intent in Pariah.
(I take that back, one thing left to the imagination is whether hosts can transmit STDs. I mean, this is going to be answered by some pseudo-science tech in a throwaway conversation, right? If Westworld patrons shell out $40k a day, does this include vaccinations for syphilis, or is another component of dangerous excitement in the Old West experience?)
Many critics spoke out against the rape politics depicted in Game of Thrones, specifically how such repetition (or even production design mismanagement like focusing on Theon's reaction shot in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" or Cersei’s level of consent in "Breaker of Chains") and the perpetual need to insert lead characters into these positions. I might suggest a similar vibe at work here, in that the narrative storytelling becomes too distracted by the visual storytelling.
Stanley Kubrick's infamous cloak and dagger orgy in Eyes Wide Shut feels tepid by comparison, as does the over-hyped opioid party in True Detective's much-maligned second season episode "Church in Ruins". As a person that grew up in the '80s and '90s, I might have to freeze-frame the closing credits to see if Paul Verhoeven at least receives honorable mention in the "thank yous". I just don't know what to make of it, other than they sure do a good job leaning on excess in a series of scenes meant to convey how Westworld is a pleasure dome that caters to mostly privileged white men at an extremely steep buy in (I mean, if you process it on that level, there's clearly a lot of real-world criticism you can unpack…if you can stay focused, that is.).
Notably, Lisa Joy is credited with both the teleplay and co-scripting duties. There’s a bit of an exception that goes with this terrain, in which the female authors are given more of a pass on hyper-sexualized content. One example is the delicate touch brought to Starz's Outlander, where loving contact is gently presented and not overly stylized. Outlander then contrasts sexual abuse onscreen that carries deep ramifications and haunts abusers and abused across many episodes.
This isn't the case in Pariah. Perhaps part of the problem is the overt artificiality of it all. The hosts are so perfectly sculpted (a nod to da Vinci's David and the contrapposto subject position?) that they in no way fit the Western motif. These bodies are in direct contrast to the warehouse full of standing offline hosts -- presumably retired for various reasons -- that were teased in "The Original" when Ford met his saloon favorite (a double callback is highly suspicious). Regarding social significance, I'm left to the following conclusion: Westworld has the same dehumanization problem as the extra-textual real world. Not Westworld’s "real world", Westworld's real world. Anything perceived as ugly, please hide out of sight. All things visually seductive be on full display and to excess. A metaphor for the digital age and the entertainment industry? Got it. Moving on.
Medieval Poetics as Postmodern Plot Mechanics
The most criminal element here is that the overt eye candy almost distracts from one of the most pivotal reveals yet on Westworld, and therein lies a potential rationale of intent with Pariah's distracting ways. Borrowing heavily from the Game of Thrones "sexposition" playbook (see Myles McNutt, Cultural-Learnings.com, 2011), Logan contextualizes Pariah in real-world corporate interest terms. "The further out from Sweetwater we get, the more grandiose, the bigger the narratives become." (Notably, he's describing the act of world-building itself.) Dolores stoically takes it in, "It's beautiful, in its own way." Logan constantly breaks character to analyze their situation within the context of a consumer experience. (He's the worst kind of fanboy, and someone you don’t want to sit near in a movie theater.) Logan describes Pariah as contrapasso (or suffering the opposite) to Westworld's otherwise "market-tested" experiential design.