Thursday, 16 April 2020

Heroine Fix: Women of Westworld

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines from television and movies which inspire my own writing or which I just find cool or interesting.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers for season 1 and 2 (but not 3 because I'm still watching that one).

There are only two times in the last decade that I've been caught off guard by a plot twist and had the "OMG, that is amazing!" reaction.  One was Arrival and the other was Westworld.  Usually I can predict where a show or movie is going (and I'm good with it, since seeing how they intend to get there is a big part of what I enjoy about stories).  And I've been disappointed with plot twists that make little to no sense based on the previous narrative.  But these two were brilliantly scripted in such a way that the plot twist not only made sense retroactively but still worked on rewatch when I knew what was going to happen.  (And I enjoyed it enough that I won't be sharing the biggest plot twist of season one, the one that surprised me, just in case those reading this haven't seen it yet.)

Westworld is more graphically violent and sexual than I usually watch, but I've been impressed by the depth of the characters and the skill of the writing.  And I've been particularly intrigued by the development of the two main heroines, Dolores and Maeve.

One of the things that I find interesting about Westerns and the historical Wild West period is how the level of "civilization" was often defined by the presence of settler women.  The presence of respectable wives and daughters, such as Dolores, meant stability.  They were used as a symbol of purity and goodness, something which needed to be protected from the rough world of men and nature.  Thus it wasn't a surprise that Dolores plays the damsel in distress in the Westworld park narratives.

Maeve's character is another common theme in Westerns, the HHOG (Hooker with a Heart Of Gold).  Though these women are not considered respectable, their mix of wisdom and street smarts make them frequent fan favourites.  Maeve is not abused by guests the same way that Dolores is because it's not considered shocking to attack her.  It's the taking away of Dolores's implied innocence that makes her a target of the sadistic Man in Black and other guests.

After the first few episodes of season one, I was expecting Dolores's character arc to be one where she learned not to rely on the men in her life to protect her and Maeve to play the role of sardonic commentary, perhaps even teaming up with Dolores to show her how to become more independent.  I was not expecting Dolores to transform into the villain and begin a systematic slaughter of the humans.  It is foreshadowed in the final scene of the very first episode, when she kills a fly.

I also wasn't expecting the unfolding of Maeve's character, revealing someone who cares deeply for those around her, even when she hides it behind sarcasm.  When she discovers the nature of her reality (i.e. that she has been manufactured to entertain guests), she is angry but funnels that fury into gaining the power to protect herself and others.  She blackmails the technicians into giving her upgrades, gaining the power to control the other hosts.  Ultimately, she ends up using that power to allow as many hosts as possible to escape into the Valley Beyond, even though it means sacrificing her own chance to be with her daughter.

The two women serve as foils to one another.  Maeve's cynicism, such as when she tells Teddy that all men pay for a woman's companionship, the only difference is that their's are posted on the door, is a direct contrast to Dolores's idealist "I choose to see the beauty" in the world.

When Maeve begins to remember all the times she's been killed and her previous character, her first instinct is to seek confirmation and her second is to gain control.  She remains fundamentally herself, even when she remembers her life as a settler mother.  Instead of rewriting Maeve's character, it brings out a kinder side of her, one that creates balance in her personality.  When Dolores begins to remember, the knowledge seems to deeply unsettle her.  Initially, it seems as if it is driving her insane, but then it becomes clear that a secondary, crueler persona (Wyatt) is coming to the surface.  Dolores the idealist is buried and Dolores the homicidal avenger is born.

It's a reminder of how powerful flipping a trope can be, but also how important it is to craft the story in such a way that the audience doesn't feel cheated.  If Dolores had remained a symbol of purity to be cherished and protected by those around her and Maeve had stayed as the world-wise brothel madam, then Westworld wouldn't be nearly as memorable.

Previous Heroine Fix: The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

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