Christians Have Good Reasons Not to Watch Westworld. Maybe Some of Them Really Should Anyway.
Early this month HBO launched its newest Sunday night drama. Glittering with big screen stars on horizons as vast as any classic Western, Westworld delivers the sort of small screen spectacle only the most generous pay-cable budgets can provide.
As immediately obvious as the size of its budget, however, are the size of Westworld’s ethical questions about the relationship between humanity and technology. Debuting just a few weeks before Playstation4’s new virtual reality head-set, the series asks how later generations of virtual reality technology will force us to recalibrate our ethics. How will creations a few iterations beyond today’s digital entertainments, bioengineering feats, and artificial intelligence confound our moral compasses?
Westworld is about a virtual reality vacation spot where tourists (referred to as “newcomers”) come to live out unscripted adventures in a vast simulacrum of the Old West. These fantasies are made possible largely by the vacation park’s thousands of “hosts.” A host can be your trail guide or your poker dealer, your buxom date or your pistol-toting nemesis. They are uncannily lifelike androids given a variety of 19th century occupations and the ability to improvise within the parameters of their programmed personalities.
Westworld the vacation destination is the perfect “open sandbox” digital game or choose-your-own adventure story until some of the hosts manifest glitches, a symptom of their developing sentience.
The questions Westworld asks about our relationship to technology are both ethical and physical, as though every mother’s worst anxieties about Grand Theft Auto San Andreas had a baby with every kid’s worst nightmares about those animatronic characters at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Put simply: Westworld is Cylons at the OK Corral.
This high-concept TV series is poised to spin weekly narratives presenting moral conundrums. What sort of Western adventure would you be tempted by if you were a “newcomer”? Do we believe that the corporations and inventors who bring us new technologies are also the people equipped to lead us into new ethical territory?
If everything I say is true, another good question would be, Why wouldn’t most Christians want to watch?
Well, there are hookers in it. And an off-screen rape in the pilot has already sparked controversy. These sexual situations will, quite rightly, be a deal-breaker for some. Though honestly, more explicit treatment of this material happens on network primetime.
Also, Westworld is violent. Bandits are on the lose. Posses are mustered. Shots ring out. Scalps are, well, scalped and taken as souvenirs. It’s violence of the old school Western variety but without any old school squeamishness about being visually realistic.
This Old West bleeds. Still, many Christians have happily sat through similar gruesomeness (like most scenes that involve an Orc) or far worse (Braveheart comes to mind) in the name of narratives they find “redeeming” overall.
Why do I really think most Christians will turn off Westworld? Even the ones who don’t bulk at adult situations and shoot-em-up violence?
Nudity. An uncomfortable amount of nudity. Women and men, old and young, the “hosts” are often shown naked. These aren’t sex scenes or even sexy scenes but scenes that use human bodies like objects, showing hosts as props for the Westworld theme park. It’s the show’s clever way of raising questions about objectified bodies in entertainment, but it still means flesh on the screen.
If you weren’t skeptical of my morality at the beginning of this article, many of you probably are now. I probably lost a good number of readers a few paragraphs back when I mentioned the hookers, or even right at the beginning when I mentioned HBO.
Likewise, though most Christian viewers will write off this series, there’s a compelling reason for some of us to stick it out despite the sex, violence, and naked folks.
Christians should seek to be part of conversations that question our society’s morals and attempt to imagine our ethical future. HBO has just served notice that one of those conversations this fall will be staged within and around a pop culture narrative.
Without thoughtful believers among Westworld viewers, there will be no voice of the Christian understanding of mankind in the blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and water cooler conversations that ensue.
The Church and maybe even our broader culture will benefit from a few intrepid Christian viewers having been ready with something winsome and relevant and unique to say about how, yes, man is both black-hearted sinner and image-bearer of a good Creator at the same time.
Even if this series implodes mid-way through, the first two episodes are provocative dramas whose ethical aspirations clearly have more in common with Ovid’s Metamophoses, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or even Shelley’s Frankenstein than with a typical episode of CSI.
Might it be time for some of us—perhaps a brave handful with steely dispositions—to seek out such challenging themes in contemporary media rather than in the no less morally troubling literature of the Western cannon?
I’m gathering a posse. We ride Sunday at nightfall.