Westworld, Samurai

Westworld's white supremacist undertones keep getting louder

Contributed by
May 14, 2018

Westworld Season 2 has expanded Delos' in-world holdings by introducing not one but two new parks, "The Raj" and "Shogun World." These two new parks add a host of new characters and potential adventures to the series. They also give Westworld the opportunity to explore important facets of our real-world culture that the show hinges itself on but has yet to directly address: Colonialism and Orientalism.

The Westworld park, from the first, was a place where the rich and powerful could experience the colonization of the American West. Guests were given the opportunity to re-enact an explicitly racist period in which the U.S. government's "Manifest Destiny" policies led to an expansion of white colonists across the continent with no regard for the native peoples who lived there first. This is a subject Westworld has deliberately avoided exploring thus far, choosing to make the enemies "Confederados" while only vaguely referencing "Ghost Nation" members as a sort of distant menace; Ghost Nation hosts never seem to kill anyone other than the few characters they are programmed to on their daily "loops." (It’s become so noticeable, fans have been theorizing why the characters in the show might make this choice.)

With this failure to emphasize the uglier aspects of the show’s core conceit, there has always been an uncomfortable vein of racism floating through the concept behind Westworld. Touting expected, explicit violence, the show repeatedly mentions the ability to shoot people dead without consequence and talks a big game about how female hosts are routinely raped with impunity as part of the park’s appeal — but it’s the time period in which the Westworld park is set that's most telling.

In the show, Delos has created a park based on the 1880s post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction era because "people love Westerns." But there’s never an interrogation as to why, or to whom, this era would have particular appeal. Why not just do a "Grand Theft Auto" park and set it in modern-day New York City or Miami?

Westworld S2 Episode 3.jpg

But modern day America is a far bigger melting pot of equality than it was in the 1880s, and there’s nothing left to conquer in the 21st century in terms of expansionism.

The romanticization of colonization is essential to the appeal of Westworld as a park. It’s a place in which one can go and experience one’s white supremacy and the thrill of expansion without shame.

The Civil War and the Lost Cause are the origin myths for Hollywood’s version of the "Old West," which is where Westworld’s narratives draw from. The "Old West" is a story of a whitewashed world, one where the North and South could come together and conquer brown people as one, creating a frontier for whites to enjoy in peace. It was a genre that hinged on racial conflict, and all the stories made sure the white man won over the dangerous natives or the Mexican outlaws, portrayed as "bloodthirsty savages" who "steal our women."

And so the choice to introduce these two new parks, in particular, may give the show a second chance to ask interesting questions.

The first, "The Raj," or "Raj World," is the European flip side of the United States' Westworld coin. Whereas the original is imperialist in a uniquely American way, Raj World is British to a fault, including tea on the lawn of a grand house staffed by hosts, the servant classes of which are all South Asian. This is where the rich and powerful go to re-enact the colonizing of Africa and South Asia by European countries. It is also explicitly set in an expansion-obsessed era around the same time period as Westworld (Victoria was named Empress of India in May 1876).

Westworld has whiskey, prostitutes, and shooting "natives" without concern for what the American puritanical streak might think; The Raj has shooting wild animals, treating native people as slave labor, and having a nice spot of tea in impractical locations without worrying about what the United Nations might say about it.

Shogun World, Westworld

Credit: HBO

Then there’s the second park, the long-promised Shogun World, whose underground laboratories were revealed in the finale of the first season. Unlike Raj World, Shogun World has a basis in the original films. (There is an offhand mention of "Samurai World" in the 1976 sequel Futureworld.) The showrunners have been promising a historical look into 1600s Japanese culture and cite the history of the golden age of Samurai films overlapping the golden age of Westerns as part of their inspiration.

But when the park is filled with overwhelmingly white guests, its narrative suddenly becomes "white men with rudimentary sword-wielding skills" killing "generically barbaric Asian-like others," in a park where the game has been programmed for the guests to win. It’s enough to give one pause, especially in light of the history of Asian stereotypes, especially around the Samurai trope. Many of these stereotypes are still prevalent in media today (Mantis, anyone?), despite the few strides that have been made.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2- Mantis (Pom Klementieff)

Courtesy of Marvel

The best science fiction takes a mirror to our world and shows us the truth about ourselves in a parable. Battlestar Galactica, for instance, started out as a way to explore the emotional impact of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and then went on to explore themes like how conscious beings use religion, including Artificial Intelligence. Westworld has a history of handing itself some great set-ups for exploration and then not following through. Season 1 set itself up to ask questions about man’s inhumanity in the wake of rapidly changing technology, but instead, it spent most of its time playing "hide the timeline markers."

Season 2 has stepped up in several aspects, leaning into the challenge of playing out a high-level parable for today’s social media issues. Last season the show liked to throw around a line about the park "working on multiple levels." This season we start to explore what this means, including how the users of the parks have been subjected to mass-scale surveillance, data mining, and panopticons Facebook only dreams of achieving.

In a single 10-minute cold open sequence in Season 2, the show deepened the white supremacist undertones of Delos' parks without saying a word. Hopefully, Westworld will take the time to interrogate this more thoroughly instead of leaving all the words unsaid this time around.