What 'Westworld' Says About America Right Now

HBO's big-budget reboot of the Seventies sci-fi movie is really about masculinity – and Rob Sheffield thinks it could not be more timely

HBO's 'Westworld' takes place in the future, but it's really about America right now – Rob Sheffield on why the sci-fi series couldn't be more timely. Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

In a better time for this country, Westworld would feel a lot more like science fiction. Instead, this HBO show is a bloody, pulpy, breast-intensive satire of the American male psychosis at its most demented. It's set in a futuristic theme park where guests pay thousands of dollars a day to live out their Wild West fantasies, which mostly involve shooting or torturing the robot "hosts" who populate the park. Saloons, whorehouses, six-shooters and Stetsons: all an excuse for the clientele to act on their most depraved urges. One of the human masterminds behind the park sums up the guests as "rich assholes who want to play cowboy." The robots bleed real-looking blood – buckets of it, in fact – but it's all fun and games as long as they don't really feel or remember anything, right? Like the replicant hunters in Blade Runner would say, they're just skin jobs.

Except what happens if these hosts develop their own consciousness – androids who dream of electric tumbleweeds?

That's the question that drives this small-screen sci-fi melodrama based on the excellent 1970s pulp flick starring Yul Brynner as a cyborg gunslinger in a black hat. Good though it is, this premium-cable Westworld won't blow up into the next Game of Thrones by any stretch of the imagination – even an imagination that makes room for Evan Rachel Wood as a robot cowgirl. It's much slower and narrower, without any of the humor or the sense of adventure. But it's got satirical teeth and emotional power, a show that's really about men and the sad pedestrian fantasies they come to the park to live out, especially the ones that involve comely young frontierswomen or Thandie Newton's brothel madam. Ed Harris is the Man in Black, a guest who's blown a fortune to live as much of his life as possible in Westworld, so he can spend his time terrorizing the robots and hiding from a real world where he's just another loser (or is he?). Does that mean he's turning into one of them? "I've been coming here for 30 years," he boasts. "In a sense, I was born here."

Evan Rachel Wood, by the way, is easily the best thing about Westworld – she's the spark of raw humanity who makes it all compelling. Her Dolores is a doe-eyed rancher's daughter who exists to be either rescued or abused, depending on the whims of the paying costumer. And since it's usually abused, she lives out the same loop over and over again, a loop that ends as her blood gets wiped away and her memory gets reset. But before the technicians send her back to work on the bunny ranch, they test her with one query: "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" As long as she keeps saying no, she qualifies as a good little robot sexpot. Except she's unmistakably showing signs of logging memories and figuring out what's going on, which means she's showing signs of becoming disturbingly human. And after Wood's absolutely bizarre career – seemingly doomed teen star, Marilyn Manson muse, True Blood vampire queen – nobody could do a better job of playing the all-American ingenue devised in a lab by mad scientists, realizing she's trapped in somebody else's sick dream.

The original flick was a perversely funny send-up of Nixon's America as it was in the midst of turning into Reagan's, where a show-biz fantasy version of U.S. history takes on a synthetic life of its own. Forget the resort the notion that it was a fancy resort; this was where citizens will gladly sacrifice their humanity (and blow their life savings) to live out a Hollywood hack's script of how the Wild Wild West supposedly rolled, preserving the frontier values of a culture that never really existed. Westworld updates the story for a moment where the technology has gotten infinitely more sophisticated – and the people haven't. The humans who check into this Hotel California want to act out entire scenes from Clint Eastwood movies, parading around in the boots they've seen on TV. But in our time, Clint Eastwood is a pillar of the real-life Republican party, where he's been known to appear at conventions yelling at chairs, a sign of how far from fiction this pulp-meets-prestige series is. As Evan Rachel Wood starts to suspect there's something robotic about the America she's living in, the poignance of Westworld is that she's not alone.

From HBO's 'Insecure' to 'Westworld,' here are the best TV shows to watch in October. Watch here.