When critics got their first glimpse of Westworld — HBO's sci-fi epic about an adult fantasy land that uses life-like robots called hosts to fulfill paying customer desires — last summer, the response was very intense when it came to the show's approach to violence against women. Showrunner Lisa Joy defended the decision to tackle a rape scene between The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and one of park's hosts, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), during the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July 2016, insisting that the show would actually empower women. However, once Westworld premiered, it took several episodes for critics and fans to understand what Joy truly meant. But by the end of Westworld's first season, it had become one of the most feminist shows currently on television.
The empowering arcs of hosts Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton) are what attracted Wood and Newton to their roles. For Newton, specifically, as an actress who has dedicated a lot of her personal life to fighting for women's rights and protecting women against violence, the opportunity to get to play a character in this world and see these women rise up was a crucial part of her enjoyment of her work.
"The work that I do in my life in trying to empower women and men, I have to leave it behind [on other jobs]," Newton said during the Westworld panel at PaleyFest. "I was an activist every single day that I went to work. I felt part of the solution every single day that I went to work."
Over the course of the first season, Dolores went from a naive rancher's daughter to a woman in love and taking charge of a new world. Maeve went from being a madam in a brothel — a robotic prostitute literally used for paying customers' pleasure — to becoming a host capable of making her own choices. Executive producer Jonathan Nolan confirmed at the panel that Maeve's decision to go back into Westworld to find her daughter is a fundamental step in the evolution of all the hosts on the show.
"That is really the first decision that she's ever made," he explained. "For me, it's a very emotional moment in the episode because it's the birth of free will there."
Knowing Maeve's empowering story made it difficult for Newton to see all of the initial negative reactions to Westworld, when critics and fans had only seen trailers or the first episode. Now that the first season has aired, Newton is hopeful that everyone can see how valuable Westworld has become to the conversation about how society treats women and their value in the world outside of the television landscape.
"Here we are right now at a crossroads, and I think that Westworld is going to be part of the solution, not the problem," Newton said. "That's what excited me about this character."
Westworld's position in the conversation about violence against women on TV is one twist Reddit probably didn't see coming, which is a pretty amazing thing.
Westworld Season 2 will premiere on HBO in 2018.