Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Race and the Frontier in HBO's Westworld

Teddy Flood (James Marsden) and Delores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood)
This essay contains spoilers
HBO’s viral sensation Westworld is profoundly dependent on Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” First published in 1893, Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” pushed the idea that the frontier, the opportunity to move outward and settle wilderness, defined not just American culture, but individual American character. Westworld character Maeve Millay channels Turner directly in her scripted speech: “This is the New World, and we can be whatever the fuck we want.”

The frontier belief looms large in American thinking. Even after the Census Bureau declared the “frontier line” closed in 1890, Americans pursued new, less literal frontiers. Alaska declared itself “the last frontier” long before President Kennedy called space “the final frontier,” a line pilfered by Captain Kirk. We praise the “frontiers of science,” likewise of medicine, of technology, of the Internet, and whatever. And Westworld implies, if we can’t find a frontier, we’ll make one.

This all, unfortunately, overlooks how profoundly racist Jackson’s Frontier Thesis actually is. Jackson stratified cultures into degrees of development, from white Euro-American settlement at the top, to nomadic Indians at the bottom. The frontier, Jackson said, gave whites opportunities to shed settled, emasculated habits and “live like Indians,” tempting death, pushing their limits, surviving by their own wits, discovering their inner, half-savage nature. With the implication they could, at will, return to settled white civilization.

Except, historically, Indians didn’t “live like Indians” unless they had to. The traditional image of nomadic Native Americans, sleeping in tipis and following the bison herds, arose only after white settlers chased Indians off lands they’d cultivated for centuries. The frontier of “unsettled wilderness” was an entirely white invention, based on the belief that any land untouched by anything they considered civilization was theirs for the taking. Though outright taking has ceased, the theft remains.

Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and some of his creations

Audiences will notice Westworld has few Indians. It’s racially progressive in some ways, including having an integrated Union Army even though America didn’t desegregate its armed forces until 1948, and the technical personnel making the park possible are thoroughly integrated. But Indians don’t much enter except as background characters. Though I didn’t keep technical count, I noticed few or no speaking lines from Native characters. They simply exist as enemies for white characters to fight.

In one episode, William and Delores get chased by the Ghost Nation, a band of scalp hunters. In another, a corporate story agent proudly displays an array of “hosts,” artificial people who occupy Westworld, explaining the characters for an exciting new storyline, displaying the brothel whores players can seduce, outlaws they’ll defeat, and Indians they'll flee. He says this standing before a tall, buckskin-clad native with feathers and facepaint, stock villain from a dime novel.

Without stating anything explicitly, Westworld accepts that frontier-style self-discovery absolutely requires prior humans. The true frontier is never unoccupied; it’s been cleared of brush and boulders by someone before, who they accedes to the permanent settlers. This extends to all frontiers: Star Trek postulates a universe teeming with life, which Starfleet then sublimates into a larger, homogenized Federation. Battlestar Galactica, possibly the first mass-media franchise showing a lifeless universe, also treats “settling” as giving in.

The Man in Black (Ed Harris)

Please note, the actual American frontier didn’t last very long. Though the Oregon Trail opened in the 1830s, only the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, made mass white settlement in the American interior possible. Thus, the Wild West happened between 1869 and 1890, when the frontier formally closed. James Arness played Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke longer than that. And in Westworld, we learn the Man in Black has been attending the park for thirty years.

So not only has the frontier myth lasted longer than the practical frontier, but Westworld keeps replaying the same single generation for decades, as paying customers keep indulging the same vices. White people keep chasing Indians off their land, Mexicans from their towns, and squatters off their farms, then returning to “real life.” In essence, they keep paying money to replay America’s racist past, a past many Americans would, in present times, like to forget.

The big, season-ending reveal, that our gentle hero William grows into the callously destructive Man in Black, makes plain the implications Turner’s original Frontier Thesis never addresses. When conquest stops being a means, and becomes an end, it strangles the human part inside us. We invent moral justifications for continued conquest. Without a purpose, we become the thing we once hated. If America really is Frontier Nation, we need to settle down soon, or die.

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