"Within one single scene, Westworld vaulted itself close to the front of the pack as far as HBO's history of vivid sex scenes is concerned," Josh Wigler wrote in the Hollywood Reporter. "Pariah (the town where said scene took place) is more than just a critical new location on the Westworld map. It also cements the genre-bending thriller's place as one of the most vivid and visually charged shows currently on television."
Did it? Did it really, though? It's been fascinating to watch the breathless and extensive coverage of that scene, an orgy sequence, on Westworld as if the show did something daring, revelatory or boundary-pushing, when in fact it was the most worrisome suggestion so far that the series doesn't quite have what it takes to be something genuinely new.
We encountered said orgy in last week's episode in a location in the Westworld park called Pariah, which is supposed to be one of the most lawless sections we've encountered yet. There are ex-Confederate soldiers wandering around, seeking explosives and living beyond the bounds of civilization. Women wander around nude except for gold body paint. People fornicate in carriages parked randomly in the street, and guests to the park shoot robot hosts for sport. If it's tamer than the "Odyssey on Red River" that game designer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) proposed - I didn't see a "Horroborous" in Pariah, but maybe I was distracted by the Dia de los Muertos get-ups people seemed to be sporting - the action we saw in Pariah was certainly a bit more explicit, or at least public, than much of what else we've encountered in the park.
But was it actually novel in any way? As Jackson McHenry put it in his history of this sort of scene on HBO, "Westworld's latest orgy continues HBO's years-long fascination with extravagant group-sex set pieces." And Richard J. Lewis, the supervising director for the show, acknowledged that "there are a lot of influences there, from Eyes Wide Shut and some Kubrickian stuff that's there, as well as the movie 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini."
None of this is to say it's impossible to shoot a scene of this type and show audiences something new.
Simply by the standards of explicit sexuality on cable TV, one way to flip the script might have been to abandon the presumed sexual orientation of both the fictional participants and the real-life viewers of this sort of get-together. The staples of HBO's brand of nudity (with the exception of "Looking," its sweet, carefully observed show about gay men in San Francisco) are heterosexual sex and sex between women that is mostly intended for male consumption. If a show wants to take advantage of the supposed cable-television license and actually depict something that doesn't get much attention, sex between people of the same gender, which they appear to be having for their own enjoyment, would be the actual groundbreaker on a show like Westworld that aims to capture as wide an audience as possible.
Similarly, Westworld missed an opportunity in how the show walked us through the orgy sequence. By presenting the scene as part of host Dolores Abernathy's (Evan Rachel Wood) more general disorientation, as she wandered down hallways in search of the strange visions that had plagued her, Westworld abstracted the sexuality she was encountering as well as Dolores' reaction to it. This wasn't even Game of Thrones-style sexposition, a sex scene staged to provide visual interest while a character was explaining a concept or a piece of history. It was orgy-as-wallpaper.
Given that Dolores is a character who has been programmed to provide guests with a specific image of innocence they can choose to despoil or to protect, and given that in the early going it seemed like sexuality and sexual violence were going to be major themes of Westworld, it would make sense for her to have some sort of strong reaction to seeing such explicit displays of sexuality in public. Is she disgusted? Intrigued? Turned on? How does she assimilate what she's seeing? And how does she feel about her traveling companions, Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson), given their reactions to their setting? If Westworld is going to tell a story about robots who have been used sexually coming into their full humanity, shouldn't those robots have some sort of attitude toward pleasure as well as toward trauma?
The scene in Pariah may have been on a grander scale than anything we've seen in Westworld so far, but five episodes in, it's neither the show's first depiction of group sex, nor its first emotionally shallow treatment of sexuality. Whether it's clients heading upstairs at the Mariposa or Logan's joyless romps with prostitutes, there's little delight and next to no sense of adventure, much less fear, intimacy or the sort of self-discovery Westworld characters natter on and on about.
One way for Westworld to be genuinely daring with a sex scene like this would have been to mix up the acts and participants it depicts, rather than simply moving the same acts to group settings or public thoroughfares. Another would have been to probe the emotions that sex elicits. What might it mean for Westworld guests who previously believed themselves to be heterosexual to sleep with robots of the same gender? What might it be like for women to be able to experiment sexually without fear that their partners will hurt them, shame them or assume that consent to one act means consent to everything?
As shows like The Americans have been demonstrating for years, true intimacy and emotion can feel far more revealing than any body part or particular sex act.
Westworld bills itself as a show about self-discovery. But its latest bit of exhibitionism suggests the series is at risk of becoming just another shallow performance.