Warning: This article contains spoilers for Westworld.
“Did you ever stop to wonder about your actions? The price you’d have to pay if there was a reckoning? That reckoning is here.”
That’s the question newly liberated AI robot Dolores poses to a group of the park’s guests in the premiere episode of Westworld’s second season, as she prepares to take the power back from the now-hapless humans who’ve used her to fulfil their rape fantasies, by emotionally and sexually violating her – even “killing” her over and over again.
Dolores’ question is one that’s no doubt been on the minds of many survivors as society faces a real-life reckoning, in which once-powerful men are being exposed as sexual harassers and/or abusers. Whether or not it was intentional, Westworld’s second season has emerged as the ultimate revenge fantasy in a post-#MeToo world.
The parallels between the HBO show’s second season (in which the robot hosts begin to revolt against abusive humans) and the world we live in hasn’t escaped notice, least of all by the show’s star Evan Rachel Wood. “People say Westworld is timely right now, but to us it’s timeless, and I think we feel like people are listening in a different way now,” she told Refinery29 last month. “To be in a role like [Dolores] at the moment, especially with my history, seemed almost fated.” (Wood, who is a sexual assault survivor herself, recently appeared before Congress to speak about her experiences and advocate for survivors’ rights.)
People who are survivors might want to live out a story where they’re not victimized, and living vicariously through a revenge fantasy can be part of that.
“For victims, watching the reckoning arc of Westworld is a way to gain control over past injustices, so seeing the characters who've been oppressed, abused, and tormented seeking retribution could be thrilling for the viewer,” she says. (And studies suggest that finding comfort in revenge fantasies is actually a pretty common response to trauma.)
Alyssa*, a 26-year-old grad student in California, says that while she had been watching the show since the first season, the second season took on new resonance for her, as a sexual assault survivor.
“I’m not a vengeful person or anything, but even still, it’s empowering to see these women who’ve been violated start to take back their power,” she says. “It made me confront some of the anger that I still have from being assaulted, even though it was years ago, and I think a lot of survivors do want some form of revenge against their attacker, or at least justice.”
Dr. Serani says that another reason survivors might find the revolution arc on Westworld so gratifying is that it plays into beliefs about karma: what goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, and so forth. The idea that there’s some form of checks and balances in the universe, she says, can ease the pain of trauma for survivors — it gives them permission to feel angry and justified in seeking righteousness when they’re harmed by other people, which can be hugely important in the healing process.
That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch Dolores shed the damsel-in-distress character she’s been programmed to embody and then start a revolution, and to watch Maeve (Thandie Newton) hold one of the park’s human employees hostage to find the daughter she had in a previous storyline. When these women take charge, they offer survivors a glimpse into a path forward that doesn’t erase what’s happened to them, but that honours their new truth and their resilience.
Emily*, 28, says that it’s not necessarily that the show reflects her specific experience as a survivor, it’s that watching has become an outlet to work through her feelings.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about how Dolores says that she imagined a story where she didn’t have to be the damsel,” she says. “People who are survivors might want to live out a story where they’re not victimised, and living vicariously through a revenge fantasy can be part of that.”
Fortunately, this catharsis through pop culture can actually be productive. According to Susanne Babbel, PhD, MFT, author of Heal the Body, Heal the Mind: A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma, having a revenge fantasy, or even just watching one play out, can be healing — and even healthy — because it helps conquer feelings of helplessness.
“These fantasies give the survivor a chance to imagine the attack or abuse with a different outcome that is empowering, rather than being the victim,” she says.
The key, however, is to unpack them in a way that’s cathartic without putting yourself or anyone else in danger — meaning: These are generally not fantasies that should be acted out IRL. “When you explore your fantasies, you can work psychologically to heal your hurt and pain,” Dr. Serani says. “Wanting revenge and planning for it is taking it a step further.” The goal, she says, should be to put these fantasies into perspective — which, for the record, is best done with a professional therapist or councillor.
Fantasising about something, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually want to do it, and that’s the point of exploring fantasies in the comfort of your own home and HBO account. As much as we need a revolution after the reckoning we’ve gone through, we also need to heal — and a group of sentient, scarily human-like robots might just help some of us do that.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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