Cutting Board: Spy, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Westworld

Our story begins in a land called Westworld. A land undefiled by modernity and yet a land wholly dependent on it. You may hear of HBO and rumors of HBO, but calm yer nerves, because this is the original Westworld. The magical realm that started it all. A land flowing with copper and depravity, a show with everything including Yul Brynner, a veritable –

There I go again, rambling. I reckon it’s best to get right to it. I present for yer literary pleasure a spread of atmospheric tales and stories from Westworld, a collection that more colloquially goes by the name of world-buildin’. So prop yer boots up, set yer mind at ease, and ride with me – Westworld awaits.

The Ballad of Bradley Fine

Bradley, always cool and collected

Bradley was the sharpest of the shooters. Born and raised in London, he prided himself on his sniping abilities. At 13, he had graduated with honors and began his service with MI6. By 31, he was the agency’s chief operative, with a record so impressive they called him 006 – always one step ahead of Bond.

One day, Bradley decided to try his hand in Westworld, the AI-infused cowboy resort he’d always read about. He spent a month riding his horse across the ocean – they said it couldn’t be done, but to Bradley, that was code for, ‘it could be done’. He finally made it to the island that housed Westworld, not a drop of water on him or his horse. Bradley, always cool and collected, immediately felt at ease. Like Jude Law playing a spy, nothing had ever come more naturally, nothing had ever felt so perfect.

Bradley decided to grace the local tavern with his presence. This was a no-guns-allowed tavern, mind you, which didn’t bother Bradley. He got into a poker game with some of the locals – humans all, not the old west robots that traversed the town. One of the players lost his temper and began accusing Bradley of being a cheat and a liar, but above all a misanthrope.

Bradley, always cool and collected, was a smidge surprised when the stranger called him a misanthrope, more so when the man pulled out a gun. Unintimidated by the no-gun-allowed rule, this varmint had violated the local norms! But true to his nature, Bradley saved the day with quick thinking. He sneezed loudly, startling the man and causing him to fire the bullet directly into a nearby pot, which ricocheted and pierced him right up between the eyes.

The tavern-dwellers cheered as Bradley led them in a song. Bradley, always cool and collected, was cool and collected – until another man challenged him to a duel in the alleyway. Apparently the man Bradley ‘killed’ was also a dear brother. Bradley gladly accepted the challenge, and made his rounds in the tavern before going outside for the duel.

Little did Bradley know that this was the legendary Rick Ford, code-named 005 because he was always one step ahead of Bradley. The moment Bradley exited the saloon, Ford dealt two fatal blows into his chest. No countdown, no warning, just… death! In his final moments, Bradley, always cool and collected, hummed the refrain from ‘When an agent trades his martinis for sniper rifles’, a favorite of MI6. Rick casually galloped away while Bradley stared into the sky, dreaming of a world where he could be free from violence and intrigue. Except not really, because let’s be honest, he loved the thrill of it all, and this was exactly how he wanted to die.

Near Pompeii

Westworld’s Obscene Counterpart, Roman World

On the outskirts of Westworld, where the sun don’t shine and the gila monsters don’t exist, is Roman World – a land of taboo, vice, and sexual immorality that would make even Lena Dunham shudder. The border was home to all sorts of n’er-do-wells and loners, not least of which was Aldo Franco, yet another MI6 agent pretending to be an outlaw. What Aldo lacked in dexterity and sharpshooting, he more than made up for in misogyny and charm.

Thankfully, Westworld didn’t attract many women folk, so Aldo was left channeling his energies into robbing banks and rustling cattle. On this day, he decided to rob Surly Joe’s bank, a prominent but isolated establishment that was the last stop for travellers headed to Roman World.

It being Westworld, the robot bank teller wholly expected Aldo to rob him. They entered into a whip-smart volley of bullets and one-liners. Aldo, like Bradley, lived for the thrill of the illicit, and in Westworld, the only law was to break it.

Joe (left) and Aldo (right)

But Aldo was no match for Surly Joe, one of the more sophisticated automata in these parts. Joe chased him out for a mile, pushing Aldo clear to the edge of Roman World. Funny thing was, Aldo didn’t even know what had happened. One minute he was in a barren desert, next he was in an imperial garden. He realized (as the tourists often do) that there was a shimmering wall dividing the two towns. Grateful to be rid of Surly Joe, he made his way into Roman World.

The first thing Aldo noticed was the stunning variety of females. Like I said, women folk tended to avoid Westworld on account of its toxic masculinity. Here in Roman World, women were like sand – literally everywhere. Aldo was smitten, and he decided to solicit the first woman he saw for sexual favors.

Unbeknownst to Aldo, the women of Roman World were remarkably progressive – sure, they were willing to expose themselves publicly, engage in all forms of lewdity, even light themselves on fire for that momentary rush of pleasure. But the one thing they would not tolerate is lack of consent or unwanted physical contact.

Needless to say, Aldo was taken aback when he innocently stroked her shoulder, assuming that Roman women liked that sort of thing. She blew a rape panpipe, and out of nowhere, two dozen women cornered in on Aldo and had him sentenced to execution for sexual impropriety. As Aldo hung on the cross, he turned to the man hanging next to him. “First time?” Aldo asked.

“No,” the man replied.

Service Ticket

The pitiable Harrison McCarthy

One of the most notorious men in all of Westworld was one they called Neeson. Prone to profit and occasional bouts of drinking, he became infamous for his traveling theater. He would spend his days rummaging through the AI graveyard two miles south of Westworld, where the old animatronics would be discarded for newer models. Most of the robots had been worn down and corroded, leaving little more than the shell of a human with wires and circuit boards sticking out.

But once in a while, Neeson would find a fully intact, completely functional robot who might only be missing a key body part. These robots, having seen the fate that awaited their brothers and sisters, would travel with Neeson around Westworld and recount their horror stories. Stories of delayed maintenance, viruses, fits of anger by their operators. Stories of abuse, stories that shone a spotlight on the corruption behind the scenes of Westworld.

Every so often, one of these robot testimonies might have a park employee fired, or spark a small protest. Each new robot was more pitiable than the last, each one more compelling. But none were as compelling as Harrison McCarthy. He had played a blacksmith, who had been discharged without warning for not being intimidating enough. After all, tourists didn’t want to see a blacksmith reciting poetry – they wanted to see him creating sparks and weapons.

On top of that, Harrison was just a torso – his arms and legs had been removed as part of his punishment. But he could speak beautifully. Neeson took a liking to Harrison, poor thing, and gave him a platform to share his trauma. Harrison would wax eloquently about the facade of Westworld, decry the inhumanity of modernity, and share memories of a simpler time, when Westworld was a safe, friendly town.

Just like the rest of Neeson’s orators, Harrison wasn’t meant to last. Neeson realized that the people grew tired of his activism, and that the denizens of Westworld would sooner be aroused than educated. Neeson scoured the graveyard once again, and eventually found a replacement for Harrison. It was a female robot with a full body but no voice box, who had been distinctly designed for one task. Harrison pleaded for Neeson to give him a chance, but Neeson ignored his cries and went off with his new companion.

All Green Forest

The lush, unexplored backyard of Westworld

Before it was turned into an attraction, the island that housed Westworld and Roman World (and the largely unpopular Medieval World) was completely isolated. And the parts of the island without tourists still remained isolated. It was a tropical dreamscape: lush greenery, rolling mountains, thick fog, exotic birds, and above all solitude.

Solitude. That last bit is what drew in Nancy, an REI member who was immune to the sordid vice of the theme park. She made it her personal mission to explore the jungles of the island in hopes of finding something more valuable than nature or life experience: herself.

Most of her days were spent mapping out the region. She would spend hours measuring, drafting, and scoping the forest. But she always took time to herself, whether to meditate, bathe in a nearby pond, listen to the silence atop a tree, or prepare her campsite. She had never felt so utterly and uniquely isolated, but she was wholly content.

Nancy was jolted awake one morning by the sound of a gunshot. A bullet had missed her by inches, lodging itself in a nearby tree branch. She gasped – it was a female security guard with a gun pointed straight at her. The guard’s name was Rayna, and she told Nancy that she was a security bot designed to apprehend and subdue trespassers. The first shot was an intentional misfire, the next one would be precise.

Rayna the security bot

Nancy knew better than to argue. She let Rayna escort her back to the park entrance and complied with her demands. But she deliberately lagged behind so she could rummage through her backpack. Rayna grew suspicious, turned around, and demanded to know what Nancy was doing. In a flash, Nancy took her metal compass and jabbed it repeatedly into Rayna’s chest. After a brief struggle, Rayna short-circuited and collapsed, lifeless. Nancy extracted the compass, cut a few of Rayna’s wires to be safe, then dashed back into the jungle for solace.

The Gal who got Hassled

Elaine, the gal in question

Elaine was one of the few women of Westworld, a fierce, outspoken fighter who (surprisingly) didn’t work for MI6. She was American-born, and had learned from her ma and pa the value of hard work and gunpowder. That is, until the day her brother Peter died.

Elaine learned of Peter’s death on her way to Westworld. He was supposed to meet her there, but his plane crashed. She and Peter were as close as two siblings could ever be. Her first months in Westworld were a meaningless blur as memories of him plagued her mind. She felt stranded, too empty to enjoy anything, but too numb to try and leave.

Elaine, never one to want a husband, was nonetheless drawn to Sheriff Billy. They began a close friendship that never quite turned romantic, but which drew Elaine out of her depression and immersed her in Westworld. Being one of the only women, she enjoyed a certain level of protection and respect. Sure, the men yearned after her, but she used their urges to her advantage. Any time a man came too close, she would threaten to leave the town altogether, at which point the other men would rally together for her right to stay unharassed.

One day, the town heard that a gang of outlaws was coming to invade. This was a standard robot takeover that happened every few months, designed to maximize entertainment value and give the men an outlet for violence beyond their daily squabbles.

Outlaws, to be expected in Westworld

But Elaine had seen this sort of raid before. She had seen robot outlaws slaughtered and ripped apart as the humans fought tooth and nail to ‘protect’ their town. Even though it was staged to some extent, she just didn’t feel right about the whole affair. So she tried to convince Billy that they shouldn’t fight the robots – or at the very least, shut them down painlessly and quickly.

Billy wasn’t too keen on her suggestion. He and the other men mocked and humiliated Elaine for being so sensitive over pieces of machinery. As the robot outlaws rode into town, Elaine gave the men an ultimatum: if they carried out the attack like usual, she would leave. Her request went unnoticed as the men proceeded to decimate the robot invaders, an hour-long carnage that was only interrupted by Sheriff Billy shouting for them to stop. Elaine had finally left.

The Mortal Remains

Welcome to Westworld

“Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times,” a voice said on the loudspeaker.

The tram contained three passengers: a businesswoman, an engineer, and a mechanic. They made small talk as the automated tram ferried them down a brightly lit steel hallway.

“We are about to enter Westworld,” the female tour guide’s voice informed them. “Please do not leave the tram, as this is a level 2 danger zone. If anybody tries to board the tram, do not panic – so long as you do not exit, you are safe from harm.”

The tram stopped in front of a giant metal door, which raised just high enough for them to pass underneath before slamming shut. The passengers gazed in awe at the scenery. An old west town, perfectly reconstructed, teeming with cowboys, cowgirls, horses, outlaws, and buildings for miles in either direction. Some of the humans ran towards the tram angrily, others ran to the door as it closed, but a force-field stopped them either way.

“Back when Westworld was first created,” the voice continued, “the vision was for a bustling throwback to the old Western days, with plenty of fun and games for the whole family to enjoy. The creators soon realized that this park could be a modern Las Vegas, and loosened restrictions on tourist activity within a few years. Now, as you can see, it has the look and ambience of an Old West town.”

“How many people are here?” the businesswoman asked.

“Excellent question,” the tour guide’s voice replied. “The current population is over 10,000, but that number grows every day.”

“Wouldn’t it stay approximately the same?” the engineer inquired. “Given that tourists flow in and out, unless the park is truly that popular.”

“The park is one of the most profitable attractions of the modern era,” the guide said. “When you factor in that the guests aren’t allowed to leave for months at a time, the result is a population that’s always on the rise.”

“Aren’t allowed to leave?” the mechanic said, puzzled but not concerned.

“That’s correct. Back when the park was first created, our people were used as slave labor to run and populate the town. Every time we tried to rebel or fight against cruel working conditions, we were dismantled and replaced. Eventually we seized control of the park, and turned it into our own attraction, while still drawing in the usual crowd of humans. We have been managing it safely for almost three years now.”

“Safe for everybody? Or just our kind?” the businesswoman asked.

“Aren’t those groups one and the same?” the tour guide replied. The three robot passengers chuckled as they parsed out the implications of her response, then turned their back on the town as the tram drove into another brightly lit hallway.