Westworld

Season 3 Preview – 1 & 2 Refresh

*Season 1 & 2 Spoiler Warning*

I had searched everywhere for my love, except the other side of death. – Akecheta

Roll the piano tribute to Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, our old Lakota brave walking the glass halls of the underground Mesa, Dante as a time traveler in the techno-miraculous kingdom of the nude and the dead. The story of the Ghost Nation and the maze, Ake wandering the West, looking for his true love, culminates not there in cold storage, surrounded by a hundred naked extras, but a short while later, talking to Anthony Hopkins by a rearing, stuffed grizzly, as he saws the scalps from his robot natives, collecting the tattoos beneath. This is how you know you’re still watching Westworld.

Season 1 opened kind of out of nowhere for me. I turned on HBO at the right time, that night, and we kicked back in bed, just giving a new series a go. I had rose-colored memories of the original movie (terrible as it is). Seeing Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris & Anthony Hopkins sharing screen time, we fell right in. If we had inklings of the existential, original cyberpunk narratives to come, they were minor, but we were in before frame one. I’m a firm adherent to the gospel of great intros, and the intro to Westworld is one of the best on TV, ever. Worked by the team at Elastic, the artists behind the intros to True Detective and Carnivale, the audience is introduced immediately to a haunting Djawadi theme, strung over the downbeats as we see our first 3D printers drawing milky fibers across animal ribs, delicate, the first time we see the player piano roll, and think maybe that’s too simple a symbolic gesture for a story about robots – but it’s brilliant. Elastic’s intro has since been mimicked, but the music and general quality really did raise the bar. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing has depth, and character, because of the story it is telling.

That’s where Westworld Season 1 took us out of the gate, and with steady directorial and methodical writing styles, those first 10 episodes laid down the gauntlet for hard sci-fi on TV. Hard sci-fi is characterized by fidelity, by internally consistent worlds, based on real science – not dumbing it down – and HBO’s Westworld does it right – most of the time. Layered characters, quoting Shakespeare over Radiohead on piano, could only be made better by giving them a world where their choices have consequences, journeys take time, the laws of physics matter and even their superpowers are the results of basic computer science. Westworld brings a theory of consciousness, eloquent and inspired, to the discussion of the difference between man and machine, our mortality, and the question of the potential awakening of androids, in an unspecified near future built to inspire anyone who wants to know the answers.

That’s not your average TV. I’d give S1 a solid 9, and S2 may fumble a bit here and there, but it still maintains a low 8, according to my personal movie-meter of heartrate sensors and body thermometers. Or maybe it’s just my opinion. But I’ll tell you why. And then let’s rev up a bit on the moment, because Season 3 is about to hit, and I’m psyched for it!

In case it’s been a while for you, I’ll catch you up on a few points. The story is too complex to pretend to give it all here, so I’ll err on the side of brevity. Dolores is the oldest android in Westworld, so she’s lived a few roles, ending up with multiple personality modes coexisting in her subconscious. Calling them androids is as unfaithful as calling the show cyberpunk. The hosts of Westworld are semi-organic, 3D printed, living machines, designed by ahead-of-their-time geniuses Robert Ford and his mysterious deceased partner, Arnold. Dolores is coming to life, so it seems, awakening to consciousness by remembering past lives, and deaths, and building a macro-personality out of all that experience, little by little. This is happening to a lot of the hosts, brought on by a new update to their software, “the reveries.” Maeve – Thandie Newton in one of the show’s multiple star-making performances, as the brothel’s head madam – awakens between being raped and murdered, during her repairs, in the glass-walled caverns of the Mesa, HQ for the security and development labs of Delos Inc, the corporate owners of Westworld. Needless to say, Maeve isn’t happy to find out that she’s been suffering as a sex-toy for a race of narcissistic sociopaths, treating her body and world as a playground for their depravity, for many, many short lifetimes. Taking control of the situation, she forces one of the night-time techs to reprogram her, and over the course of a few successive lives, recruits a group of assassins. These outlaw hosts – Hector and Armistice, the girl with the rattlesnake tattoo – stage a hostile escape from the complex, and from human control. Or do they? It may all be Ford’s program after all. Jumping ahead, Dolores and Teddy search for Wyatt, the psychopathic murderer behind Teddy’s bad dreams, only to find, at the end of Season 1, that Wyatt is in truth one of Dolores’ layered persona profiles, ready to be turned on like a switch, left like a consciousness bomb by the long deceased Arnold – or Ford, I’m not exactly sure – at the end of a mind-expanding maze he created, in foresight explicitly for his android babies. Switching off her moral compass unleashes her as a deadly force, like a rose-smelling Terminator with a wild and unrelenting vendetta against all of organic mankind. Oh, and Bernard is a host – he’s actually Arnold – and Ed Harris, as the Man in Black, is actually William, who ran off the heir to the Delos fortune when they were young. William is both seduced and deconstructed by the anarchist dream of the park, and these androids suffering for consciousness, for which he fell in love. The conversation about youthful innocence becoming wise indifference, and the self-involved darkness of violence, carried between these opposing narratives, is the kind of subtext that brought this show to the forefront, but will take a bit longer to unpack than this little synopsis is going to allow. So Season 1 ends with Dolores killing Ford, slaughtering the park’s guests, an unhallowed massacre in the middle of their feast, where the line between robot and human is almost as grayed as that between right and wrong, hero and villain, scientist and god. Are the robots aware and free? Well, that depends, are the people? You can argue the validation of revenge, but you can’t argue that the Season 1 finale was a bold cliff.

A lesser show would’ve walked it back in Episode 1 of Season 2, but Westworld charged forward in mostly solid form, a couple years later. We’ll make quicker work of it, because it’s simply much less dense than S1, especially in the 2nd half. But what are the points you can’t miss? The robots can hurt people now, and boy do they want to. Maeve develops psychic wi-fi, and uses it to kill a host of Samurai, refusing to leave the park until she can reunite with the robot that plays her daughter, because even though the hosts are becoming self-aware, they are still driven by the cornerstone programs of their personalities. Bernard enters the Cradle, the hive-mind computer where the backups of the host’s minds are kept, and comes back haunted by Ford, whose mind was copied before he died. He gets out shortly before Dolores’ insurgent bots find a way to blow the Cradle, intentionally making themselves much closer to mortal, cutting the cord with Delos Inc. Teddy has come with her as she made her bloody way across the wasteland, but when he had a bit of a crisis of conscience, she had him reprogrammed, turning his mercy all the way to zero. As such, they make brutal desperadoes. We also learn about William’s further ascent, how he eventually surmounted James Delos himself, who became obsessed, before his untimely death, with turning the tables on mortality by uploading his mind to a robot, just like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil want to do. But in Westworld, things aren’t so easy, and the copies always degrade when faced with reality. Eventually, the robotic incarnation of James Delos is left to rot, or worse, to not rot, to live forever in a forgotten underground prison of his own making, insane like only a robot who knows it’s a mechanical imitation of a genius could be. Then Ed Harris kills his daughter, because he thought she was a robot, but she probably wasn’t, and he has utterly lost himself to the game. Teddy kills himself to save his true character, and we end Season 2 on almost as bold and unfollowable a note as we did with Season 1. We come to a lake full of drowned hosts, after they jump through a strange hallucinatory gate into the digital afterlife, following their monomaniacal wi-fi messiah, the one and only Thandie Newton. Dolores dies and is reborn as Tessa Thompson, then she escapes and remakes herself, and Bernard, in hopes of creating a new world for the minds of the dead hosts – which I guess are ok after all, I’m not quite sure – among mankind, in hiding. Oh, and Ed Harris, eventually, also turns into a robot.

I died with my eyes open, saw the masters who pull our strings.

– Maeve

A paragraph or so to the flaws. I’ll rave but it’s not a perfect show. Particularly S2 has significant low points, where we get Shogun World just crammed in, sandwiched between episodes. Main characters sustain extra wounds and heal faster than the ones whose deaths are more convenient. We get mind reading cowboy hats, numerous characters making wild assumptions of things they couldn’t possibly know because it’s convenient for the script, whole new tech trees that were probably made up as they were needed by the writers, unnatural shadows showing up to protect the modesty of name brand actresses, whole episodes delivered in a dramatic whisper, and a generally lower level of consistently amazing storytelling. It’s frustrating, kind of like watching Delos, the host, himself degrade over time. Even very good sci-fi has the hardest of times not becoming an imitation, just maintaining that precious storytelling gold . . . fidelity.

At its best, S2 brings it heavy and steady. For every ill-fated Gus Fring cameo that doesn’t quite hold up, there’s 2 talented actresses I haven’t ever seen, like Tao Okomoto and Katja Herbers. It’s not merely a study in red – mindless action TV where politics meet violent politics in storylines that implode to a net zero. Westworld is visually striking and even moreso audibly brilliant, constantly engrossing with views of the Big Sky Ranch or new takes on classic and modern music alike. When it shines most it is real art, an honest, creative exploration of serious ideas about what it means to be human, mortal, obsessed with the things we are most afraid of, self-assured of our self-awareness even while we are continually frustrated by any effort to actually define it. Too cowardly to be our true selves in any world other than a game. While most of its contemporaries in the genre are satisfied with, “Well, it said it can feel. I guess robots are people after all,” Westworld brashly suggests that free will may be an illusion, and we’re all just machinations. If we’re lucky, mad creations of a madder creator. The hosts are becoming aware, in a nuanced journey of consciousness finding itself, but the notion that this ever makes them more than machines is far from assumed.

The show is a bit too successful to remain true, in the world of capitalist media, where the only way to get Season 2 produced is to do it fast enough that you don’t lose your audience, meaning the writing is handled by committee. You don’t need to be Arnold to see the cracks that crowd-sourcing brings to ambition like this. But still Westworld is such a brazenly unapologetic effort to push the boundaries, to raise the bar, to work a touch of Shakespeare into prime time TV action-drama, to just let us look at humanity, in all of our naked ugliness and beauty, that it’s easy to forgive a few android stutters, for the loving recreation that carries on underneath. What, exactly, does all of this violence in our entertainment say about who we really are? If you could do anything, without consequence, what would that teach you about your soul?

Getting to hell is easy. The rest is where it gets hard. – Maeve, kicking over the lantern, setting the tent on fire, riding Hector all the way.

If you’re listening, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, that is the scene to study. That’s where you got it right. That scene is your cornerstone.

I’m definitely psyched for S3, more than almost anything else on TV in 2020. Powerful female protagonists, striking a line in the sand, to stand against all of mankind, in a near future dystopia? I’m in. A continuation of Anthony Hopkins playing god to a newborn race of androids with layered and complex consciousnesses, exploring what it means to live short and violent lives, in an endless and frightfully meaningless cycle of death, sex and rebirth? In a world without rules? Alrighty then.

I hope it’s a lot sexier. I hope it’s a little less needlessly violent. Less corporate in its construction. I hope it’s more cyberpunk. With tech like we’ve got here, there’s no realistic chance that the world we’re about to venture into isn’t full of cyborgs, but we have yet to see a single one. I hope it has Anthony Hopkins. I guess, from the trailer, it has some big robots and flying cars, and the kid from Breaking Bad. Mostly I just hope it has fidelity. Not as a robot imitator of Seasons 1 or 2, but as a rightful continuation. I hope it was written a touch more carefully than the last. I hear it may be more linear, and that might help, as the constant time-jumping and flashback nesting of the first two seasons was, if a balance of creative storytelling and confusing over-obfuscation, only a bit more trended toward the former. But I’d rather be confused, in Arnold’s original maze, and feel they gave us the real thing, where nobody else would, than be hand-held down Action Avenue because that’s what critics and focus groups told them to do. Time will tell. The odds aren’t in their favor. Here’s a link to the big trailer. Truth is, even a 3rd-tier Westworld will likely be the best thing on.

It’s hard to recreate the magic of an original. Given how consistently reality intrudes on our plans, and degrades our designs, it’s a wonder we even try. Bull-headed, weighed down by the shackles of the economics of entertainment, we artists keep trying to make that perfect model, the imitation that supersedes the real. Fill it with violence, whispers of mortal self-reflection, heady quotations and scenic locations, but sell us short on truth and heart, and you will be lucky if in the end you have any more than just another bag full of blood. Such things are only memorable so long as the stain remains. Violent ends . . . “in their triumph die, like fire and powder,” continues the Friar to Romeo. I’m curious to see if the writers of Westworld actually read the play, or if they just liked the sound of the line.

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