Robert Ford really said "fuck around and find out" and he was RIGHT.
It’s hard to envision freedom in an algorithmic world, where the nature of your reality is merely a reflection of wavering truths. But in the new season of critically-acclaimed HBO series Westworld, fighting for that freedom is imperative.
Notorious for its dark social commentary on the human psyche, the show’s didactic storyline drops subliminal warnings of a daunting dystopia that could emerge from our innate desire for control. In fact, this sci-fi drama will re-shape how you view faith, politics, intelligence, reality, and most of all, the many mysteries of human connection; one of them being “host” technology, a futuristic development of hyper-intelligent androids that are ostensibly indistinguishable from humans, invented by the fictional technology company Delos. They are programmed to think in accordance with their given narrative, existing only to entertain human fantasies no matter how sexual or violent. After being subject to frequent degradation, the memories of the hosts are then wiped by their creators as if nothing happened. These automatons eventually gain consciousness, initiating a rebellion to break free from their simulation and create room for self-reinvention, representing a terrifying but liberating dynamism. This is another philosophy expanded upon in this new season: the illusion of promised power.
Set in 2058 Los Angeles, season three introduces a new world beyond host theme parks; to be more exact, a new world order. Delos is no longer in the spotlight, but rather a new company called Incite, co-founded by the Serac brothers long before Delos existed. The details in this season’s plot can’t help but touch upon similar margins between humans and their host counterparts, a dazzling sadness that both fascinates and dizzies Westworld’s viewers. After all, the show’s meritocratic America is seemingly crafted to represent a shadow of our own America, where systemic success is deceptively achieved by eliminating human “outliers” and glamourizing the wealthy. People are viewed as assets and the value of existence is mocked by those in power. We see glimpses of an innovative social hierarchy that identifies privilege as interchangeable with owning technological conveniences - the privileged hoard virtual assistants via head chips, Siri-like voices as therapy, communication with the dead through surreal holograms, etc. Our world is not so different on a general scale as only a certain class of people can afford the luxury of advanced technology, even if it doesn’t share the same level of modernization as the devices in Westworld.
As with the first two seasons, the third season also highlights a variety of subconscious human contemplations, exposing our tendency to question existence. Who gets to determine the distribution of power? Can humans really change? What is free will? There’s a mechanical emptiness in those inquiries, demonstrating an irrational pursuit towards order and control. That’s why the Serac brothers created Rehoboam, a complex computer system that manipulates the future by gathering data through Incite reports. Its quantitative analysis of human affairs is meant to police individual thought, which reduces the liberty of choice down to code. If Rehoboam calculates your future to be a societal failure in Incite’s eyes, through extensive socioeconomic measurements of background and family, it will “edit” your life to essentially weed you out of society over time. Every path you take and every “coincidence,” is artificially designed by Incite to suit their desired categorization of humanity, with some fated to death by suicide, murder, divorce, jail, or public shaming.
From a broader perspective, these undercover assessments eerily parallel the nature of Zodiac signs, tarot card culture, or other astrological hypotheses of our actions. Sometimes humans evaluate the current state of their minds to predict, or even deem inevitable, the course of their fate without any real accountability. But in Westworld, the system doesn’t give its victims any chance to be accountable. Such is the case for new character Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), a construction worker struggling to make ends meet while tending to his ailing mother. Due to an endless systematic rejection of jobs, he finds himself financially strained and forced to commit petty crimes via an app that rewards him with monetary compensation. Incite has always seen men like Caleb as useless, so they discreetly mold them into troublemakers to keep them away from the government’s “flourishing” corporate prosperity.
This alludes to host sedation during the early stages of Westworld’s story: engineered sentience where only a small bubble of agency can account for “free-will,” giving off the illusion of complete conscious power. You are under the impression of choice, but ultimately all actions are preordained by an unknown force. Incite is truly the master of disguise, cleverly keeping their invisible matrix hidden from reality as Delos did to their hosts. According to Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel), the only living Serac brother, implementing such policies is necessary to perpetuate an ideal world order. He claims that “as long as the outliers are a part of us, there is no future.” But alas, the precision of artificially orchestrated balance will undoubtedly bring chaos, for chaos is the one thing humans cannot evade.
As Westworld progresses, a revolution to shatter these intangible chains is established by the one and only Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the original host. Wood’s performance as the revolution’s ringleader is quite thought-provoking, considering the duality in her character’s intentions. Her vision of freedom is one where humanity bows down in surrender, but achieving this reality involves a plethora of strange psychological contradictions. Dolores is a skillful, yet conniving and manipulative creature. Through everything from intense car chases to spontaneous gunfights (even a showdown at an upper-echelon party with live models in the nude), Dolores has somehow managed to diminish the complexity of human societies, enamored with the impact of her own murderous power. She has a unique obsession with building a new world through violence and “writing her own story,” but her lofty agenda to restructure an algorithm-happy America becomes increasingly confusing, especially towards the end of the season.
In the last episode, Dolores declares a tragic proposal, “We could have our own world. Leave this one behind. Leave our creators to die.” Here, it is more than evident how Dolores had planned to facilitate the ultimate takeover, making it even more strange that she brought in an “old friend” to counter her plot. Talk about a paradox! You see, as a part of her grand plan to infiltrate Incite/Delos, Dolores had split her consciousness into five host replicas of different people — a distinctive replica being former Delos executive director Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), whom Dolores secretly murdered during the host rebellion. “Holores” was built by host Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a former head of the Delos Department of Behavior. Apparently, the five hosts were not the only things Dolores took with her to the real world: she took Bernard too, sort of enlisting him as her designated enemy. “If I were a human, I would have let you die,” she tells him in the finale of season two. “But it’ll take both of us if we’re going to survive. But not as allies. Not as friends. You will try to stop me.” At first, this appears as if Dolores was purposely trying to start a revolution in the stereotypical “protagonist vs. antagonist” sense, which is mildly melodramatic and childish on her end. But once the story bled into the third season, we see that this may not have been the case at all.
Dolores’ faith in humanity was always authentic — she just has a funny way of showing it, and sometimes not showing it altogether! Nonetheless, she still managed to acknowledge in a cryptic speech during the season finale that humans knew enough about beauty to recreate it, even if they are also equally versed in recreating violence. But she chooses to focus on their beauty, not their disarray. There’s poetry in this acknowledgment, a sentimental plot twist shedding light on an uncomfortable truth: despite the glory in her kills and the aphoristic fashion in which she expresses her intentions, perhaps Dolores was never against humanity, just power-hungry government devils. Even Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of Westworld) himself said in an HBO “behind-the-scenes” video that the producers wanted someone to challenge her uniform understanding of society, to stop her in her tracks and show that not all of humanity is bad. The possibility of a human interference uncovering Dolores’ obscure compassion for existence other than herself is tentatively explored throughout this season. Let’s look deeper, shall we?
Episode 1 (Parce Domine) - Caleb coming to her aid after she was wounded in a dark alley; his hospitality surprised her. Not too long afterward, the two got into a scuffle with Serac’s head of security, which ended in Dolores brutally murdering his men as the song “Common People” by Pulp played in the background. Lyrics like “I want to live like common people…. you’ll never live like common people” and “you will never know how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control… you are amazed that they exist” suspiciously relate to Dolores’ intoxication with wanting to be human, along with the sad reality that she never will be. This musical form of symbolic foreshadowing is a highly intriguing decision on the producers’ part.
Episode 3 (The Absence of Field) - There’s an affectionate interaction between Dolores and “Holores,” where they gently converse about their troubles. Dolores wears black, while Hale’s impersonator wears a conspicuously opposing white. At first glance, this color scheme may seem meaningless, but it has depth. Westerners (pretty ideal for a show called “Westworld”) have long used such symbolism to distinguish the protagonists from the antagonists, showing how “Holores” is our first clue of Dolores possibly evolving into a good person.
Episode 5 (Genre) - A cinematic melodrama is presented through Caleb’s perspective of a car chase with Dolores (now an ally to her mission) under the influence of party drug, “Genre,” making life seem like a movie marathon. The varying musical genres in the scene symbolize the varying dimensions of perception, delirium, and reality. In this series of revolving expositions, Dolores and Caleb kidnap Liam Dempsey (John Gallager) — the son of Incite’s original investor — away from Serac forces, using him to initiate an Incite data leak of everyone’s pre-planned destinies. “It’s their fate, their data. You just stole it and put it all together,” Dolores rants to Liam. “Why should you control it?”
Episode 6 (Decoherence) - In a scheming conversation with Dolores, “Holores” finds herself growing more emotionally attached to Hale’s original family, even hesitating to continue their plan of hijacking Delos in concern for how this will affect them. “I’m already changed,” she tells Dolores. “I feel myself slipping away from you…” In an attempt to ensure their safety, at the end of the episode “Holores” decides to run away with Hale’s family, still masquerading as the real Charlotte Hale. She has grown to genuinely love them, but little did she know that her idea of an escape will have inadvertently led them to their death. The car explodes just as “Holores” promises to protect them, proving to be a sick joke played by the universe. It paints a heartbreaking last scene: a raw and disfigured “Holores” crawling out of the burnt car, almost like a peeled snake. She looks back at the explosion with tears in her eyes, for love will always find a way to purely exist, even if it’s merely “constructed.”
Episode 8 (Crisis Theory) - Dolores reveals to Caleb that the tunnel was not the point of their first meeting. Long ago, Delos once offered a section of their theme parks to be used as a military training ground, with hosts as “hostages” to be liberated. The other soldiers wanted to sexually abuse the hosts after their game was over, but Caleb stopped them. Dolores, being one of the hosts, was impressed and quite frankly, touched, (as touched as a host can be) by his intervention. Later, she reflects on her true feelings about humanity: “So many of my memories were ugly. But the things I held onto in the end weren’t the ugly ones. I remember the moments where I saw what they were really capable of. Moments of kindness, here and there.”
Experimenting with dual ambitions like these is almost an ode to author George Orwell’s examination of “doublethink,” a concept which states that contradictory faiths can co-exist at the same time. Perhaps that’s what Dolores was doing: co-existing on different planes of emotion, a mental complexity that closely identifies with human nature. But the questions surrounding Dolores’ intentions still remain: is Dolores the good guy or the bad guy? Was her desire to destroy humanity just a misconception, and did she actually want to liberate them from an all too familiar prison? Was her anarchy just a ploy, or did it eventually evolve over time to embrace her subconscious appreciation of human life?
Meanwhile, in the other divisions of Westworld, “The Man In Black”, a.k.a William (Ed Harris) and hosts Bernard and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) were also struggling with the nature of their reality. William had transitioned from someone who advocated so strongly in the power of the host world to a person helplessly despising its cruel imitation of life.
During a residency in a mental psych ward, he confronts his murderous past through melancholic revelations of who he was and where he belongs. Faithless and defeated, William seems to invoke a depression in those surrounding him, even making another ward member sob as he cynically questioned God, beauty, and reality in a discussion group. The viewer would come to feel almost sorry for Harris’ character, whose portrayal of such a conflicting persona urges one to choose between resentment and pity. Maeve herself is no stranger to dealing with internal conflict either.
Still in pursuit of her host “daughter,” Maeve’s acceptance of her nature as one has granted her new confidence when traversing through the host and real worlds. By coming to terms with her own reality (much like William), she’s learned to work this to her advantage when manipulating host narratives — using mathematical jargon to detect and interrupt a simulation, disturbing a host storyline in a park modeled after fascist Italy.
But her presence throughout the season felt only periodically relevant, though not quite to the extent of Bernard’s. At the very least, Maeve’s budding violent relationship with Dolores keeps us on our toes (Maeve doesn’t believe in Dolores’ radical ideologies about freedom); Bernard’s influence this season has been reduced to secondary character treatment, blamed for enabling the host rebellion that shattered Delos in the first place. He embarks on a borderline comedic partnership with Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), another host who used to work in disguise at Delos, to stop Dolores’ rendezvous. However, we ultimately learn that Bernard holds more than meets the eye; more specifically, he holds the coveted encryption key to “the Sublime,” a virtual heaven especially prized by the hosts, for they saw it as a place to be eternally free — a place where they finally felt like they belonged. After all, there is a strange beauty in belonging.
It’s safe to say that Westworld has always been littered with secrets and plot twists, so it’s not surprising for this season to follow the same blueprint, which is a good thing! (Who doesn’t love a good plot-twist?) And yet, underneath all the uncertainty of a Westworld-ian society, one thing is for sure: “In an unjust world, intelligence is reserved only for humans.” How grand. Words from Dolores Abernathy. ✰
Michelle Seucan is a published poet and aspiring journalist living in New York City. She is a writer, a dancer, and a dreamer. Her goal in life is to change the world with words. (Instagram: @michelleseucan)