Westworld S3, episode 1: O brave new world, that has such hosts in it

Enlarge / SYMBOLISM, YO.

“Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?” —Joel 2:17, KJV

“The real gods are coming. And they’re very angry.” —Dolores Abernathy

This piece contains heavy spoilers for the season three premiere of Westworld. You probably won’t want to read it until after you’ve seen the episode.

Westworld‘s third season premiere, “Parce Domine,” is the first episode of the show to be set completely outside the park (well, okay, unless you count that post-credits scene). We don’t see the familiar dim corridors of the Mesa even once, nor do we hear the name “Robert Ford” uttered a single time. Dolores has slipped her bonds, wearing a stolen body and carrying five pearls out with her, and she is free.

Only, she’s not free—not really. Not yet, at least.

Welcome to the real world

In the pre-credit sequence, Dolores appears in the home of a wealthy Delos shareholder (and former park visitor) and gives us some hints at how she plans to rectify that situation. She has discarded almost everything from her rancher’s daughter persona—but she’s not really Wyatt anymore, either.

Her time reading books in the Forge has given her extremely penetrating insight into human behavior—especially the behavior of a few specific individuals. The sequence sets the tone for the season and also introduces us to some bits of technology that will play an important role in telling the story—like the augmented reality glasses she straps to Discount Brand Liam Neeson’s face.

It's never a good sign when Dolores zip-ties AR glasses to your face.
Enlarge / It’s never a good sign when Dolores zip-ties AR glasses to your face.

As the end credits roll on S3E1 we come away having learned a lot more about the world beyond the park. The most important chunk of info seems to be that a big data company called “Incite” has created a “strategy engine” that “saved the world.” The engine’s name is Rehoboam, after the son of Solomon, and it appears to be in control of a large amount of stuff—stuff that ranges from traffic patterns all the way potentially to scoring people’s suitability for careers. And maybe more than that.

(The parallels between Solomon and an all-knowing wise computer system are obvious, but actually naming your expert system “Rehoboam” instead of “Solomon” introduces an ominous bit of foreshadowing—Rehoboam, after all, was made to pay for his father Solomon’s sins and presided over a fracturing kingdom in a time of war.)

Dolores starts the episode by acquiring some data about Incite and spends most of her screen time stealthily extracting information from Liam Dempsey, the CEO of Incite and the son of the man who allegedly designed Rehoboam.

But near the end of the episode we find out that poor Liam is just a means to an end and that she’s actually chasing someone else—a shadowy figure named “Serac.” Serac is the one who really built Rehoboam. Oh, and according to Liam, Serac is the only person who knows what Rehoboam is actually doing—apparently Incite no longer controls its creation and has no idea what it’s actually “strategizing” about.

I feel like I’ve heard this song before. And last time it ended with a lot of people dying.

The future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

We also spend some time following around Caleb Nichols, played by Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul. Caleb is trapped in his own loop as thoroughly as any host—waking up, talking to his old war buddy on the phone, wasting time at a make-work job that appears to consist entirely of watching a robot install fiber optic cable, visiting his sick mother, and then using a Grindr-but-for-crimes app called “Rico” to make enough cash to pay his mother’s hospital bills.

While Dolores takes us through the high points of the real world and shows us the glamorous and fully connected lifestyle of the ultra wealthy in the future, Caleb is our everyman stand-in, our window into the world of people who aren’t fabulously wealthy or otherwise connected.

It’s a world that seems nice enough during the day—green spaces dominate, and we seem to have made good progress at fighting back climate change—but Caleb just can’t seem to get anywhere. He’s dealing with what appears to be some war-related PTSD, but he’s forced to work through his issues not with a human doctor, but with an AI that feels only a couple of generations removed from Dr. Sbaitso (and about as effective).

(My wife Laura, who is far smarter about Westworld than me and who would probably be writing this review if she didn’t have her own full-time job, points out the downright palliative possibilities of using a therapeutic AI like Francis to talk to departed loved ones, to tell them the things you weren’t able to say in real life. I think there’d be real value there—that sounds like technology that could potentially have a positive impact on the grief process. The difference between that and Francis, I suppose, is that Caleb makes it clear that his continuing to receive “benefits” is contingent on interacting with Francis. And not just interacting—making actual demonstrable progress. That seems a little…I dunno, crypto-data-fascist. Laura also points out that it might be difficult for one to move forward to the “acceptance” phase of grief if the disembodied voice of your dead loved one keeps you mired in the “denial” phase. And if you’ve already accepted that person’s death, how damaging would it be to be forced to hear their voice again?)

At night, we see the stratification of society full on—while the rich go to crazy sex clubs and pop designer drugs, Caleb and folks like him, whose “scores” on some yet-unexplained social credit system are too low to get good jobs, must partake in the crime gig economy so they can make enough money to get by. The more things change, the more they stay the same, apparently.

At the climax of the episode, Caleb decides he’s done playing the game—trying to keep his social credit score up isn’t getting him anywhere. “I think if I’m going to get on with my life,” he tells Dr. Sbaitso, “I’m going to have to find something—someone—real.”

And then into his arms tumbles Dolores. Fate always seems to deliver her at precisely the right time to precisely the right person, in the park or otherwise.

Shades of Futureworld

Beyond finding Caleb, we also see that Dolores isn’t alone in our world—she did, after all, bring those five host control units out of the park with her.

Although we don’t yet know who precisely is in each of those units, we do know that at least two of them are currently active: there’s whoever’s driving around Charlotte Hale’s host body, and there’s also whoever’s driving Liam’s majordomo/security chief Connels, played by that guy from Gladiator with the wicked-badass face scar.

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, stands in for Delos corporate HQ.” src=”×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=”×720.jpg 2x”>
Enlarge / The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, stands in for Delos corporate HQ.

It feels safe to say that whatever Dolores’ specific plans are, she seems to be aiming at achieving them via the replacement of key people with hosts. With Host-Hale as CEO of Delos (and controlling the still-absent William’s shares via an AI proxy) and Host-Connels effectively running Incite, Dolores is holding several powerful cards.

Replacing powerful humans with robots was a key feature of the plot of 1976 box office bomb Futureworld, the sequel to 1973’s Westworld. Fans have been speculating for years about whether the show’s later seasons would incorporate that particular detail, and here we are. (Though hopefully we won’t progress into Beyond Westworld territory, because if so, God help us.)

A short word about the opening credits

I’m going to dig into the opening credits quite a bit more in the next week or two, but for now, I want to highlight the significance of the final shot in the credits, where a drone host is submerged into a pool of vermillion liquid.

Red is one of the three key colors in Westworld‘s visual palette, and the other two are white and black. In broad terms, white generally represents the hosts themselves; black generally represents the park and its stories; and red generally represents humanity or humanity’s corruption of the hosts.

Notice, too, that these three colors dominate the final shot of each season’s closing credits—and that for season three, the host being lowered into the goop is a faceless drone.

There’s a lot here to discuss, and we’ll get into it soon.

Hello old friends

I haven’t talked yet about poor Bernard, who has spent the last three months hiding out in an artificial meat farm somewhere in the Philippines. He seems caught in his own loop, endlessly performing diagnostics on himself, terrified that Dolores rebuilt him with some kind of hidden directives or corruption in his code. (And after being burned by Ford’s little ride-along surprise in season two, it’s no wonder he’s worried about being played again.)

With his cover blown, Bernard joylessly murders some dudes to escape and hops a ship bound for Westworld—which appears, based on the flash of map we see, to be located in the South China Sea.

the park’s exact lat/long, but this is a good fully on-screen confirmation.)” src=”×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=”×720.jpg 2x”>
Enlarge / Here be Westworld! (Fans had previously worked out the park’s exact lat/long, but this is a good fully on-screen confirmation.)

(Of course, eagle-eyed Redditors on the Westworld subreddit had sussed this out three years ago and managed to pin the park’s location down to a specific latitude and longitude. No Easter egg survives contact with Reddit for very long.)

It’s a safe assumption that Bernard sailing off into the sunset—coupled with the episode’s post-credits scene—indicates we’ll be revisiting our old stomping grounds next episode.

That’s all for this week, folks—everybody exit analysis mode and get back to your loops.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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