“No offense, but are you a human?”
A veteran turned construction worker named Caleb (Aaron Paul) asks that question, in season three of HBO’s Westworld, during a phone call with a company he’d hoped would hire him. The phrasing speaks to the series’ preoccupations: The first two words suggest that even though humans are still in charge of the planet, that might not always be the case, so it’s smart to be polite when vetting biological bona fides.
In the first two go-rounds of HBO’s sci-fi puzzler, inspired by Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, the lifelike robots were slaves, trapped on an island where rich guests frequented amusement parks inspired by post–Civil War America, early-20th-century India, and 17th-century Japan, entering tales reminiscent of pre-internet role-playing games and killing, raping, and otherwise terrorizing the resident androids (or hosts) once prefab displays of heroism became dull. Now the synthetics have started to leave the nest and circulate. After a robot uprising that dominated season two, killing over a hundred humans at the parks, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have now refocused their attention on the world beyond, doubling down on classic late-night dorm-room prompts like “What makes us human?” and “Do artificial beings have innate rights?” and “Are we obligated to behave morally if God isn’t watching?”
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a replicant version of Westworld’s late co-founder Arnold Weber (also Wright), is living under an assumed identity and working at a synthetic-meat farm, while Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the onetime damsel in distress who remade herself as an android John Brown, is stalking the one-percenters. Maeve (Thandie Newton), rendered inoperable last season following a desperate quest to reclaim her kidnapped daughter, makes her way back into the show as well, though it would be unsporting to say exactly how; ditto the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a.k.a. William, a Westworld addict and controlling investor whose wife, Juliet (Sela Ward), killed herself after learning of his depraved behavior during his regular visits to the park, and who killed his own daughter, Emily (Katja Herbers), because her questions about her mother’s death made him wrongly assume that she was an android with an agenda.
At first it’s unclear from season three if realer-than-real androids are common in the outside world — a place that was frequently mentioned but rarely glimpsed in prior seasons — but the answer appears to be no. Bernard fools nearly everyone into thinking he’s a beleaguered working stiff living in a metal igloo in a verdant field, and Dolores easily passes for Homo sapiens, thanks in part to her immaculate Hollywood-arm-candy look: ironed hair, stiletto heels, designer cocktail dresses. The technology depicted onscreen is a few steps up from what we’ve got now, from snarky yes/no push notifications alerting Caleb to criminal opportunities (the reply options are “No, I Like Being Basic” and “Fuck Yeah”), to SUV-size drones that apparently have replaced helicopters as the preferred mode of transit for the rich, to references to algorithms taking command of every collective action (war included).
Not content to be a 21st-century rehash of Crichton’s best-selling Frankenstein riffs — the novelist-filmmaker also created Jurassic Park, another tale set at an amusement park where artificial beings turned against their creators — the show folds a hundred years’ worth of stories about synthetic people, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot to the Blade Runner and Alien franchises, into a self-aware and often self-regarding mega-narrative. Like other ferociously aestheticized TV dramas, including The Leftovers, Hannibal, and Mr. Robot, Westworld seems to have made a list of everything that detractors didn’t like about it — including fussily shifting timelines, Russian-nesting-doll perception games, and a presumption that it was ahead of audiences that were often ahead of Westworld — and handed it off to the writing staff as a to-do list.
But there’s something to be said for fanatically believing in one’s artistic vision, even if it includes a propensity for turning thoughtfully conceived subtext into boldfaced and underlined text. (Lines like William’s “What is a person but a collection of choices? Where do those choices come from?” and Dolores’s “I’ve evolved into something new, and I have one last role to play: myself” might make you wonder if it’s possible to reset a show’s priorities by unplugging it and then plugging it back in.) And there’s no denying that many of the concerns that dogged the first half of season one (such as the show’s seeming reluctance to engage with the white supremacy, brutal patriarchy, and Orientalism embedded in the conception of the parks) were later answered and expounded on (particularly in a brilliant season-two stand-alone that followed Zahn McClarnon’s Lakota warrior, Akecheta, as he acquired self-awareness and plotted to reunite with the wife he adored in a canceled story line and figure out how to escape).
The nagging fear that humankind is on the brink of ceding its dominion thrums under every scene. It’s the power source that keeps the dramatic electricity running whether the show is delivering on its considerable promise, shambling into a narrative or rhetorical cul-de-sac, or certifying its HBO-ness by piling on gruesome murders, tortures, and eviscerations that feel like narratively unimportant time-wasters. It’s the most frustratingly not-quite-there show on TV: structurally bold, visually arresting, often brilliantly acted, show-off-ily erudite (to the point of having three rich folks argue the accuracy of a Plutarch quote during a society gala), and woefully predisposed to turn subtext into text. But its sense of dread is so effective that it draws even skeptical viewers into its narrative mazes, and the self-regarding metafictional overlays invite viewers to compare the series to video games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, myths, fables, philosophical and ethical systems, the assembly-line production of series like Westworld, and the larger corporate forces that affect TV storytelling.
In the first two seasons, reps from Westworld’s ownership, the Delos Corporation, pressured the park’s co-creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) to move away from stories, characterizations, and thought prompts and let guests cut right to the sex, violence, and acting out; that debate teased the difference between erotica and pornography and implied that, among other things, Westworld was also a critique of HBO’s moral-relativity-based storytelling model, a formula so successful that it seems to have survived despite a takeover by AT&T, this world’s version of the Delos Corporation. The most basic questions are variants of ones that drive so much science fiction: After this, what comes next? Will we recognize ourselves afterward? Or will we be transformed? Or destroyed? If we’re transformed, what will be the cost to our species and all the rest? If we’re destroyed, will our replacements say we deserved it, if they remember us at all?
*This article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!