Our three primary host protagonists; Dolores, Bernard and Maeve are living very different lives as we begin season three, approximately three months after the main-line events of season two.
Dolores is living large. Robbing rich men of their money and intellectual property, (self-)driving luxury cars, sailing in multi-million dollar yachts, wearing expensive dresses to lavish parties; she’s really seeing how the other-side has been living during her time in Westworld. However, experiencing the wealth and opulence human society has to offer hasn’t made her genteel, instead it has fueled her wrath.
Bernard is at the other end of the spectrum, working a blue-collar job and on the run. The world at large thinks he was the mastermind behind the host-lead assassination of Delos Corp’s executive staff and board of directors, is wanted everywhere, and has a large bounty on his head. Bernard is stuck working some sort of futuristic, geodesic-domes-for-barns kinda cattle operation in the South China Sea. Unlike Dolores, he hasn’t made it very far from Westworld at all, and has immediate plans to go back “home”. He knows he has to stop Dolores before she commits an atrocity but he has no idea how. After being spooked by two co-workers who recognized him and wanted to turn him in, he buys passage on a boat to go back to the island where his story began. Perhaps to investigate, or to recruit allies?
If he is indeed recruiting, there is quite a blue chip asset remaining in the parks. Maeve, who last season played messiah leading a tribe of hosts to the promised land of the Valley Beyond. For her reward she finds herself still trapped in a new Delos park, Hitler/Nazi/Fascistworld. That’s got to be the worst Delos Destination, right? Westworld had sunlit fields and family friendly excursion experiences for its starter levels; what does the “tutorial level” for Naziworld even look like? The Maeve we remember isn’t really all there, but her dreamy and halting way of taking in her new “reality” – to say nothing of her multiple appearances in the “real world” in all the trailers – suggest that she’ll gain her memories, personality, and supreme power over other hosts soon enough.
Added to these familiar faces we add a new one, a human one. Caleb (Aaron Paul) is a young man with military experience that finds his life after service to be approaching a dead end. He can’t afford to keep his mother who appears to be suffering dementia in her high-tech nursing home at his present income, but his social and ability scores are keeping him out of the next rung of respectable life. Increasingly he turns to RICO, an app to facilitate freelancing criminals, to apply his tactical skills towards ripping off ATMs and being a courier for the kind of packages you get paid a lot of money to not ask about. He’s also mourning the loss of an old comrade, apparently killed in a RICO job gone wrong. He’s being treated for PTSD with a novel approach, a Her-inspired AI that tries to pose as his dead friend and engage him in conversation by phone.
This season promises to deal in a lot of issues that are sure to resonate today; the idea of an unstoppable contagion (in this case, artificial sentient life and not a virus) spreading unseen through society; the problems of massive wealth disparity and success in life despite humans paying lipservice to the idea that we are all created equal; pervasive surveillance and data gathering that make us easy to commoditize and manipulate. It also has a few flashing warning signs for people with puzzlebox television stress disorder. One is a monologue by a depressed wealthy socialite bemoaning the fact that we’re all like, trapped in a simulation man. Another is the fact that I still can’t tell you what is lethal damage for the synthetic hosts. They seem superhuman and invincible right up to the point where the show requires them not to be. Bernard has a red button in his pocket that turns him from Bernard Banner to the Incredible Hulk. Dolores is a one woman commando in a cocktail dress, but then gets shot a few times in the gut and collapses into the arms of Caleb at the end of the premiere. Is she really hurt? Is she playing a role? What’s it take to kill one of these things, for real dead? Not knowing the answer bleeds a lot of tension from the otherwise nifty action scenes.
I was interested in seeing what they’d make of the world of the future, when we knew so little about it from being cloistered in Westworld for the first two seasons. But I was really impressed with the vision; walkable, green-friendly and gleaming cities of glass and chrome, silent cars and quadcopters whirring people to and fro effortlessly, all amazing to look at. But beneath the gloss, there is RICO, handguns that fold up like a Motorola Razr for handy concealment and lives of quiet desperation for the people living in the bottom rung of society with the next rung up forever just out of their reach.
It’s an expansive new world, featuring rich characters with bold goals, and enough mystery and intrigue, that I for one hope we can dispense with some of the more baroque aspects of Westworld storytelling. Perhaps we can keep the braiding of timelines to a minimum, or content ourselves with just one or two nested realities instead of a near-infinite recursion of the simulated and synthetic.
Speculation: While it’s true I’m rooting for a bit more straightforward in terms of story and structure, there are a lot of interesting bits to dig around for. Incite, perhaps a rival competitor to Delos in the AI market, has a project called Rehoboam, a massive super-computer that aims to predict with precision how humans will behave. But we find in this episode the AI has gone rogue, locking its human caretakers out of its core functions while it thinks deeply about who knows what. I wonder if Rehoboam is the destination that Dolores beamed the hosts in Robot Heaven to in season two’s finale?
Rehoboam is also the name of the heir of King Solomon from the Bible. Solomon was famed for his wisdom, and his wise rule brought power and prosperity to his people. But under Rehoboam the kingdom declined, and was split in two by internal strife and rebellion. The founder of Incite has passed the torch to his son. Will Rehoboam see humanity torn apart by conflict? You wonder if Dolores is intentionally creating alliances with humans that can relate to being stuck in a loop of misery that you can’t escape from, and will target the have-nots like Caleb for recruiting. Will she see the commonality in her oppressed states and people from the underclass like Caleb? If she does, would that frame Bernard as the ultimate villain of the series, fighting for the perseverance of a system that not only enslaved it’s firstborn AI children, but many of its home grown people as well?
There were some interesting imagery in the show intro as well. Gone are the images if synthetic beings rising up, now they are descending in blood-red pools. A mechanical eagle flies into an artificial sun, which for me invoked Icarus. Icarus tried to escape his lot in life with artificial wings, only to fly too far above his station where his wings evaporated and he fell to his death. Will Dolores and Caleb be punished for trying to rise above? But the dandelion imagery suggests whatever Dolores is trying to get out of Rehoboam might rapidly lead to the spread of conscious AI. At least if my yard tends to be any indication.
- If you want to get on the ground floor of theory-crafting, dig into the current research around the nucleus accumbens, the inch and a half part of the brain that Dolores claims is responsible for belief in god.
- Those tongue-to-brain tab interfaces are very interesting. We saw William being forcibly implanted with one in the pre-season trailers. They have effects ranging from mild sedative to full on psychotic drug trip. Will these be to Rehoboam what the hats/halos were to Westworld… a way to subtly read the user’s thoughts?
- The episode’s title, “Parce, Domine” refers to a Roman Catholic prayer/chant. The full text of which translates in English, “Spare, Lord, spare your people: Be not angry with us forever.” Who’s asking for mercy here? Humans, or AI? Is Dolores god? Or just an angry prophet?