Sunday 24 May 2020

Westworld - Her plan is for us to die.

Westworld: 3x07 Passed Pawn.

There are so many obvious references to Jonathan Nolan’s previous masterpiece, Person of Interest, in these final two episodes of the third season of Westworld that I had to consider the main difference between the shows. The arc between POI’s If-Then-Else and its final episode Return 0 is some of the best television of the last few years. Nolan took the Trojan horse of a procedural and turned it not only into a poignant show about identity and technology, but one with a beating heart and soul in the middle of it, which was the connection between all the team members. Every single one of them contributed, and was essential. I miss that in Westworld, where the connections between characters are constantly fraught, where relationships seem to primarily exist for mutual exploitation and end in violence when no more advantage can be had. Westworld is still a poignant show, which explores all those themes further, and with a lot more resources than POI was ever given, but that emotional resonance is entirely missing. I care what happens to the characters but I wouldn’t be devastated by any of their fates. 

In a way, maybe it is the greater resources that create the disconnection here. So many diverse locations, so many different story lines branching off, then reconnecting – Westworld is a large tapestry, with no Subway at the centre of it. It would perhaps take more than one viewing to even follow what is happening entirely, but who has time for that these days. 

We begin by seeing how the chess board is laid out, which is an interesting assumption to start off with, that there are solely two opposing sides, not several. What remains of Charlotte Hale has, after the loss of her partner and child, decided to follow her own agenda instead of that of the woman who has sent her back to be killed. She forms an impermanent partnership with Serac and Maeve, revealing where Musashi is to Maeve’s new allies, Clementine (oh Clementine, forever the most tragic character of them all) and a Shogun-world version of dearly departed Armistice (maybe Ingrid Bolsø Berdal wasn’t available – it is a surprise how many of their secondary characters the show has managed to retain, considering it’s confusing shooting schedule). This means that the man Dolores is travelling with, Caleb Nichols, is now her only ally in her project to determine the future for both her own dwindling (after Serac’s men have destroyed the stored host bodies) kind and that of humanity. And the first of the final two episodes focuses on Caleb, who finally puts together the pieces of his past, the mysterious flashbacks to a man he no longer recognised (played by Enrico Colantoni, a welcome well-known face). It also reveals that someone you have to learn the truth more than once in this world, as Rehoboams grasp of individual humans goes far beyond just predicting their behaviour – with the addition of drugs, it can control them like puppets. 

Dolores takes Caleb to one of those re-education centres that Serac has previously shown us, and it’s a horror show. Rehoboam’s predecessor, created by Serac’s insane brother Jean Mi, a man and an AI exclusively concerned with all the ways the world could end, is surrounded by cryogenically frozen outliers for whom the re-education process has failed. Among them, Jean Mi himself, propped up on a pedestal in front of Solomon (I suppose the riddle is, if the true mother had not been driven to save the life of her child, would King Solomon have cut that child in half, in the name of fairness?). Dolores needs Solomon to make a final calculation, one that will deliver a successful revolution. She also needs Caleb to be the leader of the human side of that revolution, a goal she accomplishes by giving him the tools to learn about his past, which is, as expected, grim. 
I’ve been thinking about Caleb, and how the show is making us care about him – if it is that he is one of the few who have shown Dolores kindness without expectations of a return, or if it is mainly that Aaron Paul has managed, through Breaking Bad, to create a situation in which his face alone is shorthand for a tragic character. Solomon reveals to him that he has been remembering his past incorrectly. He did not lose his friend Francis in the war (which turns out to be an covert operation by the US in Russia-occupied Crimea). They both came back, and Caleb came back to the very place he finds himself in, to be re-educated by Serac’s doctors. He was one of the few for whom re-education worked – the same machine that has been throwing William back into himself to face his “demons” is the one that has reworked his whole memory. Instead of being just a construction worker with a side-job in gig-economy crime, Caleb has been working for Rehoboam/Solomon this whole time, kidnapping or killing identified outliers to be re-educated. Whitman (Colantoni) was one of those outliers, a loose end from Rehoboam’s drug programme, those exact wafers that keep Caleb and Francis in the dark. In the end, because Rehoboam sees humans as solely self-interest, disconnected from meaningful community, and capable of being reduced to simple calculations (a very thin book, as Dolores said), both Francis and Caleb received a message that incentivised them to kill each other. Caleb drew faster, and killed his friend. 

In short, Rehoboam’s calculation have created an entirely predictable world, one that lacks deviations – one that is not headed for an apocalypse, and yet has created a humanity that perhaps no longer should continue its existence. None of these calculations have been about removing suffering and misery, or poverty. We have seen the cities and the multi-national companies, and we have seen the excesses of wealth, and the kind of privilege that this wealth is still capable of buying. This is not a better, fairer world, it is just a world in which nobody can escape the cage of an algorithm that does not understand the concept of hope and empathy. This world is lacking a Harold, who spent months and months playing chess against the Machine to teach it about humanity, about how humanity extends beyond simple calculations – the closest the show ever came was maybe through Ford and Albert/Bernard. Any comprehension about humanity here is tied entirely to greed, to an obsession with obtaining a full data set.

Random notes: 

By the end of the episode, an EPM destroys both Dolores and Solomon, but Caleb manages to take Dolores' pearl. 

Maeve's weapon of choice - a sword. Very fitting. 

With Musashi's death, the only remaining versions of Dolores are the one with Caleb and the divergent Charlotte Hale. 

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