So I binge watched Westworld Season 3 this weekend, as the riots in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd across the US unfurled and with the global coronavirus pandemic in the background. And it felt weirdly out of time, a weird mash up of media from the past which hasn’t dated well.
Spoiler warning in case you don’t know and do care, but this season of the TV show centres around the idea that an AI has been built which can predict everything everyone will ever do (with a few exceptions, the “outliers”) and has been used to secretly control the world. Delores, the android “host” who is the main protagonist of the first two seasons of the show, is now wandering around the real world and attempting to disrupt the plans of this AI and its controller-slash-puppet Serac. Maybe she wants to end humanity. Maybe she wants to free it. Who knows? You get the drill.
The season seems to enjoy cribbing from every sci-fi film you’ve ever watched. There’s a lot of Blade Runner, or more precisely Blade Runner 2049 (particularly in the soundtrack, which I have to say I was not a big fan of). We get plenty of Robocop. Incongruously, the AI Rehoboam’s graphical interface looks like the language the aliens use in Arrival. But the core concept, that a computer can perfectly model everything about you by reading your search history and social media posts – itself an expansion on the idea in season two that you can understand everything there is to know about someone by how many people they rape and murder at a novelty theme park – is one plucked straight out of failed Battlestar Galactica spin off show Caprica.
I thought it was a dumb idea on Caprica and I think it’s a dumb idea here. But I guess you could say that about a lot of sci-fi ideas – what matters is the story you tell with it. The problem with Westworld (and Caprica as far as I can remember) is that all of the social implications such technology like that would have in the real world is left in the backdrop in order to focus on the idea of a bunch of protagonists having a metaphorical and literal punchup.
I’m reminded of a Scientific American article from last year which talked about how Game of Thrones went from telling sociological stories to psychological ones – at a huge cost. To be clear, Westworld has always been more interested in psychological storytelling, but as it moves out of its themepark origins and into the wider world, it seems quite striking that its focus hasn’t also widened.
But it isn’t just that the huge sociological implications of a macguffin that can, um, control social progress, is kept in the background – it’s the way it is done. Because at the midpoint when Delores and conspirators manage to release the data so that everyone has access to their personal data telling them when they’ll die, how their marriage will fail, etc., the response of the general public is to riot.
At this point, the comparisons shift from Caprica to another Jonathan Nolan scripted piece of media, The Dark Knight Rises. If you recall, that film rests on the premise that if you cut a city off from the mainland and lock the police underground then it will immediately descend into chaos, and this is analogous to what happens in Westworld as far as we can tell (as I said, it’s left in the background and thus not really explored). At the time, people including myself lambasted The Dark Knight Rises for being a rightwing edgelord wank fantasy in which the public are essentially one meal away from descending into barbarism and that it is up to Great Men to maintain control. This is essentially the same idea in Westworld. It ends on a hopeful note with the character Caleb entrusted with the control of Rehoboam and the possibility that it won’t immediately lead to the end of civilisation, but the odds given are not that great and even then its all down to Caleb as one of the few individuals capable of True Free Will (which the story illustrates by the fact that he is capable of shooting people in the face a lot but resists the temptation to rape Delores in a flashback when he receiving military training in the theme park).
Westworld isn’t the first example of modern media to espound this thesis; indeed its part of a trend and some examples aren’t even written by Jonathan Nolan. But the last few months highlight how flawed this thesis is and how hollow this drama subsequently rings.
We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and although it is far too early to write the history books on it just yet, a few things appear to be emerging. Firstly, the response of the public hasn’t been to riot but to help. Secondly, governments which put the most stock into the Great Man Theory have, to put it mildly, been struggling. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Dominic Cummings have built their careers on the idea that the public is a rabble to be controlled, but when an actual crisis has come along they have been shown to not be up to the job.
And as for the riots? Well, there’s no doubt that people do riot. But much of the rioting in the US right now, as opposed to the protests, seem to have been deliberately provoked by the police – and that’s even if you leave to one side the fact that the protests were kicked off by flagrant police brutality in the first place and the numerous attacks on journalists. You know where there aren’t riots right now? In the cities where the police have joined the protests.
Watching these fictional riots while cities across the US are facing very real crises was uncomfortable, mainly because they appeared to just exist in the background while white people debate the future of humanity. In fact it is striking at how this season hasn’t dealt with race at all. You can arguably justify it in the first two seasons as they were set on a theme park, but with the focus switched to the wider world it wasn’t a topic that seemed to come up at all, which for a show purporting to bombard us with truth bombs about human nature seems more than a little cowardly. It does touch on class, even if it is much more interested in the wealthy than the poor, but I just can’t see how you can decouple race from class these days. Even the strong black characters of the past seasons, Maeve, Charlie and Bernard, were relegated to relatively background roles this season. Maeve spends most of the season out Surac’s dirty work for fairly unconvincing reasons, Charlie has been replaced by a duplicate of Dolores before she goes rogue herself (again, for not entirely clear reasons – her story just sort of runs out). Meanwhile Bernard just… wanders around.
Maybe this is making a smarter point than it first appeared, and they’ll show up next season to fix the mess everyone else has now left – but I’m sceptical. Fundamentally, I’ve had enough of media feeding me this pessimistic vision of humanity: it isn’t rooted in the world I see around me and it feels increasingly like an agenda to shape how people perceive it. If all that Westworld has to say to is that humanity is doomed without strong leaders to tell us what to do, then I for one have had enough. The first season was a fun enough little story which played around with time and neatly subverted the plot of the original film, but it has struggled to have anything to say ever since.