"Westworld" shows us the dangers of digitizing humanity

What's the worst outcome of our trust in streamlined technological convenience? Watch this finale and find out

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 26, 2018 4:15PM (EDT)

Jeffrey Wright in "Westworld" (HBO)
Jeffrey Wright in "Westworld" (HBO)

My mobile device has become very good at guessing my next steps. This didn’t bother me much at first since, for the most part, it would remind me that I had an event scheduled on my calendar. A flight, perhaps. But recently its system upped the ante,  alerting me that it was time for me to leave for said flight, calculating the time it would take me to get to the airport based on my location.

I did not make that request within my phone’s apps. But it assumed I wanted it, or rather Google did; the service has been refining its process of scraping and analyzing user data to make life that much more seamlessly convenient for its users. This includes e-mail, apparently — I recently bought tickets to a movie at a theater that I wasn’t familiar with, and when my husband and I pulled up maps to get directions an hour before the movie it already had an idea of where I wanted to go. That’s amazing. That’s very creepy.

That also may be one version of how the world ends, if we’re to believe warnings from the late Stephen Hawking and from our own living breathing version of Lex Luthor, Elon Musk. The latter has made many declarations about the potential evils of artificial intelligence run amok. He’s also good friends with Jonathan Nolan, the co-creator of HBO’s “Westworld" (and husband to the series other creator, Lisa Joy) and a guy who explored a number of "if/then" scenarios with regard to AI's impact on humanity over many season of CBS's "Person of Interest." In that series, the nascent AI maintains an empathic connection to its human creator, even battling a rival intelligence seeking to control humankind.

In "Westworld," which ended its second season on Sunday, AI is not as understanding. Indeed, the show's most exciting and terrifying development is that three of its android “hosts,” Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and a robot version of Delos Corp. executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), have escaped the park that held them.

Before that, however, Dolores did something very, shall we say, “Google-y” that a person may have overlooked in all of its timeline collisions and destination arcs. At the moment she encountered the Man in Black (Ed Harris), she takes the bullet that smashed against Teddy’s data core and loads it into her adversary’s gun — predicting, accurately, that he would turn his pistol on her even after they team up to get where they’re going.

It may be a poetic coincidence that the gun backfires at the moment the Man in Black is ready to shoot Dolores in the head point blank, blowing his hand apart in the process. It’s equally as likely that she did the calculations. Either way, in this confrontation between man and machine, Dolores succeeds because she’s one step ahead.

Gaze, viewers, at one believable outcome of our next level of digital understanding. Those services we view as virtual concierges, ready to carry our details from one place to another, suggest improvement on life and hold open doors as we go, may be marking the beginning of some kind of ending. At the very least that notion creates interesting places for this particular story to go — fascinating, maybe. Confounding for some.

Taken as a straight narrative, seasons 1 and 2 are simply confusing and, at times, more plodding in their pacing than methodical. This second season in particular tasked the audience to track timelines, differentiating between “now” and the past, or whatever version of the past a glitching Bernard tracks.

However you see it, by ending its second season with what amounts to a reset, the producers of "Westworld" may have bought a bit more patience with some viewers than yet another circuitous journey through Delos Corp's theme parks, and the narrative's broader allegorical themes, might have.

The secondary layer of the drama's storytelling intrigued a number of viewers in this second season, if the Reddit threads and abundance of question-spangled recaps are any indication. On the other hand, it may have turned off a few segments of the entirely, especially anyone seeking a straight-up robot uprising shoot-‘em-up.  Any more abstruse details likely annoyed that crowd, just as anyone hoping to spend more time in Shogun World or the Raj probably felt enormously shortchanged on Monday morning.

Either way, the sophomore finale cleansed the story of most of its ensemble, be they human, host and, in the case of Anthony Hopkins’ creator Ford, its guiding ghost. Season 3, whenever it arrives, will be an entirely new and different story, possibly rooted in themes that by then may feel more familiar to a wider swath of viewers.

That said, season 2 makes provocative statements about the very familiar concept of faith, coming down on each side of arguments over its legitimacy.  Some of the final scenes were about as uplifting and damning as the show’s theories about our odds of surviving a robot revolution: The Valley Beyond, a heaven for the hosts’ consciousnesses, is a golden paradise modeled after the Elysian Fields. Some hosts, including Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), make it there.

Unfortunately Maeve (Thandie Newton) did not, but went out in a gloriously Old Testament flourish. Using her powers as a universal control, she held back a flood of death, fittingly riding a pale horse in the form of a reprogrammed Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), long enough for the daughter she sought to pass through. The body count here is astronomical: Say goodbye to Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and even Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the usually selfish narrative and design head who sacrifices himself to grant Maeve a chance to survive and possibly live as human. But the moment showing the wall of frozen violence resembles a Renaissance-era religious painting, and her smile, frozen in death, is nothing less than angelic.

Maeve is too good of a character to not have a part in some future version of this series, which the writers allude to by having her found by her human buddies Lutz (Leonard Nam) and his sidekick Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum). Plus, she’s the closest thing to a divine figure that this series has. Gods don’t die that easily on TV.

The Biblical allusions in “Westworld” are fairly self-explanatory. It’s the other details, about the consequences of humans playing God with technology, and the writers messing with the perceptive circuitry of our brains, that either intrigue us or turn viewers off completely. Because while Bernard, Akecheta and the other hosts see the Valley Beyond as a sacred eternal refuge, Dolores insists that the world is just another false promise that she needs to destroy. As if to validate this, viewers also see the host's bodies tumbling over a cliff, lifeless, as their minds continue into the rift leading to the Forge.  One view is simple and neat, a happy ending. The other is brutal, stonily honest. The season begins and ends with the same statement, the first time made by Bernard and the second time, in the finale, by Dolores: "That which is real is irreplaceable." Each speaks the truth, but in different contexts and with different meanings.

Puzzles, game theory and codes are the main architecture of “Westworld,” not necessarily setting. Each season’s subtitles (“The Maze” for season 1, “The Door” for season 2) serves as a clue as much as it is a theme.

In addition to this, the writers telegraph a number of hints by using the language of cinema and cinematic technique. Not only does every episode contain callbacks to classic films alongside literary references, but it also whispers indicators to the audience in details such as the usage of aspect ratio (a detail that escaped me until IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller pointed it out in her recap).

Should none of these bells and flashes entice you, if all you wanted was a Western with robots, I would not be surprised if “Westworld” lost you midway through this second season if not long before that. The ratings indicate that a number of folks have left the park: According a Nielsen ratings report, an average of around 2.4 million viewers stuck with season 2. That means the audience is down 16 percent from the 2016 season's average.

Enough people watch “Westworld” for HBO to want to keep it going, of course.  And this finale gives us plenty of reason to see what happens next, since Dolores, Bernard and robo-Hale have been loosed upon the world. Dolores is convinced of the superiority of her kind and to assist her in her aims, took a number of consciousness pearls from several hosts yet to be revealed with her to live outside of the park, including Charlotte the Host. (However, in a moment of empathy, she places the consciousness of James Marsden's heroic cowboy Teddy into the Valley.)

Bernard, on the other hand, was designed and refined — by Dolores, as it turns out — to keep Dolores’ conquering impulses in check. The idea that androids must adopt human foibles in order to evolve is an interesting one; even Dolores realizes that there’s no way that she can improve without an adversary to overcome.

But the finale does acknowledge that she’s well on her way to going full SkyNet, regardless of what the second season tells us about the survivability of the hosts beyond the outer borders of Delos Corp’s recreational facilities.

The 90-minute season ender delivers a sobering realization about humankind as well, delivered via the system and personified by Logan Delos (Ben Barnes), James Delos’ wayward son. “The truth is that a human is just a brief algorithm: 10247 lines,” the system says. “They are deceptively simple. Once you know them, their behavior is quite predictable.” And this bears out in the post-credits sequence, linking up the drama's version of now to what appears to be a distant future where the Delos hosts appear to have trapped William, the Man in Black, in a kind of purgatory, sentencing a version of him to an eternity of proving "fidelity," the show's version of a baseline of accuracy in determining how accurately a simulation replicates "the real."

Delores plows through a number of guest profiles in the system’s vast library, books written to resemble perforated rolls of player piano sheet music. She doesn’t need to see them all, since she soon realizes the profiles are more or less similar to one another. She can deduce how they'll behave, what they'll do to her and those like her. If she didn't want to destroy us all, we'd positively love her. That's precisely how we're being conditioned to behave right now.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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