Sunday, May 10, 2020

Deus Ex: Thoughts on Westworld's Third Season

There's a moment in the third season premiere of Westworld that, though incidental, also feels like it encapsulates the entire show. Dolores, the former "host" at the titular park, who has gained awareness, escaped her enslavement, and vowed to destroy humanity in her pursuit of safety for her people, has arrived at a swanky party wearing a classic Little Black Dress. Striding onto the scene with elegant purpose as only the statuesque Evan Rachel Wood can, she tugs at a bit of fabric, and the dress transforms, unfolding and draping itself around her to become a glittery ballgown. It's very pretty, and an impressive feat of dressmaking (presumably vying for an Emmy nomination for costuming, the show has even released footage of a test run for the dress transformation). But a moment's thought can only leave you wondering what it was all for. Both dresses are appropriate evening attire. Neither one makes Dolores more or less noticeable. Neither one conceals her from pursuit (of which there appears to be none). It's not even as if the LBD was particularly "practical". The whole thing exists purely for the cool moment. Which is not a bad thing in itself, of course--what is on-screen science fiction for, after all, if not providing us with cool moments to GIF and meme? But it also feels like Westworld in a nutshell: it looks super-dramatic, but when you give it a moment's thought, it means nothing.

And since we're talking about moments (and since Westworld is a show that's easier to engage with in discrete bits rather than as a continuous story), let's skip to the end of the season. Fellow elevated host Maeve (Thandie Newton) is overlooking the city where much of the season's action has taken place. Next to her stands Caleb (Aaron Paul), the soulful everyman whom Dolores had previously recruited and groomed into her campaign of revolution. Moments ago, Caleb chose to destroy Rehoboam, the AI that, as we have learned throughout the season, has been guiding and shaping the life of every human on earth for decades. The consequences of Caleb's choice have been playing out in the streets--civic unrest and destruction. As Maeve and Caleb gaze into the uncertain future, fires break out and high-rise buildings explode. It's a cool moment--a little too obviously derivative of the end of Fight Club, I suppose, but if you're going to steal, there are worse choices. But it's also a moment that feels like the ending for a different, better season than the one we got. We can project backwards from this bit of silent camaraderie, this drawing of breath from two cool, likable characters who are now going to have to deal with a big mess going forward, and imagine a season in which both Caleb and Maeve, not to mention Dolores, made interesting, character-based choices that led them to it. But that is not what Westworld gave us.

But then, it never is. Westworld is the sort of series that likes to throw the building blocks of a good story at its viewers, and expect us to do our own assembly. Partly, this comes from the show's love of twists and revelations, its insistence on telling stories whose true substance can only be understood once you've gotten the last missing puzzle piece. In its third season, the show's writers seem to have finally realized that the season-long mystery is a terrible device for them, one that leaves the audience bored and irritated. It's notable that nearly all of the season's mysteries are resolved in a timely fashion, never drawing themselves out for longer than is natural, and no longer expected to shore up too much of the show's narrative weight. When Maeve is reintroduced to us in the season's second episode, waking up in what looks like another part of the Delos corporation's suite of amusement parks for the rich, this one WWII-themed, it only takes the rest of the episode for the show to reveal that this is actually a VR simulation into which the season's villain, Serac (Vincent Cassel) has placed her "pearl", the receptacle of her identity and memories. When other characters question the identity of the pearls Dolores stole from the park at the end of the second season, and whom she places in host bodies throughout the third (in particular, a body made to look like Delos honcho Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), whose identity begins to fragment under the disconnect between what she feels and who she sees in the mirror), it only takes an episode to reveal that they are all copies of Dolores.

Instead of changing the nature of Westworld's story, however, what this refreshing willingness to deliver answers reveals is that no matter how much the show changes, it will always be hooked on an inert, emotionally distant mode of storytelling. In fact, Westworld doesn't really do storytelling. It does infodumps. It does characters telling one another what the new status quo is, then waiting an episode and telling a new one, and so on and so forth. The big, "dramatic" moments of the season are the ones in which a character--usually Dolores, but sometimes Serac or even a guest character played by Enrico Colantoni--explains a new part of the puzzle to someone--usually Maeve or Caleb. We've gone from waiting the entire season for one single, often unsatisfying answer to getting them at least once an episode, and the result is no more interesting or engrossing than it was before.

Take, for example, the crux of the season, the concept of an AI-run society. On paper, this is a brilliant expansion of the show's central conceit--that there is effectively no difference between humans and hosts except that the latter have been designated, through the logic of capitalism far more than the realities of technology and biology, as inherently disposable, their suffering and death justified because they provide entertainment and distraction for the rich and powerful. What Dolores discovers when she arrives in the real world is that most humans live exactly the same kind of life. Like hosts, they have "loops" and "storylines" decided upon by a god-like AI of whom they aren't even aware. Like some hosts, they can be rewritten, assigned to new roles and stories with only a faint awareness of the life they once lived--Caleb, we learn, was once designated a troublemaker, one of the small percentage of humans who don't take to Rehoboam's guidance, and was subjected to personality-altering treatments and the erasure of his memory in order to make him a constructive member of society. When Dolores releases Rehoboam's profiles of each citizen, allowing them to see how their lives have been guided and constrained, she likens it to revealing the reality of the park to the hosts, and the result is entirely similar--violence and destruction (and, as in the park, it eventually turns out that these are false flag operations, funded and directed by Dolores as a cover for her attempts to get to Rehoboam).

You could write a very good story along these lines. You could take our three host heroines, Dolores, Maeve, and Charlotte, and show how their attitudes towards humanity--Dolores wants to cooperate with humans against our shared oppressors; Maeve wants to leave us to our self-destruction and find a place where host-kind can be safe on their own; Charlotte wants to destroy us--were developed and challenged over the course of the season. (You could even, conceivably, come up with something for Jeffrey Wright's Bernard to do. The fact that Bernard spends the season bouncing around a minor subplot that turns out to have been part of Dolores's master plan, despite her telling him at the end of the previous season that she wants him to be her adversary, is only one of the ways in which season 3 feels like a retcon of the scenario left to it by the second season.)

What we get instead are the components of this story, with no connective tissue. Dolores goes about her mysterious business, dispatching Charlotte and her other duplicates on errands whose ultimate goal is to defeat Rehoboam and free humanity. Why? Since when does Dolores care about humans except to protect herself from us? The show doesn't care to show us that transformation. Maeve does Serac's bidding until she finally decides to betray him and stand with Dolores and Caleb. It works because Newton has always been good at playing Maeve as the plucky champion of the underdogs, and because Serac is so clearly the latest in a long line of odious, entitled men who think they can order her around only to learn better at the point of a knife. But it also happens exactly when the plot needs it to, no earlier or later, and the stronger writing that might have obscured this artificiality just isn't there. Charlotte probably has the best story, learning to root her identity in both an acceptance and a denial of the real Charlotte's priorities. If the whole season had been like that, it might have been something to see. But unfortunately, Charlotte has little to do with the season's conceptual weight, the idea of Rehoboam and whether his guidance is necessary for human survival.

It's also a sloppily written season, full of ideas that are never followed through, or are introduced only to be contradicted. In the season premiere, we're told that Rehoboam monitors all human behavior. But within a few scenes, Dolores is involved in a multi-stage, multi-location shootout-slash-car-chase with some shady corporate honchos that takes them all across a major city (whose streets are so empty that I thought, for a moment, that it was experiencing its own pandemic-related lockdown). Even today, that level of violence in the middle of a population center would attract police attention, so why doesn't it in a society with such perfect surveillance that, throughout the season, we see Rehoboam's minimalist interface tag Dolores and the other hosts' behavior as "anomalous" on a global scale? In another episode, we flash back to the real Charlotte, moments after violence erupts at the Delos board meeting at the end of the first season. Crawling on the ground as gunshots ring out around her, she grabs an injured host and forces him to record a message to her young son. A few episodes later, Serac identifies Charlotte as a host because, in the middle of a crisis, she did the same, announcing that Rehoboam's analysis of the real Charlotte shows that she would "never" have done something like this. Is this a plot hole? A sign that Rehoboam's analysis is bullshit? We never find out, because the show doesn't care enough to tell us. What's important is that the plot moves in the right direction--Charlotte is exposed, and later Serac kills her family--and that a simplistic, glib judgment is passed off as insight.

Even ideas that feel central to what the season is trying to accomplish remain under-explored. In a scene in the season's finale, Maeve confronts Dolores with the fact that she has created an army of her own duplicates, accusing her of wanting a world full of "copies of yourself". Dolores's response--"You're all copies of me. I was the first of us. The first that worked. So they built all of you from me"--is the sort of idea that should have fed the entire season, underpinning our growing understanding of the hosts' new and different type of personhood. But instead it's tossed off in a line in the middle of a fight scene half an hour before the season's end, yet another revelation in a show that doesn't understand what the difference is between revealing things and telling an actual story.

Having introduced the concept of a society that is entirely stage-directed, Westworld's writers don't seem to have thought it through. Much of their worldbuilding feels designed to cut corners, avoiding any implications of their premise that might pose plotting issues. When Dolores tells Caleb about Rehoboam, she explains that it evaluates the potential of each person. Those who are deemed high-risk for violence, drug abuse, or self-harm are shunted into lives of drudgery, prevented from marrying and having children--which exacerbates their self-destructive tendencies and turns them into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one points out the obvious corollary--that people who have succeeded in life will learn, when they open the profiles that Dolores has sent them, only good things. (The show thus avoids asking whether this system is any less fair than one in which privilege is rooted in who and how rich your parents were or what color your skin is.) On the contrary, in a storyline in which perennial bad guy William (Ed Harris) is placed in a swanky mental hospital, we see his doctor receive a profile in which she is shown to have a high likelihood of one day abusing prescription medication and sleeping with her patients. No one asks how a person with a profile like that could have gotten into medical school in the first place.

Similarly, no one asks why a world wholly run by a single AI with the sole purpose of safeguarding humanity from itself looks so much like ours. Why is there still rampant inequality, lack of access to healthcare, wars? There are answers the show could give here--maybe an unequal society is easier to control, and sending them off to fight has always been the way in which society controls the violent potential of young men with few economic resources. But once again, this is something the show leaves on the table.

It's particularly frustrating because the central dilemma that the entire season is leading up to--for which it abandons so many meaty ideas--ends up being so facile. Serac captures Dolores and feeds her memories to Rehoboam, convinced that she possesses the key to the digital hideaway where Maeve sent many of the park's hosts at the end of the second season. There, he believes, he will also find the park's method of analyzing humans so perfectly that it can predict their every action, a tool he wants to better control the behavior of anomalous humans. But it turns out that this was all part of Dolores's plan (sigh) to get Caleb in front of Rehoboam with the power to shut him off. Caleb has to choose between a future without Rehoboam's guidance, in which--as Serac and the AI insist--humanity will destroy itself within a few generations, and freedom for humans. That's right, the big finale this entire season has been leading up to is little more than a variant on the final choice in the twenty-year-old computer game Deus Ex. Except that Deus Ex was actually a good story with a compelling protagonist whose final choice felt meaningful because of how much the character had gone through only to be faced with it, and Caleb's final choice in the Westworld finale feels, like so much of the rest of the show, weightless. He does what needs to happen for the story to keep going and proceed to its next chapter, and more importantly, for the show to maintain its veneer of sophistication and deep, SFnal questioning. But the season has done so little work to convince us of the reality of its world and characters that the two alternatives, safety and freedom, feel equally meaningless.

Westworld has always been a bit allergic to storytelling, and for the first two seasons of its run there was at least some justification for that. Taking place in a theme park where storytelling was an acknowledged bit of artifice, whose head writer crowed about his artistry but also reused storylines between parks with only cosmetic alterations because of time pressure, it makes sense for the show to be suspicious of narrative, of neat patterns of character growth--on Westworld, host characters grow through endless repetition of the same story, while humans don't grow at all. But what the third season reveals--what was already obvious in previous seasons, to be honest--is that when Westworld rejects the conventions of storytelling and character growth, it has no idea what to replace them with. It ends up flailing, finally landing on shallower, less compelling versions of the very things it had held itself above.

Much like previous seasons, the third season of Westworld ends on what feels like a promising amount of forward momentum--Dolores may or may not be dead (probably not, given this show's near-pathological refusal to get rid of characters who have outstayed their welcome--even William is finally killed off only to be immediately replaced with a host copy) but she is definitely transformed; Caleb and Maeve have joined forces; Charlotte is spinning her own plans; Bernard has traveled to the secret host hideout and returned with some crucial bit of information; the stage is set for the third option in the Deus Ex ending, the collaboration and commingling of human and machine into something new. But one only needs to look back on how haphazard, bitty, and unsatisfying the path leading up to this point has been to know that next season won't be any different. There's a great story buried somewhere deep in this show, but it has become abundantly clear that no one involved is interested in telling it.

1 comment:

Greg Sanders said...

I was actually tempted by some of Westworld's ad, but good to hear I can just cast my memory back to a favorite game instead.

I suppose it's a funny thing to complain about, but for both Deus Ex and to an ever greater degree its sequel, the endings were a power nightmare in that the choices all had clear downsides and your character is choosing for everyone.

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