Westworld returned with its season three premiere last night and the question on everybody’s lips was: Where the hell is Westworld? This might be a series about a Western-style theme park filled with robots, but those key components of the series were nowhere to be found—well, except for the robots. This might seem like a betrayal of the show’s ethos, but it’s actually the right decision for the story they’re telling...and the one we need.
The season three premiere, “Parce Domine,” didn’t take place in Westworld or any of the other parks. Instead, it largely followed a new character named Caleb (Aaron Paul), a veteran and construction worker who participates in a criminal gig economy on the side. Eventually, he crosses paths with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s spent the past few months infiltrating Incite Inc. as part of her war against humanity, but for the most part, we’re seeing things through Caleb’s point of view.
This might make the premiere episode seem underwhelming or uninteresting, after all, we don’t know Caleb. Until we do, we don’t necessarily like Caleb. And, perhaps most importantly, Caleb isn’t a robot—at least not technically. In an allegorical sense, he is a Host. He brings himself “back online” in the mornings and goes about his day, talking to a digital version of his dead friend about how he sees the world around him. The parallels are laid on a little thick at times but it’s clear what we’re supposed to get from this: Caleb and the rest of humanity, including the audience, are just as exploited as the Hosts.
Westworld season three presents the world as a caste system disguised as a meritocracy, using the framework of technology to keep people stagnated in social and economic brackets. Much like Minority Report, Watch Dogs 2, or our actual looming reality, technology is a tool that’s abused by the few to take advantage of the many; social scores are used to determine candidacy for jobs, algorithms are used to make executive decisions, shirts can display your mood, subscription services recreate phone calls with deceased loved ones, and the gig economy has been gamified. Biggest of all, an AI data cluster is used to map contingencies and strategize solutions to large and small problems—although we know its real use is probably much more sinister.
Westworld (the park) may have been a horrific experiment that exploited robots for humanity’s pleasure, but taking a step back from the island has shown just how much bigger the global experiment actually is. Not only does it present the park as one piece of a larger problem, but it’s also designed to shed a light on the audience—we cared so much about the Hosts’ plight, we failed to see how badly humanity was failing until it was too late.
Each season of Westworld has been dedicated to the systematic breakdown of fantasy—not just for the wealthy and elite guests, but for the audience itself. The first few episodes of season one showed a perfect world for the select few. We got to watch as characters like the Man in Black entered a fantasy world where they could get away with anything. The second season dismantled the first illusion while replacing it with another, a revenge fantasy where the right people paid the price for their wrongdoings. Westworld was a playground of murder and mayhem—first for the guests, and then for the Hosts. So long as we stayed there, we were playing the same game.
But all the while, a much scarier world lingered just outside, one with horrors similar to our own. Where technology rendered free will obsolete and the myth of truly being able to earn anything on your own merit was finally exposed. I’m not saying Westworld is the master of storytelling—this premiere was not subtle—but it knows the story it wants to tell and it’s not being shy about it. It’s a perfect mirror for the real world right now and probably one of the best outlets to tell a story basically one step removed from our own.
It’s no surprise that one guy tells Dolores they’re all living “in a simulation” (a totally real thing that some rich tech bros believe) because we were living in it too. We were escaping just as much as the guests were. But there’s no escaping this time.
Westworld season three airs every Sunday on HBO.
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