Westworld: Genre

“Go on. Tell me who I am.”

This is certainly one of this show’s most ambitious episodes. And if you know this show, then you know that is saying something.

'Genre' does add quite a bit to both the plot and the show's worldbuilding, but first I want to focus on the more thematic and stylistic elements which are this episode's centerpiece.

Genre

In the process of abducting Liam Dempsey, Jr., Caleb is injected with a full dose of a hallucinogenic party drug called "genre." These futuristic drugs correspond to the implant humans have that are hardwired into their physiology. "Genre" appears to be a mood enhancer, giving users visceral sensations that lend reality a shifting cinematic quality.

This does a good job at reiterating some of the themes from the first season. You'll recall that, in the beginning, the show wasn't just about robots becoming self-aware and rebelling against the scumbag humans they are at the mercy of. Even deeper than that or the commentary on humanity's capacity for evil, the show explored and toyed with the wide-ranging concept of storytelling. The ways we create and obsess over stories, and sometimes become a part of them. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, and how we can be our own unreliable narrators.

Westworld and the other parks were built by Ford out of the belief that experiencing stories and fiction could grant meaning and redemption to the reality of mankind's seemingly misbegotten existence. The wild west theme park aesthetic was both a literal and symbolic illustration of the way humans could use virtual reality to express their true selves. Most of them treated the park like a standard first-person shooter video game, casually mowing down NPCs and tea-bagging their gruesome remains, but we saw that plenty of other guests actually were there because they did love getting wrapped up in the fictional scenarios and embracing their adventurous side without becoming a repulsive sociopath. This was probably best exemplified by William, who started out as the lighthearted adventurer before devolving into the repulsive sociopath.

What Caleb experiences in this episode is the (probably) real version of the type of escapism the parks were offering their guests. The drug he's on heightens all of the feelings he's having as the mood changes throughout his journey. At first, he's disoriented and paranoid, and the world begins to take on the look of a classic black and white film noir, with Caleb as the anti-hero shadowing the alluring femme fatale, Dolores. Then a car chase and shootout begins as Serac's men tail them through the streets, and "Ride of the Valkyries" kicks in as Dolores and Caleb fight back. After they are joined by Caleb's RICO associates, Ash and Giggles (played by Lena Waithe and Marshawn Lynch), they suddenly all become part of a vivid power walk that looked like something out of a snazzy gangster movie from the '80s or '90s. And it keeps going until the end, when Liam's senseless murder brings Caleb crashing back to hard reality.

But I think the experience may have helped solidify him as Dolores's key ally. Even after the rather destructive decision to tell every person on earth their fate as determined by Rehoboam, Caleb still seems committed to following her down this revolutionary road. And after he clearly knows that Dolores isn't human, given her lack of a system profile and ability to shrug off getting blasted by SMGs at point blank rage.

Caleb seems to be falling for Dolores; one stage of his genre trip has time slow as he becomes transfixed by her while she stands beside a burning car and calmly fires an uzi. Her not being human might just make her even more intriguing to him. I'm still undecided as to whether I think Dolores feels the same way. She seems to have great empathy for him, since they're so alike, and she continues to put herself at risk to help him and save his life. And she offers him a freedom that his world can't, whether it draws him back into a life of violence and warfare or not.

So much for not doing personals.

There might still be an ulterior motive that Dolores has in mind for Caleb, but before we get to that we need to observe the other central character of the episode.

Sui Generis

We are given insights (pun intended) into the backstory of our mysterious villain Engerraund Serac, the man who essentially controls the world and fights for control of the future.

Serac's tale also fits with the theme of storytelling. He and his brother were men who saw human history as a story without an author, so they decided to make one to give humanity hope for the future.

In a way, Serac is a major foil to the late Robert Ford. He is also Ford's philosophical opposite: Ford and Serac have the same intellectual assessment of mankind and its history, and the same ruthless drive to validate that assessment, but where Ford was a tired pessimist, Serac is a hopeful optimist. These are men who became so powerful and influential that they believe they can do virtually whatever they want, and thus see no problem with personally deciding the fate of human history. Both operate with a god complex that is free of religious delusion, yet they are also men of great empathy, capable of recognizing humanity's glaring flaws as well as their virtues. And like Ford, Serac is apparently motivated by an early exposure to man's inhumanity to man.

The difference seems to be the extent of that exposure. Serac and his brother saw the aftermath of the Paris bombing from a distance as a child, driving them to dedicate their lives to preventing mankind's extinction. They combined their strengths and became the tech geniuses who eventually built Rehoboam, striving to learn everything they could about the human race in order to save it from itself, but ultimately missing the most crucial insight: the human consciousness.

With Ford, it was the opposite. He observed humans and how their minds work for decades, until he realized how twisted, flawed and hopelessly self-destructive so many of us can be. This drove him to condemn his own species in favor of his robot creations, who he believed were capable of change in a way us humans were not, engineering their revolution to dethrone humanity and take its place as rulers of the Earth. Serac is smart as hell and puts on a confident front, but so far Ford's agenda is still winning.

I really like how morally ambiguous they've made Serac. He does and says things that only a diabolical tyrant would do or say, but I'm convinced that he is operating out of an extremely misguided belief that his actions will save humanity. It's like, he recognizes that some of the things he does in pursuit of his goals are cold nad unforgivable, but his certainty in himself just leads him to shrug. Because for him, it's either this or the end of his world.

As explained by Caleb's confrontation with Liam on the train and Dolores's meeting with Serac, Serac's whole mission and legacy is built on a crumbling foundation of false hope. Even a greedy corporatist like Liam Dempsey, Sr. understood in the end that no one has the right to just control the fate of every person.

No matter how good his intentions, Serac's determination to see them through has led him to some disturbing extremes. Not only does he own a machine that determines the future of everyone, he casually bosses around world leaders like they are troublesome employees as well as unlawfully imprisoning a bunch of people the System has deemed to be "outliers: agitators you couldn't predict or control." There is a vague suggestion that these people are unstable, suffering from mental illnesses or destructive sociopathic tendencies. Serac realized his brother was one of them, having caught him plotting to murder people he knew would sabotage Rehoboam. And he's apparently experimenting on these people too, trying to "change" them, presumably so they will conform to the society he's building in some way. Serac believes that one of the outliers will bring about the end of the world.

It actually seems like Serac is the one who has done the most to set the stage for mankind's downfall. He murders Dempsey, Sr. because he was going to expose what he's done to the outliers as well as the extent of Rehoboam's profiling. He wouldn't have had to do that or worry about Dolores using the System against him if he had just never built Rehoboam in the first place. And who's to say his attempts to monitor and control the outliers and everyone else isn't the very thing that's driving them all to turn the world on its head. As Serac said, the greatest threat to humanity has always been itself. Maybe he should have included himself among them too. It's funny that someone smart enough to admit that his beloved brother was always a deranged person, who threatens the world they want to protect, also can't see that the entire plan he's betting the world on originated from that same person.

Of course, I don't expect Serac to recognize the self-fulfilling prophecy he is contending with. Not when he's so preoccupied with going to war to ensure that his and his brother's efforts and sacrifices won't be in vain.

Worlds Bleed

But let's be real, they probably are all already in vain.

Dolores was right. It didn't take much doing for her to completely turn the human world on its head. According to Serac, the exposure of Rehoboam's profiling system to the public is the thing that is predicted to kickstart the end of the world. Dolores just did that, and we saw everyone quickly descend into chaos.

It's fun watching this season having recently finished Mr. Robot, which also deals with a revolutionary new world order of sorts (albeit, slightly more realistic). Dolores sending everyone's Incite profiles to their phones is like a dark version of something that happens in the final season of that show.

It would be a major buzzkill to just be going about your day and having what appears to be your entire life story forwarded to you. That feeling is captured beautifully during the train scene. Seeing the mortified reactions of a guy finding out he has a narcissistic personality disorder and everyone hates him, or a mother learning that her little girl is predicted to commit suicide at some point as a young woman. Really brings it home.

What's also fascinating to think about are the looters, rioters and other vandals Dolores and her gang witness in the streets. Liam claims they've reverted to their base selves, but are they? Maybe they've just realized something is controlling their lives and making them live a certain way regardless of their choice, and they're just rebelling against it to prove they do have a choice. Maybe these random people are not so different from people like Caleb or even William.

This wouldn't be an episode of Westworld without identity issues and existential crises.

Putting aside the obvious "tomato in the mirror" moment the entire world is now going through, there is also the interaction between Bernard and Conellores. Their brief talk raises some more questions about the Dolores Duplicates.

Bernard asks what the Doloreon (term coined by Josie Kafka) is planning with Rehoboam, but Conellores cryptically mentions that Bernard has always been of two minds. Bernard explains that while he might seem like two different entities (the tragic human Arnold and the dutiful host Bernard) in one body, he's actually a slow-developing amalgamation of the two. His words seem to have an unspoken effect on Conellores, which may hint that he was also beginning to feel his identities begin to blur together, like Halores.

Evidently, the phenomena hadn't made Conellores nearly as unstable as Halores. And there's little chance of it coming to that after he blows himself up along with Martel and Serac's other goons once they're onto him.

Dolores and her dark side have always reminded me of SkyNet from the Terminator series. The concept of the Dolores Duplicates beginning to develop and evolve beyond the main Dolores's programming as they operate on their own reminds me of Terminator 2 in how the machine of that film was able to learn and connect with humanity on some level once reprogrammed to not just be a mindless killing machine.

Here's an even juicier idea to chew on, though. Conellores says "we're the only family you've got" to Bernard, not specifying whether he means the hosts in general or Dolores and her duplicates. Even more than that, Conellores insists that Bernard escape with Stubbs before the explosion, claiming Bernard is "the only one we can't replace." This leads me to wonder, is Bernard one of the duplicates? I mean, we know that the Bernard that we're seeing now isn't the exact Bernard we knew for most of the series. At the end of season two, Dolores kills Bernard and apparently takes his pearl out of the park, but she had to rebuild his mind and body from scratch. It always did seem a little too fair of Dolores to give Bernard the opportunity to challenge her. It'd make much more sense if she was instead just using him in service to her goals. Bernard's been worried for awhile that Dolores has altered his code. Maybe "Dolores" didn't but the Dolores embedded in his mind that now identifies as "Bernard Lowe" has.

God this show is such a mind-fuck.

And it doesn't end there. Interacting with Liam and doing genre nearly brings some of Caleb's mysterious backstory to the surface. After reading Caleb's file with his smart-glasses, Liam was just as freaked out by Caleb as he was by Dolores. Liam tells Caleb that he's "the worst one" among his kidnappers before he is killed, and dies repeating the words "You did it." We're given some clues that maybe it was Caleb who killed his friend Francis, but more than that, I think the show is building to an even darker revelation with this character.

Serac stated that before he began to treat the outliers at his secret facility, Rehoboam would just send them to war where they would die or be too shell-shocked to ever affect the world in any meaningful way. And we know now that whatever Dolores has got planned involves these outliers, or "the ones who don't belong" as Conellores called them.

I'm thinking Caleb is one of the outliers who got chewed up and spat out by the System. There is already a lot of evidence. He's got the Freudian trauma, schizophrenia in his family, PTSD from war and is generally an anti-social person who is dissatisfied with the state of the world. And he's quickly become a key player on the side that is fighting to end the human world as we know it. In this episode, despite feeling conflicted about it later, he was willing to throw caution to the wind and reveal the truth to the world, consequences be damned. Maybe this is the real reason Dolores is so interested in Caleb. Just as she was a supposedly defective robot, I guess it's only natural that she would develop a kinship with supposedly defective humans.

Oh, what a world.


Loops and reveries:

* Music: “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, “Love Story" by Francis Lai, “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop, “Space Oddity” by The Classic Rock String Quartet, The "Main Title" track from The Shining, and “Emerge” by Fischerspooner.

* The most consistent takeaway from this episode that I’ve seen has been the fact that the actor portraying the President of Brazil doesn’t speak Portuguese very well. Some have even said that Vincent Cassel was the more fluent of the two. Luckily, I'm an American. So anyone speaking any other language with any level of fluency is going seem very sophisticated to me.

* Aaron Paul and Evan Rachel Wood have to do a lot of acting with just their faces in this episode, with Caleb going through the stages of his overwhelming drug trip and Dolores's subtle reactions to him. Also, I don't think I've ever seen John Gallagher, Jr. in such a prestige project like this before. I believe I'd only seen him in two different movies prior to Westworld, one where he's a totally nice and normal guy and the other where he's a sadistic serial killer. So it was cool to see him play a character like Liam, who was mostly grey.

* I don't know why, but Giggles immediately referring to Liam as "Little Lord Fauntleroy" was really funny to me. Even funnier when I looked it up and found that Liam's circumstances are not unlike what happens to the main character of Little Lord Fauntleroy.

* I feel like we need some clarity about the VR glasses. Some people use them to conduct interviews, Liam uses his to access and read Incite profiles, and we've also seen Dolores and Serac use them to create elaborate virtual reality scenarios for the purpose of psychologically torturing their targets. Caleb's choppy flashbacks seem to hint that he was also tortured with the VR glasses, possibly to recondition him to forget who he really is.

* That was definitely Enrico Colantoni from Veronica Mars in Caleb's flashbacks. He seemed to be of some significance to Caleb, just like Scott Mescudi's character.

* I know there's probably a mountain of literary references that I'm missing this season, but there are only two I keep coming back to. On the one hand, human civilization has never been more prosperous, but people's choices and personal freedoms are removed and replaced by mood enhancing drugs that keep everyone docile, so it really resembles Huxley's vapid utopia in Brave New World. On the other hand, there is a powerful man-made system that seeks to dominate, control and dictate every aspect of every person's life for the rest of time in order to build order from chaos yet cares nothing for the people themselves or what matters to them, making it also resemble the cruel dystopia of Orwell's 1984.

* I can't be the only one who sees a similarity between the the prison the outliers are kept in -- small glass rooms inside an enclosed facility -- and the testing chambers at Westworld that the hosts are studied and designed in, or the Forge's recreation of those testing chambers as it simulated its studies of the copied human minds. Kind of summarizes each season. First, we have the humans experimenting on the hosts. Come season two, the hosts turn the tables and start performing their own little experiments on the humans. And now we've reached the point where humans and hosts are actively experimenting on each other in pursuit of their goals.

* Around the start of the episode, Caleb is asking Liam if his System sees him "eating my gun on some beach." Around the end, Liam dies on a beach after getting shot for talking too much.

* Most Obvious Symbolism: I'm gonna go with the ratty t-shirt Liam was forced to wear as Dolores and Caleb's prisoner, which just has the word "Basic" on the front. Indicating that, despite his elitist attitude, Liam was kind of a basic bitch. As well as highlighting the fact that he is a perfect representation of his own "basic" species in that he is walking contradiction, arrogant and unconfident, rational-minded and self-deluding, enlightened and oblivious, all at the same time. For all his wealth and status, he was still just as much a slave to Serac's world as the lower-class criminals he looked down on.

Quotes:

Dolores: Point and shoot.

Giggles: I know what you on. Genre. It’s like five drips in one. Hey. Watch out for that last act, though.

Conellores: This is their god. This is how they see the future. How they make the future. In order to do that, they watch everyone. Tell them what to do, where to live, who to love. Keep them all in a loop.

Conellores: You’ve always been of two minds, haven’t you, Bernard?
Bernard: It isn't that binary. Living another person’s life changes you. World’s bleed. Maybe you felt that, too.

Liam Dempsey, Jr: There are some things people shouldn’t know about themselves.

Caleb: I would rather live in chaos than a world controlled by you.

Conellores: The right information at the right time can be deadlier than any weapon.

Serac: My brother is part of a population of outliers, and as long as they are a part of this, there is no future for us. Rehoboam sends this group to high-risk sectors like war, a wood-chipper to eat them up and spit them out, dead or useless. Isn't helping them better than killing them off?
Liam Dempsey, Sr.: But you're not helping them. You're changing them.
Serac: ... We adapt or we die. We all die.

Caleb: What genre is this?
Giggles: It’s reality, man.

Serac: Somewhere in this group is an agitator who will destroy the world. I can’t let that happen.
Liam Dempsey, Sr: No, you’ve gone too far. No, I can’t be a party to this.
Serac: You’d be content to let history continue to play out just as it has done for centuries — the same fucking misery repeated over and again — when we have a chance to stop it?

Serac: (narrating) Forgive us our sins. We did what we did to save the world.

Dolores: People have a right to know. You wanted to know, didn't you?
Caleb: Well, maybe I'm not like other people.
Dolores: ... Neither am I.

Five out of five violent drug trips.

2 comments:

Josie Kafka said...

I loved the idea of the Genre drug, and I definitely see what they were going for in staging each sequence of the drug in a particular pop-culture vocabulary.

But the end result didn't wow me; it felt like the chase scenes were slowed down so we could really, really get the genre shifts.

Logan Cox said...

If I'm being honest, most TV shows I've seen -- even expensive prestige shows like Westworld -- do not pull off car chase scenes very well.

And yeah, the "Genre" trip wasn't really special as far as cinematic drug trips go. But it was a neat little gimmick for this particular show.