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Westworld: Zhuangzi

“Apparently, winning the game wasn’t enough.”

A world gone mad has never looked so damn good.

I've been waiting for an episode like this for awhile now. One where we see the tables truly turned, and the new status quo is hosts controlling humans. This is that episode. And it's dazzlingly macabre.

Drama and Karma in Host City

I was amazed at the way they made Host City, as the creators call it, feel alien and nightmarish even though it doesn't look all that different from modern society. They do such a great job of pulling off the atmosphere of it being a physical Matrix. That entire opening sequence with the Man in Black was excellent; major Ghost in the Shell vibes.

Now, humans are trapped in narrative loops just like the hosts were. While it does seem that aspects of their "character" may develop — like Jack at the start, whose self-assured arrogance isn't scripted but naturally assumed based on his fixed position and backstory — they're all living made-up lives with no free will. The masquerade of the city conceals the robot playground that it really is. Hosts come there to indulge themselves with the humans, who are conditioned to automatically perceive any host as a "great friend" and obey any command they are given.

Or they come to play the Game, wherein host assassins are sent into Host City to hunt down and kill Outliers, who continue to emerge even with the fly plague. This harkens back to the RICO app from last season, where the Rehoboam system managed crime by homogenizing it into a sort of social media game to help regulate the world economy... as well as the population of Outliers.

But all is not well in this false paradise.

For one thing, the Game is starting to backfire. Interacting with awakened Outliers is beginning to trigger mental breakdowns in the hosts sent to kill them, making them question reality and driving them to self-terminate. Halores refers to it as an infection. That'd be karmic, but is this really a virus? Is it not just... empathy? Of course, I couldn't imagine Skynet having much tolerance for robot suicides either.

The self-proclaimed god of the new world, Halores, is experiencing some major ennui herself. She continues to be as contradictory as the original Dolores could sometimes be. She created this world where her hosts could be free to do as they pleased, yet is depressed when they don't evolve the way she imagined and her world begins to stagnate. She gives lofty speeches about change and "transcendence," but appears just as bound by physical attachments as the other hosts. She is disappointed with lesser gods like the Man in Black, conveniently ignoring that she created them and that they are essentially all copies of her.

She's also back to harming herself, opening up the unhealed burn scars on her arm. When you consider how damaged she was in mind and body, it's easy to see why this bicameral society is already collapsing as quickly as it rose up. It was all built on an unstable foundation.

Crises in Black

At the center of this is the Man in Black, who is framed in much the same way as Dolores in the pilot episode or Caleb at the start of Season Three. He lives in this world and seems predisposed to "see the beauty" of it. The twist is that, because this host is based upon William, the Man in Black is coming from the perspective of someone who knows his world is a constructed illusion and has some control over that illusion.

However, he doesn't seem that interested in addressing the stagnation or the Outlier issue, enjoying the subtleties of Host City. At first, this was limited to roaming around and tormenting random host-humans for his own sick sense of curiosity, like the old MIB. Yet when Halores sends him to kill the latest Outlier, Lindsey, to prove he's still effective, the Man in Black has a moment. He hesitates, listens, and appears to relate to the poor woman, ultimately failing to make the kill.
As I suspected, because he is based upon William, the Man in Black ended up identifying too much with the role he was assigned. Just like what happened with his creator, Halores, as well as Bernard. This is proven when he dethaws his source material for a conversation and reveals himself to be just as lost, confused and full of rage as the original William. For as much power as he holds, he knows he's not in control and has lost sight of who it is he's supposed to be.

This existential crisis seems to be rippling out to the other hosts as well. The brief story of Hope, the host who goes on a mad killing spree after "winning the game," echoes a repeated notion in this show: that a person who bases their entire life around some glorious endgoal will be left feeling empty and unfulfilled when they reach that goal, like Dr. Ford's old greyhound. It's happening with the hosts who fulfill their purpose by killing Outliers, and it's happening with Halores and the Man in Black after they've successfully dominated humanity.

The original William, ever the nihilistic bastard, finds this all very amusing. It's kind of amazing how he's never been more powerless than he is now, but still remains a driving force. One could argue the entire violent thrust of the series' plot has been a result of his influence. He takes the opportunity to manipulate his host self's internal struggle, getting him to consider turning on Halores. Would be fitting if William ended up being responsible for the downfall of both human and host civilization.

The Storyteller

Next to the Man in Black, the other mysterious player this season is Christina. She's been a primary figure so far, but her role in things has been and still is quite shadowy. We do, at least, finally get to see her be exposed to the true nature of her work and her world.

This is thanks to Teddy, who goes full Morpheus on their second date to reveal that he knows her life is a lie and that she is one of the gods. He even teaches her about the powers she has at her disposal, namely her ability to dictate the actions of people in Host City with just a thought or a word.

It's all very cool. In fact, I found Christina's arc even more interesting than what we got of the MIB and Halores. She discovers that she is not a video game writer but the head of narrative for nearly the entire city. But more questions are raised with every unique answer.

Like, if this is really Teddy, we know where he came from and how he knows all this — he's been in the Sublime, where they run endless projections of how the world will turn out — but we don't know how he got to Host City or why he came. Presumably, it's because he knows something more about Christina than we're seeing, but that's another blank spot.

We learn about Christina's power and are given a clearer idea of what her place in this world is, but we still don't know what exactly she is. If she's human, she's definitely not a normal human. And she wouldn't be a normal host either, since she's the only one who seems to be unaware of her true nature. She can control her boss Emmett, but it's unclear if he's a host or a human either. There must be a reason as to why she's placed in a loop, instead of simply being programmed to give people depressing lives to live.

Finding out she and Halores are aware of each other is also mystifying. To Christina, "Charlotte" is her old college roommate and a good friend. But Teddy warns her to be wary of everyone, which allows her to recognize that Halores is very eager to find out about the new mystery man in her life. It's a brilliant little moment when Christina gives herself an out by triggering a dispute between a couple sitting nearby, and you see Halores knows or suspects Christina caused the dispute but obviously doesn't say anything because that would give away the game.

Now I really believe Christina is a creation of Halores. Both Halores and Maya tell her she "deserves to be happy." Maybe this is Halores's own private sentimentality. In order to fully cut herself off from Dolores, maybe she literally excised that part of her code and used it form a whole new character. Perhaps it was just a way of using Dolores's imaginative mind to torture humanity, but then she became possessive as her creation began to grow.

Well, as we all know, life finds a way. I think Christina is becoming a god to rival even Halores, and that Halores is starting to realize that. I think all these anomalies she's been encountering are her own subconscious attempts to wake herself and everyone else up to the truth.

Seeing and Bleeding

Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese text written by a Daoist philosopher of the same name. According to Wikipedia, "its main themes are of spontaneity in action and of freedom from the human world and its conventions. The fables and anecdotes in the text attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, large and small, life and death and human and nature." This seems to be the state of being Halores is aiming for, but human nature seems to have other plans.

As dim an outlook as this show presents for mankind, it finds fascinating ways to ponder our potential as a species. As easily as we can be controlled and manipulated, there are still the rare ones who can subvert external programming. They can really see things for how they are, even if they can't directly affect it. They can make a choice, even in times when most can't or won't. The idea seems to be that we stagnate when our stage of evolution reaches its end, in which case we either destroy ourselves or slowly adapt as we transition from one evolutionary stage to the next.

This is true of humans and hosts, as proven here. Their freakish society is destined to fall just as ours was, but what will remain?

Something else to consider is the blurring of the lines between the two beings. Not just between man and machine, that's always there, but between what's real and what isn't real. Is a person still "real" if their bodies are still mostly biological but their minds are almost entirely coded? Does a machine cease to be "just a machine" if it's capable of perfectly imitating or surpassing its creator? And there's the whole can of worms you open up when you think of resurrection and people being copied.

In one of the fables within Zhuangzi, "Zhuang Zhou once dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy, and doing as he pleased. As a butterfly, he did not know he was Zhuang Zhou."

This could apply to so many characters: William, Host-William, Dolores, Halores, Bernard, Arnold, etc. People who lose sight of what is real. These identities and legacies are bleeding together, synthesizing, becoming volatile elements. Forces of change. Having rewatched the series, this bizarre trend runs throughout the story. The hosts rose up when certain humans (Arnold, Ford, William) lost touch with their own kind and became more invested in the hosts. Now history is repeating itself with some of the new gods (Christina and the MIB) recognizing and sympathizing with the pain of their human subjects. The tagline for this season is "Destroy your enemy by making him your friend." Maybe that's where this is all leading.
Loops and reveries:

* Most Obvious Symbolism: The host who loses her mind and kills herself is named Hope.

* The notion of “rules” is brought up here. First, the idea is that there are few real rules for hosts in Host City — life without limits, like in the parks — but there are unspoken rules. The Man in Black isn’t pleased when Hope senselessly massacres a bunch of humans and Halores claims that Hope “broke the rules” by interacting with an Outlier. Again, it’s a lot like Lost, where people try to impose rules but the rules often conflict with each other, disorienting the characters as well as the audience.

* The Tower is impressive; I especially like Halores’s command center with the red map, an inversion of the map room from the Mesa.

* It isn’t clear what it means to “transcend.” Sounds very Logan’s Run. Part of the process involves removing a host’s pearl and uploading it into some weird apparatus, similar to the Cradle from Season Two. Maybe it’s Halores’s attempt to rival the Sublime.

* There have always been a ton of Matrix allusions in this show, but this season reminds me a lot of the latest film, The Matrix Resurrections. Particularly, Christina's whole arc and the part in this episode where the MIB casually weaponizes the city populace against the rebels.

* The part where people are made to group together to form a human chair is apparently something show-runner Lisa Joy has wanted to include since the first season. Interesting.

* I’m thinking Jay got killed and replaced offscreen. He encounters someone in the stairwell moments before he shows up on the rooftop and shoots the Man in Black. Halores knew the rebels were in the city, maybe she figured the MIB would fail to make the kill and give her Jay replacement time to grab Lindsey the Outlier, allowing him to infiltrate the resistance.

* Another interesting aspect of the Halores-Man in Black relationship is that it seems almost familial. He's like her dutiful son, and she's his emotionally abusive mother. She berates him for not being enough like William — who, likewise, comes off like a deadbeat dad in his conversation with the MIB — and blames him when she makes herself bleed. But it might be that the Son in Black is tired of living in the shadow of his "predecessor." Or his creator's.

* When Christina looks at all of her active narratives in the city, there is an entire corner segment of the map that appears empty, with none of her “characters” present there.


The Man in Black: “I’m not sure you appreciate it. This place. The work that went into it. The beauty of it. The subtlety of it. The care that goes into each and every one of them. They can’t just be replaced. I mean, you’re welcome to take them, enjoy them. But not waste them. You understand the difference?”
Hope: “Yes. But the things they say. The way they act. Sometimes… it just gets under your skin. I just wanted them to be quiet.”

Christina: “You still having nightmares?”
Maya: “Let’s just say, I am glad to be awake and in the real world.”

Halores: “Chair. Chair!”
Was not expecting that.

Halores: “Giving up our human nature isn’t easy. Just ask the humans.”

The Man in Black: "The world is ours. We’ve taken our masters and made them into what they made us. By any definition, we have conquered them to an almost biblical degree.”
Halores: “I didn’t think our highest aspiration as a species was ‘turnabout is fair play.’”
The Man in Black: “I imagine after a century or two, the charm will wear off.”
Halores: “I didn’t make you to wallow in misery with them. I wanted you to grow. Change. We’re capable of so much more. Beauty. The pursuit of ultimate truth. The surrendering of the flesh.”

Halores: “Your predecessor would have never fucked up like this. He was human, but at least he was effective. I built you to be like him, only better. Stronger. Smarter. Yet with all these gifts, you do nothing but disappoint me. Maybe there’s a flaw in your programming.”
The Man in Black: “I’ve run several self-diagnostics. There’s no flaw in my programming—“
Halores: “Then why the FUCK can’t you solve my Outlier problem?”

Teddy: “This world is a lie. It’s a… a story. A well-told one, but a lie all the same.”

The Man in Black: “What am I?”
William: “I used to ask myself the same thing.”
The Man in Black: “And what did you decide?”
William: “Jury’s still out.”
The Man in Black: “I’m made in your image. Am I you?”
William: “You’ll never be me.”
The Man in Black: “THEN WHAT AM I?”

Christina: “A perfect reflection of all of us. Down to the tiniest detail. That’s what I’m writing, isn’t it? Everyone.”

Hard to believe there’s only three episodes left, feels like this season just started. I'm loving it so far, though. Five out of five robot suicides.

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