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Westworld returns to one of its earliest themes in a powerful new episode
One of the earliest and most important phrases we heard that came to dominate much of Westworld's first season was "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" It's presented early on as a straightforward test of cognitive function for the many hosts that populate the park, a way for the humans who maintain them to be sure they're not straying from their given roles.
As the first season went on, though, it became a kind of thematic rallying cry for many of the show's most interesting characters, and while other major thematic concerns have since grown up around it, questioning the nature of reality has never really gone away in Westworld.
It's why fans were asking questions about multiple timelines even before the first season made that reveal, and why we continued our attempts to track timelines in Season 2. It's why characters like Akecheta were able to make such a major emotional impact with their own stories of self-discovery, and why Bernard Lowe's scrambled memories played such a major role in the wake of Robert Ford's chaotic exit from the show. It's why William, the show's ever-self-assured Man in Black, began to fall apart at the end of Season 2.
For a minute there, Season 3 seemed like it was poised to leave those ideas behind — or at least on the back burner — for "the new world." The season's latest episode, "Genre," makes it clear that was never the case, and Westworld's obsession with questioning the nature of reality is back in a powerful new way.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Season 3, Episode 5, "Genre," ahead.**
One of my favorite things about Westworld is that, for all its cerebral posturing and genuinely well-constructed approach to its science fiction concepts, when it comes down to it, the show's not subtle at all. I know this because, after Season 2's many attempts at meditations on the nature of human consciousness and the various complexities that made it difficult to copy, let alone create whole cloth, the show summed things up by having a character hold a slim book up and say, "This is really as complicated as we get." Yes, the entire human spirit and everything it entails contained in a library full of narrow hardcovers. Not subtle at all.
All that "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" stuff was really the show's way of asking its many host characters "Do you realize you're a character in a story yet?" over and over until they got it. That's why it's so satisfying when Maeve realizes in Season 2 that she can quite literally rewrite reality by using her weird host mind-control thing. She's rewriting the story that she was already a character in. It's why making Bernard a host who's part of Ford's attempt to revise his own past and write a new future works so well, and why Ford making himself Bernard's own inner monologue in Season 2 lands with such sinister power. Some shows are stories about stories. Westworld is about stories within stories, or even better, stories versus stories.
With that in mind, we now have Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard all out in the world, all trying to write new stories for themselves after escaping the old ones that had been written for them.
Dolores wants to write her story through pure dominance, while Maeve and Bernard are looking for paths of compromise, but the end goal is basically the same. The story should continue, and it should continue in a way that they and their newfound sense of consciousness can define. What they've found out in the new world, though, is not a world of freedom where they can make their way, but another massive story, and another land full of people who don't realize they're characters.
In "Genre," Dolores continues her operation from the last episode by kidnapping Liam Dempsey Jr. and talking him into giving her his key to the Rehoboam system, which she then passes off to the Conells copy of herself at the Rehoboam terminal. In one fell swoop, with Serac watching helplessly from his private jet, Dolores sends everyone within Rehoboam's reach the supercomputer's files on them, exposing their projected death dates, health conditions, and much more.
Basically, Dolores dropped spoilers on everyone without warning them, and the city around her descends into a kind of pathetic anarchy because of it.
Dolores came by her own understanding of her reality in a more gradual way, but she has no time to be patient with everyone else. Caleb got a bit of a convincing argument to convert him to her cause, but everyone else got their whole story, Rehoboam's whole script for their lives, spooled out on their smart devices in a matter of seconds. It's a striking moment that mirrors the rebellion of the hosts at the end of the first season of the show, and it's made more striking by the ways in which the main characters are interacting with their own stories in that moment.
We saw earlier in the season (though we didn't know it at the time) that the copy of Dolores inside Charlotte Hale's body was having some trouble adjusting to her new role, so much so that she was self-harming as her own personality clashed with Charlotte's. We haven't seen that with the other copies yet, but there is something in Conells' eyes in this episode as Bernard tries to talk him out of doing Dolores' bidding.
Conells, who just wants to talk about his "role" in the grand plan, seems to resent that he's almost fulfilled it, if only for a moment, and we wonder if he'll remain content with being a character in someone else's story. Then there's Caleb, who for an extra dose of unsubtle fun spent much of the episode perceiving everything around him through various genre filters thanks to a potent designer drug. Caleb, whose traumatic past comes back to haunt him as he tries to save a dying Liam, and Liam's confused dying words make him question the nature of his reality. He shouts, "Who does he think I am?!" as Liam dies beside him, suggesting that he too is a character in someone else's narrative.
Then there's Serac himself, who fills in some gaps in his own life for us while on board his plane through monologues that are apparently his Rehoboam files. We see the loss of his home when he was a boy, his brother's descent into madness as they build the system together, and the "outliers" that he sees within the system that he's managed to confine in secret to keep them from disrupting his story. Serac is a man of such power that he's deleting whole characters from his narrative, pushing them off into a pile of discarded ideas he has no use for.
But as we see near the end of the episode, as we find out what happened to poor Liam Dempsey Sr., even Serac knows that the entire narrative can't be written out in advance. When Dempsey tells him he's seen the system's prediction that he won't die, Serac simply says that there are small areas of randomness even within Rehoboam's narrative that allow for "a bubble of agency," before he kills Dempsey to take full control.
In revealing Rehoboam's secrets to the world, Dolores has just created countless bubbles of agency across the world, disrupting a narrative Serac's been building for years in the same way that Ford blew up his own stories at the end of Season 1. In this pivotal episode, the show's great crusader has introduced tremendous uncertainty into her new world, and yet she still seems sure of whatever the next step in her plan might be.
We, on the other hand, are left to wonder: Will Dolores try to rewrite everyone's story herself? Will she become the thing she hates, or will she let the entire Earth become one big, unpredictable bubble of agency?