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Westworld's security vs. freedom debate made the show better (and more relevant) than ever
Westworld has had a bumpy ride since debuting on HBO in 2016. Taking what was a two-hour film and reimagining it for 25-plus (and counting) hours of television meant finding new ways to expand the story. Much of what showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy chose to use was “puzzle box” storytelling, twisting perspective to hide mysteries in front of the viewer’s eyes. But in the just-completed Season 3, for the first time, Nolan and Joy chose to play the story far straighter. Despite fan speculation, there were no mirror realities, no timeline trickery, no perspective-bending revelations. Perhaps to those who tune in for this aspect of the series, this was a disappointment. But in terms of a timely parable, this was the best season of Westworld to date.
Television shows cannot control what the world is like when their series premiere. Considering the nearly two-year gap between Seasons 2 and 3, the showrunners could not have had an inkling Westworld’s new season would premiere only days after the country closed down due to a global pandemic. (Production for Season 3 started in March of 2019, and filming wrapped in October.) And yet the show’s timing could not have been better. As the hosts moved into the real world, the show focused on what our present is setting up, and what the near-future could hold.
That story, as Nolan and Joy chose to frame it, is the crossroads of security versus freedom. It’s a debate we’ve been having in modern society since the turn of the new century. (The Ben Franklin quote “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” has been more in use since 9/11.) In Westworld’s telling, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Caleb (Aaron Paul) represent the ideals of freedom, while their counterpoints, Serac (Vincent Cassel) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), are on the side of safety. But though Cassel’s Engerraund Serac is an antagonist from the start, Maeve is just as much a hero as Dolores in the series, a reminder of how much more complicated the debate between the two is than one facile Franklin quote.
It’s a timely message. We, as a society, are at a particularly vulnerable moment when it comes to security versus freedom. Before this year, data tracking and gathering were a concern, but mostly in the province of private companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google using it for profit. The COVID-19 crisis has sped things up and taken to a new level as government data tracking is now considered a significant weapon in the hopes of containing this virus, and private companies are participating. It is an unprecedented collection of the data from our phones, including who we interact with, where we go, and, most importantly, of our health data.
Westworld wants to warn viewers against unthinkingly allowing this to happen. If we allow this sort of virtual panopticon, even with the best of intentions for societal safety, it can be taken and used against us, determining who among us is "worthy" of resources and who is not. Season 3, Episode 3, “The Absence of Field,” brings this to the fore beautifully when Dolores presents Caleb with the comprehensive data collection that Rehoboam has on him. Not only does it judge him by his past, but it plays out his most likely future, and decides, based on his family history, mental health, and life choices that it does not approve him to even be in a relationship, let alone have children. To do so would be a waste of resources. And he’s not the only one. When Rehoboam's data is disseminated far and wide, viewers see that it has judged most humans harshly. (One particularly heartbreaking moment comes when Lena Waithe’s Ash sees how it has consigned her baby brother to death, based on the implicit biases of race and class programmed into it.)
It’s not the first time Westworld dived into this idea of the panopticon as horror. Season 2, for instance, attempted to make a connection between Delos’ parks and Facebook data gathering, and Season 1 argued that the chaos of freedom was preferable to the safety of the known. But both those seasons then lost the thread of these messages, buried in the endless fan theories of secret hosts, multiple timelines, and unreliable narrator perception.
But Season 3’s foray into the real world has helped the show keep things real. The finale may have attempted a twist or two, and there was what seemed like a time jump at the end in the post-credits sequence. But by and large, it stayed focused on the opposing logical endpoints of these two arguments, with freedom leading to riots in the streets while security was revealed to have put thousands of people on ice as potentially undesirable outliers.
And in the end, neither of these were painted as pure evil. Even as the show sides with the messy results of freedom, Serac is shown to be no hypocrite, but a true believer, who genuinely believes his Rehoboam creation is keeping the world safe. (Cassel’s performance of terror and grief when his creation shuts down is a profoundly affecting moment.) Maeve may, in the end, side with her people, but she still believes in the Sublime, where humans cannot go, a choice of safety preferable to the unknowns of living free in the real world.
In dispensing with the usual "what is real/when is now" distractions, Westworld instead confronts both the logical endpoint of the chaos of freedom and the stifling worst-case scenario of what "security" can bring, and asks us to stop before we have to get to this point. One can only hope, with the tipping point before us today, that viewers will take the message to heart.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.