Welcome back to Westworld! To your left you'll find a full replica of an old-timey saloon, and to the right you'll see a gigantic pile of human corpses that were killed by out-of-control robots. That seemed to be the summary of the Season 2 premiere, but there was actually one detail that may be even more invasive to us than the threat of cold-hearted murder by droids playing cowboys.
I'm talking about a scene between Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) down in the bowels of an access point that doubled as safe haven from the gunslinging hosts above. You know the scene. Before Bernard tries to tap into the hosts' network to trace Peter Abernathy's whereabouts, Charlotte is iChatting with someone high up in Delos about getting rescued (not without Peter, girl!). Bernard watches the creepy drone hosts as they take a host's "brain" out of its body and perform some tests. Bernard is clearly interested in this, and you should be too.
"Are we logging records of guests' experiences and their DNA?" Bernard rightfully asks Charlotte.
"We're not having that conversation, Bernard," Charlotte says.
The moment is cleverly embedded in something seemingly of greater importance: Charlotte's requests for extraction. It's only natural that we, the audience, would focus more on the extraction process since that's linked to the survival of some characters we like, and after asking the question, Bernard quickly shifts his attention to helping Charlotte find Peter, and therefore secure his safety.
But that's sleight of hand for what's really important here. Bernard was right. Delos is mining guest experiences and DNA. It's obvious that's what's going on in Charlotte's quick dismissal of his query. And she would know as someone who's involved in the corporate interests of Westworld. Show co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy wanted to plant this seed but not make a big deal out of it initially. And it could take Westworld into important, and weirdly relevant, territory in Season 2.
I'm going to slightly divert things here, because I think it underlines the importance of the possibility of what's going on. One of the worrisome things heading into Season 2 of Westworld was the idea that much of the show's philosophy would be lost in the plot of it all. Westworld the park was a fantasy land where humans could act without consequences, and that unfiltered look at the human psyche has been plaguing thinkers for millennia. Likewise, the idea of consciousness in robots upends everything we've known about what it means to be human and whether androids with free will are the next step in evolution. Both these questions (and others) elevated Westworld to intellectual science fiction, adding depth to what could have otherwise been just sex and violence.
But Westworld is now Murderworld, and humans can no longer use it as a hedonistic playground to act out their deepest fantasies. The hosts are also living with free will now, and Dolores' violent revolution is answering many questions of whether or not conscious robots would rise up against their creators. (The answer is a resounding "hell yes.") It would seem the fun philosophical debates regarding Westworld were supplanted by chatter of "OMG that robot killed that dude bad!" and the peeling back of layers of this particular universe rather than engaging discussions of the bicameral mind. In short, Westworld was in danger of becoming popcorn entertainment and not food for the brain.
However, no detail goes wasted in Westworld, and Bernard's recognition of what the drone hosts were doing is, I believe, the flint that will spark the next big discussion surrounding Westworld: the issue of privacy and dissemination of individual information. And surprise! It's relevant today as we've seen with those deer-in-headlights shots of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress.
Of course Delos was extracting the experiences and DNA of its guests. That was the real source of value of Westworld. No matter what guests paid for their week of throwing back whiskey, abusing prostitutes or chasing clues through the dusty lands of the park, it wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the costs of running and maintaining the park. The real investment was in the information mined from the guests' experiences, just as the real value in Facebook isn't in targeted ads, it's whatever nefarious use users' information can yield. Westworld isn't Disneyland's Frontierland with boobs; it's an unfiltered look at the human soul, and the information extracted there can't be acquired anywhere else. You can see why Delos would be so into the mammoth project. We can argue about how it will be monetized (marketing? blackmail?), but that's a discussion for people smarter than me.
Nolan isn't afraid to repeat themes in his work, and Westworld has always overlapped with his excellent CBS series Person of Interest when it came to discussing artificial intelligence. Also of importance in that series was the issue of privacy as a government-sponsored machine listened to every conversation, watched from every camera and tracked every keystroke of every citizen in the United States to determine if they may be a terrorist threat. (It's actually much more complicated than that — oh, just watch the series, it's super good!) That could also be happening in Westworld if Bernard's hunches are right.
Including ideas of privacy brings Westworld back from being a far-off sci-fi yarn to eerily relating to what's happening in our world today, and that's always one of the best measures of good science fiction. Let's hope the issue of privacy and data-mining continues to beat within the heart of the show, because that's going to give Westworld the intellectual layers that could make it great. Now excuse me while I tiptoe around my Amazon Echo.
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Westworld airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.