Much of Season 1 of “Westworld” was built around the idea that mankind’s creations can (and in some ways are meant to) rebel against their makers. The creeping consciousness that built up over the entire 10 episodes was part of what made the hosts such imposing figures. And it all happened right under the noses of the people meant to protect against it.
Where their predecessors did all this planning in plain sight, with Season 2 properly underway, those same creations are now creeping up behind. It’s a short scene, but the sequence with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) in the underground lab certainly stands out from the rest of the 75-minute premiere. It’s not just because of what is slowly lurking behind Bernard, but the things we find out about what they’re doing while no one’s watching.
[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 2, Episode 1, “Journey Into Night.”]
With no faces and sinewy white limbs, these drone hosts (as Charlotte explains) are part of a clandestine operation to collect more from Westworld visitors than just their money. Video and DNA sequencing meant to ensure that what happens in Westworld doesn’t always stay in Westworld might not have been given the same amount of screentime as Dolores’ journey or the continuing adventures of the Man in Black. But that nod to that outside world brought the show closer to our literal homes than anything else the show’s put forth so far.
With Season 1 so focused on the mechanics and layout of this fictional world within a fictional world, part of what made the Season 2 opener more engaging television was the idea that the creators behind the show (and now the characters within it) have a greater sense of things happening beyond the borders of Sweetwater. It’s telling that when Charlotte and Bernard make their entrance, she specifically tells him, “This is not me reading you in.” This privileged information is just a peek behind the curtain of what a giant corporation is doing with its users’ data.
Like, say, if a Congressional committee wanted to determine the ability of a company with data obligations to police itself and the way it handles user information. While the internet was buzzing about a decade-old trolling joke, it turns out those Facebook hearings in the wake of its multiple data scandals was the headline that would be most relevant to Season 2. Now that we know that in this Westworld construct, people’s experiences and even their DNA are being harvested by the corporation itself, Big Data might have just become the Big Bad.
The timing is a bit coincidental, given the production time on this show. But it’s an idea that co-creator Jonathan Nolan isn’t shy about. At a “Westworld” event last week, Nolan told moderator Paul Scheer that this storyline dovetails with his concerns about social media and its commodification of users.
“The world has kind of reoriented itself in the last month around the way I’ve felt for an awfully long time,” Nolan said. “That model is bullshit. It’s a fucking travesty. We are not a product…We’ve painted a smile on it and it’s made a lot of people a lot of money, but to me it’s not the right path for the future.”
Bringing this idea up right as Charlotte also explains to Bernard that Delos is willing to let everyone die until their interests are secured can’t be a coincidence. “Westworld” has always been a parable for creations that can’t be controlled, but now this new Season 2 layer adds on the idea that this is all part of giving visitors the illusion that this other world will work in your best interest to keep your private experiences private.
These meticulous drone hosts, going about their business while barely interacting with their human visitors, are even more unsettling because they’re stripped bare. This harvesting process is so explicitly functional that there’s not even an attempt to give these creatures a human face. They only have human form so that they can be taught to carry out procedures in the way a human would know best. This is the kind of care and attention to detail a company would put in when they were convinced no one would ever find out, in case the security bunker location wasn’t a big enough tip-off.
“There’s an intersection here on the show between social media and AI. To me, it feels like social media is a dry run,” Nolan said. “Can we be responsible with technologies? I think that’s been definitively answered in the last month. If that’s the model for how we’re developing AI and it’s the same companies, since Google and Facebook are leading investors in AI, then I think we have a little bit of reflecting to do.”
On top of all this, “Westworld” dropped another tiny nugget about how the hosts communicate. Bernard explains that a rough Internet of Things model allows them to be cognizant of the other hosts in their area, preventing dueling storylines from getting too close to each other. It’s that clinical efficiency that was the breeding ground for this massacre and the poster boys for it are the ones handling Westworld’s most sensitive treasure, the failsafe that presumably ties in with the company’s biggest insurance policy.
(No sign yet if this is part of a new, decentralized internet that Richard Hendricks and friends are building up later in the Sunday night HBO block. If Season 2 ends with Pied Piper becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Delos, we really are in trouble.)
This revelation also makes the final image of the episode even more chilling than it is on the surface. As yet, we don’t know if the drone hosts survive the massacre that we see on the beach, or if they were somehow a part of it. But at this point, knowing that those cream-faced androids are alive and well in one timeline while the ones with human features lay strewn near the shore in foot-deep water, that’s a terrifying proposition. If machines (and the corporations that birthed them) are going to outlive us all, this is one very unsettling way to make that perfectly clear.
“Westworld” airs Sunday nights on HBO.