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‘Westworld’ Review: Episode 5 Delivers a Harsh Dose of Reality After a Joyful ‘Genre’ Hit

Aaron Paul takes a trip through film history as Vincent Cassel sheds light on his past in a potent blend of sleek action and moral quandaries.

Westworld Season 3 Episode 5 Evan Rachel Wood Aaron Paul

Evan Rachel Wood and Aaron Paul in “Westworld”

John P. Johnson / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 3, Episode 5, “Genre.”]

In Episode 5 of “Westworld,” an unprecedented, unexpected, and outrageous global event takes place — no, it’s not a viral pandemic, though there are at least two prescient shots of people wearing protective masks. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) exposes a mysterious tech titan named Serac (Vincent Cassel) for turning a predictive algorithm system (called Rehoboam) into a programmatic algorithm system; the system everyone thought was monitoring their lives is actually running them, deciding everything, from whether or not you’ll have kids to when and how you’ll die. Rehoboam, as Serac says in the episode’s opening minutes, is a manmade god, but only the richest and most powerful can bend god’s ear. The rest just do what it says.

So when Dolores sends every human on Earth their personnel file, alerting them to what their overseers know about them that they do not — like, say, a mother who’s predicted to commit suicide — one could expect riotous consequences. But much like the rest of “Westworld,” the realization doesn’t compare to the potential. The chaos is too controlled, too sleek, too oddly specific for it to feel like a worldwide shift, especially as we’re in the middle of one right now. Shortly after the files are sent, a couple dozen of the city’s more carbon-conscious citizens stare at their phones in bewilderment, still patiently waiting for the next train. A single automated car drives by with a gaggle of Los Angelenos riding on the outside. Someone is randomly beating somebody up. A brick is thrown through a window. Plants are overturned.

Pardon me for expecting a busier version of hell unleashed on a TV budget, but this is where my criticism of Episode 5 ends. While similar nitpicking could be done over “Genre’s” other big choice — the digital-pyschopharma hybrid drug which Caleb (Aaron Paul) rides from film noir through war, romance, and more — these inspired ideas manage to carry Episode 5 beyond their less-than-inspired execution. For the most part, “Genre” will be exciting to revisit, whether you want another peek at that crisp black-and-white cinematography, a deeper look into those Incite profile categories (“Friends Most Common Descriptors”), or you want to scrutinize Caleb’s backstory through the provided quick cuts of his time in treatment. Midway through Season 3, “Westworld” has provided a clear narrative turning point and flexed its ability to surprise through thought over twists — plus, for those who want to follow the maze a little deeper, the latest episode offers a perceptive allegory for our current plight.

Take a look at Serac’s origin story: It serves as a kind of momentum-less exposition dump, breaking up Caleb’s drug trip and the ensuing mayhem without harshing the buzz. But that… works? Pertinent information gets across with a couple of haunting, character-defining shots (Paris, whoa), and his upload to Dolores at the episode’s end helps clear up why, exactly, we’re hearing this voiceover now. (He was talking to Dolores the whole time! Shrug.) Frankly, Serac had enough bad-guy motivation as a rich, controlling, data-harvesting tech giant, but the added madness of experimenting on his own brother and murdering his primary investor helps add a bit of flavor, I guess.

Westworld HBO Vincent Cassel Episode 5

Vincent Cassel in “Westworld”

John P. Johnson / HBO

But what makes “Genre” a standout episode is its titular drug and satisfying action. Sending Caleb spinning after being drugged by Liam could’ve just been a stealthy way to hide a stagnant plot; if nothing was really happening, but Caleb was seeing the world in black-and-white, “Westworld” would’ve still felt trippy. But he’s made into a more entertaining audience proxy by being sent across genres while trying to avoid the cops, starting a high-speed chase, and then crashing right around the time Liam Dempsey Jr. (John Gallagher Jr.) gets killed by Ash (Lena Waithe). Everything that did happen would’ve still happened — and still needed to happen — if Caleb wasn’t high, but his altered state added an appealing new layer to help enjoy the experience.

Whether or not the real audience needs a similar boost to better enjoy “Westworld” Season 3 overall remains to be seen — all the techno babble in other weeks honestly might be too much for an altered state — but the questions raised in Episode 5 are certainly familiar stoner fodder. Serac argues the world overall is a better, safer place if people’s lives are set on predetermined tracks. Of course, that’s easy to say when your track puts you in a position to threaten global leaders while flying around the world in a glass jet, but the fundamental moral question is trickier: Some level of control is critical, as seen in countries who quickly enacted city- or country-wide orders to protect against the pandemic, but how much control is too much? And who gets to do the controlling? It certainly shouldn’t be a tech billionaire like Serac — a risk we’re running right now — but as more and more once-trusted institutions prove flawed, divisions lead to disputes, disputes to deeper divisions, and eventually we’re all ready to explode as soon as a text tells us our future.

Which brings us to our final question, and the one set to decide the fate of “Westworld”: Should Dolores have told everyone Rehoboam’s predictions? Yes, they had to know who and what was controlling their lives in order to put an end to it, but did they need the specifics? Will knowing her future keep the mother on the train from killing herself? Can the woman whose file flags her for early onset Alzheimer’s get treatment ahead of time? (Odds are the future health care system is still a mess, so I’m guessing no.) The answer will likely be addressed through Caleb’s fate, who’s becoming more self-aware the longer he sticks with Dolores but who was also safe and healthy before she came around, stopping bullets with her robot torso. Yes, Rehoboam says he would’ve killed himself if nothing changed, but does Caleb have to know that likelihood in order to avoid it, or did he just need someone to smash the system keeping him from a better life?

Dolores is trying to eradicate the future of humankind; she doesn’t discriminate great people from terrible people, let alone minor ethical discrepancies between the just-OK folks who dominate the population. She’s an agent of chaos, and in a perfect analogy to our current pandemic, she’d be the virus wiping out the world. But as the end of Episode 5 makes clear, she’s more of a hero than Serac. Who will control our future, the virus or the tech billionaire? “Westworld” poses it’s both, with poor everyman Caleb stuck in the middle. Ouch.

Grade: B

“Westworld” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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