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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iWestworld/i spends some time with the man behind the machine
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So, this is the point of the season where I complain that the episodes are too long. Sorry! But it’s true. If Westworld really is trying to be more accessible these days, if the show is honestly working towards more immediate thrills, one way to help enforce that approach would be cutting about ten minutes off of each episode. Yes, that would mean a few less long scenes of music playing and vague things happening, and maybe some of the pauses could be tightened a bit. We might lose a scene or two. But watching “Genre,” which is intermittently entertaining and tedious, it’s hard not to imagine how much more effective this might have been if it wasn’t quite so ponderous. For an episode that gets its title from a main character dosing on a mood-altering drug, all of this could’ve used a lot more kick.

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“Genre” is also where the inherent limits in Westworld’s design start to poke through all the positive changes of the season. There’s only so much on-the-fly work you can do to a series, only so much reworking before the seams show. While the pulpier approach is still preferable, this remains a series that’s ostensibly about the concepts of free will and artificial intelligence, one that pretends to plumb deep concepts without having much to say about actual people themselves. So much of the style and aesthetic here is Important, and yet the actual thinking behind it is almost painfully shallow, at least in terms of its vision of humanity. The ambition is laudable, but the execution is perpetually teetering on the line between awe-inspiring and self-parody. And the bigger its aspirations become, the more quickly those aspirations are undone by its limitations.

We learn this week that Serac, the new Big Bad, developed the magic all-seeing computer system with his brilliant brother, driven to save humanity from itself after they witnessed the destruction of Paris as children. It’s a solid backstory with an inevitable tragic component, the sort of thing you could imagine Lost knocking out of the park back in its day. All the pieces are here for a good story, and that’s technically what we see play out. Serac and his brother, with some investment capital and data from Liam Dempsey’s dad, built their machine, ultimately realizing that there are certain humans who will inevitably disrupt the system if allowed to operate unchecked; Serac’s brother is one of those humans, and Serac has him committed to a place where he can experiment on “editing” him; Dad Dempsey finds out what’s going on, gets upset, and Serac stages a plane crash and murders him in order to protect the algorithm machine.

We see this happening in flashback set to Serac’s narration, as he explains to Rehoboam (the AI system that predicts and controls everyone’s life) how it came to be. It’s conceptually fascinating, but the actual scenes are airless and painfully predictable, robbing them of tragedy and emotional weight. Serac’s brother being committed, Serac’s principles turning him into a monster of control, the murder of Dad Dempsey—it’s weightless, flat, information that has all the dramatic value of reading a Wikipedia summary. You could argue that this is intentional; that, because Serac has helped build a machine that robs human life of spontaneity, it’s only fitting that his own life be plotted in such dull, prescriptive terms. But to what end? The show’s inability to contrast human life against the artificial kind means there’s no drama here, no sense of anything going off the rails or being lost. If everything was always this empty, who cares who’s pulling the strings?

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While Serac is reliving his past and trying to find Dolores, our favorite murder machine and her buddy Caleb are dragging Liam through a bizarrely empty city, Dolores demanding that Liam give her his personal access to the computer system, Liam protesting and generally being the exact same whiny nothing he’s been since he was first introduced. It’s here that we get the gimmick that gives the episode its title: after looking at Caleb through the All Seeing Tech Glasses, Liam freaks out and manages to inject Caleb with the “genre” drug that was introduced last week, a mood-altering substances that messes with brain chemistry and implants to recreate familiar film archetypes. Over the course of the chase, as our heroes flee the city, kill some thugs, blow up some shit, and meet up with Caleb’s old crime buddies, Caleb is high as fuck. I kept calling him “Jesse” in my notes and having to correct myself.

Here, unfortunately, is another example of Westworld’s weirdly sterile imagination. A drug trip episode isn’t exactly high on my list of demands for the series, but it at least offered creative possibilities for what is mostly just a retread of “Dolores is badass, things go boom.” (I know I said I like these scenes, and I do, but I think I’m full up on watching faceless thugs get mowed down on anonymous futuristic city streets for a bit.) What we get is a black and white filter; and then some changes to the score; and occasionally Caleb gets that “wow I am fucking high” look on his face. It’s so anemic as to be almost insulting. If there was some deeper point being made here, some connection between the brain editing Serac was doing on his brother and the way humans willingly induce chemicals to throw themselves out of whack, it doesn’t land. The most I got out of it was some unintentional (I think?) comedy when Caleb goes into “romance” mode and starts staring at Dolores with big doe eyes.

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All of this builds to the next big step in Dolores’ plan: getting into Rehoboam and releasing everyone’s data, a wide scale version of what she did with Caleb earlier in the season. Again, as a concept, this seems like a big deal, a “game changer” as it were—breaking open the locks and letting out the flood. In practice, it means a bunch of people we don’t know get links on their phone telling them that a computer somewhere thinks they suck. The people then go crazy, more or less. The scope of the twist is so betrayed by the show’s inability to effectively convey that scope that it becomes absurd, and in doing so, it makes every other dramatic goal of the series seem suspect. Who cares if humanity ends if this is humanity? Who cares if Serac wins or loses? As tedious as things sometimes got back in Delos, at least the park borders meant that we could imagine the world at large as a potentially more interesting place; there was a manageable scope which meant internal destruction had an effect we could understand. Here, the writers’ reach exceeds their grasp until there’s nothing in their fingers but air.

Smaller moments still work. There’s something eerie about Dolores-Connells being willing to sacrifice themselves (goodbye, characters who had that scene that one time), and I’m still curious as to what Bernard’s place in all of this is. Apparently Caleb has a darker backstory than he knows, which might go somewhere. But I’m sad to say that, once again, I fell for Westworld’s one trick: I thought it had figured out a new tune, only to realize that it was just the same old song.

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Stray observations

  • It’s not really earned, but it was fun hearing an excerpt of The Shining score pop up near the end.
  • The cold open, where Serac gives marching orders to a corrupt president, is neat. In general, the show still works best when it focuses on story beats that have a clear and immediate impact, rather than nebulous ideas that never really go anywhere.
  • Goodbye, Liam. You were never more than exactly what you appeared to be.
  • “She’s sending them off their loops.” I won’t lie, Bernard’s lie here gave me a chill. I wish the show had done a better job making that point clearer. The idea that Serca’s control has turned the entire world into a bunch of hosts is clever as hell, but for reasons I keep trying to explain, it just never quite lands the way it should. Still, the moments when you can glimpse what the show is trying to achieve are worth noticing.
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