Season 3, Episode 3: ‘The Absence of Field’
Much of the first two seasons of “Westworld” was about the hosts wresting control of their destinies and exercising the same freedoms enjoyed by their human tormentors, who had cast them as attractions in a sadistic Disneyland for the global elite. But now that the action has shifted to the human world, the premise has been turned on its head: How much control do humans have over their destinies? It turns out to be far less than they might imagine.
The theme has been a long time coming, planted most prominently in the revelation that Delos was most interested in Westworld as an opportunity to harvest data from its guests, which was then kept in a massive server called the Forge. And it manifested last week, too, in Maeve’s peculiar adventures in Warworld and beyond, which she eventually discovered was a large-scale simulation devised by Engerraund Serac to gain intel on the robot uprising. When Maeve demonstrated flaws in the program by freezing a moment of action, it recalled the “bullet-time” effects of “The Matrix,” a film about a future where humans experience their lives as a simulation while machines tap them as an energy source.
Tonight’s gripping episode firms up the connection by having Dolores “red pill” Caleb, the war veteran turned cyber mercenary who came to her aid after the shootout that ended the Season 3 premiere. Before it was co-opted as a political meme, the red pill referred to a scene in “The Matrix” in which Keanu Reeves’s hero learned the ugly truth about the world as it really was, rather than the pacifying illusion used to oppress humanity. Here, Dolores tells Caleb about a nefarious company called Incite that has been collecting data for years on individuals and storing it on “Rehoboam,” a massive system designed to predict and control human behavior in much the same way the hosts were managed in the park.
For Caleb, this cursed revelation is a reward of sorts for breaking out of his own loop and surprising Dolores in the process. Dolores had good reason to believe humans would not be inclined to act nobly on her behalf, but his choice to stay with her in an ambulance and fight off crime-app mercenaries has genuinely touched her. She hasn’t encountered anyone like him before: All the guests in the park have both the privilege to pay admission and the impulse to include rape and murder on their vacation itinerary, so underclass nobility is foreign to her.
Science-fiction robots tend to stick to a simple “kill all humans” plan, but Dolores can’t miss the parallels between Caleb’s predicament and her own. They’ve both been shackled to a predetermined life — her by programming, him by algorithm.
There’s no missing the message here about how Silicon Valley companies mine user information — some that we give away voluntarily — and how vulnerable the right to privacy has become in the digital age. When Dolores sits Caleb down at the diner booth where his schizophrenic mother abandoned him as a child, she is armed not only with knowledge of that painfully intimate memory but also with a full shooting script. Later, she takes him to the pier that the algorithm predicts will be a likely spot for his future suicide, which it predicts with enough confidence to ensure that the powers that be will prevent him from advancing beyond his current status as a part-time construction worker and petty criminal.
It’s an extremely “Westworld” twist for Dolores to start liberating humans like Caleb after vowing to take revenge on them, but she’s learning that we have our redeeming moments. Even Charlotte Hale, the most hiss-able villain in the Delos empire, shows a little vulnerability and heart when the chips are down. The pre-credits scene of Charlotte taping a message to her son in the middle of the park rebellion is an early sign of where the episode — and the season — appears to be headed. If there’s a shred of decency in her, then perhaps a more nuanced approach to torching the human world may be required.
One of the big questions heading into the season was addressed tonight: Whose “pearl” is controlling Charlotte-bot? The show strongly hints that it is Teddy, despite the fact that we saw her beam Teddy into the Valley Beyond at the end of Season 2. Dolores says she can trust this person. They share a tender moment in a hotel room. She seems to make reference to his suicide.
And yet she never actually says his name, which means that “Westworld” is shelving the big revelation for another time. Keeping the audience in the dark over Charlotte’s identity is an immensely frustrating narrative strategy, the sort of misdirection-for-its-own-sake that invites speculation without substance.
Whoever the host actually is, he or she has become profoundly uncomfortable in Charlotte’s skin. For one, Charlotte cares about her son, revealing a softer side than Dolores might have assumed or that we’ve actually seen on the show. But it also appears that the essence of Charlotte is asserting herself, despite the fact that Charlotte-bot is a replicant body with a host brain.
To quote Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park,” “Life finds a way.”
Why would Charlotte need to go through all that security rigmarole if Serac was only a hologram? The heavily fortified location offers privacy, perhaps, but the tech seemed a bit superfluous.
“I remember what it’s like to be me. You’re not the only predator here.” In rescuing Charlotte’s son from a pedophile in the park, the line between the host and the actual Charlotte gets hazy.