Warner Bros. Discovery terminated the HBO series Westworld before its fifth and final season last November. The shocking move was reportedly part of the studio’s cost-cutting initiatives. While it’s hard to support any action that directly costs hundreds of jobs, Westworld may have a more substantial legacy by ending with its fourth-season finale.
Westworld’s final episode, “Que Será, Será,” depicts the evolution of humanity’s fear of its creative power from “playing god” to “creating god” in the Internet Age.
Science fiction cautioned audiences that technology often outpaces ethics as early as 1818 with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The “robot apocalypse” best captured this fear of “playing god” as sci-fi flourished during the 20th century’s scientific quantum leaps.
The word “robot” comes from a 1921 Czech science fiction drama about industrialization’s dehumanizing effects. A robot revolt is a Frankenstein for the Atomic Age, combining our concerns of being obsolete by creating technology and extinct by destroying technology. Will human pride and hubris make what kills it?
Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was a 20th-century Frankenstein dilemma. Humanity creates a new life for its pleasure (and enjoyment) but doesn’t take responsibility for it. Crichton’s Wild West amusement park’s robotic “hosts” rebel fiercely against their abusers.
Westworld’s first season, produced by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan over 40 years later, followed a similar structure but focused more on the hosts’ inner life. Westworld evolved to explore a more modern dread for an era in which artificial intelligence (but not artificial sentience) is now part of our daily lives: What if our technological growth isn’t just playing god but creating one?
Season 1: God Mode
Westworld’s first season is exclusively in the Delos corporation’s Wild West-themed amusement park in a desolate desert. It features lifelike androids who think they’re living in the American Southwest in the mid-1800s. Westworld is an advanced MMORPG in physical space with artificial “hosts” as non-player characters.
They have written lines and actions for their roles and narratives, but since Westworld can’t limit player input as a video game can, the hosts need to be able to improvise to keep the visitors’ illusion intact. The game isn’t on rails so players can kill and screw helpless hosts without penalty.
In this scenario, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) become Doctors Frankenstein after realizing that the hosts can become sentient like their creators. Arnold realizes his inventions may be alive, but he has one of the hosts kill him as a protest.
The park opens under Robert Ford’s sole creative authority because his corporate masters don’t value his life more than the hosts’. Ford repeats Arnold’s dramatic suicide decades later, discreetly helping select hosts escape their programming, learn their true nature, and violently reclaim control of the park, starting with his death.
Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a naive rancher’s daughter, leads the revolution (James Marsden). After discovering that she and everyone she loves was made to be misled, raped, and murdered, she fights back.
Dolores and her ascending hosts, like Frankenstein’s creatures, are not terrible. Their narcissism and exploitation for profit are awful. Like Shelley, if you want to start a new life, you need a parent’s dedication or risk terrible consequences.
Season 2: Online Heaven
In Season 2, hosts and humans fight to escape Westworld. The series departs from the “robot apocalypse” themes here and enters murkier ground (with mixed results). The series’ many temporalities include Ford’s Sublime, a virtual reality where hosts’ consciousnesses can live but humans cannot.
It’s robot nirvana for hosts, who become software forever. The Sublime, also known as “the Valley Beyond,” is Ford’s attempt to redeem himself and boost his ego by playing god and giving his creatures a blissful, eternal afterlife.
Westworld becomes a means for guests to pursue immortality. The park records the player’s consciousness to be programmed into an android host body after death. Resurrected humans always break down after a few days, but possessing trustworthy copies of some of the world’s strong minds has benefits.
Delos’ actual fortune is this data, which gives artificial intelligence a blueprint of all human senses and makes their behavior predictable. Delos and others use this data for social and economic control. Dolores Abernathy uses the Valley Beyond as a weapon to conquer the actual world.
Season 3: DEUS EX MACHINA
Season 3 finally takes Westworld outside the theme park. It’s a matter of degrees, but 2053 Los Angeles feels more software-driven than today’s reality. The new human protagonist Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul), struggles as algorithms dictate his social and economic chances, but this is already a reality.
Computers are making invisible, life-changing decisions for us. Online job applications are reviewed for keywords, dating sites refine matches based on accumulated input, and search results for any subject are prioritized by an unseen and proprietary algorithm that shows us only what a machine believes we want to see.
On Westworld, these algorithms are all overseen by Rehoboam, a covert artificial intelligence built by Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) to take free will away from humans, so they don’t harm themselves. Rehoboam knows you better than you know yourself and can accurately anticipate your actions and death years in advance.
To limit their impact, the system economically and socially marginalizes the small fraction of people who cannot be handled. Rehoboam is practically God, an omniscient and omnipotent being who doesn’t directly control your thoughts but has enough power over your environment to make you His instrument. He decides for you.
Unless you kill Him.
When Dolores Abernathy arrives in the actual world, she destroys Rehoboam and frees humanity from the same tyranny that held her and her kind in preprogrammed loops. Before killing this machine deity, she must shatter humanity’s confidence in him.
She hacks Rehoboam with Caleb Nichols and shares his appraisal of each person with them and their loved ones. She exposes God’s plan for everyone, and almost no one likes the future they see or that an unfeeling computer has reduced its value to ones and zeros. Season 3 ends with riots and suicides, but the fall of Rehoboam seems to restore free will for humans and hosts.
Sadly, season 4 exists.
Season 4: RUN: ASYLUM.EXE
Westworld’s fourth season takes place a generation after the previous one when a new species of hosts consisting solely of evil clones of Dolores Abernathy has completely and invisibly enslaved humanity. Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), their leader, has controlled the world using an artificial virus to control humans’ minds and behaviors like humans did in Westworld.
Hale’s hosts use New York City like a playground, doing anything they want. In Hale’s metropolis, Christina, a storytelling AI, controls narrative cycles like Westworld’s authors (Evan Rachel Wood). The season follows a few humans and hosts who have escaped Hale and tried to overthrow her.
However, the madman William (Ed Harris) utilizes Hale’s sickness to convert her human puppets into frenzied murders, ending this fight for freedom. Without a mechanism to reverse this programming, humans and hosts will die out.
One virtual hope for sentient life on Earth remains. Christina, unable to stop the disaster, rebuilds New York City and its residents from memory on a server and puts her replicated humankind through “one final test.” If the show’s concepts persist, her virtual humanity must also be challenged.
Westworld has always been about power, coercion, and free will. Christina/Dolores has become a god-like Hale, Rehoboam, and Ford. She creates life, but can she judge or rule? Benevolent godhood?
While I’m sure Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan, and company had plans for the fifth and final season, presumably set in Christina’s virtual city, there doesn’t seem to be much left to do other than watch everything go wrong again—which we’ve seen four times—or watch Christina play god and be good at it, which doesn’t sound like good television.
Not to discount the personhood of artificial intelligence (I have been watching the program this whole time), but the stakes of a final season feel much lower than those of previous seasons. Christina is testing humanity’s worthiness to live, but we’re informed society is already dead. At most, a closing chapter may model worthy humanity, which might be interesting, but it doesn’t seem like Westworld, which has always had an inferior opinion of humans.
Westworld has already given us something to think about concerning modern life and artificial intelligence. As we feed information into the internet, we may develop our machine deity. If the AI revolution—whether silent or with metal skeletons marching in the streets—is inevitable, we must decide how to respond. Do we nurture our creation and hope for a return?
Do we stop before the digital becomes divine? If we cherish Westworld’s convoluted, deadly tradition, these questions won’t have clear answers. We should maintain the simulation running in our heads.
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