I love a good ‘What makes a human, human?’ premise, so HBO already had my ticket with Westworld long before the first frame ever appeared in a trailer. And make no mistake: Despite the predilection of varmints, player pianos, and ye olde dialects, this is a story of science-fiction. So I expected the human “guests” to be morally bankrupt. I expected the robot “hosts” to be slowly waking up to the hell that is their existence. But what I didn’t expect is the creeping suspicion that not only is Westworld set in the future, it’s not even set on Earth.
WARNING: SPOILERS AND SPECULATION FOR WESTWORLD BEYOND THIS POINT.
In a way, the idea of setting Westworld off-planet shouldn’t be a surprise. Just look at it. The theme park itself is gargantuan, much of the land still virgin and untrod by guest or host. The map on the official HBO website shows a spread of deserts, grasslands, mountains, and sea. In what universe would a future Earth have that kind of unused land?
But let’s say there is a future in which humans have been mostly herded into megacities, and much of the planet itself has been allowed to return to pristine condition for the fun of the elite class. If it were only the massive amount of land itself, I could look past that. But the premiere of Westworld drops more than a few hints that something isn’t right here. Let’s start out simple.
“When do you get to rotate home again?”
The question is posed by Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) to Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) during an ill-fated attempt by Sizemore to begin a coup against Anthony Hopkins’ character, Dr. Robert Ford. And what a strange question it is, as it implies that not only do the employees of Westworld not go home at the end of the day, but they don’t even go home at the end of the month. What possible reason could there be for such a work situation unless ‘home’ was much too far to commute? Even the facility itself looks set up for the long haul, situated inside a bluff of what could be the American West. Or it could be a terraformed Mars.
Image Credit: HBO
But then what of Dr. Ford’s assertion that, “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: mistake,” if the show truly takes place outside the sphere of Earth? Easy enough to explain away, using the Obi-Wan Kenobi school of conversation. What Dr. Ford is saying could be true…from a certain point of view. Perhaps it was a mistake to colonize the planet. Perhaps humans are the mistake. Perhaps some third thing. Dr. Ford continues:
“We’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now, haven’t we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive […] Do you know what that means? It means that we are done. That this is as good as we’re gonna get.”
This alone is a huge signal that we aren’t in the near-future. We are further away from the present than the fashion choices of the human cast implies. What does it mean for us as a society and a species when everything save for death itself is no longer outside of our command? Hopefully Westworld goes into that later on, exploring the difference between the elite class that can afford vacations to different time periods and those that cannot. But I digress.
But the real meat of this theory — and the lore of how Westworld came to be — happens on Sublevel B83. When Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the security team go to cold storage, they come out on a level so far beneath the functional part of the facility, it feels as if they are going to the center of the planet. Though the elevator indicates there’s a whole other sub-level section below the one cold storage is in.
Image Credit: HBO
If you’re like me, you had a certain expectation of what cold storage for decommissioned robots would look like. If you’re like me, B83 was not what you expected. In fact, outside of where the bodies were kept, the level looked surprisingly like it was designed for another function: as a lobby. There are high ceilings, escalators, the remnants of what could have been either flower pots or fountains. And in the center of it all, a welcoming sculpture of a planet with the word ‘DELOS’ emblazoned on it.
Image Credit: HBO
I don’t know about you, but that certainly doesn’t look like Earth to me. We’re missing quite a few continents. So is Delos the name of the planet? The name of the company, as it was in the original 1973 film?
Image Credit: HBO
The implication here is clear. Level B83 was not always a cold storage dumping ground. At some point it was probably an entry point to the facility. So why are they continuing to build up? Or down? Just how many people live and work for Westworld and to what ends? There is way too much invested here for it to be simply a way to entertain “rich assholes.” Even with 1,400 guests in the park at one time, I find it highly unlikely this place is turning a profit. So what is the purpose?
Names on shows are rarely chosen without purpose and I refuse to believe Delos is any different. The word is Greek in origin, an island where Apollo and Artemis were born. While the island has no capacity to produce food or timber, it was crucial to many cultures for its religious significance. For the purposes of Westworld, the interesting piece of Delos’ history comes from the the Delphic Oracle who declared no one on the island could give birth or die there in order to preserve its sacred nature.
We know from elsewhere in the premiere episode that the last “catastrophic” failure at the park was 30 years ago*. But the sub-levels indicate the park has been in place for far longer than that. Just how many decades — or centuries — does it take to go from a jerky animatronic like Bill to the smooth perfection that is the latest version of Dolores? As a side note, what does that mean for how old Dr. Ford truly is?
*Fun fact: The Man in Black (Ed Harris) has been visiting the park for 30 years. Coincidence? Probably not.
Perhaps there are more “hosts” than the show is letting on. That ‘rotating out’ to go home is merely a ploy for when it becomes time to recycle hosts. That hosts is even a multi-layered identifier. If indeed Westworld is as old as it appears, what if Anthony Hopkins is the last human alive and this entire enterprise is an attempt to put human souls inside meat suit vessels, a la Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun?
Or maybe it’s just about robot cowboys killing humans. Either/or.