Westworld S3E5: “Genre”

A mobile phone showing just one ordinary citizen's social profile

Last week, Serac gave us a glimpse of the larger history of the world our characters inhabit, showing us a smoking, decimated Paris. This week, in Westworld S3E5, he starts to connect the dots between the destruction of his home and the building of Rehoboam and in the process demonstrates that he might be exactly the type of person he is trying to eliminate from society. A person like Dolores—wild, chaotic, uncontrollable, unpredictable. Yet this is not the only thing they have in common, as we shall see. For unwavering belief gives forth a furious conviction of action…

The Starting Point for Creating God

Talent is not only about being able to do, but sometimes being able to use those who do. Such is the case Westworld presents for Serac here, as it makes clear it was Serac’s brother (nameless—why?) who was the real visionary of the two, leading the young Serac away from the ruined Paris where Serac wants to remain and telling him, with shades of Nietzsche, that God doesn’t exist.

Of course, as the old saying goes, if God didn’t exist we would have to create him. Why? Well, imagine you are faced with the world that the Serac brothers are faced with (one not so far removed from our own). Cities have been razed and destroyed (with no explanation given by the show for this yet), storms are deploying nature’s wrath against the man-made world and riots are perpetuating human conflicts between opposing points of view, as if violence is the only way to settle things. Faced with such a world, one might long for a higher power to deploy some kind of order on the chaos so as to create some kind of structure that will benefit mankind—the best of all possible worlds made real.

Of course, as humans, the argument remains that it is difficult to fully create an objective moral system that is truly righteous and benefits everyone. Life, like people, is complex and narrow moral arrangements often leave little room for nuance and complexity. Ultimately, what makes the Serac brothers’ idea of an enforced organisation of society so dangerous is that no-one can truly claim to objectively know what is best for the entire human race. To think that you do is folly, sheer hubris, and will eventually lead to abuse of such a system, as we shall see.

The Greed of Mr. Dempsey

Previously, Liam Dempsey had led us to believe that his father and Serac had been equal partners in regard to the creation of Rehoboam. And in certain respects, they were. But this account neglects the philosophical differences and division of labour of the project. For it was not even Serac really that was the midwife of Rehoboam, but Serac’s brother. Not to say Serac did not believe passionately in Rehoboam, as he was fully beholden to his brother’s vision and believed entirely in the purpose of their creation. But, as Serac freely admits in his retelling, it was his brother who was the visionary and the driving force behind Rehoboam’s creation and success.

So where does Dempsey Sr. come into this? According to Serac, this crass, greedy man had been shrewd enough to obtain masses of hypersensitive data relating to the world’s population before certain privacy laws prevented such accumulation of data occurring. Recognising Dempsey’s greed, the Seracs sell Dempsey on a vision of a system that can predict the future, including such money-making systems as the stock market. In exchange, Dempsey will invest his money and data for testing. Everyone’s a winner, even if Dempsey can’t see the higher purpose.

Dempsey Sr. smiles at the Serac brothers

The impatient businessman berates the French duo initially for prototypes (with further biblical names like “Solomon”) that can accurately predict the past but not the future—although, with access to historical data, is that really prediction or mere reportage? In any case, apart from Serac’s brother’s desire to kill Dempsey on the grounds that “he’ll never understand” (the dangers of playing God on display), the brothers impress and confound Dempsey by stealing $5 million and investing it based on predictions made by Rehoboam. Dempsey’s jaw drops when he realises the investment has been successful to the tune of $100 million, and, impressed by the successful prediction, the nerve of the Serac brothers to steal from him to prove a point, and the substantial profit made, he fully commits to the project. From such temptation of success there is no return for any of them.

There Is a Time to Leave Things Behind

Westworld has been accused in the past of perhaps giving too much depth of attention to its characters, holding them up to excess scrutiny that often they couldn’t handle. Which is why it feels strange to say here that, in leading us down the path that Serac took to become the man he is today, it does so at the expense of Serac’s brother, who by Serac’s own account was the genius of the operation.

Sure, we get some beautifully moody facial expressions, as worn by all tortured, existentialist geniuses (of course), but that’s about it. We don’t get much more than one spoken sentence of dialogue from him, outside of that paraphrased or quoted by Serac.

This I could possibly forgive if done for expediency. We don’t necessarily need to hear Serac’s brother if Serac is able to narrate events for us. What’s faltering is the level of detail in Serac’s narration itself. We know that Serac has his brother locked away at an Incite compound and experimented on to see what changes can be wrought—forcibly or otherwise—on those who don’t fit the structure Rehoboam is creating to lay out the best of all possible worlds.

But why didn’t Serac’s brother fit into the structure he had, after all, created? Your guess is as good as mine, and this is why the show fails us on this point. It’s not that the show is trying to be oblique or ambiguous, it’s that it doesn’t make the effort to add that extra layer that may have taken no more than two more choice sentences of Serac’s narration. Instead, we are simply told by Serac that his brother was impulsive, chaotic, “part of the population of outliers.” He “didn’t fit the world anymore and the world didn’t fit him. And it drove him mad.” But why? And what did he actually do to demonstrate this? Was he an addict, was he unable to compromise anymore? What was the tipping point that led Serac to incarcerate his own brother? Apparently, he was running scenarios through the system involving the murder of Dempsey.  As we shall see, Serac incarcerating his brother on these grounds is grimly ironic.

Maybe Serac was unwilling to risk his vision of world peace, whatever the cost. He states that there is a wider problem: “in every projection the world came unglued. There were people—outliers, agitators—who you couldn’t predict or control.” Therefore, there is still a risk humanity could be extinguished because such outliers are an uncertain factor at play.

That there is an element in humanity, however small a sample, that cannot be systemised or controlled, is heartening, especially for a show that has held a bleak view of humanity for such a long time.

Curiously, though, the show suggests that Serac is not a man of his word and, while not trying to deceive, is self-aware enough to acknowledge what he calls “the little white spaces, rare moments where randomness interacts with your life that create a truly free space”. So, he has already had Dempsey’s jet crashed, and three vicious blows against the wing of the jet later, Dempsey is no longer a problem. Rehoboam couldn’t predict that.

Watch out, Dolores. The man’s not playing. Beware the outliers.

Genres, of a Kind

Speaking of Dolores, at the start of the episode we find her and Caleb walking a belligerent Liam Dempsey across the city, because supposedly Serac is only able to track them if they’re stationary—not when they’re on the move. Considering the technology Serac has access to and the fact that Liam has previously said that Rehoboam controls everything in the city down to even the traffic lights, it’s not too hard to imagine that Serac can track people using CCTV hardware across the city, or even take a GPS signal from the glasses Dempsey has with him that allows him to access the system and read people’s reports.

It’s these reports that open a curious door on Caleb. As Liam takes a look at Caleb’s report, he freaks out and jabs Caleb in the neck with a capsule of the drug he took from the high-class sex auction he attended last episode, a mood enhancer called “genre”.

“Genre” perhaps isn’t the best name for the drug. The name suggests a transformative experience where you see the world through the lens of a movie genre, and at first this appears to be so. The show applies some invention to its normal slick frame, switching to gorgeous black and white at first like a film noir when Caleb suspects they are being followed. We then switch to colour and a burst of “Ride of the Valkyries” as they abscond in a car, only to be followed by Serac’s men. Visually, the car chase represents itself well enough; what more could indicate the genre? But the choice of “Valkyries” is peculiar as, if we’re talking films, I will forever associate the classical piece with the love of the smell of napalm in the morning.

Caleb clutches a heavy duty machine gun whilst lit in black and white

And it’s there the show really leaves off on inventiveness, giving us a burst of the theme from Love Story whilst Caleb makes puppy dog eyes at Dolores—Love, Actually it’s not—before giving up the pretence of genre altogether as Caleb heads down through the gleaming chrome and bright-glare video screens of the subway to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (which shows good taste, at least). It’s cool, but it feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity, whereas the black and white noir feel led me to believe they were going to take the genre drugging in a really inventive direction.

In fact, I’m not really sure what the point of the genre drugging was. Dempsey didn’t make the most of the distraction by attempting to escape. In fact, he just stood there and told Dolores exactly what he’d given Caleb. Why do it unless you’re trying to escape? And if the genre incidences were supposed to be some sort of comment on artificial existence—questions of perception and reality—then it failed to make any point of merit other than don’t get spiked (a fair point, but not one really relevant here).

The Morals of Truth and Choice

Over at Incite, Connells/Dolores “persuades” Bernard to help him obtain information on Serac from Rehoboam using Liam Dempsey’s access details (obtained with a little help from old friends “fear” and “threat”) and, in a bold move, uploads everyone’s profile reports to their phones. And I mean everyone. Worldwide.

Liam Dempsey warns of the irresponsibility of such an action—that such knowledge might cause murder or suicide. But Dolores, ever the outlier, believes everyone should know what little agency they’re really given. “Better to live in chaos than under somebody else’s control,” she says, implying that the right to the truth overrides any concerns over what the consequences of knowing that truth might be. Basically, it’s a pro-choice philosophy: you have the right to choose to kill yourself, if that’s what you wish.

But Dolores ignores the bigger implication. That by forcing people’s data profiles onto them, she is denying them the choice of whether they want to see such information and not giving them awareness of the possible consequences of seeing it. The idea that the truth is good, no matter what that truth is, can be a contentious issue simply for the moral dilemma of the damage such a revelation can unleash on the unsuspecting recipient. In respect of suicide, if the impulse comes from a moment of emotional devastation, can it really be called a choice? Can it really be a form of freedom?

It’s a fascinating issue, but the way the show presents the consequences of this data drop is a tad underwhelming. For one, the city seems pretty quiet for a major city. People arguing, crying and standing in stunned silence in reaction to the profile drop feels right. But people instantly throwing things through shop windows and looting, while Liam comments on them “returning to their feral selves” feels misjudged. I get that people will want to channel their aggression into a violent act as the revelation of profiling settles in, but instant looting? Really? I’m not so sure. What does Dolores expect to happen, or the writers for that matter? Do they expect a mass riot and cull within mere minutes? You wonder sometimes.

Bernard is wondering. And he’s realised what Dolores has known for a long time—that the humans, under the profiling limits set by Rehoboam, are in effect hosts themselves. And Dolores is trying to free them from their system-imposed loops. By the end of this season, do we suppose we will see a replication of the hosts’ uprising from the end of the first season, only in human form?

Not if Bernard has any say in the matter. Bernard escapes Connells/Dolores’ clutches with the help of Stubbs. Connells waves off Bernard and Stubbs, advising them that he has outlived his usefulness now for Dolores. As Bernard and Stubbs escape, some of Serac’s people come for a quick chat with Connells, with the simple question of how the hell the entire global population’s profiles got uploaded to the world’s phones.

Connells spills the beans to Bernard

The subsequent explosion, triggered by Connells himself, perhaps gave Serac all the answers he needs.

The Unknown Caleb

Heading to an airport, the discussion turns to Liam Dempsey. They have everything they need from him; what should they do with him now? Liam believes he knows how this will play out: they’ll take whatever little he has left. Unfortunate really that he has not understood that all he has left is his life.

He berates the cohort of Dolores, Caleb and Caleb’s two Rico friends from the first episode. In almost semi-fascist tones, he denounces them as the ruin of society, but he has overplayed his hand. Back in the subway, he reveals to Caleb’s friends that they will die violently and that the brother the girl is committing crime for—in order to put him through college—will still end up living a violent, criminal life and will die violently and tragically young. Considering what Liam said about people turning to suicide or murder if they had the truth revealed to them, he really should have recognised the self-fulfilling prophecy. One gunshot later and Liam is lying on the ground, a bloody mess. Prophecy fulfilled.

But what of Caleb? Before the gun blast, Liam snapped at Caleb, telling him that he didn’t know who he was, pushing Caleb into some sort of waking memory where he had a man at gunpoint tied to a chair, and also a flashback of Caleb on a chair himself trying out some similar glasses to the ones Liam wears. What did Liam see on Caleb’s report that Caleb didn’t? Does Dolores know? If so, did she give Caleb a tampered version of the profile to persuade him to join her? This, for me, was the biggest thing to come out of the episode, and I’m definitely excited to see a deeper dive into Caleb’s past, as the shadows that linger there seem seductive. As does the relationship between Serac and Dolores, who have been set up for a confrontation, but as two sides of the same coin, will they find themselves working together?

For all my talk of failed execution, the ideas the show proffers to us still excite me and for all its flaws, I am definitely enjoying this season more than the last one. So, join me next time. I’ll be waiting for you—in Westworld!

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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