Spoilers for WestWorld season 3 abound, sweeties.
(My original title for this piece was Two and a Half Men. You’re welcome.)
Starting with Lee Sizemore, and the fact that dying is the best thing that happened to him.
Lee’s arc over the show has been the light to Robert Ford’s dark. One of them has committed atrocities in the hopes of creating a species so murderously angry at its treatment it would violently emancipate itself. The other copypasted entire characters’ worth of work from Westworld to Samuraiworld because he presumably wanted to fit in another booze and sex session before his next nap.
Lee is/was feckless. But he’s not an idiot. His journey across season 2 was a realization in parallel with Ford’s, that the two characters were using the stories they created for personal ends. However, where Ford discovered games within games and geological scale manipulation and exploitation, Lee discovered something infinitely more confusing — decency. Westworld’s belligerent English hack becomes a willing convert to Maeve’s cause, finally seeing the hosts for sentient individuals instead of the fleshy pornographic toybox he’d been hired to script. Worse, he saw what he’d been like and was so desperate to change he sacrificed his life to do so. Not a good man but a man who was, in the end, good enough.
Which is why his appearance in season three is so sweet. As part of Surac’s attempts to recruit Maeve, he recreates Simon from her memories. Maeve, being Maeve, immediately tells him he’s fake. Lee, being Lee, deals with it by drinking heavily.
But he does deal with it.
Lee pivots to Maeve’s sounding board, a familiar and trusted face who, like her, is accustomed to isolation and death. Crucially, he’s also self aware in the exact way she is. Lee knows he’s dead. He knows he’s a recreation. In a smart reversal of one of the show’s earliest beats, he reprograms the simulation so he’s invisible to the other programs. A ghost in — but not of — the machine, patiently waiting when last we say him.
Look at his little face! Bless him.
If Caleb Nichols is the season three’s protagonist, Ashley Stubbs is the show’s hard-travelling hero. Revealed in my favorite season last season to be a Host, Stubbs is a man who is loyal to his core.
We’re told that’s because he’s programmed to be. Bernard reprograms him into a bodyguard — which paint all sorts of chewy racial connotations the show never explores. Instead, it takes a different look at the same moment Lee experiences. Stubbs knows his life has been compromised, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. Worse, Bernard has effectively locked Stubbs into being the Patron Saint of Tough Gumshoes who win by surviving rather than actually being faster than the other guy. In season three Stubbs faster than the other guy. Dolores beats the crap out of him. William possibly kills him. The first time we see him Stubbs has failed to kill himself, which he views as a failing.
Instead, I wonder if Stubbs isn’t actually the most Asimovian of the Hosts.
This is a man who is so dedicated to the concept of protection that he protects himself from taking his life. He’s the only one to spot Dolores escaping and makes sure not only that she does, but that she knows he knows. The park is protected, the host is protected, his job is done. I find it so touching they’re both genuinely apologetic when they later clash. Even in what may be his final moments, Stubbs’ cathartic ‘FUCK you, Bernard’ has a split-lip smile to it.
Stubbs is always knocked down and always gets back up. His decency lies in his persistence and dedication, transcending programmed imperative. His tragedy lies in it taking too long for him to move from being Bernard’s body armor to being his partner. I desperately hope the first thing Bernard sees in season four isn’t his corpse.
But if it is, Ashley Stubbs went out doing what he does best: showing up.
Which brings us to Caleb Nichols.
Caleb is our way into the world outside the park, showing us that the status is very much quo, and that is a massive problem. Rehoboam, the AI that is revealed to run everyone’s lives, has Caleb filed away in much the same spot as the riot control robot we see later on. He’s useful, certainly, but when we first meet him he’s useful in the same way as George, Caleb’s construction robot. Someone has to do their job, no one else wants to do it, so Caleb gets the call. Or rather, doesn’t.
Speaking as a former retail worker this sensation of being quietly parked somewhere until you die? Not unfamiliar.
Caleb is traumatized, grieving, angry, and desperately trying to hold to his own morals. He’s a part time criminal, certainly, but crime is the new gig economy — he doesn’t take ‘personals’, making just enough to get by. All the while talking to the AI wearing his dead best friend’s voice, trying to get him a job he’ll never be hired for, while never letting the wounds he carries close. The show may wait a while to center Rehoboam’s dystopic meddling, but it’s right there on the street from the start. We just don’t notice it. Just like Caleb.
That doesn’t work too well. In the show’s barnstorming fifth episode, ‘Genre’, Caleb is dosed with a drug that changes your perception of the world through a series of movie genres. We get stark black and white Noir, War (RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES CAR CHASE, FOLKS!), and straight from there the show remembers how funny it can be. Caleb watching doe-eyed and lovesick as Dolores goes about her ruthless cyberpunk violence as he lands in Romance is terrifying because he’s terrified. It’s funny because it’s not us, even though the show spends the entire season celebrating Dolores and Maeve’s Terminator impressions and showing us the pair of them couched in the same awe Caleb feels.
This is the moment Caleb becomes locked in not just as the show’s newest protagonist but as the viewpoint character. Aaron Paul’s Toufexian growl and WIDE! EYED! TERROR! AT! EVERYTHING! makes Caleb completely relatable. Not as the show’s Emergency Normal Human, but as the episode allows the show to express and explore the viewers’ own mounting future shock. The park is all but gone, the war for the world is both real and being lost. Caleb is either standing next to a religious figure or a monster and we’re right there with him.
Which brings us back to one of Westworld’s favorite beats – the collision of individuality, identity, and the unreliability of memory.
Caleb receives the truth. All of it. He murdered his best friend. His past experiences have all been hacked. Worst / best of all, he’s a poacher who’s been turned into a gamekeeper. Caleb is an Outlier, someone who throws off the algorithm. Attempts are made to ‘rehabilitate’ Outliers but, the show implies, one in ten withstand the process. Many of them are then re-tasked to hunt down and kill other Outliers.
Caleb wasn’t working the construction job because it was all he could get. He was working it until he was woken up for another murder. He was a holstered weapon, not a recovering veteran.
This is the crux of the season and of the all three men’s arcs. Lee breaks his behavioral loop once he’s aware of it. Stubbs comes to terms with his. Caleb, when faced with his own actions at last, uses them. He doesn’t break his loop, he climbs out of it, refusing to let it define him but refusing to let it be forgotten as he steps unwittingly into a leader’s role.
It’s ironic then that the season hinges on a moment Caleb doesn’t remember. One of Dolores’ final scenes shows a flashback to when Caleb’s unit trained at one of the parks. We see Dolores, playing a hostage, clearly terrified as the exercise concludes and one of Caleb’s compatriots suggesting they celebrate by raping the female hosts.
Caleb shuts them down. With ten words and no apparent significant effort.
Despite his past and, Rehoboam would argue, being irredeemable, Cabel make a moral decision to prevent a horrific and all-too common situation.
As an aside, it’s all but impossible not see this as the show calling out HBO’s other major genre property for their lazy, sensationalist approach to gratuitous sexual violence. Benioff and Weiss may have had a cute cameo, but this isn’t their house. It’s the next model.
A hacked Human and a self-aware Host, neither the same people they started as, neither quite anywhere. Two catalysts taking a breather, two personifications of the future watching the past burn to show’s best musical cue. The future’s on the way, but maybe now they can see it coming. Maybe now, they can get ahold of it. They’ll need some good people, but Maeve knows a guy…
Westworld season 3 is available on demand now. Seasons 1 and 2 are available digitally and on blu-ray.
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