This is a spoiler-free impression of the first half of Westworld's third season, which premieres March 15. This piece contains no spoilers for season three beyond what's been shown in teasers and trailers. This piece contains heavy spoilers for Westworld seasons one and two.
Please be courteous in the comments and hide any spoilers under discussion using spoiler tags,
Note also that all images in this story are screencapped from existing Westworld season three teasers and trailers on YouTube. No images were captured from the press screeners (which have giant watermarks on them anyway).
All right, everyone. Bring yourselves back online. Here we go.
I've now had about a week with the first four episodes of Westworld's third season. Those four episodes represent half of season three, which clocks in at a total of eight episodes (unlike seasons one and two, which each had 10).
On one hand, four episodes is a significant chunk of the season, and I've got a lot of spoiler-y opinions and thoughts and theories that I can't yet get into. On the other hand, past experience with the show strongly suggests that the really big stuff will remain hidden until the very last episode of the season—and four episodes is just enough to get a taste of what's to come.
Shining, shimmering, splendid
At one point in episode five of Westworld's first season, God, the Devil, and a dying cowboy all walk into a bar. As they sit around a table, slamming shots of frontier whiskey and trading oblique and portentous one-liners, the Devil takes a moment to wax rhapsodic about the glorious expanse of man's dominion.
"The world out there," says the Devil, all dressed in black, "is one of plenty. A fat, soft teat people cling to their entire life. Every need taken care of—except one: purpose. Meaning."
It was one of the first mentions of the world outside the park, and it was ambiguous as hell. Was it spoken metaphorically, or was the world out there really an all-loving, all-providing Star Trek-style Utopia?
Another even more tantalizing clue about the nature of the outside world came earlier in the same episode, as technicians Sylvester and Felix toil bloodily away down in the bowels of the Mesa's body shop.
"You're not a fucking ornithologist," taunts Sylvester as his counterpart tries (and fails) to hack a small bird host with a "borrowed" Behavior tablet. "And you're sure as hell not a coder," he continues. "You are a butcher, and that is all you will ever be."
A moment later, as repeat customer Maeve shows up on a stretcher and Felix recoils, Sylvester again taunts his coworker: "Jesus," he says, "how the hell did you get this job if you're scared shitless of these things? Personality testing should have weeded you out in the embryo."
Fans have been chewing over this small collection of lines for years—even after season two's reveal of the real world, which simultaneously showed us quite a bit while contextualizing and explaining very little. Were the Man in Black and Sylvester both just employing imagery and hyperbole? Is the "personality testing" just something given to applicants who want to work at the park, or is it part of something larger? Is the world they describe perhaps simultaneously both beautifully egalitarian and alarmingly fascist? Is there a place for everyone, and must everyone keep to their place?
Season three gives us some long-awaited answers. We don't just see the world outside the park—we actually get to live in it a bit. We follow Dolores and what she has to go through to implement her post-escape plan, and we spend some time watching a construction worker named Caleb (played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) struggle to fit into a world where everyone is supposed to snap into place like human Lego.
We also get to see a bit of what happens to Dolores' "passengers"—the host minds contained in the five pearls that Dolores smuggled out of the park at the end of season two.
We'll talk more about these things (and more!) in a few weeks, after some episodes have aired and we can actually get into spoilers. For now, you'll have to be content with what Morpheus told Neo on the hazy, blue-lit deck of the Neb: "The answers are coming."
This is a “big data” story
For the uninitiated: "Big data" is a much-abused buzzword that refers to the ability of computers to tease patterns out of massive collections of information too big for humans to parse. The concept of "big data" differs from traditional data analysis in scale—one would employ a "big data" solution when one has truly massive amounts of information to sort and assimilate. You might need a thousand people to take a crack at sorting through a trillion records to search for stuff, but a beefy server (or a whole farm of servers) with some well-tuned machine-learning algorithms can do it faster and can also spy out trends and connections humans aren't good at seeing at that scale.
Facebook's vast compilation and sifting of user data is a classic "big data" application; so is Amazon's recommendation engine that shows you things you might like based on what you already like. If the future follows its logical course, it stands to reason that a company might try to take things a little further—and perhaps create a recommendation engine for shaping society itself.
There are obviously ethical issues galore—and the death of privacy is just the start. Suffice it to say we'll be spending a bit of time talking about Incite once the season kicks off—and there's no shortage of things to talk about.
Westworlds future is terrifying, but some of it is nice
For all the horrific things about the future privacy nightmare robot murder horrorshow world of Westworld, there are thoughtful touches, too—the show presents the world of 2052 as one where humans seem to have finally taken climate change seriously and made considerable changes to urban architecture and societal function.
The cities we see are teeming with green. They incorporate trees, plants, and vast sunlit atriums directly into the architecture. Roads are sparsely populated—a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in one episode shows the normally busy span's roadway with a handful of cars on it, whereas today the bridge handles an estimated 110,000 vehicles per day. What vehicles we do see are mostly self-driving luxury cabins on wheels.