“Just say no” was an anti-drug campaign sparked by a glib response from then-First Lady Nancy Reagan who, when asked in 1982 by an elementary school student what to do if she was offered drugs. “Just say no,” was her response – criticized at the time as reductive, simplistic, and ignoring the realities of drug use and abuse at the time, up there with “don’t get sick” or “get passing grades in all your classes” as obvious, useless advice. The phrase, however, became the 1980s equivalent of a meme, showing up everywhere as a punchline, yet remaining a celebrated anti-drug phrase.
This episode punches all the usual Westworld notes which we will get to, but it bears noting that we are pretty far from Westworld itself. That is not a bad thing – the regular themes and ideas continue to be explored, the characters are engaging, but we are pretty far from a wild west android theme park where people can indulge their darkest fantasies. Now, we’re in a future Los Angeles where people indulge their darkest fantasies, provided they have the money and the legal cover to engage them. So, kinda just like Westworld.
Serac’s past is the center of the episode, and we are completely Maeve-free, as she lies a-bleeding on the floor of the Singapore Yakuza headquarters or somewhere else by now. It is the man who wants to use her as a weapon against Dolores that is our anchor for “Genre,” and wow, do we experience a trip, not just through Serac’s life, but through this world.
“I suppose I should start by telling you about myself,” he and the episode begin in voiceover. He and his brother, who is “sui generis” (that’s “in a class by itself” for those who didn’t take high school Latin). The two of them escape a nuked Paris which provokes a crisis of faith: “I said that God had abandoned us. He said that God had never existed in the first place.” So, they decide to create a God to save them, “to create order out of chaos.” All their models show humanity crashing and going extinct in the not too distant future, so they figured they would create a computer that could serve as a kind of destiny-maker, allowing them to manipulate the world and reality, and perhaps save the human race. It was not easy. “It turns out that building a god, as your ancestors can attest, is not easy,” Serac narrates. This first computer was Solomon.
They received funding from Dempsey Senior, who had money and wanted to make a lot more. When Solomon did not initially deliver, he pulled the plug. Serac’s brother wanted to kill him; Serac chose to make them improve the computer until Dempsey saw its value. In the meantime, “My brother had done it. He had created a god.” The end result was Rehoboam, a computer that could accurately predict what would happen (shades of Asimov and “psychohistory” from the Foundation series – Hari Seldon could predict millennia ahead, even getting the names of things right! That means Rehoboam is the duplicate of Prime Radiant, Asimov’s destiny-modeling computer. Now, Imma going to go Biblical: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, and the marketing slogan for Battlestar Galactica season four, I believe – jk.)
Dempsey Junior (street name: Liam) was kidnapped by Dolores and her forces in the last episode. He wears extra special Google Glasses ™ which allow him to see everything about a person, including their destiny, thanks to Rehoboam. “Go on,” Caleb taunts, “tell me who I am.”
Let’s press pause here and look at these two seminal moments/statements from the episode: Serac’s line, “I suppose I should start by telling you about myself,” in which the speaker is allowed self-determination, self-identification, a past, agency, and autonomy. I should tell you about myself. The speaker determines everything about himself. Compare that with Caleb’s “tell me who I am,” in which the speaker asks to be defined, identified, and categorized – it is a giving away of autonomy and agency. The fact that Caleb does so in a scornful manner changes nothing about the actual impact of his request. Serac is empowered and in control; Caleb is neither of these things. In a television program that has taken the idea of “control” as a central theme, it is writ large here.
Liam then roofies Caleb in a really sad escape attempt. Liam is immediately stopped and subjugated, but Caleb starts trippin’. Dolores tells him they have to keep moving and Caleb, in response, sees the world as eighties noir or a Calvin Klein ad.
It is here where the episode either begins to fall apart or ratchet up, depending on your perspective. A quick check of the internet reveals a divided fanbase. The car chase with the plexiglass car seemed like it existed for its own sake, as it certainly did not advance the plot or reveal anything of character. Dozens of magazines are emptied, and nothing is accomplished. The Fast and the Pointless, perhaps? Similarly, since his capture last week and escort by Connells, Bernard is a shell, serving little purpose. He deserves better.
BUT, Genre makes it all fun. I mean the drug, not the episode. Giggles and Ash are back, here to help Caleb, and Giggles immediately recognizes what Caleb is on. It’s like watching five movies in a row in fast forward, “Hey, watch out for that last act, though.” Next thing you know, genre is a meta drug, providing the scenes with a soundtrack and a…well…genre.
During the car chase, Calen begins to hear Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" and we get an Apocalypse Now-style battle sequence with chases, gunfire, people falling at a distance, and all because Charlie don’t surf. The soundtrack switches to the theme from Love Story, another serious seventies film (like Apocalypse Now and the original Westworld…okay, maybe not the latter). They’re from different worlds – Oliver’s rich, with a strong family legacy and fortune, Jenny’s from the wrong side of the tracks, working her way through school. They fall in love, they marry, he is cut off by his family, she gets cancer and dies (or, spoiler alert – sorry, that should have come earlier!) Love means never having to say you’re sorry. The link to Caleb and Dolores? Two kids from different worlds making it work until one of them dies? Maybe.
The soundtrack switches again to "Nightclubbing" by Iggy Pop, a little cocaine-using, glam snapshot of the seventies club scene written by David Bowie. There might be something to the lyrics, “We’re walking through town…we’re walking like a ghost,” but the song itself is brilliantly, purposefully shallow, which also makes me wonder if Westworld is not commenting on the shallow glamour, pointlessness, and indulgence of this future society, as well.
Meanwhile, Bernard gets his only moment to shine in the episode when Connells brings him to Rohoboam and tells him, “This is their god. This is how they see the future. This is how they make the future,” voice dripping with a mix of admiration and contempt. “You’ve always been of two minds, haven’t you, Bernard?” he asks. “It isn’t that binary,” Bernard responds. Host clapback, YEAH! Even other hosts try to tear down hosts and Bernard is not having it. Couldn’t he have been given more to say/do, as his conflict still makes him one of the most interesting characters around.
“My brother and I charted a course for the whole human race,” and we’re back to Serac narrating his biography. They might not have made a god, but they certainly developed a god complex. They continue to experiment while the brother slowly goes mad.
Caleb hits his forth track listing on “genre” – “Space Oddity.” (Interesting that the drug went for two Bowie songs.) Dolores has not sent Connells to destroy Rehoboam, but to have the computer inform everyone of what their eventual fate will be. “Who gets to decide what they know?” Apparently, Dolores does. Chaos ensues. With knowledge of their future now presented to them, some folks go crazy, some go catatonic, and some see it as an excuse to take joyrides on the plexiglass cars. But here’s the thing: Knowledge of your fate was not included in Rehoboam’s determination of your fate. It’s a Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Magic Eight Ball – now that you know, it is no longer certain. Agency has been given to you to. The question now is are we living in an Oedipus universe (can’t escape fate – in fact, by fleeing it you will make it happen) or a Terminator universe. (You can change the future that’s already happened! Fate is not set in stone.) And is it “free will” if you are told of your likely fate whether you wanted to be or not? Westworld, you’re complicating things!
The realizations in the two different narrative timelines begin to happen fast and even overlap. Serac experiments on his brother, because he was trying different scenarios on the computer. Caleb realizes Dolores isn’t human when she takes several bullets for him like it’s nothing. The brother plans to murder Dempsey Senior. Serac confronts Connell – not actually Serac, he’s on a plane, but his holographic avatar is really not having it.
The fifth act Giggles warned us about is “The Shining Main Title Theme” by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. I must admit – that’s my jam. It is slow, evocative, and dread-filled. Giggles was right – this is a comedown from Bowie-fun. They arrive at the beach and Ash ends up shooting Liam to prove a point. Caleb flashes back to the death of Francis and once again asks Liam, “Who do you think I am?” Liam dies in the surf.
Turns out Dolores was looking to acquire Serac’s files. Turns out Serac himself crashed Dempsey Senior’s plane, then drove Dempsey out to the wreckage, killed him by hand and put the body in the wreckage, which seems like a lot of extra steps (unless you want to personal satisfaction of bouncing the head of your boss off his own fuselage, in which case I get it, but still, extra work is extra work, man).
Aware he is after her, Dolores has a message for Serac: “Those people who made me thought they controlled me. They’re all dead now.” Cold. Serac worries Dolores will be able to undo his work to save the world and guide its destiny. Dolores objects to anyone trying to control anyone else, let alone a planet. “It’s time everyone woke up,” she tells Serac and shows she knows who and what he is by walking straight through him – yup, still a holographic avatar while the real one is still in his place far above.
Dolores and Caleb also prepare to fly the friendly skies. “Maybe people shouldn’t know their own fate,” muses Caleb. Knowing his has not made him any happier. Nope – Dolores wants to give everyone the freedom and knowledge she has, whether they want it or not.
Three episodes left this season, and Westworld is no longer in Westworld but is having fun continuing to create rich tapestries around the themes and ideas first ventured in season one. The episode entitled “Genre” certainly moves through a number of them: origin story, crime drama, psychological drama, horror, sci-fi, and odd romcom. Oddly, the western isn’t present so much, other than perhaps the idea of the outlaw and the lawman, except both in this case, Dolores and Serac, are self-appointed and I wouldn’t vote for either of them for any position of authority. The narrative didn’t really move forward despite a great deal of action that turned out to be sound and fury, signifying nothing. We received nothing like the reveal of last week. Having said all that, I still thought this was an excellent episode of ideas. Whoever came up with the idea of a drug called “genre” that makes you experience reality through different genres and soundtracks deserves a raise and has prolly made William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Tsutsui Yasutaka all face-palm and cry out, “That should have been mine!”
Three left. Not sure where we go from here, but I’m along for the ride. Crank the “Ride of the Valkyries” and tell me my fate.