Testing Westworld’s fidelity – Is it a problem that the show has changed its focus so much?
Spoilers for Westworld
A fidelity test, within the context of HBO’s Westworld, is designed to assess the replicability of human cognition and response: can the show’s characters create a seamless copy of a human being? This concept can be easily applied to criticisms surrounding the show itself: rather than repeating what defined Westworld in the first place, each season has diverted heavily from the former, covering the same characters but in widely different scenarios. Whereas the first season offered a science-fiction mystery, with twists and reveals that each played into the show's explorations of philosophy, the second season slowly meandered towards the conventional third outing, currently showing on Sky, which opts for action pop and sci-fi pizzazz over any kind of philosophical introspection. Some could accuse Westworld of dumbing down – is this an accurate conclusion, or has Westworld done something brilliant through its simplification?
The big difference in the third season is the setting: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and other familiar hosts now find themselves in the real world, a futuristic city that’s a brighter spiritual sibling to Ridley Scott’s vision of a murky dystopia in Blade Runner. This is a complete 180° from the setting of the first two outings: the Wild West had an old-fashioned appeal that juxtaposed brilliantly with the experimental technologies being questioned. Yet, the beautiful scenery works completely in the third season’s favour because it similarly juxtaposes the action: Dolores brings a messy edge to the perfectly sharp and perpendicular architecture of the city, tracing targets and spilling the blood of those that get in her way.
Old friends, new digs - Westworld's change of setting alters its host characters' relationship to the world around them: we see how they emotionally react to their surroundings, rather than how the humans programme their reactions to their Western fantasy
Nevertheless, there’s another major change that might have gone unnoticed, but has certainly affected how we relate to the show. Rather than a change from philosophy to blasé, blaster-based action, one should recognise the show’s focus being drawn towards emotion.
Now, purists will argue that the image of Dolores being consistently traumatised by Ed Harris’ devilish tormentor was enough to spark an emotional response. And yet, we never truly cared for Dolores, or Bernard, or Thandie Newton’s popular Maeve. Sure, on paper, they were cool, calculating and we enjoyed seeing how their stories panned out. But the whole point of the show was that their stories were written out for them, and their struggles in accepting this defined the philosophy of the show: we were meant to understand how their machinery operated, not how they felt. Finally, season three changes this.
There’s no greater example of this than in the case of Dolores. A blunt weapon with little empathy over the course of season two, season three has instead presented Dolores with two moral conundrums: the introduction of human counterpart Caleb (Aaron Paul) and the revelation that, having created clone copies of herself, one exists in the body of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), infamous for hunting, torturing and killing hosts during last season’s uprising.
The good samaritan - construction worker Caleb acts as the tension to Dolores' calm, seemingly emotionless approach to humanity
With Caleb, we see a simplistic narrative tool employed, bringing in an exception to the rule for Dolores that all humans are evil. However, the reason it works is that we’ve spent twenty plus hours with Dolores only identifying the flaws in her fleshy foil. To suddenly see her communicating with Caleb, gaining his alliance but with some trepidation on his part that might see her relax her efforts to kill everyone along the way, and the emotional connection between us and Dolores has been somewhat established. It’s not perfect, giving into exposition on occasion and maintaining that excessively ruthless streak. Yet, key interactions with Dolores suddenly possess some emotional weight and consequence.
What's behind the reflection? - Dolores, cloned within the shell of her former foe Charlotte Hale, faces the task ahead and the emotional turmoil that comes with it
Then there are key scenes with the Hale replica. At the point of her introduction, we don’t know her host identity, so we cast a shadow over Dolores’ decision: the Hale clone even remarks ‘but she tried to kill all of us’ when told she must pretend to be Hale for the foreseeable future. However, the fourth episode’s twist – that Dolores exists in Hale’s body as well – suddenly digs an emotional well for the show to dive into: Dolores voluntarily suffers in the body of her enemy for the sake of her quest. Yes, one could argue that the original Dolores still inflicted this. But the fact that they’re both built from the same machinery is important: it’s not a fake replica, rather an identical copy. So, as we see Hale struggle in her new body - literally in some cases as she cuts into it - the show presents it as an internal battle of emotions, rather than a test of the technology’s compatibility.
These two major plot threads demonstrate the show’s rather rapid swerve towards character development, as opposed to ambitious scientific pondering. This seems like a downgrade from something that defined the show to a factor that plays into any form of entertainment. But by stripping it back, it actually works in the show’s overall purpose: rather than studying the hosts for an answer to a larger-than-life question, the show brings us closer to them by emboldening the emotional stakes. Finally, we kind of get where they’re coming from as they start to exhibit conflict and doubt. Its simplicity has brought us to the hosts' doorstep, inviting us in to build a relationship with them, rather than towering above them as an omnipotent observer with little care in the world.
How do you feel about the latest season of Westworld? Better than the preceding two or lacking the magic of the first? Leave some feedback and let me know! If you liked the article, subscribe to the website! I'll keep you updated on all of the latest posts. And follow The Film Foyer on social media! All of the links can be found in the feedback form at the bottom of the page.