Warning: SPOILERS for Westworld ahead
Westworld‘s season 1 finale was a major treat for its fanbase; the multiple timeline theory was confirmed, the origins of Wyatt and the purpose of Ford’s new narrative revealed, and the maze explained. But as champagne mixed with blood and old William finally got to play his brutal, life-threatening game, there was one big question fans have had since before the series even premiered that remained very much up in the air: where and when is the show actually set?
The most obvious solution would be that, like in the original Michael Crichton movie, we’re simply in the “near future” out in the middle of the American desert (it wasn’t even that far in the future, with the sequel, Futureworld, showing a real world not too removed from the 1976 it was born into). Of course, very little is carried over from the original canon beyond the most basic elements of the premise (and the scary character wearing a black hat), so that’s not too strong grounding – especially as there have been several suggestions that something grander is afoot.
That we haven’t been given any strong suggestion of when or where things are set in the show itself instinctively gets the obsessive theorising part of any fan’s brain expecting it to be part of a bigger reveal, and there’s certainly enough open possibilities for that to be the case. At the same time though, the air of ambiguity could simply be there to make the show feel more ethereal, existing in a context bubble (similar to the hosts in their loops) to better allow the writers to explore the show’s themes and tell its self-contained narrative. A “what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld” kind of thing.
Whichever is the explicit purpose of the show presenting it in this vague way, the writers do seem to have a clear understanding of location, with Jonathan Nolan even stating in an interview that by the end of the season we’d be able to figure it out:
“By the end of the first season, if you’re paying close attention, you will know where it is. Lisa [Joy, co-producer] disagrees with that, by the way.”
After the finale, it’s easy to side with Lisa on this one. But, as we begin on the year-plus wait for season 2, let’s see if we can crack what’s actually going on.
When is Westworld set?
First the “when” of it all. This is already pretty complicated because, as confirmed in the finale, we’re dealing with events that span thirty-five years, in which time the hosts have gone from robot endoskeletons to almost perfect replicas of humanity, and William’s developed into an increasingly sadistic majority shareholder. With that in mind, the lack of explicit discussion of a set year may have been to simply maintain the twist by avoiding too many obvious inconsistencies.
That elongated timeline accounted for, the technology on show does suggest a standard “near future”; the computers are the typical glass screens that have been a mainstay of contemporary sci-fi for the past decade and in-ear headphones are used without an obligatory cursing of Apple. Working robots are obviously more of a leap, but that’s a suspension of development disbelief the original traded in too, and here there’s thirty years of progress worked in there. This would all place things in the mid-to-late 21st Century, which goes along with what limited knowledge we have of the outside world – Ford comments how we can “cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive,” an advancement that lines up.
Indeed, a secret video found on Delos Incorporated, HBO’s tie-in site for the series, suggests that the date of Maeve’s escape was June 15th 2052, placing the park’s opening “thirty-five years ago” in 2017. That’s definitely more recent than some would have expected (and means in Westworld‘s alternate present Ford and Arnold are hard at work now), although it’s worth remembering this isn’t from the show itself, so the specifics are liable to change.
The real reverie in the works, however, is a recurring sense of something lacking in the real world. At one point Dolores asks William and Logan why they want her to be in the outside world when they’re so obsessed with the park and that thread – the power of Westworld’s allure over reality – comes up again and again. Could it be that the show is set in a time when some disaster – nuclear apocalypse a la Planet of the Apes, overpopulation a la Soylent Green, mass rehousing a la Logan’s Run or an issue not lifted from another seventies sci-fi – has led humanity into joyless stagnation? People pay the high per day cost for Westworld not just because the experience itself is so great, but because it’s an escape from a crushing reality. That makes all the obsession over robot consciousness and business politics look a bit petty now, doesn’t it?
However, in a show all about the psychological impact of its events, especially in regards to Jimmi Simpson’s spiral into Ed Harris, a grandiose and typical dystopia feels out of sorts. The less complex near future with the most immersive ‘video game’ ever is much more logical (and, in the spirit of the original film, disturbing). But that does nothing to help with the “where” side of the question.
Where is Westworld?
The layout of the park itself – both the geographic landscape and the inner workings of the Delos HQ – is shown pretty clearly in the show and HBO’s viral marketing, but that doesn’t get us any closer to where on Earth it really is; in terms of concrete evidence, we have nothing beyond the fact the location shooting was done in Utah. In fact, the closest we’ve got to the real world is Teddy and Logan’s entrance and Maeve’s near-departure, neither of which went beyond the lobby (there is also Bernard’s call to his wife and memories of his son, but as that was all part of Ford’s deception they can’t be taken too seriously).
Most hints come from the tech side of the park and point towards a remote location: we know from the fact that the staff have to go on rotation that the travel distance is too long for even week-long shifts; there’s limited communication with the outside world evidenced by having to use of video call stations and internal comms only within the park; Charlotte appearing suddenly takes several people by surprise, meaning it’s not the easiest place to access. None of that remoteness accounts for the sheer size of the installation, however; we see that Ford is able to redo locations on a mass scale and the game world goes all the way to the sea, making it impossible to be just a small bubble in the middle of the desert.
There’s not just space needed for the park either – we saw early on that cold storage was in a barely-converted old version of the entrance lobby and the finale established the presence of at least one other park, S-World (Samurai World?), while Felix calling the location of Maeve’s daughter “Park 1” suggests there could be many more than just that. This means we’re dealing with a ridiculously large complex the show hasn’t really hinted at. However, what’s so important from the other parks reveal is that if totally different worlds are all part of the same mega-park, then there’s next to no chance of this really being in the American west – that’s as likely as Samurai World actually being in Japan.
A popular theory is that Westworld and the surrounding ephemera are actually on a different planet, probably a terraformed Mars. It would run on nicely from today’s talk of SpaceX and Mars One, and while the notion of space exploration culminating in artificial theme parks may at first seem odd, remember that in this world artificial intelligence has pretty much gone the same way also (albeit as a result of Ford’s iron fist). The rotating home and limited communications certainly fit, and on a new world physical limitations cease to be an issue. To give this possibility extra weight, Jonathan Nolan even namechecked it unprovoked when describing his first discussion of location with J.J. Abrams:
“I said to J.J., ‘Is that park even on this planet?’ The important thing for us was, when you come to the series you have no idea where you are. Disneyland is in a parking lot in Anaheim, but it’s spectacular and you forget where you are when you’re inside.”
That quote aside, however, there’s not much strong evidence, and some of what there is doesn’t hold up; there were claims the Delos globe doesn’t show Earth, when actually seen again in the finale it appears to, while the constant philosophical musings of “life on this planet” meaning humanity’s evolution on Earth would be a major scripting oversight.
What the quote and the wider space theory really does is bring us back to the idea of a bubble. The finale subtly revealed that Westworld is more artificial than we at first realised, with the moon looming large during Teddy and Dolores’ final exchange on the beach revealed in the background to just be a practical effect; the sea may make it seem like we could be on an island, possibly man-made (and that would certainly be cool), but it’s more likely the limits of a Truman Show-like capped eco-system.
Other planet? Underwater? Underground? A space ship? Sadly it’s hard to rule anything out or prove it otherwise, but what we can say with some certainty is that Westworld isn’t in the wild west.
Westworld will return in 2018.