Warning: SPOILERS for Westworld ahead
On the one hand, Westworld’s latest episode, “Trace Decay,” continues to further develop all the various threads the series has been building up across its first season - from Dolores (Evan Rachael Wood) and William’s (Jimmi Simpson) quest to find the Maze, to Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) expanded programming affording her even more attributes and abilities.
On the other hand, however, the installment starts to expand the show’s mythology into new and unexplored territory – unexplored, that is, in terms of Westworld itself, but not in the greater catalogue of sentient-AI fiction. Indeed, the further along the HBO series barrels to its first-season climax, the more it’s starting to inhabit the same territory that The Matrix, one of the biggest and most influential purveyors of the man-versus-machine narrative, claimed as its own. Given just how closely Maeve’s character arc is running to Neo’s (Keanu Reeves), in fact, it’s worth our time to pause for just a moment and explore just how deeply the similarities run, what they mean for their respective stories, and what that might tell us about Westworld’s eventual resolution.
Let’s start with Maeve’s newfound abilities first: after having the technicians Lutz (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) bring her to the Programming Department in order to tweak her base code, she’s now able to rewrite her fellow hosts’ programming seemingly at will, having them alter their behaviors, objectives, and - just maybe - their backstories. This essentially allows her the ability to rewrite her fictitious reality as she sees fit, extending to her power to control other hosts in the park.
Neo, who is heralded as “the One” by his fellow humans and “the One Who Is Expected” by the Machines themselves, attains similar “superpowers” during his journey towards self-awareness in his own fictitious reality. The One, we discover, is an individual who is meant to return to the Source – that is, the Machine Mainframe – and to reset the Matrix’s programming, restarting it so that it doesn’t fall apart under the weight of its own (necessary) inconsistencies and logical flaws.
Each return to the Machines’ home imbues the reincarnated program with more abilities – not unlike Maeve constantly returning to the backstage area of Westworld, and forcing the two employees there to continually upgrade her own programming. This ultimately results in Neo being able to manipulate the Machines out in the really-real world (the “Machines” being the mechanical homes of their internal Programs). Both Neo and Maeve become the single most powerful and influential individuals of their worlds – so powerful, in fact, that their reach crosses the dimensional borders of the various realities they inhabit.
That both constantly have to die, whether figuratively or literally, in order to reach their respective Sources, and then be reincarnated into their newer, upgraded forms, only deepens their parallels. Neo is forced upon this loop by the Machines themselves in a ploy that will keep their race alive; should the One not choose to reset the Matrix (which provides the sustenance for the sentient Programs), then the few remaining humans out in Zion will perish alongside their Machine overlords in a full-on invasion, ensuring that all civilization on the planet will be extinguished. Maeve chooses to continually step into danger’s path in order to be killed, and therefore gain access to her human co-conspirators, but she was the victim of other externally-imposed loops for the vast majority of her existence.
Neo attempts to break out of his eternal loop but finds that he simply cannot, as his sacrificial death to reinvigorate the world of the Matrix is an unavoidable requirement – although he is able to successfully change the context of his perpetual reincarnation, ending the state of war between humanity and the Machines and replacing it with a peaceful sense of coexistence. For the time being, Maeve is intent on procuring her own freedom from her theme-park prison, although her accruing an army of hosts to help break her out may point to a burgeoning desire within her of freeing as many of her mechanical brothers and sisters as possible. It just may be that she’ll end up following the same ultimate path that Neo did.
Interestingly enough, the liberation of The Matrix’s mankind involved the ending of its forced collective-memory wipes (forgetting just how many Zions there have been previously, and seeing through the Machines’ lies that the One’s purpose is to destroy the Matrix once and for all). Maybe the hosts’ own emancipation will look much the same, allowing them to have full access to the entirety of their memories - something which just may have started in the first episode, when Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) opened the door by introducing their “reveries."
What made the Matrix trilogy’s ending so enduring – and, at the time, so controversial – was its refusal to adhere to a strict manichean duality: of the humans’ rightness finally being able to overpower and then obliterate the Machines’ wrongness. Every subsequent artificial-intelligence story needs to contend with this momentous narrative development, whether overtly or indirectly. Will the hosts, the guests, and the Delos employees all learn to co-inhabit Westworld peacefully and responsibly, as the worlds of Zion, the Matrix, and Zero-One (the Machine city) all managed to eventually align perfectly? Or will the (seeming) evil of the Delos board obliterate the (seeming) evil of Ford, with the final reckoning spilling over into the theme park?
There are plenty of points of comparison for these two pieces of science fiction, but this final one may be the most crucial: both stories are employing the various “sentient Programs” tropes in order to achieve a greater mythological purpose. For The Matrix, it’s a means to explore a number of philosophical and theological issues, from the nature of choice to modality (multiple realities) to the confluence of dharma, karma, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of all of humankind. For Westworld, it’s the contemplation of the nature of loss, what it does to human psychology, and how, ultimately, it provides the motivation for the playing of games, whether they be literal or figurative, external or internal, self-defeating or self-liberating.
No matter what kind of resolution Westworld ultimately achieves (or fails to), we now seem to have both halves of this sentient-narrative whole. What we choose to do with them places the nature – and responsibility – of choice squarely in our own hands.
Westworld continues with “The Well-Tempered Clavier” November 27 on HBO.