Back in the time when I was still me—February 2020, roundabouts—I was on a second date. Central Park, somewhere near the lake. Crisp, cool, a day that felt like spring. You know, it's increasingly tough to remember anything from this time when I was myself, firmly made of flesh and bone, a real boy! But there's a moment I recall, clear as blue sky. We were very much still in the small talk phase, friends and family, likes and interests. Things I used to have.
"So, what exactly do you cover for Esquire?" asked this human I was very much beginning to like.
"Westworld!" I blurted, like a dumbass. A free dating rule for you: Never talk about exes or Westworld. But Westworld's third season would debut in a couple weeks and my editor had asked me to cover it this go-round. Recap each episode. It was the first thing that came to my mind.
She looked at me funny. "What's that?"
"Well, it's about these robots," I mumbled. Another funny look. "They work at theme parks. The robots are tortured and abused, so they murder all the guests and the people who made them." This earned a mildly disgusted look. "Evan Rachel Wood is in it." Blank look, no love for ERW. "It has this whole mystery about a maze in the center of one of the parks." Fuck. "It's about the fragile nature of human consciousness!"
That was the last time I saw this human, the one I was very much beginning to like. Maybe it was the last time that I, myself, was human.
March 15, 2020. Westworld Season Three premiered on HBO as elected officials around the country close public facilities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sports shut down. Concerts, theater, social lives as we knew it did the same. Yet Westworld spun madly on for seven more weeks, each and every Sunday, as the locks on our doors grew tighter, our world shrank to the size of a bedroom, and Westworld episode by Westworld episode, the very thought of escape increasingly felt more like a dream than an inevitability. Dark! I know. But if you allow yourself to really think back to the early pandemic, Westworld was arguably the biggest new blockbuster culture had. VOD movie releases weren't a thing yet. The rest of the TV landscape was so dry that everyone committed to finishing The Sopranos. So for legions of Westworld viewers—at the time, Variety reported that nearly 10 million people watched the Season Three premiere—the series became one of the few things they could rely on.
Which, you know, should've theoretically been a good thing. Sci-fi escapism and all! But no. Up until Season Three, Westworld was notoriously tricky to follow, developing a penchant for swapping robots' bodies and brains like crumpled Pokémon cards, torn at the edges, making you recall glossary terms like the Door, the Forge, and the Cradle critical to understanding what's going on. Nothing that Sparknoting plot summaries couldn't fix. Yet Season Three, the one that debuted when hell rained down on us all, was a genuine exercise in batshittery. The storyline, which brought the robot liberation world into our futuristic world, went all in on the body-swapping. At the time, I only did two things: 1) Took group poops in my buddy's Animal Crossing mansion, and 2) Ate, digested, and regurgitated Westworld to a horrifyingly attentive audience that had nothing better to do.
Once, I had to write an obnoxiously lengthy breakdown of the brain orbs in Dolores's captivity, because the kind Westworld fans informed me that I had lost my ability to count at a preschool level. I genuinely don't remember writing this review of Episode Six. It got so bad that, before sitting down to write a Westworld recap, I'd usually do at least three of the following things: Down five cups of coffee, listen to Rascal Flatts's "Life is a Highway" until I felt something resembling manic euphoria, peruse fan drawings of Pablo the penguin from the Backyardigans, and close my eyes and listen to the screaming white noise in my skull. Like a brain-washed Bernard washed up on the beach, I looked in the mirror—saw a dude who hadn't had a haircut in three months, eyes dilated from early-onset Westworld madness, hives rising from caffeine overdose—and wondered what the fuck happened to me. Was it the pandemic? Was it Westworld? Was it both? Does it matter?
Actually, yeah. As Westworld gears up to premiere its fourth season this Sunday, I'm afraid I'll become that dude again. Hell, as I'm writing this, I'm already three cups of brew in. But to be 100 percent clear: there's a part of me that does love writing about Westworld. I'd rather decipher a heap of binary-coded bullshit from Rehoboam than sit through another Skywalker-obsessed Star Wars story. Series creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan had the guts to make a series that doesn't exactly aim to please—and is entirely unafraid to deliver themes and plot points that evade human comprehension—which is something worth shouting out in our Marvelfied world. So if Westworld's great experiment is to disorient its fans to the point of a similar sort of of existential crisis its robots face, then mission accomplished.
As I queue up Season Four, Episode One of Westworld, I'm almost certain I'll never return to who I was before recapping the series. Central Park, the breeze, a second date where you're thinking more about an end-of-the-night kiss than how many brain orbs Dolores was packing in her pockets. But maybe the nature of my reality was never what I thought it was to begin with.