This post contains spoilers through the end of the second season of Westworld.
When Westworld premiered in October of 2016, the show quickly made clear that it would ask viewers to question the nature of its reality. But it can be easy to forget now, after 20 episodes of labyrinthine plotting and philosophizing, how even the most basic aspects about the show were once mysteries. Viewers initially had reason to wonder whether all the gunfights and brothel banter between humans and manmade “hosts” were actually happening in the show’s physical world or in some computer simulation. “Do guests go to a physical place to experience the park, or is the game an elaborate, VR dream space, à la Inception or The Matrix?” asked Romper in one of a few articles from the fall of 2016 asking such questions.
It eventually became more or less incontrovertible that Westworld existed in meatspace, likely on an island off the Chinese coast. But as the second season progressed, viewers again had reason to ask, “Wait, is this actually happening?” Virtual-reality spaces became part of the story, culminating in the second-season finale’s double dose of VR twists: The episode partly took place inside a digital world, and it also revealed the existence of an electronic Elysium. These developments add to the list of sci-fi traditions in which Westworld partakes—and shed light on some aspects of our own era in which the definition of reality is under review.
Midway through Season 2, the sympathetic and semi-unwitting android Bernard visited the “Cradle,” a database of all the “brains” of the hosts. When he plugged into it, he entered a virtual version of the Westworld home base of Sweetwater. There, he found Robert Ford, the Westworld park creator who’d died recently, still “alive.” The Cradle soon went kaboom at the hands of rebellious robots, but in Sunday’s season finale, Bernard and the revolutionary host Dolores visited another pretentiously named digital world: the Forge, which housed the data of the four million guests who’ve visited the park over 30 years. They also learned of the Valley Beyond, a cyber paradise that Ford created for the hosts to upload their consciousnesses into for eternity.
These sorts of artificial dreamscapes have long fascinated pop culture, which often envisions that high-fidelity VR will be used for fun—and more sinister forms of diversion. The Matrix indeed applies here, as does 1982’s Tron, its 2018 blockbuster-movie descendent Ready Player One, and a wave of trippy recent TV shows. So does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, really. The preoccupation is understandable: Video games have long immersed players in interactive stories, and the likes of Oculus pursue a long-hyped future in which virtual reality and actual reality are indistinguishable. This is why, at the start of Westworld, the notion that the park was a video game might have seemed less far-fetched than the idea of a physical place filled with clones needing medical maintenance (the former would be certainly cheaper to run).
The show even winked at how its world seemed to bypass a step in the expected march of civilization. In Season 2’s second episode, a flashback to the time before the park’s formation had the tech investor Logan jadedly list the technologies he’d been repeatedly pitched on: “AI, AR, VR.” By contrast, apparently sentient human replicas were a leap: “We’re not here yet,” he said amazedly when he met the hosts. But over the course of the season, it was revealed that Westworld didn’t quite skip VR. It used it. The Cradle and the Forge, it turned out, were testing grounds for the consciousnesses of artificial people. This application is another plausible usage of VR, as explored in an episode of Black Mirror imagining a dating app that runs countless simulations of couplings between potential partners to find the perfect match.
But Westworld’s simulations were incomplete. Once a human’s replicated consciousness—refined by digital trial runs trying to get its choices to duplicate those of the original person’s—was “pressed … into flesh,” the clones malfunctioned. Why? It’s not made totally clear, but it likely has to do with the difficulty of fully simulating the conditions of the physical universe. Which is a logistical problem that echoes a philosophical one in both the show and our own world: Isn’t the term virtual reality inevitably an oxymoron? Take the Valley Beyond. It is a place that is “boundless,” where hosts finally “can be free,” Bernard says, but Dolores recoils from praising it. “No world they create for us can compete with the real one,” she says. Bernard asks, “Why?” Dolores’s answer: “Because that which is real is irreplaceable.”
That line calls back to something Bernard said earlier, implying that the hosts were less “real” than humans were because their deaths were rarely permanent. By related logic, VR—duplicable and malleable—is a fraud, and an insidious one. Such is often the implication of popular sci-fi that imagines a simulated future. “I know this steak doesn’t exist,” the Matrix character Cypher said over a meal within the computer world. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Cypher makes this speech to explain why he will betray his comrades who’ve been fighting to disrupt the Matrix, a system used to imprison and exploit humankind. Allowing VR to be his actual reality makes him a villain.
But Westworld itself hasn’t appeared to yet make up its mind about the realness—and ethical defensibility—of an algorithmically generated world. In fact, the show has hinted at its upsides. The Forge’s simulations, the series has suggested, could result in a more noble sort of “person” than currently exists, able to grow and change productively. And the Valley Beyond offers heaven to a group of beings who’ve been tortured again and again in the physical world. When characters make it through the “door”—falling off a cliff to their deaths in the physical world as their consciousness enters the idyllic Valley—the show plays it as a victory, an ascension.
And why not? Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode similarly celebrated the idea of VR as a means to immortality in a digital paradise. In our real world, the notion that computers could create a lovely afterlife isn’t outside the bounds of speculation. “A lot of people in Silicon Valley are actually thinking about immortality in this way, about how to upload consciousness so that you can store it,” Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy told Games Radar. “In some ways, our brains are one of the most old-fashioned, analogue storage devices out there.” Some scientists speculate that the appeal of digitizing consciousness is so universal that if advanced alien civilizations exist, they’re likely now thriving in a universe they programmed rather than schlepping between the stars.
Introducing VR as an afterlife, a test of our own reality, and a font of sensation doesn’t so much broaden Westworld’s thematic scope as provide a new way of attacking the same questions it’s always played with. But for the show’s narrative itself, the rise of VR does complicate things. The existence of the Cradle and the Forge raises the possibility that some of what we’ve witnessed on TV took place in virtual reality without the viewer realizing it. It even makes feasible that the entire show has been in VR, just as some viewers suspected back in Season 1. Maybe Westworld could find a fresh way to pull off the much maligned it-was-all-a-dream (or simulation) twist. But for a series that already struggles with coherence, it’s hard to imagine that working well.
Which perhaps explains why Season 2, in the end, stepped away from the VR worlds it had introduced. The computers running the Cradle got blown up. The Forge’s servers were flooded. And the program running the Valley Beyond got zapped to some undisclosed location, thereby ending any possibility of movement between its realm and our own, according to Dolores. The cliffhanger the season ends on is, rather glaringly, about the “real world”: A few hosts escape Westworld’s island and make a home in a human city. Of course, we can only assume, rather than definitively say, that this city is made of steel rather than bytes. But is that any different from our own supposed reality?