“You’re not going to make it out of here alive,” a woman said in a salty tone as I exited the train car at Sweetwater station in the dead of night.
Actually, I was about 14 miles outside of Austin, Texas, where HBO and agency Giant Spoon had built a two-acre theme park mimicking its returning TV series, Westworld, at the South by Southwest annual tech conference. The HBO show, based on the 1973 Michael Crichton movie, is set in a fictional park inspired by the old American West, where the ultra-rich can live out their wildest fantasies with humanoid robots. [SPOILERS] The androids turn on the visitors and begin killing them. The park is run by a fictional company, Delos Incorporated.
The park at SXSW was a spot-on recreation, down to The Mariposa saloon, The Coronado hotel, black and white hats, blood-stained player piano, cemetery, and saloon brawls. Instead of the robotic “hosts” from the show, which can be shot, beaten, raped, or loved without repercussions, real people played the parts. HBO had two rules: Don’t touch anyone, and don’t break anything.
Each attendee began their tour with a personalized letter designed to set them on an adventure and offer an Easter egg from the show or clue to season two, which begins April 22. Here’s what we discovered about Westworld from the experience.
In a saloon that other hosts told me had gone unused, I encountered a Samurai host. He didn’t speak and appeared completely unfamiliar with the place—examining lanterns and bottles as though he was seeing them for the first time. In the season one finale, Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her team happened upon a set of Samurai warrior hosts, which suggested that Westworld wasn’t the only park of its kind. All this suggests that the two parks may converge in season two. In a video clip posted to social media, the warrior discovers a sword, which is the first item he seems to recognize.
HBO also gave a glimpse of what appeared to be the Samurai World in the teaser trailer at SXSW. It showed two armies engaged in battle, with Maeve appearing dressed in a kimono.
A preacher from the cemetery pointed me in the direction of a building that “people seemed to be fascinated with” and shared the numbers “0422,” which, in addition to the show’s release date, worked to open a hidden door. Behind it, a Delos employee was working on a new host that was large, white, and had no facial features. The same creature appeared behind Bernard in the Westworld trailer that aired in the Super Bowl (45 seconds in).
The show’s creators called it a “drone host” in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. In the same interview, Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan compared Delos to Google. “The park is one thing for the guests, and it’s another thing for its shareholders and management,” he said. “We’ve used the Google analogy—for consumers, it’s for search and email, yet for the company, it’s for advertising. There is an agenda here that Delos has undertaken for a very long time.”
In the cemetery I saw in Sweetwater, there was a freshly raided grave for Dolores Abernathy, Evan Rachel Wood’s character. The preacher there told me that three men in their 30s or 40s had come by earlier and dug up her body. He did not know where the three men went. Four empty caskets were lined up against a wall in the graveyard I was in. The preacher told me the last time they had a night like this three people died. He bought four caskets this time.
That seemed to relate to the clip HBO aired on Saturday, March 10, at a panel at SXSW, in which Dolores and Teddy Flood (James Marsden) held three people prisoner. Two stood atop gravestones with nooses around their necks, while Dolores addressed the third, a middle-aged man. “You’re in my dream,” she said before asking whether any one of them had ever questioned the nature of their realities. Then, she slipped a noose around the man’s neck and told all three that their day of reckoning was near. IndieWire described the clips in depth.
Others at SXSW also found a maze buried in Dolores’s grave, in a nod to the maze from season one. Then, it symbolized Dolores finding herself. Perhaps more hosts will follow her path.
At least three characters glitched during my visit to Westward at SXSW, two of whom collapsed and were whisked away by what appeared to be Delos employees in white jumpsuits. Another fell to his knees with his hands in the air repeating an inaudible mantra, but quickly recovered and went back to his old self. In one instance, a person shouted “cease all motor functions,” and the hosts stood still. After the body was removed, the same person yelled, “may you all rise to a new day,” and the action resumed.
In the teaser trailer at SXSW, we also saw Bernard rise amidst the sea of bodies left at the end of season one. Armed men were shown entering the park. And William approached Dolores in a fresh black suit.
At the post office, I received a letter from an anonymous lover waiting for me to arrive at Sweetwater. It said he or she was “one night’s sleep” behind me. I expected to meet him or her at the train, but no one was there when I arrived. But the author of the letter glitched. “My feelings are… I feel like I have written this before. I feel like something isn’t right. Every day is the same,” the letter read, followed by the code, “//ERR404BuRnItClEaNERROR//ERROR//V10L3nTd3L1G#t5.” It reminded me of the Shakespeare quote, “These violent delights have violent ends,” that’s often repeated to Dolores throughout the series and appears to awaken her murderous alter ego, Wyatt. The star-crossed lover tone of the note made of think of Dolores and Teddy, as well. Perhaps the letter was written by one of them, or there’s another pair of lovers becoming self-aware.
It bore the address 176 Grand Street, Sweetwater, an address that none of the hosts I questioned recognized.
A few of the fellow guests at Westworld at SXSW were set on quests involving possible new characters, such as someone named Cisco Vasquez, a woman named Valerie who attempted to recruit people to join the temperance movement, and a host named Rosemary.
Upon my arrival at Sweetwater, I spotted a woman, dressed in character, on a cellphone near the train station who shouted about not being able to get ahold of someone. It was unclear whether she was a Delos employee dressing the part, or a host, but either way it suggests trouble at home.
Guests dining at The Coronado hotel were given a tin can of beans made with human liver and billed as an “old favorite of our founder,” Dr. Robert Ford, who is played by Anthony Hopkins in the TV series. The can said the beans paired well with a nice chianti, echoing a line from one of Hopkins’s other killer roles, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. This was probably a bit of fun. Or could Ford, who masterminded everything in Westworld including his own death, be returning for season two?
Some parkgoers at SXSW found blood-splattered cards inside the lining of the black and white hats we received before boarding the bus to Westworld—white for the “good guys” and black for the “bad guys.” One person I spoke to recalled that it said, “Delos board member, table 1.” Another table card bore the name Lee Sizemore, a character from Delos’s narrative department, who repeatedly resisted making the hosts too life-like in season one. If you’re a fan, you might remember that some Delos investors were slain at the gala at the end of season one; Lee was still alive when we last saw him. I have yet to figure out what these cards may mean (readers, I’m all ears.) But they reminded me of something actor Jeffrey Wright, who played Bernard/Arnold in the series, said in an interview: “Everything has been revealed since the first episode. It’s all been there on the table.”
Visitors to Westworld at SXSW were told to have their pictures taken by a photographer in town. After leaving, we were emailed a GIF with the image that broke to reveal a few final Easter eggs, most of which were in the previously released Westworld trailer.
Creator Nolan said while Reddit was full of theories that turned out to be plot twists in season one, many more mysteries are yet to be solved. Happy hunting, Westworld fans.