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Is Aaron Paul’s Westworld season 3 character living in a simulation?

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The Rico app looks just like Grand Theft Auto — so maybe it is

rico app in westworld season 3 Image: HBO

The first season of Westworld was notorious for unfolding in two different timelines without giving the audience an explicit heads up. The second season upped the ante (and potentially, the confusion) by adding a third, tormented perspective. One might expect Westworld season 3 to go for broke in the timeline department, but after the premiere episode — and overt clarification that what we’re watching takes place only months after the Delos Parks incident — it would seem creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have dialed down the galaxy brain storytelling.

Maybe.

[Ed. note: this story contains spoilers for Westworld season 3, episode 1. While HBO provided Polygon and other press with the first four episodes of the series, we only previewed the premiere, in order to keep spoilers for future episodes out of episodic coverage.]

Though Dolores, Bernard, and whoever is actually inside the head of the Charlotte Hale clone host appear to be running in parallel, it’s plausible that one, if not all three, are operating at different points in the aftermath of the park. But the most intriguing thread of the story, and a plot line primed for a big reveal moment, has to do with Caleb, the just-getting-by worker bee played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. Nolan, who co-wrote and directed the premiere, introduces the show’s new protagonist in a similar fashion to the hosts in season 1. From a God’s eye view, Caleb “wakes up” and steps into his manmade loop, clocking in and clocking out of his construction job while juggling personal drama on the side. To make ends meet, Caleb resorts to an app called Rico, which provides him with for-hire crimes for cash.

The scenario likely made Grand Theft Auto players raise an eyebrow. Nolan has said in the past that Red Dead Redemption inspired key aspects of the Western-aping early seasons of Westworld. Now he seems to be lifting from another Rockstar title, literally sending Caleb on criminal missions to make a buck.

Westworld’s Rico app isn’t real, but it could be

In a post-episode deep dive, Nolan describes the mechanics of the Rico app in grounded detail.

Crime is part of the economy. It’s not going anywhere. Rico is built on the reality of the blockchain, which changes the way the internet works. You and I can have a financial exchange of services that the government cannot possibly track or trace, that is infallible — meaning I can’t cheat you, you can’t cheat me — you download the app , specify the level of criminality you are willing to participate in. Caleb is not willing to participate in what we call “personals,” kidnap and murder, the heavy shit. Petty larceny, grand theft auto, sure.

“Grand theft auto”: hey, that’s the name of a game!

Caleb is dealing with a tremendous amount of emotional heft when we meet him in episode 1. Though he visits his ailing mother in the hospital each night, she barely knows him. Between therapy visits, he spends long stretches of time speaking to his buddy Francis (Kid Cudi) — who died in the heat of battle, and whose visage haunts Caleb’s memories. Technology makes anything and everything possible in Westworld, and Nolan doesn’t give up a second to let us question the logic that an ex-military pal could be phoning his friend from the dead.

At nights, Caleb signs on to Rico and takes what he can get. The gamified existence seems to lean hard into the metaphor of his loop-driven life. He’s a mortal man, stuck on a degrading path just like the robots of Westworld. Except maybe it’s more literal than that.

Is Caleb actually playing a game?

francis calling caleb on westworld season 3 Image: HBO

During a botched mission involving a crazed man high on beta “limbic sedatives” — the common soma drugs of the 2058 real world, which come in legal and illegal forms — Caleb continues to talk to his deceased pal, Francis, and reflect on existence.

“They built the world to be a game, and then they rigged it,” he says, “to make sure they always won.”

The “rigged” game is a familiar metaphor in the clash between the 99 and the 1%, but what if Caleb was talking about something more literal?

After episode 1, we still only know a few scant details about Caleb, but he’s returned to Los Angeles and seemingly clicked into a track based on the algorithmic life optimization of Incite Incorporated. Participants who sign up with Incite — which sounds like everyone on the planet, at this point — are judged by the all-seeing AI “Rehoboam” and given a set of marching orders that will, in theory, improve their life. Caleb is clearly unhappy with where he ended up, even if his construction-bot coworker never gives him guff, but he’s also optimistic he can change his fate through hard work. He tells Francis that he intends to “keep my scores up” and “see if something better comes along.” Francis tells him to “keep climbing.”

The one thing we don’t know about Incite is how they assess users. But if Delos was able to collect and sell mass quantities of data by plunking tourists into various parks, perhaps Incite plugs people into a MMO reality in which winnings can be applied to one’s standing in the real world. In this case, Caleb’s world that we, the audience, sees play out in linear time may actually be two: the life of an ex-soldier, slotted into a job by a computer as he reels from PTSD, and that of his digital proxy, a small-time crook who blows open ATMs when his mobile screen tells him to do so. The “game” seems particularly tailored to Caleb’s return to normalcy; on top of Francis being the voice in his ear telling him to keep his “eye on the prize,” is therapist seems aware that he’s involved in some other form of “participation.”

If Caleb’s life is a simulation, leather is his simulation wear

If the extravagant visuals of the Rico app — in which a woman in bondage gear presents users with their criminal options — weren’t reason to doubt the reality of the situation, Caleb’s subtle costume changes, similar to what we saw in Westworld season 1, indicate two different paths of life.

When Caleb is in the “real world,” we typically see him in this sleek getup:

caleb (aaron paul) in the real world and purple shirt in westworld season 3 Image: HBO

But when he’s in Rico-mode, and entering the criminal underground to pull off a new mission, Caleb always switches into a leather jacket.

caleb (aaron paul) wears a leather jacket after signing up on the rico app in westworld season 3 Image: HBO

A snazzy fashion choice or a signal of something more?

Midway through the episode, we see a scene of Caleb at his construction site cut to Caleb walking the streets in his leather jacket and checking the Rico app. In true Westworld tradition, the storytelling is all pretty seamless, and when he eventually takes a call from an automated job follow-up while in Rico mode, the potential line between real and digital life blurs. What’s real and what’s not when everyone you talk to is artificial? Exhausted by the encounter, he pulls up Rico one more time, before closing it out of frustration. The app’s cha-ching audio makes it difficult to tell whether he accepts a job or not.

Shortly after, Caleb winds up in a car park, awaiting orders for a package and car to lift — but now he’s in the purple shirt. We could assume this is a Rico job, but his recurring crew (played by Lena Waithe and Marshawn Lynch) isn’t around, and the guy offloading the package wonders if he’s ever driven a car like the one he’s meant to deliver. Of course he has ... just maybe not in real life.

After the delivery, Caleb gets back on the phone with Francis.

“I think if I’m going to get on with my life, I’m going to have to find someone real,” he tells him. It’s a big of a gag, considering he’s about to run into Not Human femme fatale Dolores a few minutes later. It’s also a sad admission about his current state of things. Whatever isn’t working with regard to his recovery seems to have everything to do with the un-reality of his Incite-based life, the “game” of Rico, and his everlasting AI ally Francis. It’s time to log off and figure out what actual life has to offer. He “unsubscribes” from Francis — and maybe the entire game.

The on-the-nose evidence

The idea that the Rico app, and Caleb’s life as a petty thief, could be a fabrication is when someone else entirely brings up the notion.

At a party for Incite, one of Liam Dempsey Jr.’s knucklehead friends takes a swing of liquor before galaxy braining of the deep end about the Delos park implosion.

“The contents of this glass contains three-times what my father made in a year. That’s how you know for sure that none of this is real. We’re living in a simulation. We’re like the fuck puppets at Delos.”

This guy takes the thought experiment to the next level: How fucking ironic if they had put a simulation inside a simulation. That’s a massive fuck you.

Elsewhere on the planet, Caleb might be living something slightly different — a digital simulation existing alongside the more practical Westworld simulation — but true to the show, it would provide Joy and Nolan with yet another way to bend the narrative, and our minds. If Dolores needs to crack the code to Incite, and Caleb already knows a way into the system through his digital existence, he may have something to offer Dolores: the door into a new maze.