Like so many dreamers before them, Westworld’s synthetic-flesh-and-circuit creations have finally made it to Manhattan. Perhaps it was inevitable that even the AI-powered soul-mining androids that broke out of their desert-fantasy resort back in season one would be drawn to this maddeningly irrational city — to fix it, to own it, to remake it in their image. The algorithmic creature-in-chief, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), becomes a New York–based goddess in season four because moving here — to New Jersey, actually; more about that later — puts an entire populace within earshot of a single super-tall transmission tower that deafens everyone into total obedience. If you can make people do anything there, you can make people do anything everywhere. There are 8 million stories in the Westworld city, and I have given up following any of them. I have lost track of who’s human and who’s synthetic, or who used to be the one and then transitioned to the other. I can’t remember who is legitimately alive, how many times they’ve died, whom (or what) they’ve killed, or why. I have, however, gradually cottoned on to the show’s main philosophical tenet: This world of ours isn’t real. Or some of it is, and some of it isn’t, but you can never tell which.
New York is where the show’s human-built and AI-designed worlds adjoin. Production designer Jon Carlos’s challenge was to adapt an actual city to a world in which 3-D-printed overlords pursue their own limited agendas. “Hale has a stunted version of human growth,” he told me. “Under her control, the city is frozen in a moment of time. She has no need to keep advancing their [human] culture.” That’s a convenient conceit; it means Carlos and his team didn’t have to make up a future city from scratch. Hale’s city-state is so behind the future times that the skyline bristles with early 21st-century super-tall towers imported from a half-dozen other major capitals (I thought I caught a glimpse of the Shanghai World Financial Center transplanted to midtown). There’s no need to dream up what AI-powered architects would come up with. We already know: furry, foliated structures draped in greenery and gossamer weaves, designs that look too warm and whimsical — too human — for Westworld’s bleak vision. And so Carlos did what sci-fi designers always have: conflate the fantastical with the extant. That’s how the sleekest new architecture of the year 2082 turns out to be … Hudson Yards. Its muted, cloud-colored palette and sleek asymmetries, its mixture of the angular and the bulbous, evidently resonate with the artificial-city planners of decades hence. There can be no better metaphor for a world of soulless parahumans unable to distinguish between life and performance.
What’s it like to live in this projected version of the present? Horrifying. It’s a city populated by slender 35-ish-year-olds in structured outfits of gray, silver, pewter, and charcoal. They have both less and more to worry about than we do. Muggers, rapists, and lawless bikers have been edited out. The streets are miraculously free of sidewalk vendors, scaffolding, traffic, public transit, old people, children, and the homeless. On the other hand, each deluded individual’s brain is a robot’s plaything.
Westworld’s New York, like ours, is a megalomaniac magnet. Hale’s nonhuman superpowers give her a malevolent divinity that she unleashes on the stylish innocents on Crosby Street in Soho. One blink from her, and passersby all freeze in place. Another, and they start waltzing to the tune she orders up from a bloody-fingered busker. A word, and three women with ballet dancers’ grace fold themselves into a human throne for her.
That notion — city full of quirky individuals morphs into a hive of drones — is a perennial nightmare. The extras’ costumes are unisex updates on the gray flannel suit worn by the Organization Man, a phrase invented by the sociologist-urbanist William H. Whyte in 1956. “Man exists as a unit of society. Of himself, he is isolated, meaningless; only as he collaborates with others does he become worthwhile, for by sublimating himself in the group, he helps produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Whyte wrote, summarizing the culture of conformity. Hale could almost have delivered that speech herself. In the 1970s, and in his 1980 book-and-film combo, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte analyzed almost mechanistically how urbanites conduct themselves in public and found that most of us, believing we’re making individual decisions about where to sit, how long to linger, or where to conduct a sidewalk conversation, in fact behave with the predictability of ants. If the Crosby Street dance scene seems at once surreal and deeply plausible, it’s because it takes the reality that Whyte observed out for a slightly surreal spin.
And yet even in a regimented future there will always be at least one or two New Yorkers with the stubbornness or bad luck to perceive the workings of the system in ways that the rest of us can’t. A Ratso Rizzo. A Travis Bickle. Westworld has a High Line mutterer who sees an invisible tower but never develops into a character. And then there’s Dolores, the shape-shifting unkillable host who evolves from sweet li’l thing to mass slaughterer. Now she’s acquired a new identity as Christina (Evan Rachel Wood), a full-time copywriter at a game-design firm, complete with professional outfits, a Lucite cubicle, a smirking boss, and a benefits package that includes four sick days a year. It’s as if Bonnie and Clyde had taken desk jobs at Dunder Mifflin. Except that her office is on a high floor of the KPF-designed tower at 55 Hudson Yards, menacingly trimmed in gunmetal steel. In this future New York, the subway still doesn’t have elevators and not even full-time writers get to work from home. (In the 60 years between our time and hers, the city appears to have developed according to the same pre-pandemic market projections for column-free high-rise office space that are currently being used to justify upzoning the area around Penn Station.)
Christina’s world is a constrained one. Every day, she wakes up in her small apartment bedroom and presses a button to stow the Murphy bed (which, since this is the future, flips up with a metallic swoosh). She lives on a low-rise block of what might be Tribeca or the West Village (but in fact only exists on the Warner Bros. back lot), the sort of pedestrian paradise that real-life activists are constantly dreaming about. Instead of traffic, parking, and garbage, there are strips of flood-absorbent turf, motion-activated lampposts every dozen feet, café tables, street trees, bioswales, and greenery in wood-clad planters that double as benches. This is how humans want to live, the set suggests, so maybe Christina has come over to their side. And now she is the elect: the otherwise ordinary one who pierces the scrim to see where power really lies.
Her commute is short but, if you’re paying attention, convoluted. She climbs the stairs to the High Line at 30th Street, strides downtown toward the irresistibly sci-fi swoopy 528 West 28th Street, designed by Zaha Hadid. She apparently reverses direction between cuts, because we next catch sight of her heading uptown from West 13th Street with Jeanne Gang’s 40 Tenth Avenue glimmering over her shoulder, its concave façade of dark-glass facets like a curtain encrusted with black diamonds. In this context, these actual buildings look fictional — and so do the birds that lie concussed on the sidewalk outside her office building, a well-documented problem.
Floating just out of Christina’s consciousness is an invisible Host City in the harbor, an archipelago of white cubes reachable via a long causeway. In real life, the recently renovated Pier 34 starts at the western end of Canal Street and shoots out toward the Holland Tunnel ventilation building and the Jersey City skyline beyond. In the show, it leads to the hosts’ HQ, digitally airlifted from Cabo San Lucas: the Viceroy resort, designed by the Mexican architect Miguel Angel Aragonés in 2016. Although it was built as a pleasure zone for pampered humans, the pileup of white boxes hovering on water makes a convincing stand-in for an icy urban habitat. Carlos even has an explanation for the vault of woven branches that (in Cabo and in Host City) rests on one of its austere plazas: The organic, bivouac-like structure reminds the hosts that their world, too, is a woven one in which their bodies are knitted out of synthetic muscle and tendon, their wishes made known through a network of audio cables. (Their plots are tangled beyond rescue, too, but that might be an unwitting use of the same metaphor.) The “nest,” as Carlos calls it, is the robots’ Rosebud, the key to their primal memories. Above it rises the Kane-like seat of power: the sky-piercer so immense and fearful, so unimaginably advanced that it looks almost exactly … like the Montjuic TV tower in Barcelona designed 30 years ago by Santiago Calatrava. Which raises the question: If, in the 2080s, New York is stitched together by whatever kind of cable comes after the kind that comes after fiber-optic, why are they still using an overgrown broadcast antenna?
In episode seven, a new urban character makes an appearance: Times Square. The hosts, being self-sufficient and apparently without acquisitive desires, have no use for advertising or entertainment. They have vanquished capitalism, which makes me wonder why New York still exists and who put up all those towers. And so, instead of a forest of garish come-ons, Times Square’s billboards have become a forest of, well, trees. Greenery sways on every jumbotron and curtain wall, to a soundtrack of digital chirps. (The effect is oddly reminiscent of today’s real-life Rainforest Café.) The facsimile of wilderness doesn’t feel soothing, though; rather, it reinforces the atmosphere of stultifying tranquility. Nature is the opiate of the masses.