One thing has remained constant in HBO’s otherwise constantly fluctuating Westworld: What makes us human? From the start, the Delos parks showcased some of the worst human traits playing out to violent ends. Then the robot victims woke up and turned on their creators and captors; are their subsequent actions a reflection of what humanity is, or do those robots now have the ability to create their own utopia away from the violence they were born into? To what degree are we in charge of our own lives, or are we just pawns in a game that was rigged long ago?
The desire to understand the essence of who we are as people is also at the core of AMC’s Dispatches from Elsewhere, another puzzlebox series, but one that leans in to hope and charm rather than horror and despair. Like Westworld, it asks if we can break out of the loops of our routines for the better, or if we are destined to continue to make the same mistakes.
Despite these cosmic questions (also explored in the excellent AMC series Lodge 49) Dispatches from Elsewhere is based on a real-life event, whose documentary The Institute takes a turn for the fictional and the meta. (Whereas Westworld’s is based on our potential future, I type nervously while watching my robot vacuum). So the truth is layered; in both cases there is an overarching sense that all the world’s a game, one that has been weighted against most of us from the start. To find objective truth, both of ourselves and the larger universe in which we exist, it’s about solving a puzzle—one that will, ideally, lead to an answer about humanity.
Dispatches from Elsewhere’s scope is small, and its stakes are low. There are four key members of a group who band together to engage in a strange war between the Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Society. Who to believe, and what it all means, plays out across a sunny Philadelphia backdrop, where these ordinary people uncover clues about the game while learning more about themselves. It sounds simple or even rote, but the series thrives not only on the charm of its leads (Jason Segel, Andre Benjamin, Eve Lindley, and Sally Field) but in the fact that each of the first four episodes focuses in one a single character. And, as Richard E. Grant’s narrator / ringmaster tells us, we are meant to relate to them. “Peter is you,” he starts off the pilot saying, or “Simone is you if—“ and we go from there. In other words, there’s something about each of these characters that also resonates with us, sometimes in specific situations, other times more broadly.
There’s an element of that in Westworld too, buried deep beneath its mysteries. The connection that has been broken is between humans and robots, and yet, there are many examples where those relationships might be repaired (in this latest season, perhaps between Evan Rachel Wood’s kill-bot Dolores and Aaron Paul’s world-weary Caleb Nichols). But in general, the way forward is ideally not for one side to eradicate the other, but to become aware that there is something valuable and—to use a Westworld watchword—real about each of us.
The way the games play out, as mentioned earlier, could not be more different. Dispatches from Elsewhere’s world is a bright, candy-colored playscape where bullets are made of foam and people throw toilet paper (our more precious commodity!) at one another in a fight. Though trailers for the series made its puzzle aspect look completely exhausting, it’s anything but. There is something perhaps sinister at work here, some strange twist of technology that lets us communicate with our past selves or that knows what we’re going to do before we do it, but far more interesting (and poignant) are the strides our four heroes are making in moving outside their comfort zones in order to connect with something true—both within themselves and with each other.
Westworld is often exhausting, and its puzzle aspects are made to be played with outside of the show to uncover deeper secrets. It lends itself to theories and questions and frustrations. It’s not that that approach is any more or less valid than Dispatches, it’s just different. To make a distinction between two genres that naturally have a lot of crossover, Westworld is more sci-fi whereas Dispatches is fantasy.
And yet, both series reveal plenty about the reality of the human condition that is neither futuristic or far-fetched. It is our oldest quest, this search for meaning for both ourselves and our context within the universe. We struggle against our creator, or our perception of one, we turn on one another out of misguided self-preservation, we resort to our most base instincts when we are afraid. But Westworld and Dispatches remind us that while that there are consequences to those actions, there’s also a way to move forward. It doesn’t matter if things appear rigged, we fight.
It’s impossible to take in any kind of media right now and not process it through the lens of our current pandemic. As the wild, frightening spread of COVID-19 tests our internal panic buttons while we’re flooded with information (and misinformation) and told to distance ourselves from others, both series have something valuable to share. Mainly, that now is a good time to look inward and reconsider what we might need to change within ourselves. What does it mean to break out of our own loops of behavior? What would it cost us to choose that better path? What we might find at the end of these cosmic puzzles may remain a mystery, but finding humanity and authenticity here and now is something we can do—if we are brave enough.
Westworld airs Sunday nights on HBO; Dispatches from Elsewhere airs Monday nights on AMC.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.