‘Westworld’ at SXSW: The Perfect Allegory For Austin in March
The premise of Westworld rests on an uneasy relationship between a town’s residents and the “newcomers”: wealthy, oblivious visitors, convinced that a new cowboy hat gives them permission to do whatever they like. In other words, there’s no better allegory for what happens to Austin during South By Southwest.
Presumably to placate their Austinite hosts, Delos—or rather, HBO—built a “brand activation” to outdo even 2013’s six-story tweet-powered Doritos machine. A 40-person crew spent five weeks constructing a real-life town of Sweetwater, a Sleep No More-style immersive theater experience in which more than 60 actors and stunt performers played the show’s “hosts” and visitors played, well, visitors.
To get to Westworld, I arrived at a restaurant dressed up as “Mesa Gold Station,” which looked as all Austin bars do in the second week of March: low sofas, bright cocktails, mandatory wristbands, a player piano churning out a mildly freaky rendition of “Paint It Black.” On a rooftop patio, we awaited our moral judgment in front of a wall covered with embryonic host-heads. Westworld had promised to sort us as white hats or black hats based on an extensive interview—which amounted to asking us our first names. “You’re definitely a black hat,” an employee told me with a smile. So were about 45 of the 50 people on my tour, apparently.
Heads behatted, we boarded the Westworld coach with its Westworld-branded seat pillows. “Welcome to Westworld,” said a guy in a white suit with a script, our host for the evening. He informed us that there were only two rules in Sweetwater: don’t break anything, and don’t touch anyone. A grainy commercial for Westworld started playing on loop on the bus seat TVs as we pulled onto the interstate, a tour bus full of fearlessly aspirational cowboys.
Half an hour later, we got off at the interstate exit for a local Wild-West themed venue. There it was: a dusty main road, with a saloon on one side and shuttered storefronts on the other. “I got kicked out on Halloween last time I was here,” said my seatmate, purple hair peeking out from under her black Stetson. At least someone deserved their hat.
Two women in bonnets twirled their full skirts. A man in suspenders stared moodily at his unlit cigar. Almost immediately, a woman recruited me to go to a meeting the next night for women’s suffrage, explaining the need for a constitutional amendment. The hosts know their audience.
Walking around Sweetwater, it felt less like the historical reenactment towns of fourth-grade field trips and more like a Wild West filter for Instagram. There were a variety of settings for selfies: a saloon, a graveyard, a blacksmith’s shop, a room with a secret sliding door that revealed a scientist working on a drone host. I can only imagine how much more quickly Peter Abernathy would have glitched if the newcomers had pulled out their smartphones.
As I stood in line to get brisket and baked beans (“fuel for the human machine,” read the label) at the Coronado Hotel, I heard a shout. Outside, a crowd had formed around two hosts fighting. “You leave her alone, Jack!” one cried. A woman rushed over to him. “Darby, I know you’re only protecting my honor, but don’t! You’re going to get hurt!” “Shoot him, Darby!” cheered a guy in a flannel shirt and jeans. The gun went off, and the crowd peered in, as hosts motioned us back for safety and Jack theatrically staggered around before falling dramatically to his death. A guy clapped Darby on the back and cheered. “You did it, man! It’s our third time to the park and you fuckin’ did it!” An actor-playing-a-guest-playing-a-host? Well played, Westworld.
As we stood dumbly contemplating the metanarrative, a woman in costume spoke into her wrist, and two guys in white coats picked up Mackey’s body. “May you all rise to a new day,” she called out. “Back to one!” Those in costume mechanically walked back to their original positions, as those of us in black hats took their photos.
I walked past the barbershop, where a woman in suspenders was giving free shaves, and the photo studio, where guests were posing with fake guns, into the post office, where guests wrote postcards and the postmaster jovially handed out mail. Each guest got a personalized letter, postmarked from Sweetwater: a warning to watch your back, an invitation to a secret gathering, a series of numbers. “It’s for a women’s suffrage thing,” said one woman, leaving her letter on the table. I opened mine, and found a note signed by Wyatt, instructing me to head to the graveyard and look for something: “It isn’t buried deep, but it will make you realize things that are.”
I walked back to the graveyard, where a morose-looking woman was placing stones in a pattern to spell out 0-4-2-2. I showed her my letter, and asked her what it could mean. “That doesn’t look like anything to me,” she said, turning back to her pebble pile.
This Sweetwater felt less like the historical reenactment towns of fourth-grade field trips and more like a Wild West filter for Instagram. I can only imagine how much more quickly Peter Abernathy would have glitched if the newcomers had pulled out their smartphones.
There was one grave with the dirt freshly turned. I grabbed a shovel, looking around self-consciously as I started to dig up Dolores Abernathy’s grave. Lo and behold, there it was: a maze, encased in a tattered Pigs in Clover game.
I turned to the host, who had moved on from spelling the second season’s premiere date in rocks to tracing it out in the dirt with a stick. “Do you know what I’m supposed to do with this? Is there a labyrinth around here?” I asked her. She glanced up. “That doesn’t look like anything to me.”
Nobody—not the grandstanding pastor, not the stumbling bandit, not the bored-looking ironsmith, not the single mute samurai plodding slowly through town—knew of a labyrinth. But a fellow newcomer overheard me asking, and told me where the labyrinth was; just like my purple-haired bus mate, he too had been here for Halloween.
He and a friend led me to the maze, which we wandered through for a few minutes, before realizing we had strayed off of Westworld property. This wasn’t part of the activation, just something visitors could do during the rest of the year. We headed back to Sweetwater.
“Are you ready to go to the Ready Player One activation?” A guest next to me asked her friend. “I’ll call a Lyft.”
I walked back towards the bus. Even in Westworld, there was no escape from the reality of SXSW—virtual or otherwise.