There’s something afoot in Sweetwater.
The sheriff and his deputy are looking for a Patty Wainwright, a gunslinger who “hangs out with the wrong crowd, if you know what I mean,” the deputy tells me when I ask what’s going on in town.
Here, on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, HBO has set up a recreation of Sweetwater, the town central to the network’s hit show, Westworld. At South by Southwest, it is promoting the show’s forthcoming second season, inviting guests to dive into a 19th-century world, complete with saloons, drunken hooligans, and an invitation to be yourself at all costs. It doesn’t appear to be so much about season two as a nod to fans’ love of the show and its settings.
HBO has been promoting its shows at SXSW for years, with a series of Game of Thrones activations. But Sweetwater surely represents its most ambitious effort yet–a faux town complete with multiple taverns, a bank, a post office, plentiful beautiful escorts, and the intrigue of Patty Wainwright, accused of “shooting out in the Territories.”
For fans of the show, which takes place in a fictionalized Wild-West theme park full of artificially intelligent androids, catering to rich visitors allowed to do whatever they want without worry of being judged or punished, entering the town will feel very familiar. Stepping off a beautiful period railcar complete with actors debating literature, and a bartender politely offering, “Enjoy your stay in Sweetwater, sir,” we entered to find a display case filled with classic guns, and walls of white hats on one side, and black hats on the other–straight out of Westworld itself.
White hats are, as always, the good guys. Black hats are the bad guys. Upon showing up at the stating point on Austin’s east side, to catch a bus ride to the Sweetwater, each of us was assigned a hat. I’m a black hat. Stand back; I’m trouble.
Yet, despite my bad guy status, neither the sheriff nor his deputy, had any problem with me, or any the dozens of fellow Sweetwater visitors, just as would be the case in the show. Instead, they were on the lookout for Wainwright, even as they ignored a nearly-falling-down-drunk named Mackie who was staggering around outside the saloons demanding to know where a certain Jimmy was. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” taunted Mackie. “Y’all seen Jimmy?”
At the local post office, where, astoundingly, a letter was waiting for me–a love letter from an unknown admirer?–a fashionably dressed clerk tried to explain who this Jimmy was. It was a hard-to-follow story involving a girl, her father, and a whole lot of muddled history. Suffice it to say, in this case, what happens in Sweetwater stays in Sweetwater.
As guests emerge from the railcar, numerous actors in character suggested that a good place to explore would be the Mariposa. Following that advice, I pushed through the swinging doors and made my way to the bar. There, I ordered an Old Fashioned, a strong drink that warmed me up to the charms of one local, Darla, a woman who was interested in my black, 10-gallon hat.
Inquiring about it, she implied it was more comfortable than anything she currently was using at night as a pillow. In fact, she said, she had no pillow at all, and concluded that the hat was a better choice than resting her head on gravel. She then proved it, lying down on the ground, announcing that it rated a zero on the comfort level, and then, after laying her head on my hat, assigning it a comfort-level of six.
She asked me if I wanted to confirm her findings. How could I decline? So I lay down on the dusty ground, tried the gravel (certainly a zero) and then the hat (a three, in my estimation). I walked away with the hat, much to my amazement, having been certain this was a ruse intended to leave me without cover.
Over at the bank, on the far end of town, a certain Mr. Beckle welcomed me in and asked what I was there for. A loan, I said. He demurred, but offered that if I told him the story of the best day of my life, he’d reward me with a valuable coin.
I began a story of a special day in the deserts of Nevada many years ago. Suddenly, though, a young man named Darby stormed through the doors, demanding Mr. Beckle’s attention. The distinguished-looking 60-something gentleman seemed torn, but quickly decided he needed to follow Darby off to some Important Thing. Before leaving, though, he said he appreciated I was wiling to share my story and gave me the coin anyway.
‘A life without limits’
The Sweetwater recreation is meant, in HBO’s marketing parlance, to take visitors to a “life without limits.” “Time to expand your horizons,” a brochure about the activation reads. “The hosts you meet here are representative of the cutting-edge advances in AI that have earned Westworld its world-famous reputation. You can eavesdrop on them. You can talk to them. You can even fall in love with them. They don’t judge you. Be yourself. We won’t tell.”
Eavesdrop indeed. One of the fun things about the faux-Sweetwater was that the actors were committed to their scripts even when it seemed no one was around. In one corner of the town, I overheard four guys chewing on some injustice, with at least two of them trying to talk one of them down from some planned violence. I don’t think it mattered to them whether anyone was there or not; they were going to do their thing. Were they AI’s? Well, suspend your imagination, and sure, why not?
Many of the characters were courteous–asking your name, where you were from. Of course, that was their job, but after enough of these interactions–in the general store, in the entryway to the Mariposa, in the main street itself–and a couple of stiff drinks, you could convince yourself you were in a real scene, not just an overblown marketing exercise. For a minute or two, at least.