Much of the prerelease hype around this season of Westworld had to do with—well, everything that wasn’t Westworld. Last season’s finale showed a glimpse of Shogun World, and some of the early trailers for this season touted real-world settings (that may have also just been Futureworld). There’s also Roman World, and Medieval World, which people are also fantasizing could be Westeros World, which won’t happen and is insane but did at least get a light cosign from George R. R. Martin.
But this week’s episode started instead somewhere totally different—The Raj, set in colonialist India and introduced with a winding, preposterous “Seven Nation Army” sitar cover. The Raj was never hinted at in any of the show’s many “flashing neon breadcrumbs,” showing just how explicitly the show’s producers are playing with their online community this season.
The Raj has, like many of the show’s other newly revealed locales, gotten its very own website. It mostly consists of a single scenic image and a logo, but, of course, there’s a lot lurking beneath the surface. Gizmodo talked to Redditor Cameron Halter, who first uncovered the park’s existence way back in February, when he pieced together a GIF he found in the Delos Destinations website that said the word “Rajworld.”
The GIF was so hidden he suspected it was only there by mistake; the very day he posted about it, HBO registered the domain for discovertheraj.com, implying that they changed the name (from Rajworld to The Raj) because of his advanced discovery. Now, on The Raj’s own website, there are five more massively encrypted files, suggesting, at least to Halter, that HBO’s cryptographic game design hive-mind is intentionally recreating their screw-up from earlier this year. That’s right: Now we have conspiracy theories about the plans of the people who are teasing viewers about the show’s fictional conspiracy theories.
Everything about the scene seems designed to stoke theorizing among these viewers. For example, the hair and cigarette-holding stance of the young woman in the scene was strangely familiar:
All of which would seem to be a dead giveaway that the scene at the park took place early on in one of the show’s many timelines, but Redditors are set against this theory, pointing out that the tiger from the Raj washes up on the shore in a much later timeline, and that the younger woman has an accent. Which, sure, but .... then what the fuck about the cigarette? And the hair!
But The Raj’s clearest provocation to the show’s fans and viewers was its setting—colonialist India, where feted white “explorers” can glibly exoticize the region while actual Indians (or robots pretending to be people from India) stand around, servile and waiting. If the show’s first season slowly went from a truly out-there premise—“Uh, an amusement park where robots are cowboys”—into a universalized metaphor for oppression and rebellion, The Raj made this even more uncomfortably explicit. This kicked off an interesting thread on the show’s ever-voluble Reddit, where u/arun279 writes:
There are several interesting time periods and diverse landscapes that can be considered for a park set in the Indian subcontinent. I found it interesting (and mildly discomforting) to see the park was set in British Raj time period. As an Indian, it kind of rubbed me the wrong way slightly to see the only guests introduced (at least ones that have speaking roles) in that scene are white, and the Indian characters are hosts serving them. I realize this is probably just a knee-jerk reaction, but I wonder who would be interested in indulging in colonial nostalgia.
The responses show the show’s fans confronting the uglier ideas lying latent in the show’s premise. As u/Diestormlie writes:
The same kind of person who’d interested in Westworld’s Consequence free rape and murder.
Either people who’ve always wanted to do such things but have been prevented from doing so by society, or just people looking for a Power Trip/Power Fantasy.
For sure, it may look like a more... Genteel power fantasy (Ordering people around and receiving deference rather than Multiple Felonies) but it’s juet a different breed of the same dog.
Later, the well-named u/galileosmiddlefinger chimes in:
The parks are designed around times and places where guests can engage in absolute power fantasies. Where Westworld enables those fantasies through lawlessness, Rajworld does the same with strict rules in a colonial context where subjugation is absolute. I thought it was a really clever contrast to show that you could give guests the same (horrible) experiences with chaotic wilderness or genteel aristocracy.
The show’s always had a keen awareness that the power fantasies we enjoy in pop culture—particularly games—have real-world causes, corollaries, and consequences. The Raj makes this more explicit, and it’ll be interesting to see how it’s consumed and assimilated into the show’s broader fandom as the season goes on. Here’s betting Shogun World isn’t just a bunch of fun ninja fights.