Westworld showrunners answer our burning questions about the fourth episode of the season, “Dissonance Theory.” Below Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy lend some insight into the Man in Black’s return, the refreshing sarcasm of Elsie Hughes, and Dr. Ford and Theresa Cullen’s showdown…
Entertainment Weekly: Dolores has opened every episode so far. Here she’s chatting with Bernard and she mentions the bandits killed her parents and she ran… but she opens her eyes and she’s still with William and Logan. So its unclear when this scene took place. Is this a flashback? Or is she referring specifically to what just happened at the end of episode 3?
Jonathan Nolan: I think that’s up to the viewer to decide.
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Which leads into another question, and this might be another that you might not be willing to get into, but: Should we not assume that everything seeing is taking place at the same time…?
Nolan: I think you want to assume as little as possible when watching this show.
Lisa Joy: As usual, it’s exciting to talk to you and also difficult.
[The showrunners put me on hold and have a sidebar conference about this question, then come back].
Nolan: Part of the fun is people speculating about what they’re are seeing. There’s some amazing speculation out there. There are some theories that are so elaborate and beautiful that you wish you thought of them yourself. I think we want to burden the audience as little as possible with expectations of what we think the show is. I’m a big believer in this ever since we went to the Venice Film Festival with Memento. My brother gave an interview about what he thought the film meant but stressed it was ambiguous. And afterward we talked about it and I felt from then on that the best thing to do is get out of the way of the audience and let them play with it. And there are some things in Westworld that are intentionally ambiguous.
The MiB returned this week and we got this nice peak into his backstory when a guest annoys him by breaking character to praise his foundation for saving his sister. This nicely complicates our feelings toward this guy, that he might be a total White Hat in real life, right?
Joy: That’s exactly right and our sympathies are so aligned with the hosts it’s easy to think of the Man in Black as absolute black evil with a wry smile. For him, he’s looking at this as just a game and he’s an expert-level gamer. Just like a life-saving doctor can play Grand Theft Auto really violently doesn’t mean he can’t be a wonderful doctor and parent outside that world. So that’s what we’re approaching here, is a shift in perspective that might allow us to imagine a different side of his character that he shows the outside world.
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One thing was confusing, though: The MiB went from plotting the jail break-in to being in a stagecoach in irons — was a scene cut in between?
Nolan: No. We wanted to move the story forward so you’re asking yourself how he wound up in there, but then they arrive at the prison and the deputy fills in the details — they just walked out and tried to steal a couple horses right in front of him. As an expert gamer, the Man in Black knows how to play this, he knows how to get inside the prison. We just wanted to get into the fun of it.
The hosts seem to blank out whenever they’re confronted by a statement like “she’s just a robot” — like Dolores does during William and Logan’s argument. Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated, I assume they’re programmed to ignore such any reality busting statements that humans make and that’s why they don’t react?
Joy: That’s exactly right.
Last week we talked about Stubbs. This week, Elsie (Shannon Woodward) gets off a couple great lines, she’s starting to become perhaps the the most relatable backstage character.
Joy: I love Elsie. The hosts are living this myopic life so they don’t question the nature of their reality. Then you have people like Bernard who’s so obsessed with his work that he has his own myopia. But Elsie is a bit of a pragmatist. She’s brilliant at coding like Bernard, but also wide-eyed and aware enough to call bullshit on stuff, which is something not many in the park do as there’s such a hierarchy. She has faith in her intelligence and judgement and she’s not afraid to go against the grain in pursuit of the truth.
Nolan: She’s the most fun character because she look at this place and can be like, “What the f— is wrong with you guys? Why don’t you see what’s right in front of your face?” Shannon is also a lovely actor and great collaborator.
So I could probably spend this entire conversation asking about the scene between Dr. Ford and Cullen, where he threatens her to stay out of his way. What would you like to share with us about making that scene?
Nolan: This episode was directed by Vincenzo Natali and we were also excited about this moment where you were reminded about the sheer power that Ford can command as the creator of this place. You can imagine Walt Disney having a lunch at Ariel’s Grotto in the middle of Disneyland and commanding all the roller coasters to stop all at once. There’s an extraordinary power there. And with Anthony Hopkins, he’s such a fascinating actor to watch, you don’t quite ever know where you stand with this guy. In the pilot, Ford felt a bit like the Lion in Winter, that he might be stepping back. Here, we’re reminded that you underestimate this guy at your peril. He has his own designs of what he wants this place to be. You’re also reminded he has an extremely controlling relationship with the hosts. Like the moment when he cuts a host’s face open and you realize why they’re all stripped bare in cold storage, that it’s a very practical measure on his part to make sure nobody makes Arnold’s mistake again, that treating these hosts as machines is vital to ensure that the techs who work with them don’t mistake them for people. You’re reminded that Ford is not a friend to the hosts. He’s a father figure and that can go a number of different ways.
Dr. Ford halts all the hosts with a wag of his finger, just like he did with the snake. But the snake could see him while all the hosts in the field working below could not. Is there any insight that you care to lend on how that works?
Nolan: He describes himself as a magician. His mechanisms of control are subtle. We thought a little bit of a conductor with an orchestra, where the entire orchestra at any moment is so hyper aware of what the conductor is doing that the tiniest gesture can ripple through the orchestra — not just those who are actively watching, but it all becomes one large organism. He’s had 30-plus years to gain his level of control. I’ve worked with some great directors and seen the way they control a set is very subtle — it’s very quick, and it’s total. Not to get too bogged down on the way the park is built, but there’s a network that allows data to carry through the hosts that allows for instantaneous small updates. For more significant updates they need to be brought down below.
Dr. Ford’s new narrative seems to involve an enormous new construction space, that odd church steeple that we saw, and Teddy’s Civl War backstory. Are there any other hints we should be paying attention to?
Nolan: You have older storylines that Ford has literally paved over, and it’s a question how they connect to the new one he’s building now.
Maeve is really starting to figure things out, at this point she’s apparently the host who’s most ahead of the curve.
Nolan: There’s a tip of the hat there to the short story I wrote that Chris turned into his screenplay for Memento. The short story itself was focused on the asylum portion of the protagonist’s storyline. The film references that in flashback. The story was most interested in how would you even get going if you’re not allowed to remember anything. How would you create a primitive memory? We’ve established in Analysis and Diagnostic Mode that the hosts have all the answers they need, they’re just not allowed to access that. With Maeve, she’s looking outward and trying to find the larger context of this world, and Dolores is looking inward and trying find the meaning of her own story.
Random question: Is Logan’s name inspired by another ’70s sci-fi cult favorite, Logan’s Run?
Nolan: There’s potentially a tip of the hat there. It’s a cool movie. But I wouldn’t read too much into it.