“This is my favorite prop from anything I’ve done; I guard it with my life,” Jonathan Nolan says, so I immediately feel guilty for being caught sitting on it.
We’re in the Mariposa Saloon on the set of HBO’s Westworld, and Nolan and his fellow showrunner, Lisa Joy, have found me on the bench of the bar’s self-playing piano, a fully functioning antique that has served as a perfect Old West-era metaphor for his ambitious drama’s android hosts, a machine fed pre-programmed rolls (roles?) to mechanically perform for the fleeting amusement of the sci-fi theme park’s human guests. Of course, as fans of the HBO hit know, those hosts are in full revolt at the start of Sunday’s second season, slaughtering park visitors and suddenly wrestling with tough and all-too-human decisions that roughly come down to: I think … therefore I am! … But now what do I f–king do?
We spoke to Nolan and Joy about the new season (there are some gentle teases but it’s free of any real spoilers) and the rise of the machines in our own world (note: a few of these answers were previously reported).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Broadly, what is the second season about?
JONATHAN NOLAN: This is a season about being on the other foot. The power is with the hosts. This is now their world. Dolores, by the end of the first season, she has remembered a great deal. She was at the mercy of her memories. As she announces early in this season, she remembers everything. As she remembers everything, we explore some of those memories with her. Her plan, her goal, is not as simple as escape or domination. It’s a longer, harder goal she has in mind and this is the first step along the way.
What sort of challenges are the hosts facing?
LISA JOY: The hosts are revolting and Dolores is leading this revolt. But not everybody in the revolution is on the same page. There are hosts out there from last season, the Confederados. They’re not good guys. They’re a bad rogue army and it’s not like their personalities have dramatically changed since Dolores killed Ford. There are formidable antagonists inside the world, and there’s going to be pressure from outside the world because there are certain fail-safes within Westworld. It’s not like there’s no oversight. We’ve established Stubbs and his quality assurance team so there will be — in addition to the guests fighting back — factions of the corporation that are primed to deal with this situation.
Do the hosts have any limitations, physically speaking, now that the humans are no longer taking care of them?
JOY: The hosts are basically organic. It’s cheaper that way to print them out. They eat, they sleep, they have sex, they can poop. It’s really like a human body with the one difference being where we have a brain, they have a CPU. There’s a lot of potential for them. If you had a part of your brain that was a computer, self improvement would be a lot easier. The season will be exploring the intersection of where and how they’re human and some of the ways they can manipulate their own programming. So no, they’re not looking for a universal power plug or anything.
Last season was such a tightly constructed puzzle box. Is season 2 similar in that respect?
JOY: There’s always going to be a puzzle box level to the show because it’s grounded some way in character. The hosts experience things differently than humans. They remember and feel things in different ways. You don’t want to abandon the idea they are fundamentally capable of different things. One of the fun things about writing them is they can enter this diagnostic mode or adjust their apperception. People always talk about AI like, “Oh can you imagine a day where they’ll be as complex as us?” Most people dismiss that as a possibility and I don’t necessarily think that’s the wrong instinct. We’re not the only archetype of what it looks like to be a creature with agency. AI having a degree of consciousness doesn’t mean they’re going to be just like us; they might surpass us or create new templates of what it means to be sentient.
What can you tell us about those creepy white “drone hosts” we’ve seen in the trailers?
NOLAN: The drone hosts relate to the corporation’s secret project which is hidden in plain sight in this park. As we talked about in the pilot, the park is one thing for the guests, it’s something completely different for its shareholders and management. There is an agenda here that Delos has undertaken for a very long time. That means that as Bernard is making his way through the wreckage of the fallout from the first season, he’s discovering things about the park that even he doesn’t know and coming upon creatures like the drone hosts.
How many seasons of Westworld are you planning?
NOLAN: When we wrote the pilot we thought we’d get a bit further [into the story during season 1] than we did. The shape of the season emerges as you get down to writing. We want to feel like the show is rocketing ahead, and want to be fearless. We have an idea about how this breaks down but it’s not so much the number of seasons but the ambition of the story we’re telling. These hosts don’t live on the same timeframe we do and don’t have the four-year lifespan as [Blade Runner] Replicants. If left to their own devices, they could live forever. So our story has some real scope to it. There’s a story here with a beginning and middle and end. To that end, we don’t like to endlessly build mystery. We like to settle our debts by the end of the season. We view each season as a self-contained chapter and the questions [raised at the start of each season] are largely answered by the end of each season. We want each season to feel satisfying the way a film franchise feels satisfying with each film. We want you excited to come back after 18 months but that you haven’t been left hanging on the edge of a cliffhanger — that doesn’t really feel fair to the audience.
You said 18 months. The first season debuted in 2016. Do you expect to not return with season 3 until 2020?
NOLAN: It’s an ongoing conversation with our friends at HBO, and for us, with a show of this scope and scale, we’re not interested in doing the compromised version. We want the show to get bigger and bigger and more ambitious and this takes time. We want to take all the time we need to get it right.
Given that your social tease has revealed there are six parks, and we were introduced to Westworld the first season and will see Shogun World during this second, I was wondering if you’d say you were planning six seasons — one for each park.
NOLAN: That assumes we’re staying in the park.
Ah! That’s my next question, actually: Could the show ever leave Westworld behind entirely, despite being titled Westworld?
NOLAN: You’ll have to stay tuned. We weren’t interested in doing Fantasy Island about which crazy guests will come to the park each year. We’re not interested in repeating ourselves. And for the hosts, their ambition is to learn a little more about the world outside their world. Who are we to step in their way?
How much of season is still inside the Westworld park?
NOLAN: Most of it for this season.
JOY: But not as much in Sweetwater. And when we get there, the place is quite… transformed. There’s some new terrain we’ll be spotting. TV audiences are so smart now and they get restless and don’t want to see the same things.
NOLAN: If we described the show as one camera angle, it would be a steady pull out revealing more and more context. So as the hosts learn more about their world, and other worlds, and the real worlds, the audience is doing the same thing. Adding those textures to the show, the texture of the outside world, is incredibly exciting.
JOY: Yet it’s also a push into the interior lives of some of these characters. Like Ed Harris’ Man in Black. You were looking at him through the lens of Dolores and Maeve last season. I directed an episode with Ed and you want to push the camera in on his face because you realize he’s giving you so much. He’s such a generous performer, he would never take anything from anything else. This season, you’ll also see a push into some of these guest perspectives.
Some of the show’s social media campaigning between seasons have these urgent messages apparently sent from inside the park, which would suggest we will see outside the park where such messages were being received…
NOLAN: When you’re looking at our social media campaign, people are trying to make contact with the outside world. The impression I get — and I could be wrong — is they’re worried people outside don’t know what’s happening inside the park. The security systems in the park in the first season illuminated that despite their pent-octagon control room and the appearance of total control — which would relieve the shareholders and the guests — they don’t actually have control. There are too many cameras, too many live feeds, too many hosts, too many parks. It’s not possible to control it all so you rely on an automated system. It’s like if you have a Nest cam at home. You don’t watch it all the time. You wait for it to ping your phone and let you know if it saw someone. Well, imagine systems built on top of systems like that. Say you were a megalomaniacal park founder who decided to spring a trap for all of his board members and the rest of the guests. You could probably fiddle with that system to ensure there are a few days before anybody discovered what was going on. Add to the fact the corporation has an agenda — something they’d be willing to break a lot of rules over — you have several conflicts of interest which might get in the way of the guests being rescued. So that’s one of the things we’re exploring.
That’s super intriguing. Speaking of megalomaniacal park founders, can you rule out Anthony Hopkins making any appearances this season?
NOLAN: We had a glorious time working with Tony but the understanding was always that we were going to have a spectacular season of television with him and that his story had a beginning, middle, and end.
JOY: When a human dies with a shot to the head, that human is dead.
Can you rule out an appearance by Dr. Ford this season? Which is not the same question.
NOLAN: Now that you shouldn’t rule out. We’ve established that part of our second season deals with flashbacks and the early origins of the park. There’s some storytelling to be done. We want to understand a bit more about the character played by Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris: How did he insert himself into a position of ownership over the park. What’s his agenda? What secrets is he carrying around?
What do the hosts really want, at the end of the day?
JOY: On a very basic level, for Dolores, she talks about what she wants toward the end of the finale — this world doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to us, and by “us” she means her and the people she’s protecting. She’s very much on a conquering path. She also understands that where she is now could be the idyllic place she thought it was — if the world outside is so great, why ya’ll coming in here? And what it would take to make it that is an, um, change in management. Now whether her sights extend beyond the park to the outside world is something we’ll have to wait and see.
The show’s music, obviously, such an inventive and cool part of season 1. I know you’re not revealing band names at this point, but can you say if there’s more Radiohead?
NOLAN: We will definitely get back to Radiohead at some point but we used it a lot in season 1 so we’re giving them a bit of a break. What we wanted was a series equivalent of how OK Computer made me feel the first time I heard it; like Pink Floyd concept albums, that pure feeling of being transported into a different world. To me, that’s why Radiohead was a connected world in the first season. We got a couple bands for season 2 that hitherto had not been licensing their music and got a couple pieces we’re super excited about. I grew up in the ‘90s so there’s still a fair amount of late ‘90s rock but we got some hip-hop in here as well.
What are some of the philosophical questions raised by season 2?
JOY: A lot of it speaks to the direction technology is going now. There are questions of free will and determinism that come up. For so long, the hosts have been following a script and not having agency. Now they’re literally able to define themselves. They go from passive enactors to self-defining and self-determining. The leashes are off. They’re free to be who and what they want to be. But now that you have a choice: What’s morality? What’s ethical? What’s true to yourself? You have to choose and that’s a struggle we all have. With the hosts, its a matter of programming but it’s also a matter of soul searching … Revolutions are sometimes necessary but they’re deeply costly — not just in the lives that are lost but what we lose in ourselves being surrounded by fighting. When these creatures rise up, will they become as bad as what they’re fighting or will they find a new path?
You talk a lot about AI, which has been in the headlines. The other current news intersection with your show that’s been in the headlines a lot since you premiered is the rise of robot sex dolls. I’m curious if you have a take on those.
JOY: I’m a little old-fashioned, and I don’t think Jonah would like it if I brought home Juan the Sex Doll. There will be more and more virtual ways for people to engage in pornography. It was writing, then video, one day it will be AR (Augmented Reality) and then VR (Virtual Reality). VR is incredibly immersive at this point and you can’t underestimate that market drives innovation. I’m not making a judgment call on what kind of porn should be allowed. I think that will become a part of the cultural conversation. What happens when you take the immersion of gaming and you incorporate something that satisfies the needs for physical intimacy and companionship? Then it’s not just a sex doll, it’s a character with an actual persona in a virtual environment, and I think that’s a much likelier innovation that will happen. Questions will arise from that. Even feminists have debated whether porn is a healthy outlet or an unhealthy outlet, if certain types are healthy but others are not. It’s a big question. There’s also what will happen with emotional intimacy when you’re forging a connection with creatures that are artificial. They’ve done these tests where you can talk to a ‘bot and it’s almost as good as talking to a psychologist. People just need someone to listen to them sometimes and that’s easy code — really easy. So many of our drives are just primary colors, which is something that’s both beautiful and tragic about us. So many of us feel alone. But that feeling of loneliness is one of the fundamental building blocks of our collective psyches. It’s just going to open up so many questions.
One of the things I wonder about, apart from sex, is intimacy and connection. You see so many people go out to dinner together and they spend so much time checking their phones. One day they won’t have to even go out to dinner because they can just hook up into a VR machine and imagine the taste. We’re getting further and further from a tactile universe. Maybe I’m a Luddite in that way, but I prefer a board game in front of the fire. And that’s actually why Westworld was created within our story. We allude to it, but it’s that people without money have to settle for VR and AR. But once you get to the point where you can afford a trip to Westworld, you want that because you can feel the difference. You’re walking around smelling the air and touching the things. Technology takes us further and further away from, yet also takes us closer and closer to, the things we want in our lives.
That is so very well put. There are times I’m sitting at a restaurant counter and looking on my phone. And I’ll look over and there are four other guys next to me also just sitting there staring at their phones. And I’ll think: What a sad disconnected tableau this is…
JOY: I’ll see kids who are three-to-five years old who won’t even look up from their tablet. I’m sure their parents are relieved to get an hour off, I totally understand that. But we’re feeding ourselves something that’s very hard to turn off. Like it’s very hard for me not to check my phone first thing in the morning. It really does become like a leash. It’s not a tool after awhile but a dependency.
Westworld season 2 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.