Longread exclusive: EW goes behind the scenes of Westworld
Evan Rachel Wood comes back online — wakes up, in other words — and is suddenly weirded out.
These are not her clothes. They belong to her Westworld android character, Dolores Abernathy. And this is not her bed. She’s inside Dolores’ lonely ramshackle hilltop ranch house. But where are the cameras and the crew and the rest of the cast? Has it happened? Has she somehow been transported into the show’s ultraviolent theme park?
“I was so creeped out,” says Wood, who had forgotten she had simply wandered off during a break in filming and taken a nap in Dolores’ bed. “I was like, ‘It was just a TV show! None of this is real!'”
Wood’s brief existential crisis after months of filming season 2 of Westworld is understandable. Once immersed in the new season, you’ll start questioning what is real too. HBO’s mind-bending drama, returning April 22, promises to blow the barn doors off the mysterious futuristic world established in the show’s debut season, with a larger scope, more intense violence, and an even more labyrinthian, M.C. Escher-like narrative. “The scale of season 2 is just nuts, literally right out of the gate,” says Jeffrey Wright, who plays the park’s tormented science chief Bernard Lowe. “It’s so much more expansive, it makes the first season look like a genteel kitchen drama.”
And, of course, that first season was far from genteel, and we’re not sure we ever saw a kitchen. Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, imagines an anything-goes Old West theme park where wealthy human guests interact (read: kill and/or have sex) with lifelike android “hosts” that are controlled by a high-tech underworld. Five years ago, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy reimagined the concept with a 21st-century twist: The enslaved robots are the sympathetic heroes, while their human masters are less evolved and hopelessly flawed, a species perhaps unworthy of survival.
Critics were, at first, skeptical. HBO spent more than two years making a naughty-robot Western? Production shut down for months? The heroes aren’t even human? And it’s another drama with violence against female characters?
The concerns faded after Westworld began rolling out episodes in the fall of 2016. The series was a meticulously constructed, surprisingly thoughtful drama awash with empathy for its characters, particularly its female leads, who became empowered throughout the season. Far from debuting too late, its arrival felt perfectly timed, landing just as tech leader Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking were warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, and headlines from overseas touted the booming business of realistic sex-doll robots. And on a fandom level, Westworld scored by filling a niche that had been largely vacant since Westworld executive producer J.J. Abrams’ own Lost—the need for an elaborate puzzle narrative that fans could obsess over online. Unlike with its ABC predecessor, however, the pieces in Westworld clicked together, much to the smug delight of those who figured out its big twists months in advance (a downside to having a mystery that actually makes sense and plays fair with the audience is that it’s also solvable).
Westworld was a hit, delivering the most viewers of any first-year HBO drama, five prime-time Emmy nominations (including series and acting nods for stars Wood, Wright, Thandie Newton, and Anthony Hopkins), and became a pop culture phenomenon. “It’s fun when somebody yells out at Target, ‘Freeze all motor functions!'” Wood says, referring to one of the show’s host commands. “That has happened, and I do it.”
Which brings us to the new season. It’s been 14 months, which is a long stretch to make 10 episodes of TV, yet is positively speedy by Westworld‘s cinematic standards (at times the frantic production had four units shooting scenes from multiple episodes simultaneously). Still, you might need a refresher on what went down in the finale: Megalomaniacal park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Hopkins) was faced with being ousted by the park’s mysterious owners, Delos Incorporated. Rather than surrender his legacy, Ford helped the hosts gain awareness of their prison and unshackled them from their behavioral restraints, springing a trap on the Delos board of directors. Dolores killed Ford (yup, he’s really dead), and the hosts began a kill-all-humans robo-revolution against their zookeepers.
This uprising is the focus of season 2, as well as solving a few mysteries that were left on the table (little things like: Where the hell is this place, anyway?). “We don’t like to endlessly build mystery; we like to settle our debts by the end of the season,” Nolan says. “We want to feel like the show is rocketing ahead. The first season was a journey inward; this is a journey outward. It’s a search for what else is in the park, and what else is beyond the park.”
More than ever, Westworld will strive to take the viewer into the mindset of the newly woke hosts, which makes for a rather unique narrative structure—we won’t know much more than the androids, who have memories that can be altered and are missing big pieces of the puzzle. “If we were to describe the show as one camera angle, it would be a steady pull out revealing more and more context,” Nolan says. “So as the hosts learn more about their world—and other worlds, and the real world—the audience is doing the same thing.”
Taking charge of the rebellion is the naive rancher’s daughter–turned–ruthless avenger Dolores, who one trailer teases as gunning down park guests with a rifle on a charging horse (a stunt Wood actually did herself). To prepare for the first season, producers showed Wood the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World to explain her character’s gradual awakening; this time they gave her Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, depicting a flag-carrying goddess in tattered clothes (Wood’s new costume is inspired by the painting as well). “She’s playing the chess master,” Wood says. “She has access to all of her memories, but now she’s in control. There are some scenes where she’s three different people in the span of a minute.”
Assisting Dolores is her trusty storybook cowboy lover Teddy (James Marsden), who has some reservations about her escalating brutality. “Dolores is further along in her advancement, and he’s trying to catch up and make sure the manner in which we proceed still feels like the good parts of Teddy that he remembers,” Marsden says.
Their goal? Pure conquest. But as Joy puts it, “Not everybody in the revolution is on the same page.” Meaning some of the hosts have their own ideas about how to take advantage of their newfound freedom. There are external threats as well, such as the armed soldiers sent in by Delos to restore order. “The leashes are off,” Joy says. “But the question is: How far are you willing to go until you become a reflection of the evil you’re trying to fight?”
For the cast, reading the season 2 scripts was humbling. Anybody who thought they had guessed what would happen to their characters this year was largely proved wrong. In fact, some assumptions that everybody has about the first season aren’t right either. “There are things I actually said as Dolores [in season 1] that I had no idea of the significance of until filming this season, and now I’m going, ‘My God, [the showrunners] were telling us!'” Wood says. “I think even when we’re in season 7, you’ll still be able to go back to the pilot and find clues that were right in front of you.”
Dolores’ revolutionary counterpart, brothel-owner host Maeve (Thandie Newton), also plays a key role, though she’s largely on her own separate track, which is being kept secret at the moment. After digitally upgrading some of her attributes last season to super-bot levels, Maeve’s top priority is to find her long-lost daughter. “I was kind of freaked out at first because I had no idea where my character was going this season,” Newton says. “Westworld stripped us bare of what we had and forces us and the audience to rethink what you’ve learned from that and what you know about these characters. It’s not contrived, though, it’s genuine to what they have mapped out.”
The park’s sociopathic perpetual season-pass holder the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is also on a new mission this year, and Harris, like his castmates, admits to being more than a little thrown by the new storylines. “It’s a pretty trippy second year, man, I gotta tell you that,” drawls the actor in his unmistakable Ed Harris-y way. “Hopefully somebody can explain it all to me after it airs. But it’s going to be tremendously watchable.”
You’ll recall the Man in Black wanted to play in the park on hard mode with unconstrained hosts, and he definitely gets his wish (“He gets a bit of damage done to him, that’s for sure,” reveals Harris). Yet we’ll also see how his marriage fell apart years ago, and once again go back even further to his younger days when he’s again played by Jimmi Simpson.
So yes, that means flashbacks. Expect a youthful version of the late Dr. Ford, as well as the introduction of Delos founder James Delos (Peter Mullan). The hosts will need to understand the park’s past to battle Delos in the present. Bernard—who discovered he was a host last season—runs point on trying to uncover mysteries such as the park’s top secret purpose for its investors, and one clue is his discovery of pale, featureless “drone hosts.” “He’s trying to do a high-wire act on a razor blade with the humans on one side and the hosts on the other, and he’s perched dangerously in the middle,” Wright says.
If all that seems like a lot going on, we haven’t even discussed half the sprawling cast, or the fact that Westworld is one of six parks owned by Delos. The first-season finale teased a feudal Japan world adjacent to Westworld with the initials “SW.” We can tell you the name of this park is Shogun World (not, as is widely assumed by fans, Samurai World). The showrunners play coy when asked if their characters will be journeying to Shogun World this year, but say episodes will not spend much time treading familiar ground. “This year is much more of a road show—Sweetwater isn’t home anymore,” Nolan says of the park’s beginner-level outpost. There’s a chance we could eventually see all the parks, and venture beyond the parks as well. Nolan reveals each season has a secret subtitle known only to producers. The first was called “The Maze.” Season 2 is called “The Door.” When he says this, Joy exclaims: “I can’t believe he just told you that!” so you figure it must be important…unless Nolan is dropping this as part of some misdirecting ruse (see, there’s that Westworld paranoia, right on time). Still: Doors always lead somewhere, right?
And if the where of it all is surprising this season, the whens could be too. Eventually, Westworld the Show could not only leave behind Westworld the Park but also jettison the present (whenever that is). “These hosts don’t live on the same time frame we do and don’t have the four-year life span of replicants [like in Blade Runner],” Nolan says. “If left to their own devices, they could live forever. So our story has some real scope to it.”
Assuming, that is, you can follow everything that’s going on. The cast has conflicting opinions on whether the best way to watch season 2 is as an engaged puzzle-solver appreciating the show’s carefully laid clues (even the books on shelves and the paintings on walls of the sets contain foreshadowing). Or if you should simply sit back and, as Wright puts it, just relax while you’re “tossed and scrambled underwater by ginormous waves…pounded and spun and twisted sideways.”
Oddly enough, the actor who claims to understand Westworld the least is the one who explains it the best. “What is memory, what is real, what is now, what is then, and what is the future?” Harris says. “I’m not sure if you always know, if Jonah and Lisa care if you know, or if you’re supposed to know. It’s part of the mystery and challenge of it. The show is making a statement about life, memory, time, and dimensions.”
Perfectly stated. Perhaps too perfect. Hey, are we sure Ed Harris is real?
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