Westworld co-creator defends complex plotting, humanity criticism
Westworld co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan breaks down his acclaimed HBO drama’s twisty (some fans say confusing) season 2 plotting as well as delivers a pretty scathing indictment of humanity in a deep-dive conversation with EW. Our full interview includes a detailed discussion of Sunday’s season 2 finale, but Nolan’s excerpted answers below are presented spoiler free for those who are not yet caught up on the show.
First, we asked Nolan about how his show’s characters’ criticizing humanity. Many times this season we’re told the human race is broken — that we’re selfish creatures, intent on our own destruction, incapable of truly evolving and learning from our past mistakes. The show’s heroes — sentient android “hosts” — are presented as a more perfect successor to potentially replace their flawed creators. We asked Nolan (who generally comes across like a rather cheerful guy) if his own view of humanity was really that dire. Nolan’s reply was an impassioned and detailed response that underscored the themes in the second season in a candid and personal way.
“Obviously, this show is a little out of step with its misanthropy,” he began dryly. “It’s a little out of step with where we’re at culturally — where it’s a time of great optimism and we’re all just knocked out daily by the warm bath of humanity that we find ourselves in these days…”
Nolan waited for a beat before revealing that he was actually being sarcastic.
“No, it’s a f—ing disaster,” he said. “It’s a f—ing total disaster. And every time I turn on the news I’m provided with fodder for our discontent. I think our timing might have been exactly right on. Listen, I’m surrounded by the wonders of the creations of human beings. I have children and [co-showrunner Lisa Joy] and I are reminded daily of how much beauty there is in humanity. But yeah, you turn on the f—ing news and it’s a s—tshow. And I’ve been reading a lot of history this season, a little bit connected to the show, but also just following the train of things I’m interested in, and it’s depressing to realize how familiar some of these problems are, right? It’s like we just can’t figure these f—ing things out. We come back to them again and again. It’s as if there’s a flaw — and this is very much the premise in our second season — there’s a flaw in our code and it follows us around. Wherever we go, there we are. And we just can’t get out of our own f—ing way. All the beauty and incredible things we brought, and we just consistently find a way to f— it up.”
Continued Nolan: “Much of [dramatic storytelling across the ages] has concerned itself with ‘how will we overcome?’ and personal growth and change. At a certain point you gotta f—ing call it. We’re not going to fix this s—, we’re not going to figure it out. But there’s an opportunity for the things that replace us to do so. And that’s the dream of every parent, right? That their child doesn’t face the same things they do, that they make better choices? But there does seem to be a pattern of behavior that follows us, that history echoes from the past, the same mistakes, the same foibles. So you say: At what point does this fix itself? Or are we just stuck this way?”
And on the subject of his show’s ultra-twisty plotting, the backstory is that season 2 has unfolded along multiple timelines. While it’s obvious to the viewer that different storylines are taking place at different times in the futuristic theme park’s history, Nolan and Joy don’t use traditional cues like on-screen title cards to explain to viewers exactly when a scene is taking place. Instead, they trust fans to figure it out themselves, and Sunday’s finale tied both the major timelines together in a rather neat way. We asked Nolan if complaints from fans about getting lost amid the timeline jumps were “valid.”
“It’s all perfectly valid,” Nolan said. “If it didn’t track for some people, it didn’t track. But look, the first movie that I worked on [Memento] was told backwards, right? I’ve always had a great faith in the capacity of an audience to not only be able to track complicated non-linear storytelling but often to embrace it and enjoy it. Those are the people we’re making this show for.”
Nolan continued: “That said, the structure of the first season had a non-linear structure but it’s not apparent until the last episode. The second season structure is a fairly familiar one, it’s a flashforward/flashback structure, not that different than classic film noir like DOA or Double Indemnity or any movie you point to where you have an amnesiac protagonist who can’t quite remember what happened. The first season is rooted in Dolores’ perception of reality that we only understand [in the first season finale] is nonlinear. In the second season, with the audience’s understanding of that, we thought we could play with our cards up, showing the non-linearity of Bernard.”
“In fact,” he added, “the second season is a little more straightforward, but it is playing out in two distinct timelines — two and a half if you count the post-credits sequence, and complete with flashbacks. It’s not necessarily for everyone but all of these choices were rooted in the protagonists’ understanding of the reality around them, and centering this season on Bernard’s broken mind as he tries to navigate through the debris of memory. Subsequent seasons will be structured in … different ways.”
Here’s the full interview which includes a spoiler-filled discussion of some of the Westworld season 2 finale twists.
And here’s EW’s deep-dive recap of “The Passenger” where we break down the finale by unscrambling the episode into chronological order to more easily explain what’s going on (and we give our thoughts on the episode as well).