Westworld showrunner: Season 3 is a warning to humanity
Jonathan Nolan on the HBO drama's all-too-likely new world: 'We're on a very dangerous path.'
- TV Show
For its long-awaited third season, Westworld introduces its most disturbing and fascinating world yet — our own, roughly a few decades from now.
The new episodes of the acclaimed HBO drama follow vengeful android host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) as she navigates the world outside the Delos parks for the first time. Expect Dolores to meet human construction worker/freelance criminal (Aaron Paul) as she executes her mysterious plan, while the powerful Maeve (Thandie Newton) finds herself in a World War II-themed park called Warworld and Delos executive Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) tries to help the company "pivot" from its PR disaster.
Below Jonathan Nolan -- who serves as showrunner on the series along with Lisa Joy — has some characteristically profound, candid, and spoiler-free thoughts about his future-shock series as it goes into its third year, and how modern-day technology is shaping humanity.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you're introducing a future world in this season ruled by a technocratic elite, what can you tell us about that?
JONATHAN NOLAN: From the beginning, the show has first and foremost been about hopefully fascinating characters and storylines. But it's also been for us an exploration of the technological and cultural moment we find ourselves in. It's obvious from everything I've worked on for the last 10 years that I'm fascinated by this -- not just artificial intelligence but the whole way in which these things we created have begun to shift the center of gravity culturally, societally, politically. And what's f—ed up is when we started this show, there were things that happened and controversies [regarding technology]. And for people paying attention, Facebook was always slightly terrifying. But in the last three years in which we've been making the show, the worm has finally turned. These companies, quite rightly, carried the optimism of a progressive age in which it's like, "we're making a world better through technology." That is not the case anymore. That is not how anyone feels anymore. It's been fascinating to be making a show in the midst of that.
So the show has always been about reaching a point where our technical capacity potentially threatens our morality and identity as a species. We've been in charge on this planet for a very long time. The idea that we created technologies that are now leading us around by the nose -- that's not something just in the show anymore. It's something that is acutely felt in the world. We feel the transformative power of these technologies now seeping into our elections, into our policies, into our daily lives. There are unintended consequences of essentially unbridled unregulated technological development. We've been trapped in the park answering these questions and wanted to escape that.
Our characters are in a world that's a linear extension of the world we're in now. Sure, there have been global, political, transformative events, but it's basically a straight line. You have a technological elite and you have ever more concentration of capital amongst a group of people who control ... well, "the means of production" is almost a quaint phrase, because these technologies that people control are so much more global. It's not just about where you work and the product. You help create the political opinions and the way you interact with your friends and your loved ones. It's the shape of culture and society around you. So we're clearly on a very dangerous path. And the show now gets the chance to explore what happens 30 years down that path. What does it look like if we keep going in the direction we're going?
So the show is interested in the consequences of these technologies in a world not unlike our own, and our hosts trying to understand the culture they find themselves in. Even the complexities of the 19th-century frontier pale in comparison to a world that does not look like a dystopia -- at least at first -- but when you get under the hood, there's plenty of dystopia under the surface.
There's this wonderful term you've used, "algorithmic determinism." Whereas the first couple seasons were a metaphor for how people get caught in their own behavioral loops, it sounds like this season it's more about how technology predicts and shapes that behavior, is that right?
1oo percent, and it's a feedback loop between the two. This is part of the problem. We grew up watching four broadcast networks and UHF. We had an RCA television with two dials on it and when you went into UHF, you could find some weird s—. It's linear television, which means that you are exposed to whatever it is those broadcasters have decided you will be exposed to.
One of the amazing things about these old fashioned linear technologies was you were exposed to ideas that you may not otherwise be exposed to. There's a problem with an algorithmically determined world, the Netflix effect. It's been spoken about most acutely when it comes to politics, where you're living in a siloed world and only hear affirmation of the things you believe, you only read news that affirms those beliefs and your opinion of the world.
That's very dangerous. Imagine you're only exposed to the cultural ideas, the music, the movies that the algorithm thinks you might like because it's all the same s—. The idea of a world that has been built to cater to the first s— you expressed an interest is inherently limiting and frightening. Life has a certain amount of messiness to it, a certain amount of chaos. A lot of the ideas behind these technologies are to chart a course through the chaos. That's obviously a good thing in many ways, but it's a little frightening.
I think the only reason people aren't terrified about these things is they recognize, at this point, that they really don't work. You don't really go onto these platforms and only watch the shows they recommend you watch. You don't go online and only buy things that are advertised to you. But as technologies get better and better, we do find ourselves in a world in which the question of free will -- which has been a central question for the show since the beginning -- you get to a question of whether or not we have engineered freewill out of the human race ... or if we indeed ever had in the first place.
What's Delos up to in the wake of their rather terrible PR disaster?
There's a certain amount of fun watching our corporation try to deal with the negative spin from the many casualties of our second season. For every pitch we had in the writers' room that felt like [a stretch], you should look at the real world. Look at Boeing. What's the math on that? A couple of hundred people dead. “Well, let's, let's keep f—ing around for another six months. Maybe if a couple of hundred more people die, we'll actually take action.” Right? We sat there and thought of the most cynical version of a plotted element and it was impossible to eclipse the real world. But, yes, the folks at Delos are trying to figure out how to "pivot."
And unbeknownst to them, one of their creations has actually assumed a prominent role in the company in the guise of Charlotte Hale. Who she really is, and what her agenda is, is something that we have a lot of fun with. Now we see the roles reversed, with the host now pulling on the strings a little bit and making their former corporate masters dance.
The stories of those Boeing Max disasters, automated systems forcing planes to go down, while the pilots struggled to override it, were horrifying. And the fact that it took two crashes before they pulled the plane.
It's a horrible situation. It is also a pretty appropriate metaphor for the moment we're in right now. We have a semiautomatic society. We have devolved. For instance, news curation. [Freedom of the press] is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. This is something we fought for for a very long time. We understand how important that is. We're now in a moment where there was no editorial control over the news at all. And the stated position at one of the most influential and valuable companies in the world is they don't give a f— if the news people receiving is even true. The premiere news source on the face of the Earth has totally abdicated editorial responsibility because they claim they don't have any editorial responsibility; it's an unfettered pipeline of lies to be decimated at the speed of light globally. That's a f—ing disaster. Impossible to even articulate how bad an idea that is -- and that is the moment where we're in right now. We have the devested and devolved things that were difficult, complicated, or legally problematic to the algorithm. The idea is that in 30 years the truth will be very expensive and very narrowly distributed.
For two seasons, we've been wondering about Dolores' world. Now she gets a chance to visit our world. We're now getting her perspective looking at the world going, "What a s—show." We thought the world of the hosts was bad and overly regulated. She says the line, I think it's episode 4. She's like, "I thought your world would be so different. There's no f—ing difference."
Yet you still spend some time in a park. You have Warworld in the trailer. What's going on there?
One of the things we've enjoyed is finding things that would be culturally acceptable and titillating to an audience 30 or 40 years from now. It's hard to imagine, but maybe not so hard to imagine, that people would enjoy going on vacation in Italy in 1943, but we're sticking to the idea that they probably will. We went back and forth between Warworld and the Spanish Civil War -- we weren't actually going to call it "Hemmingworld" but it was on the table. At the end of the day we thought, if there was ever a good year for Thandie Newton to be kicking the s— outta Nazis, it's this year.
How does Aaron Paul fit in?
We were so lucky with our cast to begin with, so we were very nervous about bringing anyone new into the mix. We always knew we wanted to spend time with a human being this season. If you watch the pilot again, anyone whose point of view you're really getting is a host — though you're not necessarily aware they're a host at the time. First and foremost we wanted to explore the world of the host. But you can't just bag on humanity the entire run of the show. Maybe you could, but I'm not sure the show would last very long. Humanity hasn't really had their chance to put their best forward.
If you want to create from the ground up someone who embodied the kind of qualities of humanness and humility and kindness, but also introspection and depth, and wrestle with the deeper questions, Aaron Paul is a terrific actor. We had early conversations about trying to work with him when we were putting the pilot together, so this is a little bit of unfinished business. I think in terms of finding someone to stick up for the human side of the equation, you simply could not do any better.
Going into the real world, like we're seeing this season, is something I always expected the show to do, and I think you got to it at the right time. What do you do after this season and beyond is a total mystery to me because you keep expanding that onion peeling and going outward.
I think a lot of us are wondering what the f— happens next. It's clear we're on some kind of ascent phase of the curve. Things are moving very quickly. There's a global sense of unease. There's a quote from an author I love. He was writing about the first world war, about what sounded like the rap of the conductor's baton just before the orchestra started to play. I think we're all feeling that. We've been talking from the first season about the moment data takes control, the moment the steering wheel starts kicking back in your hands and the algorithm has started driving. We're there. The question of where this goes, I don't think anyone has an answer. History has a mind of its own.