10:00pm PT by Josh Wigler
'Westworld' Creators Explain "Terrible," "Devastating" Game-Changing Reveal
[Warning: This story contains massive spoilers for the seventh episode of HBO's Westworld.]
"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?"
It's a question posed throughout Westworld, as technicians and scientists analyze and diagnose the hosts. Indeed, it's a question often posed by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the park's main scientific mind second only to founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). It's not a question he often asks himself, however — and based on the ending of the show's seventh episode, it's certainly one he'll be asking himself a lot moving forward.
In the episode, "Trompe L'Oeil," one of the most prevailing fan theories receives a resounding answer: Bernard is indeed a host. The reveal comes at the end of the hour, as Bernard and his colleague and former lover Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) search Robert Ford's secret cottage, where he builds and houses his own off-the-grid hosts. They discover that Bernard is one such host, despite the fact that he has powerful personal memories and motivations, including grief over the loss of his young son Charlie. Making matters worse, Ford subsequently commands Bernard to murder Theresa, one of the biggest thorns in Ford's side. Bernard obliges, making this the show's first instance of a host killing a human being, at least as far as it's been presented thus far.
For more on the massive moment, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy about planning the Bernard reveal, the different kinds of horror at play in the scene, and their thoughts on telling a twisting-and-turning narrative in an age where online theorizing sometimes arrives at the answer before the show conveys the information.
When did you land on the idea that Bernard is a host?
Jonathan Nolan: That was always the intention with his character. We knew that Ford … as you come to know Anthony Hopkins' character in the show, you start to realize the depth of his misanthropy. He plays as a cipher for much of the season, and that's intentional. There's no actor more capable of portraying ambiguous moral standing than Tony onscreen. The idea that he would create his own collaborators felt natural to us and was baked into the story from the beginning. We only shared it with Jeffrey after the pilot. As with all of our actors, we only doled out information on a need-to-know basis. As much as possible, we tried to keep them in the present tense with the narrative. But for Jeffrey, for a number of reasons, it was important he understood the exact kind of creature he's portraying onscreen.
How did he react to the news?
Nolan: (Laughs.) Well, he had his own theories.
Lisa Joy: He did have his own theories. I remember he was sitting on the couch, and he kind of took a moment: "Oh … oh!" And he kind of sat back: "Oh, I'm going to need to think about that and process it all." For me, it was hilarious. I have long been a superfan of Jeffrey Wright's, and it's been a dream getting to work with him. I remember when he first came on board, I was like, "Jeffrey, hold on, man. I know what you're capable of and you're going to do it all." It was such a pleasure to get to see him play this incredibly multifaceted role.
What were your goals in crafting the reveal? The final scene of episode seven takes several twists and turns with multiple gut punches along the way.
Nolan: The visual language of the show up to this point, and we established it in the pilot and onwards, has been for the most part neutral. It's not a show that's overstylized. We wanted the way the show was photographed and presented to be quite neutral — but favoring the hosts. A lot of the ways the shots are constructed, you see it most often, to this point, with Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), we position the frame to allow the camera to favor them. That was a request for the [directors of photography] and the [camera] operators. What we wanted to explore is the idea in the series that … when you go back and look at the pilot, it's told almost exclusively from the perspective of the hosts. You imagine with Bernard that you're getting the [human perspective], but that pilot is really about hosts. Almost all of the major characters, most of the moments are glimpsed from their perspective. That's something that becomes very apparent in this episode. The perspective was something we talked about a lot. When Bernard walks into that room, when he walked into that cottage before in the previous episode, Ford appears seemingly from nowhere. When we come back, it's one shot that rakes across the room. Bernard walks into the room, there's no door, the camera pans back over, and Theresa brings up the door. That's a moment we talked about an awful lot, in terms of the horror of realizing that your reality has been carefully curated. Your day-to-day life, you may be missing important aspects of your reality that are hiding in plain sight. For Bernard, it's this horrifying moment that slips past: "There's a door here, and I haven't seen it." He takes it in stride because he's programmed to do so. And indeed, he takes in stride — at least at first — seeing a schematic of himself. We loved the idea of him sort of stumbling upon the place in which he was brought into the world without realizing the significance of the place. You have this wonderful dynamic between Sidse Babett Knudsen and Jeffrey, and then of course you have the wonderful Tony Hopkins who gets to wade into this scene in the middle of it and lay out a bit more of his philosophy of consciousness and whether humans are privileged in that regard or not.
One of the promises of Westworld is that the hosts are on a journey of self-discovery. Certainly in the film, that idea manifests in the hosts physically harming the guests. It's felt that the show has been building to a similar moment, and now, here we are, albeit in an unexpected way: Bernard killing Theresa. Can you talk about using those two characters who were lovers up until very recently as the first figures involved in fulfilling the show's promise of a host killing a human?
Joy: This example is one in which the host really didn't want to kill the human being. It's more proof of their subjugation. Bernard, as he self-identifies as a human, is a gentle and contemplative and loving soul. That kind of act of violence, especially against someone he cares about as he cares about Theresa, would be anathema to his character. The scene is terrible and devastating on a couple of fronts. One, of course, because of Theresa's death. The other is because of what it means for Bernard, who did not want to do that. There is blood on his hands that he would never want there now, and he realizes that he's a pawn in a game he can't control. There are two great victims in that scene, and for me, that really enhances the tragedy of it.
Bernard feels so much distress and conflict as he starts piecing together the nature of his reality. And then it's a sudden shift into stone-cold robot mode. What were your conversations like with Jeffrey about how to play Bernard's reactions to this reveal?
Nolan: We talked a lot about it. As Lisa said, Jeffrey is one of our all-time favorite actors. We were so excited when he said yes to this role. It's a slow burn with the role. As we said, he's a very gentle, thoughtful and pensive guy. And then, seven episodes in, there's this sudden flood of emotion, and then it's turned off again. It's a moment we've seen before. In interviews and to us, Evan has referred to it as the "acting Olympics," being asked to [turn it on and off]. The story we're telling, and what the actors have to do with their own process, is kind of a fascinating intersection. It's a presentation of emotion and the ability of the actor to turn it off. … It's easy to write these things, and extraordinarily difficult to portray them in front of the camera in front of Sidse Babett Kndusen and Tony Hopkins on a cold set, trying to get to that place. So we talked a lot about how authentic that emotion should feel. I think it's perfectly authentic, but coming from a character who has been built and designed to not be terribly emotional, but to be thoughtful and pensive. That's a challenge to begin with. Jeffrey has to turn it all off. It was incredible being with him on set, watching him shoot these scenes. We were incredibly excited about the place he was able to get himself to, and then pull himself out of. The cold, dead expression in his eyes as he murders Theresa and leaves was just chilling. It's a testament to his extraordinary talent.
The question that's on Bernard's mind in this moment is also the question on the viewer's mind. What about his wife? What about Charlie? We even see a scene between Bernard and his son at the beginning of the episode. So, how do we reconcile this? If Bernard is a host, are his family members nothing more than expressions of his programming?
Joy: It's interesting, because every host, as we've talked about before, has a cornerstone and backstory. That's what tethers them to the truth of their reality and their character. It seems that Bernard's story is his family. There are also practical things that happen. When he goes and calls his wife and they have this conversation. … It's funny, because the script is written in a way to mimic, in different words, in more naturalistic words, a conversation you would have with a grieving ex-wife. They mimic the diagnostics that the hosts are given down below. She asks him if he ever questions the nature of his reality, essentially, if he's been having dreams. Basically, while part of it is to reinforce Bernard's sense of his own backstory, part of it is also a way for Ford to check up on him and make sure he's not reaching.
The host that's being created in this diagnostic facility — is it safe to say that this host is going to matter in the future?
Nolan: (Pauses.) No, not in a literal sense. I think there's a suggestion here that Ford has been up to something, that he's slipped the leash of corporate control, and that his secrets permeate the park, in addition to Arnold's. We thought that gave things a creepy sense. We'll return to that much later down the road.
It's more about the idea, then, than about the specific host?
Joy: It speaks to the kind of overarching thing that Ford is doing right now. He's making this great narrative. He's terraforming the park for parts of it. He's creating characters for it. It speaks to the idea that there's not a lot of oversight if he's creating some of these characters literally off the grid. There are not a lot of people who know exactly what he's planning for the park.
Westworld is wrapped in mystery and secrecy. It's a show that invites speculation and theorizing. Some fans certainly have been wondering whether or not Bernard's a host. There are other theories that some fans feel they're closing in on as well — they could be very right, or very wrong. I'm curious about your perspective on that, the Reddit age of consuming a show like Westworld. If people see the bullets coming, is that distressing to you as a writer? Or is it exciting that viewers are paying close enough attention to pick up on these clues and get their suspicions rewarded in some cases?
Nolan: I think it's both. It's very exciting when people correctly guess where the narrative is going, because you've done your job. I'm very much a believer that you have to on some level play fair with the audience. I do this for a living, so there are many movies over the years that I've guessed the ending to, and thoroughly enjoyed anyway. Lisa and I both watch and adore Mr. Robot. It's a good global example. I love Reddit. I've been reading Reddit. I don't do social media, and Reddit is sort of the non-social version of social media. I've been reading that website for the better part of a decade. But for shows I like, I don't tend to go to the subreddit while the series is ongoing, because I don't want it spoiled. The thing about theorizing is that occasionally, you're going to be right. The distinction between a theory and a spoiler becomes moot if someone guesses correctly. With a sufficient number of guesses and with an organizing mechanism like Reddit, where good guesses can get more karma, people are going to deduce things that are correct about the show — and they're going to deduce things that aren't correct. But you do have the ability to spoil it for yourself. For myself, I stayed away from the Mr. Robot subreddit, because I didn't want to know. I want to experience the show fresh. That said, [Mr. Robot creator] Sam Esmail very carefully and beautifully lays in and plays fair with the audience. He lays in the clues you'll need, not because you need to solve a puzzle, but because that show reflects the reality of the character. That character has a tenuous grip on reality. Our show is very similar. Our hosts, as we've told you from the beginning, they don't fully understand the world around them. Their reality is curated. Their memory is either nonexistent or carefully curated or accidental, so their experience of memory is something we're playing with in the show. Bernard's experience with the reality around him is something we're playing with in the show. When he walks into the cottage, twice now, in the previous episode, Ford appears as if out of thin air. Having watched the next episode, you now understand that there was a door there. There's a literal door that Bernard is unable to see until Theresa steps through it. The idea that his reality is curated is something that's been feeding the narrative from the very first episode. We wanted to lay it in as carefully as possible. Ultimately, you make these shows the way you would like to experience them. If you're playing fair with the audience, there's some indication along the way of where the narrative is going. But I also like to be surprised.
Joy: The important thing for me, the way that I approach these things, is that it's also not just about the reveal. It's not just about whether or not you guessed that Bernard is a host. It's about what happens next, and that's not about reveals. It's all about character and emotions. We now know that he's a host, and it's an aha moment. But the thing that happens next is far more devastating. We see the implications of that reveal play out on the character level. He's forced to kill his lover, and the toll it takes on him … that, for me, is the part of the episode that truly wallops me. The twist is one thing, but the way that it lands? That's what sticks.
Follow THR's Westworld coverage for more interviews, news and analysis.