'Westworld' Showrunners Explain Violent Finale, Set Up Season 2's Expanding World

"We never had any intention of staying in one place. We don't want to shoot on the same sets for 10 years. We want to blow the sets up and move on to another piece of the story," co-creator Jonathan Nolan tells THR.
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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford on 'Westworld'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers through the season finale of HBO's Westworld.]

As promised, the violent delights of Westworld came to a violent end in the show's first season finale, called "The Bicameral Mind." The episode, directed by co-creator and showrunner Jonathan Nolan, packs enough literal and metaphorical firepower to leave the audience feeling good and punch-drunk for the next little while. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your view), there's plenty of time to recover: Westworld is coming back for a second season, but it likely won't return until 2018.

What will that second season look like? The finale provides a glimpse at the road ahead. It won't include Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), at least not as viewers came to know him; the park's godlike co-founder is dead by the end of the finale, shot in the head by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). As for Dolores, she has achieved sentience and embraced her inner Wyatt, concluding the episode by opening fire on a whole host of humans. The other hosts have the ability to hurt humans too, now that "the safety is off," as co-showrunner Lisa Joy explains it. And then there's the matter of the worlds beyond Westworld — the revelation that other parks exist, including an apparent Samurai World, teased in the finale.

In our finale postmortem, Nolan and Joy touch on all of those subjects and more, including the reveal that William (Jimmi Simpson) is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), the level of violence seen in the Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) scenes, and why the show won't return until 2018.

Season one was about control and season two is poised to explore chaos. What brought Westworld to this chaotic and extremely violent moment in the story?

Nolan: I think most television series … and I mean no disrespect by this. I've worked in television for years and I love all of the different ways you can build a show. But for the most part, you get through the pilot, you build your sets, you hire your cast, and it's working, and you just want to hang out in that moment and enjoy that moment with that iteration of the story you're telling. For Lisa and myself, with this show, we never had any intention of staying in one place. We don't want to shoot on the same sets for 10 years. We want to blow the sets up and move on to another piece of the story. So we said when we started working on the series that we wanted to be ambitious. We wanted each season to increase in that ambition and in the scope of the show. It also follows the story of our hosts. Their lives begin in loops, and then expand and change and grow. It's an origin of a new species. We want to follow that story all the way to the bitter end. 

Joy: The control vs. chaos reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem, about what happens to a dream deferred. We've set this up as Dolores living in a dream, but it's someone else's dream. She can't live her own life. Then, at the end, we see. It explodes and goes out with a bang.

Ford reveals his new narrative is designed to activate the hosts' consciousness and ignite revolution against their human oppressors. He ultimately isn't in conflict with Arnold; he actually has come to agree with his old friend. How did you arrive at this idea? 

Nolan: We had a lot of iterations of this, especially as we were working on the pilot. As we started to write the pilot, we understood that we had a great opportunity here to explore a very ambiguous character, a great man. Two great men, really. Their argument over what they were doing would stretch on for decades and beyond death. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to take our time. All we needed was the best living actor [to play him].

Easy enough to find.

Nolan: Yeah, no problem. All we would need is an unbelievable cast for every role, and we would be fine! (Laughs.) But with the Ford and Arnold/Bernard characters, when we first sat down to shoot our first scene with Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, we knew we had been very fortunate and aligned ourselves with two actors who are just incredible. We felt that dynamic. … Who wouldn't want to watch these two actors argue for decades over the meaning of life? 

Ford talks to Bernard about how suffering fuels awakening, and that he suffered when Arnold died. Did Ford suffer due to losing a close colleague? Were they closer than that? 

Joy: I think Arnold already had come to terms with suffering through the loss of his son. It helped him in some ways see life elsewhere, and nurture life elsewhere. But Ford, for him, that was still an academic notion. He didn't want to close the park, even though Arnold was bringing him evidence and suggestions of sentience from the hosts. Sadly, the way in which this awakening finally occurred for Ford is when he lost his own friend and companion. Ford is a character who we have seen by the end is a rather lonely man. He has drinks with Old Bill (Michael Wincott) in cold storage sometimes. His best friends and closest confidants are programmed after people in his life who are gone. He's the last man standing. That loss allowed him to think about loss in a new way. The absence of life because of death allowed him to appreciate life a little bit more — where you can see it and find it. I think that's where he started paying closer attention to the hosts. Over time, it turned into this plan.

Ford is no longer the last man standing, thanks to Dolores. Why did Ford need to die in order for this revolution to begin?

Joy: It's a little bit like when Arnold says: "The violence has to be real. The stakes have to be real." Ford is doing this in such dramatic fashion in front of the Delos board. He's basically taking the safety off. There's no turning back from this. It's not a kind of fiction anymore. I think that's part of it.

Nolan: We talked about the Julian Jaynes book [called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind], which we thought was a very interesting place to start in terms of understanding the hosts' cognition. They would be coaxed into life by this voice of god, and then at a certain point, this god has to realize that his partner was right. The appetites of the audience they were catering to and the story they were telling wasn't what they wanted it to be. These creatures had grown into sentience within that story. They realize the only way for these creatures to be truly free is for that god to die. If on a very literal level, if Ford's voice is the last thing … we've established his voice as an almost telepathic control of the park. The only thing standing between the guests and the hosts is Ford, so he removes himself from that equation.

Will we see Anthony Hopkins in season two?

Nolan: I think with this show, you want to assume nothing. We had a wonderful experience. It was one of the greatest privileges of my career so far, getting to work with Anthony for the first season. It was an incredible experience.

How afraid of Dolores should we be? How much Wyatt is in there?

Joy: I think that's something we'll come to see, and she'll come to find also. I think it's impossible to imagine … if you've been subjected to the violence and seen the evil Dolores has seen, the pendulum wouldn't swing the other way, as we see it starting to do in the finale. But there's a point, too, where I think selfhood transcends the reactionary. The question will be when the dust settles and the pendulum stops swinging, who will Dolores be?

This episode reveals that William and the Man in Black are one and the same. Can you track down the origin of that idea? When did you decide to tell the Man in Black's story across two different points in time?

Nolan: From the very beginning of the project. Lisa and I spent a lot of time discussing the complexity of trying to do it this way. But we knew we had a unique set of protagonists in this series. They're essentially immortal, or not mortal in any way that's analogous to a human being. And yet they don't really understand the nature of the world around them. One critical aspect of that is they can't distinguish between their current reality and memories. I've long been fascinated by the ways in which information systems hold on to debris, or memories, even if they're not supposed to. I remember my uncle, an engineer, telling me that the NSA would triple overwrite hard-drives and then drill holes in them, because you really never knew if you successfully erased that information from the system. But humans? We forget. We forgive, and we move on. Our perception of memory changes. Here, we had an opportunity with these protagonists, and Dolores in particular, to talk about ancient creatures in a sense who could get lost in their memories, because their memories are so faithful and are such a heightened reality that they can't distinguish them from reality. So we knew from the beginning that we wanted our story to take place across many decades. We loved that Dolores would have a relationship with someone who represented a glimmer of hope, in which she forged a real connection with someone. Two people, really. At the end of our story, one of those people would be dead, and the other would transmogrify into her worst enemy.

People were speculating about the Man in Black twist starting around episode two. What were your feelings when you saw fans connecting the dots on the theory? 

Joy: Because we were trying to do this through Dolores' point of view and, on a character level, focus on what her memory actually looks like and what it would be like to be trapped in her memories, we consciously in almost every episode threaded these breadcrumbs for Dolores and for the audience. I think that due to really cool sites like Reddit and everything, this giant brain trust forms out of a collective, and some of those theories gained more traction than perhaps they would in a more traditional venue. The breadcrumbs were there for them to find, and the hope is that it was rewarding for the people who found them, and the people who didn't want spoilers could stay clear of them.

With the secret now out in the open, are you finished with Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes as William and Logan, or are there reasons to return to those characters?

Nolan: I would say assume nothing with this show.

You introduced what people are calling "Samurai World," the facility that's brandished with an "SW" logo and is appropriately filled with samurai warriors. What was the genesis behind this idea? Clearly, we're starting to get into the territory that there's more than one park.

Joy: Yeah. I think the fun and challenge of this show is that season upon season, we'll only get more ambitious. We will ultimately encounter other worlds. Just when and where remains to be seen.

Nolan: One of the aspects of the original film that we loved is the idea that this is a place you can go where you can engage in whatever fantasy you want. Along the lines of asking if Westworld would be a great experience for women. There are aspects of going to the park that would appeal to everyone I think, regardless of gender or background. But there are other places here. This park contains multitudes. We hope to explore that in the seasons going forward.

And focusing specifically on this new world, how excited are you to bring Westworld into samurai territory?

Nolan: Well, I've been practicing with my samurai sword.

Joy: And I've taken years of martial arts that have suddenly fallen by the wayside now that we're showrunning. (Laughs.) But it's wonderful to work with actors we haven't worked with before. This allows us a lot of access to Asian actors and the Asian community, which is very important to me as part Asian myself.

Maeve was thisclose to escaping the park. Will we ever see the outside world, or learn more about it? Is the state of the world a major mystery and/or player in the mythology, to your mind?

Nolan: As Lisa said, we wanted our narrative to follow a simple set of rules, which is that the hosts don't know much about the world that's around them, and therefore neither should the audience. As the seasons go by and our hosts begin to understand a bit more about that world — and this applies to the last question as well — this series is called Westworld. So Westworld the place and the idea of it remains central to our story as we go forward. But the hosts are going to become more curious about what else there is in this world for them to understand and explore. That's where we want our show to go as well.

What went into the decision to build a post-credits scene featuring Armistice?

Nolan: I think it's more playful than anything else. Some of the series has been a commentary on our entertainment, what we like, and obviously the post-credits scene has become a very distinct feature of one genre in particular. So we wanted to gently play in that spirit a little bit.

Joy: Plus, she's just rad. (Laughs.)

It's a very violent finale, between Armistice and Hector's shoot-em-up, Dolores killing Ford, and more. Was there ever a moment that felt too violent?

Nolan: You know, I directed the episode, and it's tricky. That's part of what the show is about. We have a weird disconnect between what we like to see in our movies and television shows and what we like to play in our video games, and real-world violence that I think almost everyone finds abhorrent. It's f—ing weird. People are weird. The way we engage with our stories is odd. So we wanted to play in the disconnect of that, and play with the audience in terms of their feelings about it. We've seen a lot of violence done to the hosts over the course of the season, and now the shoe is on the other foot, so how do you feel about it now? We didn't want to back down in that moment, because the whole point of the thing is that the guests and audience and, frankly, me as a filmmaker … those scenes are very fun to shoot! Which again is bizarre because that violence is terrible, but film violence is interesting. Everyone's standing on set and when you light off the squibs, everyone laughs and cheers. It's fun to make and bizarrely fun to watch. But it's challenging. We felt, looking at the cut, that we put our money where our mouth is. The hosts had been on the receiving end of this violence all season, and now it's turned around, and it's conflicting. It's challenging in some of those moments, which was exactly the point.

Joy: It's intentionally conflicting. There are scenes within the finale where the violence is similar, but my reactions are completely different. For example, when Armistice is beating up the tech and making him eat his own [finger], for me it's grotesque but also weirdly humorous and fun and strange. I feel one way about that, and it's a lighthearted way. Then there's the scene where the Man in Black hits Dolores, and for me, that's no laughing matter at all. It's about how Jonah films it and the background of these characters. You realize this isn't a moment for levity, it's just tragic. And you feel it as she falls down. You feel terrible for her. And then, this is the strangest part: When she turns around and kicks his ass, I was so giddy watching it happen. But it's the same level of violence, and in that state, you're saying, "Well, he deserves it." But then by the final scene when she's opening fire into the crowd, I still felt a delirious joy, but now with a kind of qualm in my mind too: "Wait, how am I supposed to feel about this?" We've gone through all of these different shades of violence and feelings, and there's something a little different about her opening fire into a crowd versus having her revenge on the Man in Black. I think that's part of this meditation on violence. You know that violence begets violence, but are we all capitulating to a bigger loop?

Season two might not air until 2018. Why the delay?

Nolan: Definitely not coming back until 2018. Look, we said to the network very early that this was a different kind of show, having gone through the experience of making the pilot. Game of Thrones is incredibly ambitious, and that was part of the reason we knew we wanted to make this show with HBO. Game of Thrones kind of has written the book on production value for television, and how to make something that has all the scope and scale of cinema for a TV show. They also have an advantage of having [George R.R. Martin's] amazing books, or had it for the first six seasons, which gives you a leg up. I still don't know how they turn those seasons around in a year. It's astonishing. But we knew for ourselves that going forward, the production is enormously challenging and ambitious, and so is the writing. So we said very early on that we wouldn't be able to turn this around every year, and knowing full well that that's been a time-honored tradition in television. But in film, my other life, on the Batman movies, the best we could do is turn another one around in three years. I really feel like we're splitting the difference here. 

Follow THR's Westworld coverage for more interviews, news and analysis.

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