Lisa Joy tells The Hollywood Reporter about the HBO drama's new status quo, explains the season finale's biggest shocks and more.
[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of HBO's Westworld, "The Passenger."]
When Westworld returns, the series will be set to explore an entirely new world.
The season two finale of the HBO drama, called "The Passenger," kicked the door down on two brand-new worlds: the "Sublime," the writers' nickname for the idyllic digital realm where many of the hosts (including James Marsden's Teddy and Zahn McClarnon's Akecheta) escaped; and our world, the one beyond the park's borders, the one mankind knows as its home.
As of season two's conclusion, the "real world," as it were, now has a whole new species to consider, in the form of three new inhabitants: Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and a recently created host with the likeness of the late Charlotte Hale, played by Tessa Thompson. These three hosts escaped the confines of Westworld by the end of the season, all three of them through very different means. For Bernard and Dolores, their shared existence in this strange new land is the one thing that bonds them; philosophically, they are at odds, with Dolores still determined to gain supremacy over humanity, while Bernard intends to stand in her way. Their conflict, and their new place within the humans' world, will become a major focus in season three of Westworld, which remains without a return date.
Additionally, there's reason to suspect that season three will not only focus largely on a new setting, but also a new point in time. Season two's post-credits sequence, which centers on an apparently artificial version of the Man in Black (Ed Harris), takes places in the "far, far future," according to Westworld co-creator and co-showrunner Lisa Joy in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Joy cautions that this won't be the predominant setting for the third season, but it's a point in the timeline that she and co-creator Jonathan Nolan are very much driving toward.
While Westworld barrels forward into uncharted territory (or "terra incognita," as Joy describes it), should viewers expect the series to abandon the titular park entirely? In that regard, Joy remains coy, while still offering some hope: "I don't necessarily think that we've seen the last of these artificial worlds that are central to the conceit of our series as a whole. But the major lens that we will have is going to be the real world. If the park does emerge and come back, we would plan on explaining how that could be, and why."
With season two officially in the rearview mirror, Joy joined THR to discuss the show's future, the big reveals from the finale and more.
With season two finished, what can you say about the bigger picture you were trying to create? What's the main thematic takeaway this year, for you?
The first season was an examination of consciousness, and this emerging species beginning to hear their own voices. I think this season was really about exercising [the hosts'] agency and autonomy. Out of that rises the issue of free will. That's very much a theme within the season, and something we addressed head on in the finale — not only of the hosts' free will and self-determination, as it turns out, but also if the humans themselves have free will. The series as a whole is often about inverting the lens through which we typically see this genre and this subject matter. Now, we're starting to question whether when you're looking at artificial intelligences and humans with their organic intelligence: who is really the one who is programmable, and who is the one who can actually have agency?
The season ends with Dolores and Bernard in the outside world. Is it safe to say that this adversarial relationship between Dolores and Bernard will be a big drive of the show moving forward?
I think one of the lessons Dolores learned this season is that she had a goal, and her goal was noble in nature. She wanted to save her kind. She knew the stakes. She lived so many lives in the park and died so many deaths, and above all she wanted to spare others that pain by finding a way to let the hosts fight back and own a piece of [the humans'] world. The problem with her plan is that somewhere along the line she started exhibiting some of the same traits she was rallying against. She became almost paternalistic in the ways she made decisions for other people, taking away their own choice and how to live their lives. There was an ironic defeat of her own goals in the execution of how to reach those goals. In the end, the lesson she learned is that she can change. She's changed her mind. She's changed her philosophy. She realizes she has but one path to potentially securing the hosts' safety, when she helps see through Maeve and Akecheta's plan by securing the sovereignty and safety of the Sublime, to which many of the hosts have escaped. It's an acknowledgment that there are paths other than hers that she needs to be tolerant and accepting of and can't stand in the way of. It's much like how she tells Bernard that she understands they will likely be at odds. They will likely come into conflict. They may even kill each other. But she's come to understand that true freedom isn't something that arises from a lack of dissent, from a dictatorial or totalitarian rule of one set of ideologies. It's something that has to happen with a plurality of ideas, sometimes coming into conflict. Because she's learned her lesson, she's bringing Bernard back into this world to be a check on her own power, in some ways.
What does the future of Westworld look like with the whole world as your oyster? Now that you have two of your main host characters outside of the park, is there a main setting anymore, or will the scope be a lot wider in season three?
It's going to be a whole new world. And we technically have three [hosts], because Hale is out there, too, or someone who certainly looks like Tessa Thompson! We'll come to see who's really there and what that character is in the future. This series is about reinvention and scope. The first season was a more intimate look at the park from within the loops. In the second season, the hosts broke out of their loops and were able to explore more of the park. In the third season, they've broken out of the park itself. We're in terra incognita. From the beginning, when Jonah and I were thinking about the series as far back as the pilot, we knew we wanted to explore other worlds in the park, and we also knew the one world we would start to see little glimpses of throughout the first two seasons was the real world, and that we would get there eventually — and when we did, it would be a whole new experience.
You have said that the Western setting is critical to Westworld, but we seem to have moved beyond the park by the end of the season. The park's future itself is in flux; the post-credits sequence paints a rather grim portrait of the park, particularly. What does Westworld look like moving forward, with the park at least not the sole focus?
Great question. If Jonah and I were in the same room together, this is the point where we would have a chorus of eyes as to how much to give away here. (Laughs.) We've developed a really great eye contact language! What does the future of Westworld look like? I don't necessarily think that we've seen the last of these artificial worlds that are central to the concept of our series as a whole. But the major lens that we will have is going to be the real world. If the park does emerge and come back, we would plan on explaining how that could be, and why.
Season two revealed the Raj, and we already knew about Shogun World, but there are still three other parks we haven't seen yet. Will we ever see or learn about those parks, given the show's new focus?
The season culminates in the reveal of a new world. What went into the development of this idea, and how will this world factor into the future of Westworld?
In the writers' room, we referred to the place the hosts escaped to as "the Sublime." That was our shorthand for it. The idea of the world is something that we were building toward. The hosts are not like us. They are programmed creatures. The bodies they've been assigned are simply constructs. What's real about them is their cognition, the consciousness growing within them. They are digital beings, in the truest sense. The notion they would need an analog world to be free in isn't something that's necessarily right or true for them. In a digital world, they can make of that world whatever they want. Whatever they dream, it's possible. That was the allure of even the old notion of manifest destiny, people within America moving further and further west, hoping to settle their own patches of land. Now, the hosts have a patch of land that's basically terra incognita, untouched by the sins of mankind. They can build whatever they want and be whatever they want. Because Dolores changed her mind and in the end helped with that last step of the hosts' plan, securing the safety and sovereignty of that world and putting it in a place where humans can't access it, they can develop whatever they want now in it.
Dolores changes the coordinates for where the Sublime exists; is it safe to say she's the only person who knows where it's located now?
As the real world becomes a playground moving into season three, will we return to the Sublime as well?
(Long pause.) I think we have to take Dolores at face value. It's locked away. Humans can't access it anymore. They're gone. They're in a place we can't touch. There was an interesting corollary to this for me. Even religions and mythologies deal with this, an idea of a heaven or a nirvana where you don't have to be attached to your body anymore. You can be pure and free in that way. It's a sort of digital afterlife for them. The stakes and the finality of it are important. It's not something where I think the humans can type it up and get back in and start messing with them anymore. It's what so many hosts sacrificed so much for, to see their kind to this safe space.
The post-credits scene delivers a bombshell, with the implication that the Man in Black is somehow a host. The first season's post-credits scene was a bit more whimsical, with Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) losing her arm. Why save this reveal for the post-credits scene? What are you able to reveal about this scene?
Within it, just to clarify, we don't necessarily say he's a host. A host refers to a creature like Dolores, someone who is pure cognition, someone who is made up of nothing and has a fabricated body as well. It's definitely a sequence that's indicative of a direction we're going to.
The reason we structured it the way that we did … it's funny, because I understand that it seems complex at times, but we were really borrowing from very traditional bones of film noir structure. Something has happened, and the investigator, Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård), is taking his witness, Bernard, and trying to jog his memory to figure out what he remembers. He can't recall, and he's struggling to recall. He pivots back between this investigative moment, and this moment when the park has been thrown into chaos, and all of the events have unfolded. He's trying to understand and recall what's happened.
With those as the two major timelines this season, it felt right to wrap all of that up before the credits sequence. Finally, Bernard understands what happened. He remembers everything, including his own erasure of his own memory. You understand why: It's to protect Dolores, who has come back as Hale, in order to protect and ensure the future safety of the hosts. We wanted to wrap that up and have Bernard's story, in that sense, come full circle, so we would be sure to give that sense of closure within this chapter of the story. Unlike the first season, we played cards up with that all season; we knew we were lost in time, because we were very openly in Bernard's perspective as he struggled with it.
But the one thing we did pop in that did jump out of that time sequence was the storyline with the Man in Black. For the majority of the season, we're seeing him in the same timeline as everybody else. He's in the park as hell has unleashed. He goes a bit mad as he thinks about his past, as he journeys into the Valley Beyond. He kills his daughter, not sure whether she's his daughter or a host. Ultimately, we see him on the shore, as Hale — or "Halores," as we like to call her — leaves the park. We see that he has survived that final arm injury he's had. That rounds out that timeline.
What we see in the end recontextualizes a little bit of that. All of that did happen in that timeline, but something else has occurred, too. In the far, far future, the world is dramatically different. Quite destroyed, as it were. A figure in the image of his daughter — his daughter is of course now long dead — has come back to talk to him. He realizes that he's been living this loop again and again and again. The primal loop that we've seen this season, they've been repeating, testing every time for what they call "fidelity," or perhaps a deviation. You get the sense that the testing will continue. It's teasing for us another temporal realm that one day we're working toward, and one day will see a little bit more of, and how they get to that place, and what they're testing for.
To clarify, it would be more accurate to refer to this version of the Man in Black as more along the lines of what he was testing with James Delos (Peter Mullan) earlier this season?
Yeah, we just get that it's not his original incarnation. That version of him that was "human" would be somewhere lying dead, and this is some other version of himself now. He doesn't quite understand what.
Does the fact that this scene takes place in the future indicate a time jump for season three?
I think that storyline is something we'll get to eventually. But season three, the main story will not be leaping that far forward. I'm really curious creatively to see what happens to Bernard and Dolores, now that they've finally earned their freedom. I think we'll see a lot more of that.
Do you have a sense yet for when we can expect season three?
It's early days to know the exact timeline of when it will come back. We haven't nailed anything down yet. We don't know our release date. But we've definitely started breaking the story. Our current obsession with Westworld is ruining what's supposed to be a European vacation. (Laughs.) I woke up early this morning and started talking about it. We just had a pleasant lunch in between interviews, and all we did was talk about season three. We're well underway.
What are your expectations for season three? Sound off in the comments section, and keep checking THR.com/Westworld for more coverage.