Last we left Westworld, the theme park populated by AI “hosts” programmed to fulfill every last desire of their human “guests,” the tables had turned: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the sweet-tempered rancher’s daughter, put a bullet in the head of Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the project’s mastermind, and set in motion what Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy describes as “revolution.”
Joy and co-creator/husband Jonathan Nolan joined several members of the main cast at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night to discuss the Season Two premiere of HBO’s blockbuster science fiction, “Journey into Night.” The episode picks up in the aftermath of the hosts’ massacre of the guests, as the central characters—Dolores and her paramour, gunslinger Teddy Flood (James Marsden); programmer and former Ford acolyte Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright); and rebellious madam Maeve Millay (series standout Thandie Newton)—are scattered to the four winds. Guided by the moderator, The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, cast and creators discussed (in a mostly non-spoiler-y way) what we can expect from the new season, from the series’ political relevance to its complex narrative structure. As Newton said, “Just you fuckin’ wait, man.”
One of the driving factors of Season Two is Maeve’s decision to return to Westworld despite creating an opportunity to escape—even though that decision threw Newton for a loop.
“I was in complete denial,” Newton said of the moment, which comes near the end of the Season One finale. “I wanted her to get out of there so desperately, and I was wedded to that belief.”
Though Maeve’s choice was hard to reconcile at first — “I swear to God, even though I saw the whole fuckin’ season, I thought, ‘They don’t mean it! No, no, no, no, no. She’s going to go,’” Newton remembered — the Emmy nominee soon came to see it as a rational one. “Of course she’s not going to leave the park, because it’s a nightmare out there. She’s done everything to escape these motherfucking human beings. As if she’s going to go into a world where it’s completely populated by them… It was this state of limbo, purgatory, hell that she finds herself in. It’s not as simple as “going back into the park.” It’s, “My liberation is a disaster. And what I’m going toward is a disaster.”
Dolores hasn’t simply evolved—after the introduction of Wyatt, the charismatic killer whose narrative Dolores’ own is merged with, she’s become an entirely new character. Or is it characters?
“I really didn’t know who my character was [in] Season Two,” Wood, also nominated for an Emmy for the series, confessed during the Q&A. “There was this kind of character, Wyatt, talked about in hushed tones, and it was like this thing, at the finale, of like, ‘OK, I’m really Wyatt! Who is that?’”
Instead, she went on to explain, the character came together through a process of trial and error, made in collaboration with Nolan and Joy as production on Season Two continued.
“We would just try different things when we could, and played around with different levels,” Wood said. “How much of the old Dolores should be there? How much of Wyatt should be there? How much of the accent should be there? When should the accent be there? When should the accent drop? When should it come back? We kind of made these rules for her about different situations that she’s in, and who the dominant character would be in different situations and with different people.”
Wyatt’s presence also reshapes Dolores and Teddy’s romance, which remains a key storyline in Season Two.
“We actually made running jokes about this on set: ‘So, how does our relationship dynamic change now that I’m Wyatt?’” Wood laughed. “What I loved about their storyline this season is that they’re dealing with this revolution and they’re awakened to this dream which they’re realizing is a nightmare, and they’re still having the same relationship problems that any of us have… [C]an you cope with your partner changing? Or feeling like you’re being forced to change? How can this love survive evolution, and this new climate, and war? How much of it is programming and how much of it is real?”
After spending much of Season One as “a walking bag of bullets,” Marsden noted, Teddy’s own self-awareness began to take shape much later than Dolores’ or Maeve’s, near the end of the arc. Which means that the emergence of Wyatt catches him especially off guard: “It was happening in the middle of absolute chaos, and the little ranch girl that he felt like he needed to protect all of a sudden doesn’t need so much protection.”
To put it more succinctly, as Wood joked, Season Two asks, “What do sentient robots have issues with when they’re in love?”
Much of the speculation around Season One focused on the series’ multiple timelines (of which there are three, at least so far). Season Two continues the chronological confusion, which carried over into the non-sequential filming.
”[Bernard’s] faculties are complete debilitated [in Season Two], so, for me, it was kind of interesting, actually,” Wright said of the production process. “I kind of insisted that I just focus on the moment. And that’s really in some ways what Bernard is going through. In the midst of this chaos and the rebellion of the computers, the most granular understanding of his existence [is what] he’s struggling with—his orientation in time and place.”
“Hey, hey. What episode is this?” Wood chimed in with a stage whisper at one point, which she and Wright quickly turned into an Abbott and Costello routine about episode numbers.
“I described it early on as Bernard waking up on the beach or in a mud pile in the middle of Woodstock having eaten the wrong acid, and everything has gone to hell,” Wright said of the disorientation felt by actors and characters alike. “Psilocybin Bernard.”
There’s much less nudity in Season Two.
“I assumed I’d come back for Season Two and have to get naked,” Newton said. “I remember reading episode one and being like, ‘But I’m wearing clothes.’ And not only was I wearing clothes, I then get other clothes to wear. A whole new costume! Shit, man! I went to Lisa and I said, ‘Lisa, I’m not naked.’ And she’s like, ‘Why the hell would Maeve want to get naked again?’” (“When the hosts get power, they’re not going to spend a lot of time naked on a stool,” Joy offered.)
Before the panel concluded, Newton described how conscientious Nolan and Joy were about using nudity as a storytelling tool, not an element of titillation, as well as in making the set a safe space during nude scenes. “I just wanted to cry, because I’d never, ever been treated [that well] in a situation when I was nude,” Newton praised the Westworld team, remembering her first such scene on the series. “On the one hand, I was so appreciative, and on the other I was horrified at what I’d been through up until then.”
On the other hand, there’s much more theme park.
“You knew you were going to start with a Western, and at a certain point you would be a little unlimited where you could take the story, and I found that fucking terrifying,” Nolan chuckled, when asked of Season Two’s glimpses of Shogun World and other Westworld-style amusements.
After focusing much of their research on Westerns in Season One—especially Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West—he and Joy were excited to expand the number of perspectives for Season Two. (Shogun World led them to bring in a Japanese cast and Japanese choreographers, for instance.) As Nolan said, citing Akira Kurosawa as an inspiration, they enjoyed “the challenge of coming into another season and getting to build not just other worlds, but getting to pay homage to other filmmakers and use the same film stocks and trying to design in the same color palette and the same costumes.”
Let’s just say current events have given Westworld an added sense of relevance since it debuted on October 2, 2016.
For Newton, the political climate begins to explain why Maeve has become perhaps the series’ most beloved character. “She responded to the betrayal of what had happened to her in such a profound way, and I think that’s what audiences related to,” Newton said. “If you discover that everything about who you are, all the promises that were made to you, your identity is all a lie. It’s something we can relate to. That we’re being lied to. That our protectors, gods, are just creating a madness for us all to pay for.”
Nolan sounded similar themes, though his point of reference in Season Two—which delves further into the motives of Delos, Westworld’s corporate owner—is more recent.
“Any similarities to any social media companies that may or may not be photocopying our fucking brains are purely coincidental,” he joked, when asked about the parallels between the plot of Season Two and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. “A company can have an ostensible purpose for the consumer and a completely different purpose for the shareholder. And then maybe a completely different purpose for that company’s founders. Google’s one great example. Facebook’s another. Facebook ostensibly is a way for you to connect with people, and that’s not their business at all. Their business is to sell you shit and try to read your mind… It’s a cynical business model, and it’s one that lends itself to delicious reinterpretation on our show.”
Prompted by Wright, he went on to draw the link further, to tyrannical state power, in such a way that Wood mimed a mic drop when he was finished: “Informal social networks are the greatest weapon against authoritarian regimes,” Nolan said. “It took Raul Castro 20 years all the informal networks in Cuba. it took us five years to volunteer that information to a college dropout who then gave it away to the fuckin’ Russians.”
Season Two of Westworld premieres Sunday, April 22 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.