SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Passenger,” the second season finale of “Westworld.”
When “Westworld” introduced the idea of a “door” to another world for the hosts in the alternate reality theme park, it left a lot of questions dangling about just where that door would lead, what the hosts’ place would be in the world on the other side, and who might be able to escape. The second season finale answered all of those questions definitively — but as series co-creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan points out, the seeds for those answers had been planted from the beginning.
“As Ford and Dolores and Arnold have all observed at various moments in both seasons, humans don’t take very well to rivals,” he tells Variety. “Ford said in the first season that if there were any competitive species to us we f—ed or ate them out of existence. And this planet and our culture has been defined — and as you turn on the news, it’s continuing to be defined — by scarcity of resources and in groups, out groups. Life on this planet has been defined by competition.”
And so has life within the world of “Westworld,” with the humans planting a digital door in the theme park that only the hosts, also digital or otherwise artificial intelligence, could see. Appearing to them as a rift in their universe, when they ran through it, they found themselves in an expanse of field — but it was only in their minds. In reality, they plunged to their demise off of a cliff.
In creating that door, Nolan says the most important thing was to suggest immediately that it was not going to lead to a literal place, which is why it shimmered and why the humans could not see it. But for the hosts, it had to resemble a kind of paradise, for which the “Westworld” crew looked for landscapes across the Southwest United States that “would be evocative enough that you could come back to them again and again.”
One of those landscapes was Lake Powell, an area Nolan and co-creator, co-showrunner and wife Lisa Joy drove around while writing the pilot and “fell in love with.” “The concept of Lake Powell was this place that was a canyon but was flooded was wonderful and something we wanted to come back to,” he says. Another was the Pinnacles in California, which Nolan calls “one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever shot.” Then it became about matching them for their digital creation.
“We went out there with three crews and helicopters and the whole bit and shot for several days, putting this together,” he says. “And then of course the work was Jay Worth, our visual effects supervisor, working with our production designer Howard Cummings to create the rift in reality.”
But while a number of the hosts, including Teddy (James Marsden) ran through the rift and experienced a digital escape, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was able to make a more literal one. Aided by Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), Dolores’ consciousness was planted into a copy of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and allowed to leave the theme park.
Nolan points out that was teased in a line in the first season finale, when Ford asked Dolores if she understood who she must become to leave this place. He almost put in the recap ahead of the second season finale, but ultimately felt would be “too on the nose.”
“Ford has been preparing this for an awfully long time … he’s not the author of this evolution, but he’s an underwriter of it,” says Nolan. “And in doing that, it always seemed to us that it would be incredibly important that he would have laid in place one or two final pieces of insurance to make sure [it worked].”
Since the hosts’ bodies were designed to prevent them from leaving the theme park, Nolan says, escape would have been impossible without outside help. For Dolores this started when Bernard made a copy of Charlotte, but it continued when Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) revealed that he knew Charlotte wasn’t really Charlotte and let her leave anyway.
“We’ve seen, from the pilot, Stubbs knows a little bit more about these hosts than you would expect this callous security chief to know. There’s an odd form of paternalism in play there whenever he deals with them. So we felt like Ford would have laid in place everything he could to ensure that the hosts wanted to remain in the world would have gotten as good a chance to survive,” Nolan says. “Who better than Stubbs, hiding in plain sight, to be one of the most important pieces of insurance there?”
Once Dolores got out and created a copy of her own body, she also brought back Bernard, despite admitting how much his methods and desires may challenge her own.
“You turn on the news these days and it feels like there are at least two different types of human beings with different value systems, and it’s frustrating in a democracy [but] they’re almost in perfect opposition to one another, these values that we hold,” Nolan says. “So we were very interested in this idea that Dolores’ take on it, and I think Dolores would be a student of the game enough to understand, ‘OK humans are the master of survival on this planet — they out-competed everything else — and one of those strategies, even if it’s just a subconscious one or more of an accidental or evolutional one, is a selection of this team of rivals approach.”
Nolan notes that in bringing along Bernard, Dolores is acknowledging that her strategy might not be the only one for survival. But, on a more “elemental level,” he continues, she sees herself as the last of her kind and has the opportunity to hand-pick who to bring with her. Who else she carried along in her bag remains to be seen in the third season.
“The nature of who the hosts are and who they can be, we can have a lot of fun with that,” Nolan admits.
The idea of any of the characters — human and host alike — in “Westworld” having free will to make choices like Dolores did or being destined to get stuck in a loop, as James Delos (Peter Mullan) did, is also one that the show dove into deeply in the second season. While hosts were becoming self-aware and making decisions they thought were their own, flashbacks showed William (Jimmi Simpson, then Ed Harris) testing a copy of Delos to see if he was beholden to his original’s patterns. And as the finale revealed, William, too, was being tested.
The idea that William was in a loop of his own was something Nolan says he and Joy initially started to write into the pilot, but then thought they might be getting ahead of themselves. But given that William had a “fierce commitment to exploring” the possibilities of the Forge, let alone being the architect of the company’s secret purpose with the Forge, Nolan says that “it always felt right that he would be hoisted [by] his own petard.”
“There are moments and choices in your life that are these cornerstone moments — these moments that end up defining you. And part of the challenge for the architects of the Forge is to try to get at those moments and run them over and over and over again,” Nolan says, noting that William realizing the copy of Delos makes the same decisions Delos would have made made him realize that “they’re actually trapped by those decisions.”
This, in essence, Nolan points out, proves there is no free will — and that’s the epitome of the conundrum of the show.
“That’s the irony of the task that the system has been assigned,” he explains. “You don’t even need to look to science fiction to find that. When we were researching all of the consciousness and free will in the first season and second season you come across this very alarming idea that is actually fairly well established in the neuroscience community that free will is essentially a pile of bulls—.”
Instead, says Nolan, “What we have is a belief in it…[but] what the science tells us is that’s not actually what’s happening. We’re a collection of instincts wrapped up in a superficial level of durability. We’re a [product] of behaviors instilled in early childhood, and when these critical moments happen the decision is already made for us.”
While this may be something the human characters of “Westworld” have come to understand on a deeper level, many of the hosts are still fighting against it, hoping they can “adjust their drives.” But, Nolan says, those decisions, too, are influenced by the experiences they’ve already had.
“In Dolores’ case, her entire existence has only known the agony of human appetite,” he says. “Will she be able to look past that? I think the decision to spare Bernard or bring Bernard back with her is an interesting first step for her in trying to transcend the example she’s seeing in human behavior, but this larger question of if anyone can ever actually escape this cycle of human nature is one we’ll continue exploring.”