In entering into the world of FX’s “Pose,” one steps onto the gritty streets of 1980s and 1990s New York City, where characters are losing loved ones to HIV/AIDS — and at the same time attending colorful, vibrant balls that allow for a creative outlet and safe space for those who identify as LGBTQ. These are two very distinct settings, but they must have the same tone. That is why showrunner Steven Canals doesn’t actually separate the worlds — or the scenes set in them — when he writes the episodes.
“Ball scenes are either there to aid in pushing the narrative forward or serve as a reprieve from all of the drama,” Canals says. “But the tone of any ball scene is pretty much in line with the theme of that particular episode.”
Whether for an episode, a season or a series, many of today’s drama series Emmy contenders — from “Pose” to BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” HBO’s “Westworld,” Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” and TNT’s “Snowpiercer” — take deep dives into highly stylized micro-worlds within the overall universe of their shows to inform characters’ emotional arcs.
In the eighth episode of the second season of “Pose,” for example, there is a family fight at the House of Evangelista, and those emotions get carried over into the “angry vogue” Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) performs at the subsequent ball, Canals notes.
Meanwhile, the third season of “Killing Eve” begins with the titular MI6 agent (Sandra Oh) working in the back of a restaurant. And although she is asked to move to the front of the house where the money would be better, she rejects the offer because she “sees herself as a dangerous person” and feels she “has to remove herself from the world,” says executive producer Suzanne Heathcote.
“Eve committed two enormous acts of violence by the end of Season 2, and she believes that underneath it all there is this darkness and danger — not just for her, but for the world,” Heathcote explains. “So she creates this cocooned life for herself as a way of survival. It’s almost like an act of defiance: ‘I have done this, and this is what my life will be. I have made these choices and now I have to pay the price.’”
“Killing Eve” sends its characters — and its crew — globe-trotting over the course of each season. “I really wanted to do as many foreign locations as we could; that’s almost a character in the show, so I really wanted it all over the map,” Heathcote says of writing Season 3. This time around one of those locations was Russia, to get a glimpse into Villanelle’s (Jodie Comer) past by meeting her family. The trip allowed the audience to see the assassin in a new, vulnerable light as she tried to connect with her mother and found honest pleasure in participating in a local harvest festival.
Similarly, the audience gets to see different sides of Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) in “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” depending on whether she is at home alone with her infant, at work at the water park where she is trying but usually failing to instigate change or at an event for FAM, the pyramid scheme in which she gets involved after the death of her husband — and where “anything could happen,” says showrunner Esta Spalding.
In the first season of “Snowpiercer,” Tailie Andre Layton’s (Daveed Diggs) world is limited to a select section of the 1,001-car speeding train on which he now lives, with only glimpses at the frozen tundra the outside world has become. But although he starts in the back of the train, he travels through other cars as he investigates a murder and later leads a rebellion. The cars offer glimpses at how society has been condensed into a 10-mile-long tube.
“We really wanted to build some of the train cars small enough to feel claustrophobic,” says showrunner Graeme Manson, “but then we also had the ability to open the doors into these cars that just feel like the world can expand.”
To do this, Manson says, the sets were built on “modified shipping container frames with rubber wheels on five cars in a row so our cast can walk down five cars and we have people outside bouncing the frame around, so when they were on the train they really felt like they were moving.”
But perhaps no drama characters were more affected by their environments than those within “Westworld.” Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) started out as android hosts, created and coded to serve theme park guests their wildest Old West fantasies. But in the third season they busted out into the real world that built that theme park — and therefore them.
“A proposition for us was, what’s the world look like if we continue in a linear path for 30 years? There may be autonomous cars, but trend lines don’t really change,” says co-creator and showrunner Jonathan Nolan. “A lot of people look the same, but they have this limbic implant and there’s this idea that drugs and pharmacology has gone digital — that you can license medication. There’s kind of an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ idea to that, which we found appealing.”
Maeve was so focused on her mission of saving her daughter, she managed to break out of a simulated Warworld — created with a combination of intense attention to detail from production design and minor VFX added to tint the world as off-kilter enough for the audience to understand it was not a real, live theme park. But Dolores was hell-bent on a mission to open humanity’s eyes to the predictive algorithm controlling them, despite difficult human connections.
“Dolores at one point in the finale says, ‘Free will exists, it’s just f—ing hard.’ It’s cheeky, but it really represents where we landed after five years thinking about the question” of determinism versus free will, says Nolan. “The algorithm wants us to keep doing the same s— that we’ve done — predictable, docile. Protagonists in drama have the power to change and become the best version of themselves, but how many people do you actually know who changed their lives? It’s a myth that we’ve sold over and over again.”