SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crisis Theory,” the Season 3 finale of “Westworld.”
So much happened in the Season 3 finale of “Westworld” — for one, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) managed to eradicate the all-knowing artificial intelligence Rehoboam, but in doing so seemingly erased herself from existence, all as the real world fell into chaos — that we had to find out what it all meant. Co-creators (and real-life couple) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and executive producer Denise Thé, who co-wrote the finale with Nolan, spoke with Variety about the implications for the future of the HBO series, the eerie connection between the finale and the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the fabled six-season run of the show is really in the cards.
So let’s start with the most immediate question: Is Evan Rachel Wood leaving the show?
[Six second pause]
Jonathan Nolan: I f—ing hope not. Let me clarify: Dolores is gone. We’re not yet discussing publicly the direction the show is taking, but the fun thing about this show is, you know, from the beginning Lisa and I wanted to make a show that constantly reinvented itself, that could be a different show every season. I think it’s important with a show in which death can be impermanent — these are robots, after all — to mark the occasion with Dolores. That version of that character is gone. We love Evan Rachel Wood and we haven’t [sighs] started talking publicly about exactly what the show looks like going forward. But it looks very different.
For a character who’s been so central to the show for so long, to have her be erased in this way — it was just a really striking way to end her journey.
Denise Thé: I think that it was painful, you know? It was painful to watch and perform on set. It was painful to write. When we saw these memories of her being sucked out of her, you got to kind of re-live her life with her and see these different atrocities that were done to her. So, for me that moment where she says that she chose to see beauty is much stronger and that much more beautiful because you kind of have walked this road with her again and re-lived these moments with her. For me, it was a very powerful kind of transcendent moment of her completing her arc and really coming full circle, choosing to love these beings that, in some ways, just tore her life apart, and rising above it.
At the end, the show leaves the feeling that Maeve (Thandie Newton), the new Dolores/Hale character (Tessa Thompson) and Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) are going to be leading the show now. I know you don’t want to talk too much about Season 4, but is that a correct impression to have?
Nolan: I wouldn’t make any assumptions. We are extremely lucky. We have one of the most talented casts on TV. And part of the fun of the show from the beginning is that one actor can play several roles and that the story shifts underneath them — shift genres, shifts time. One of the ideas of the show from the beginning is this idea of agency. The formal quality of what a person looks like versus who are they underneath is something very slippery in this world, something very complicated. We love that and we love the challenge. Obviously, it’s an astonishing cast, and giving all of them something extremely challenging is part of the fun of it. So I think we would anticipate seeing some or many of these faces in very different circumstances, and very different relationships.
The protests against Incite in the finale were quite evocative given how in just the last two weeks, and really even the last few days, there have been intense protests around the country over restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic. You shot the finale many months ago, so what was it like for you guys to watch the world leaning much more closely to the world of your show than you could have anticipated?
Nolan: That’s a tricky one. Lisa, unless you have a strong take on that, I know what I think.
Lisa Joy: Yeah, well, let’s hear yours first, I’ll tell you if I agree.
Nolan: Listen, in terms of timing, we were much more inspired by the Hong Kong protests [in 2019]. I never anticipated in a million years anyone would be f—ing stupid enough to protest, you know, a disease, right? I mean, you’re looking for these moments where the way America used to f—ing be where we would take on was clearly a collective, impersonal, non-political problem, and we would tackle it as a nation together. This has nothing to do with what this show is about, but this is the tricky thing about making a show. The idea of social revolution — that’s an idea that can be interpreted and reinterpreted by people however they want. You kind of let these things go after you make them. If it resonates for people in different ways that’s not up to us to decide. Lisa, what’s your hot take?
Joy: I mean, I think it’s also like there’s these kind of circadian rhythms to life that are both micro and macro, right? So when we look at Dolores’ arc, you know, she went from being in a loop where her life was one way, and it went on that way in Season 1 for a long time — so much so that she was unaware she was in a loop and just took for granted that the days would proceed that way. And then something happened and she began to be aware of the great, systemic lies and structures that were in her life without her being fully aware of them, that she kind of learned to glide over. Once she started to feel the ruptures and problems, they became impossible to deny, and the outcome for her was to break out of them, was to change her life.
And I think that the same way that that happens to people, it can also happen to organizations, these amalgamations of people and systems and behavior that becomes repeated and in some ways degraded or corrupted with repetition. I think that human history tends to be cyclical, in some ways. It is very hard to have periods of — well, it’s been impossible to have periods of uninterrupted peace, uninterrupted tranquility. Humans have not been good at that. They always break down and then they always reassemble. It’s terrible and it’s difficult, but we are a species that takes out of the wreckage, hopefully, something that they can start and build anew with. The idea that revolution is a part of that cycle of human history isn’t something we invented, it’s just something that is apparent, if you look at any history of any society in world.
It’s been reported in the past that you’ve conceived “Westworld” telling its story over six seasons. Is that still your goal?
Nolan: Well, I just want to clarify, you know, Lisa and I have never actually talked about a number of seasons. James Marsden mentioned five [seasons] in the first season when we were on hiatus, and more recently there’s been reporting about deals and other stuff like that. But we’ve never actually talked out loud about how many seasons we imagine this thing going, because I think you’d be foolish to. Things change, circumstances change. I think when we sat down to do the show, we didn’t quite realize how difficult it would be to make this show — [laughing] how many years it would take per season. So we’ve never actually talked about how many seasons that plan was, and indeed I think when we had the plan it didn’t actually map out to a specific number of seasons, exactly. It was a beginning, a middle and an end.
Joy: It would be like working on the novel and saying, this novel is going to be 436 pages.
Nolan: [Laughs] Exactly. We’ve been very, very lucky to work with this cast, this crew, and now, partnering with Denise. When you have a show going like this, you want to stay as long as you’re telling a compelling story. We’re heading towards that end, but we haven’t completely mapped it out. At this point, part of the work is looking at the rest of the story we have to tell. It’s two impulses, one against the other. You don’t want to walk away from people who are as talented and cool as this. They’re all lovely, lovely people, and they love working together, we like working together. At the same time, you don’t want to outstay your welcome. You have a story to tell, and you want to go out without feeling like you’ve outstayed your welcome. So we’re trying to balance those things a bit.
The show does take place in a lot of different locations and involves regular physical contact between its characters, both visceral and intimate. How could COVID-19 restrictions affect at least the next season of the show?
Nolan: Well, I mean, on our end, the only good news in a situation like this is that the audience is accustomed to our show being off the air for a couple years at a stretch. Now everyone else is kind of in the same boat, frankly. I have yet to hear a pitch for how you could, you know, safely, practically resume production. Illness on a set is extremely disruptive, as you know in our business. The way we shoot, the amount of labor and capital that goes into every day of shooting on a show like this one is extraordinary, as it is with all shows. It’s a big machine; once you turn it on, turning it off again is extremely difficult. So I know a lot of really smart people are talking right now about how to get back into production. From our perspective, we were not playing here anytime soon. We gotta write it first. And so, it’s not an issue that we’re dealing with yet and we’re waiting for smarter people than us to come back and explain how this can be done safely. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of people who need to go back to work. So again, it’ll be a balancing act in terms of making sure that, you know — the show must go on, but it must go on safely. So balancing those two things against each other is something that we’re going to be talking about a lot later in the year.
You guys are still trying to figure out what you want to do for Season 4, but will we still be in the real world? Should we expect to go back to the park?
Nolan: We love you, and we say this with the greatest respect, but there is no earthly way we’re going to answer that question!