Westworld is all about 'dismantling the mystery box,' say creators

Relax. Your questions will be answered... eventually.

Sarah McDermott Senior Sub-Editor
Sarah is CNET's senior copy editor in London. She's often found reading, playing piano or arguing about commas.
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Sarah McDermott
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If you're wondering whether  Westworld will leave you feeling a little lost, you have nothing to worry about.

That's according to show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who insist that they don't ask questions if they don't intend to answer them. That's very much unlike a certain mystery-driven show that disappointed fans with its lack of resolution.

"In Lost, they really believed in the mystery box and not looking too much inside the mystery box. It was some kind of idea generator that you didn't need to dissect and open up. And that's absolutely fascinating and an engaging way to tell a story", Joy said. "But for us, you know, I think we are interested in dismantling the mystery box, opening it up, looking at what it is, putting it together like it's some kind of Lego, seeing how it works and really questioning and exposing that."

Read more: In HBO's Westworld Awakening VR game you play a host stalked by a serial killer

That's good news for fans.

"The questions that we tee up, we do try to address", she said. "We have an answer for all of them."

Joy and Nolan were speaking at a Q&A on Tuesday night with Lauren Laverne, host of Westworld fan show West:Word. The discussion followed a screening of Westworld's second season finale in London. But don't worry, we're not here to get into spoiler territory.

With the final episode of the season about to hit in a few days, fans are still hoping for answers to some of the year's biggest mysteries. But the show's creators, who cheerfully admit and regularly prove that they "love to f--- with Reddit", avoided going into details about the plot of future episodes, instead reflecting on things we've already seen in season 2. 

Here are the most interesting things we learned from the conversation.  

We're not the only ones in the dark

Joy sang the praises of the actors who bring Westworld's hosts and humans to life, singling out Evan Rachel Wood for her performance as rebel host Dolores and Jeffrey Wright, who plays an increasingly fragmented Bernard,

"I wanted to see what Dolores would look like as the leader of an army, essentially. She's come so far from being this rancher's daughter next door, kind of lost and alone and vulnerable. And with the power that she's embraced comes, you know, conflict and missteps and misgivings. But I think it's all part of the sort of organic growth of her character. Not to mention Jeffrey, who's brilliant in terms of being this man who's straddling these universes and these conflicting loyalties", Joy said.

It turns out that one way to get great performances out of great actors is to keep a few secrets.

Wright had an advantage in the first season because the creators had to let him know he was playing two roles. 

"We didn't really tell Evan anything", Nolan said, explaining that they wanted her to be "stranded in her character's situation". But that all changed when the cast returned for the second season and the dynamic was flipped on its head. The creators sat down with Wood and guided her through the journey Dolores would take through the second season. But this year it was Bernard's turn to be lost and confused.

"With Jeffrey we explained that we weren't telling him anything", Nolan said. "We shoved him in."

Watch this: Westworld vs. real world: Could robot theme parks be in our future?

It's all about the feels

Westworld's second season has seen rogue hosts travel beyond the wild-west theme park where we first met them. We've visited ShogunWorld and seen glimpses of The Raj. But the Delos Destinations website hints that there are still three parks we haven't seen yet. Could they be waiting for us on the other side of the door? Does the door even exist? Oh god.

Don't worry if you aren't on top of the latest theories, though. Joy reminded us that Westworld wouldn't be Westworld if it weren't for the beating heart at the centre of the maze.

"This season for me is defined by different love stories. You know, Maeve's love for her daughter, which compels her back into the park. ... There's also Akecheta's love of his wife and the lengths that he will go in that kind of Orpheus and Eurydice tale."  

Then there's the relationship between Dolores and Teddy, her devoted robotic Ken doll who comes to question the life he's living alongside Deathbringer Dolores.


She's no good for you, Teddy.

John P. Johnson/HBO

"They finally have free will, the chance to define themselves. But to survive, to lead this army, she has to become a bit of a different person." Dolores and Teddy's relationship isn't a "snapshot of love", said Joy. "We're always changing and growing, and some of those changes can be challenging."

And if you've felt your sympathies shifting this season, that's no accident. Joy says that as characters develop, we can expect them to keep changing, moving away from the black and white hats that signify good and evil in traditional westerns. Looks like grey could be in fashion for season 3.

Teasers for the finale hint that Dolores will be reunited with the Man in Black, who's also made terrible decisions in recent episodes that have cost him a loved one. So at least the two of them will have something to talk about.

The sad plight of Kurt the goldfish

The art that influences Nolan and Joy is all over Westworld if you know where to look for it. Joy draws inspiration from poetry, citing T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland as a cultural artefact that can be enjoyed on a surface level but, like the series, contains layers of meaning and rewards deeper analysis. She told us that Delos' pet goldfish was named after Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels dealt with themes of free will and nonlinear time.

And of course a visually stunning show like Westworld is filled with allusions to the world of cinema. Nolan pointed out that the season's structure -- beginning at the scene of the crime and working backward -- mirrors a classic film noir detective story, casting Bernard as a protagonist with gaps in his memory. Nolan also turned to Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa when creating the look and feel of ShogunWorld, but found that the director's style was surprisingly difficult to pin down. 


Maeve in ShogunWorld.

HBO/Composite by Aaron Robinson

"Kurosawa was restless. He moved back and forth between black and white and colour ... different aspect ratios, there wasn't any one signature thing. So we developed our own kind of look for [ShogunWorld]."

If you spotted the significance of the widescreen anamorphic format seen in later episodes of the series, you win points! "It's our gentle way of putting you into a virtual space", Nolan confirmed. 

Who's making these decisions anyway?

Nolan said one of the biggest themes of season 2 is the question of whether free will exists, both for hosts and humans. And while the idea originally came up as a "science fiction conceit", researching the subject led Nolan to suspect that humans' belief in our own agency is similar to our belief in God.

"If you remember at the beginning of the Simpsons when Maggie has the little fake steering wheel, that's consciousness", he said. "Marge is at the wheel. We don't get to talk to her. We're Maggie, looking out the window and imagining that we're making decisions."

He's also fascinated by artificial intelligence, which he previously touched on in Person of Interest and Interstellar. "Memory, morality, all this stuff that we're made of."

AI is the most compelling topic he can think of. 

"I'm not really sure why anyone would be writing about anything other than artificial intelligence right now", he said. After all, AI is barreling ahead. This is basically our last chance to imagine AI before fiction becomes reality -- and AI tells us to stop writing about it.

Thankfully HBO has already confirmed that a third season of Westworld is coming. So we should still have a chance to witness the fallout from the second season finale before our AI overlords put their shiny metal foot down.

Asus Project Precog is basically the tablet from Westworld

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Westworld season 2 airs Sunday nights on HBO. Check your local listings for timing and channels.

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