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Westworld season 3 seems like a reboot. Its showrunners say that was always their plan.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy talk about revolutions, algorithmic determinism, and horse piss.

Maeve has been moved to War World in Westworld season three.
Maeve finds herself in a brand-new world as Westworld season three begins.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Westworld’s second season ended in June 2018, fans knew there would be a long wait for a third season. They may not have expected it to last almost two years.

But that long hiatus might be to the series’s advantage. When the show returns to HBO on March 15, 2020, it will be in a world where its questions about big data, about privacy, and about revolution have only become more relevant.

The series’s second season tried the patience of many viewers — including me — but it also ended with the mass death of most of the show’s characters, as the many robotic Hosts left Westworld behind and moved into a kind of digital Heaven.

That left ample room for a reboot, and season three is just that. Across the season’s first four episodes, the show is leaner, tighter, and more focused. The storytelling is just as interested in big questions but also much more straightforward. If you find yourself wondering about something, the answer is almost always right around the corner. That befits the new story Westworld is telling, in which the Hosts who are still around think through how to approach the question of living within a human society that sees them as playthings.

The show is now set extensively outside the park, with most scenes taking place in a vaguely futuristic spin on Los Angeles, one that feels like the present but just a little bit extra. It’s still about the eternal struggles of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve (Thandie Newton), and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) to attain something resembling freedom for themselves and their fellow Hosts. But season three has also added a new, prominent human character in the form of Aaron Paul’s Caleb, a construction worker who’s increasingly convinced his life is a dead end.

Westworld has let me down before, but I really dug the first four episodes of season three, so I’m feeling both eager and anxious to see more. To understand how the show found this new path and the big questions it’s tackling this season, I got on the phone with creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Screening & Panel Discussion of the HBO Drama Series “Westworld”
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy attend a screening of the Westworld season three premiere.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO

Emily VanDerWerff

A lot of the early coverage of this season has suggested that you’ve retooled the show to make it more accessible to people who might have found season two too confusing. But season two also ended with most of the characters dying, so big changes were coming either way. How much of season three was in the cards all along, and how much of it was a response to the way viewers reacted to the first two seasons?

Jonathan Nolan

We had planned this. With TV you have to be careful to adjust not to what people may or may not be saying on Twitter, but to what your actors are doing and where the story is going and what your writers are putting out there.

The truth of this season is this was the whole payoff for us. This is the last thing we pitched when we pitched the pilot seven years ago, and we had actually figured out how to shoot it then, too. We were sitting there having pitched the general shape of the first two seasons. And as we walked out they said, “Well, what happens after that?”

When you prep for a pitch, you always want to leave one thing out, so if they ask a question, you can kind of dazzle them with something that feels like an off-the-cuff remark. Lisa said, “After that, Dolores escapes the park and rains holy hell down on the people who abused her all those years.” It was the thing that sealed the deal.

Honestly, when we pitched the show in the first place, the Western aspect of it was the most controversial and dangerous part. The Western is a genre that’s been dead for decades. We were excited as filmmakers to take on the challenge, but from a commercial perspective, it felt somewhat suicidal to pitch a Western. So the idea was, this is a show about escape and a show in which we would ground the perspective of the audience in the perspective of the Hosts. The Hosts want to get out and they want to see the [rest of the] park, and selfishly as filmmakers, we want to get out, too.

[If you achieve] great success with a show, you can get trapped in the original pitch. You can get trapped in the setting. We love horses, but if I had another take interrupted by horse piss, I would pull all my hair out. There are definitely things that come up along the way, but the idea is that we would ground our perspective in that of the Hosts for the first part of our story and then escape into the real world and challenge our assumptions about humanity, just as we challenge Dolores’s assumptions about humanity. The only humans she met were a self-selecting group of people, the kind of people who would go to Westworld. So she gets to the real world and discovers that it is not quite what she expected and humanity is not quite what she expected.

So this was all in the original plan. The way you pull that off and the stories you’re telling as you get there, that has to change and update and evolve along the way. There are character turns and moments and ideas that are fresh to this season and to the talented writers and directors that we partnered with.

The prevailing logic in TV for 60 years was, if it works, don’t fuck with it. Keep it exactly the same forever. And we’re very lucky to be working during a moment in TV in which the entire genre is reinventing itself almost daily.

Emily VanDerWerff

In the first scene of the new season, Dolores does something quite violent, then says to someone who witnesses what she’s done, “You’re free.” And I was thinking about how Dolores is now ostensibly free from the park but is walking out into a society full of massive inequality and horrible oppression. So how do you feel like that word “free” relates to this season of the show?

Lisa Joy

Oh, there’s nothing like answering what it means to be free! We’re gonna figure this out. Here we go! [Laughs.]

I was actually having this discussion with my daughter in the car yesterday. We were talking about what it means to be free in this country, because the election was on her mind. She’s 6 years old, so I’m dropping a lot of hard truths on her.

There’s a couple of levels. First, there’s the legal, physical level, right? The basic rights level. Do you have the same human rights as the person next to you? Many people in history and also robots in Westworld, they were not free. They did not have access to their own history. They did not have agency over their own body. They were so trapped that they didn’t even understand the nature of their trap. One of the most dangerous things about limiting someone’s freedom is not only the cage you can see, but the way in which being caged for so long makes those bars invisible to people after a while.

So the first part of our Hosts’ test was to see the bars that contain them and break through them. And that was really the arc of season one and season two. Dolores has broken out of her physical confines and entered the world where ostensibly all the free people are.

That’s where she meets Caleb. [Jonathan], who directed this season’s premiere and also our pilot. He invented all these little rhymes and callbacks to the ways we shot Dolores. We see Caleb waking up every morning. We see him going on his loop. We see him struggling for more, hoping and striving to change his circumstances, struggling to get over difficulties in his past.

But you get the feeling that this struggle is going to repeat ad infinitum. You wonder if he’s free. This season, we also look at the ways in which technology influences freedom. This is much more subtle than the other kinds of freedom that we’re talking about but also very important because it can sway entire nation states. It can sway the world.

Again, it’s about the visible bars of the cage. Right now, technology is advancing at a rate that outpaces our ability to understand, regulate, and manage its effect on us as individuals or a collective. The way we let algorithmic determinism influence our fate is another way in which our freedom might be restricted.

Caleb talks to some fellow humans.
Aaron Paul (left) stars in the new season of Westworld as a disaffected man named Caleb. Lena Waithe and Marshawn Lynch (yes, the football player) are also in it.

Emily VanDerWerff

You mentioning algorithms made me think about how one of the things Westworld has always insisted is that humans are just as trapped in their own loops and by their own programming as the Hosts are. How do you see this season further exploring that idea, especially as it pertains to Caleb and William?

Jonathan Nolan

One of the things the show has poked fun at and observed over the first couple of seasons is the idea that even right now, or for time immemorial, humans are trapped in their own behaviors. There’s a body of research in the intersection of neurobiology and psychiatry that asks the question of whether free will exists in the first place. There’s a famous set of experiments from the 1960s that suggests that free will is illusory. That there’s actually something inside underneath our ostensibly conscious minds that’s making the decisions before we “decide.”

But I think everyone watching the end of the second season — and being told that the system has watched human behavior in hundreds of thousands of guests for 30 years and concluded that there is no such thing as free will — we reject that automatically. We either reject that because, uh, the illusion of free will is so pervasive that we refuse to believe evidence — there’s an almost a theological component to it — or we reject that because we believe in free will so much, especially self-determining bootstrap Americans. We believe in our ability to self-determine to such a radical degree that even when confronted with experimental evidence, we refuse to accept it.

I think we also reject it because on some level we know that it’s not true. Whether an effective or virtual free will exists just because of the randomness of the universe, or whether it’s a question of nature versus nurture is — every person we’ve talked to has a different take on what the identity is. You talk to a gut-biome person; they will tell you that your identity is in your lower intestine. A theologian will tell you it’s floating 10 feet above the top of your head.

The larger and more fascinating implications that Lisa brought up of algorithmic determinism was something we couldn’t resist tackling. You ask, What does the world look like in 30 years? And we wanted to tackle it from the perspective of, imagine it’s a straight line from where we are right now. What happens if it’s just more of what it is right now? Which is a fucking nightmare in and of itself!

Imagine if we just continue in an unbroken chain, and we keep giving more and more control and autonomy over to data. For now, it’s Netflix, but maybe next week, it’s your job search, your romantic partners, your children. You could select from various zygotes.

You talk about freedom, there’s a certain amount of anarchic quality to it. Freedom, in part, is freedom from determinism. It’s freedom from being able to program too much intention into your life. You’re saved sometimes by the chaos.

Dolores is here to destroy the world.
Dolores constructs a body to house her consciousness that looks just like her old one. Does she have an attachment to it?

Emily VanDerWerff

As a trans person, I was struck by the way this season engages with the idea of bodies. The Hosts that Dolores has built and placed other consciousnesses into — they often feel as if they’re no longer quite themselves because their physical form is so different. How do you tackle the question of how our physical bodies and our central selves interact and change each other?

Jonathan Nolan

It’s something we’re fascinated by. Dolores and the other Hosts represent a version of artificial intelligence that is simultaneously anthropomorphized, forged to act like us, but there’s also a bit of fungibility to their form. They’re ethereal beings. One of the things that Maeve is looking for is a world apart from the physical world. And that applies to their bodies. That applies to their forms and how people perceive them. [If your consciousness is in a different body], what will your experience of the world be, and will that experience of the world color and alter your drives and goals? It’s back to the nurture question.

There is a degree to which humans and the human intellect are trapped in a physical form. One of the oldest tropes in science fiction is the idea of the singularity, the idea of uploading your consciousness. It’s simultaneously a freeing and exciting idea but also a slightly terrifying and sad one. You begin to get the sense that Dolores, on some level, though protean and brilliant and almost post-human, is attached [to her body].

In later episodes, [some Hosts] talk explicitly not about their physical form but the other aspects of being a human, like emotions, that they are attached to and might feel a little lost without. Dolores makes a conscious choice to print herself into the body that she’s familiar with, which is a tactical liability. She isn’t recognized because in her role in the park, she’s almost like an extra. She’s a bit player. It’s still a liability.

It’s still an interesting choice — not at all rooted in the fact that we love Evan Rachel Wood and wanted to keep working with her! [Laughs.] It’s also rooted in the question of would they have some nostalgia or sentimentality about their bodies?

Emily VanDerWerff

Lisa, you mentioned talking with your daughter about the election, and the central conflict of this season — between Dolores’s belief that the system must be torn down and Maeve’s belief that it can be changed from within — feel like it mirrors a lot of the political conversations we’re having right now about how to break up unjust systems. Did you see that reflected in the show as well?

Lisa Joy

To me, none of it is really a reaction to this particular political moment or any particular political moment. When the first season of Westworld came out, people were asking if that was a reaction to #MeToo, but we’d written and shot it before that specific movement got started. But that’s not to say we aren’t paying attention to this historical side of the world and how humans work. We are all living in this world and observing the almost cyclical nature of conflict and revolution and injustice.

If you look at the cycle, you are often cycling upward. But that is an optimistic view that isn’t necessarily born out by history. It’s an optimistic view that might be part of the human condition, that we keep cycling. But there is no one way to be good. There is no one way to be bad. There is no one way to change or revolt. Different people have different ideas of what the right way is.

For me, part of writing, part of storytelling, isn’t so much about imposing my specific view on anyone but exploring the views of people themselves, trying to understand what motivates them, the commonalities, and the humanity underneath it all to better understand other people and ourselves.

Tessa Thompson’s role as Charlotte Hale has expanded across the show’s three seasons.

Emily VanDerWerff

You mentioned earlier that shows have to evolve. Some version of this season was in the original pitch, but I’m wondering what are the things you did change because you were responding to what the actors were doing or you realized something just wasn’t working?

Jonathan Nolan

Tessa Thompson’s character, Charlotte Hale, is fascinating to us. The experience of working with Tessa, who’s such a talented and mysterious and fascinating actor, has altered some of the trajectory of her storyline in a couple of places.

We knew we would want to find a character like Caleb in the outside world, but when we sat down with Aaron Paul to talk about the role, it influenced and evolved our thinking about who Caleb was. We tend to write the roles and then be pleasantly surprised by casting. But with Aaron’s character, we met with him as we were writing the role, and he’s such a charming and talented person that when he kindly agreed to do it, his participation couldn’t help but influence the way in which that role evolved.

We were lucky to cast Evan [in the very beginning] because we knew how good she would be at playing a figure who is neither the hero nor the villain but is something hopefully original, somewhere in between the two things. That’s exactly what we got. We won the lottery with that. You have someone who can glide back and forth across that line so effortlessly that you get to play with that idea. That can sometimes be frustrating to the audience. It’s fascinating for us to play with an unconventional take on a protagonist. You don’t quite know what to make of her, and that’s something we’re playing with this season.

Westworld season three debuts Sunday, March 15, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. The previous two seasons are available on HBO’s streaming platforms.

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