The second episode of HBO’s Westworld introduced more characters, mysteries, and featured a harrowing sequence for Maeve (Thandie Newton). Below showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy take our burning questions about “Chestnut.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So this week you have two guys taking on the roles of the Westworld feature film’s heroes, yet here they’re introduced in the second episode.
Jonathan Nolan: We wanted to get that perspective in the show. We wanted to start with the hosts, make it clear where our allegiance lies. They’re very different characters than the original film. But since the Western is such an inherently male fantasy, when we thought about whose perspective we wanted to come into this park through, the idea of two bachelors like in the original film seemed perfect.
What’s interesting is we meet this host guiding William in the beginning, Angela, who is seemingly self aware. She seems perfectly content in her role despite knowing that she’s not real.
Nolan: This is a distinction between sentience and a contextual awareness. Angela has been programmed the same way Maeve or Dolores has been programmed — in service of a portion of the guests’ narrative. Her dialogue could be rigorously scripted. She’s been programmed with a few choice lines that make you assume sentience and self-awareness. But there isn’t necessarily awareness whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of a very good chatbot — it doesn’t take much to make you think it’s alive. In fact, one of the very first examples of people interacting with AI was at Cal-Tech or MIT was programming the first chatbot and used a very simple rule. You had to type statements into it and it had a very simple [response] rule — it would just rephrase the last couple words you said and repeat it back to you in the form of a question. A slightly more sophisticated version of Go On. One night he didn’t turn it off for the night and a typist came in and started interacting with this thing in the morning and the typist was found interacting with the programming for hours and thought it was one of the best conversationalists she ever interacted with! Here was a machine that f—ing listened, unlike most of the people in her life. So it doesn’t take much to make a robot feel alive. So Angela, she seems very lifelike, but there’s no reason not to think that the moment William puts his hat on and steps through that door that her eyes don’t immediately dim and she goes back to that train platform. In fact we have a shot coming up where you see all those hosts just standing there waiting for the next train to show up.
One awesome line in that scene is Angela saying to William after she comes onto him, “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” which really summarizes a lot of the ethical conflict in the story.
Lisa Joy: Thank you, and it was a line we felt summed up some of the moral quandaries we’re examining here. People are very accustomed to playing a video game and plowing down a bunch of other characters in it and cheering because that’s how you win. But as the visuals become more and more sophisticated, you start to feel empathy, and it could get harder and harder to shoot — and should it? We’ve been looking at VR and it’s a whole new level of immersion. Watching it in a virtual reality environment it made me feel more morally complicit in my actions. Even if the characters are not entirely lifelike, what does it say about you that you can abandon yourself to the nihilistic act of destruction. It’s becoming a more relevant question.
Nolan: It’s also a way of articulating the Turing Test.
Then William has to make a literal big black hat / white hat choice…
Nolan: When you play a role-playing game, one of the first decisions you make is am I going to go good or bad? Committed gamers will play twice. The game’s narrative is designed so that whether you’re the bad guy or the good guy, you’re the guy, you’re still the hero of the story. And what we thought was poignant and sad about our host’s plight is they’re not allowed to be the real hero or villain. That’s a space that’s set aside for the guests. The guests get to be the stars.
I find it funny that, as writers, you made the least likable behind-the-scenes character the park’s writer, Lee.
Joy: You can’t take yourself that seriously. There’s also the dramatic irony of Lee Sizemore, the writer, has this operatic temper, and he’s very consumed by his craft. Meanwhile outside you have these poor hosts being shot and dying and he’s having this fit over a change in dialogue. It’s meant to underscore the ironic stakes and also pinpoint that the creative process draws all sorts of temperaments. Some of them are more flamboyant than others – and I promise you, I’ve seen worse.
Nolan: I would be careful to point out, James, that any similarity between Lee Sizemore and any working writer is purely a coincidence.
Should we be wondering if anybody on the backstage “showrunner level” is also a robot? Or is it impossible that, as experts, they wouldn’t be able to tell that one of their own isn’t human?
Nolan: I don’t even know where to begin with that question! I think it’s great you’re asking questions about the nature of the narrative. I’m very wary of twists that pull the whole rug out at once; you can get away with that in a movie but at some point the audience needs to have something to hold onto and believe in. So the surprises and twists in the show, we’re trying to keep the audience surprised and off guard but also giving them some concert characters.
RELATED: Your Burning Westworld Questions Answered
Can you say if the Man in Black is hacking the game by his actions, or is everything he’s doing – from scalping a Native American to killing Lawrence’s wife – are those exactly the steps he’s supposed to take to reach this other secret level?
Nolan: As a reformed gamer I was fascinated in how any popular game is instantly scoured for mistakes or Easter Eggs. That programmers quickly realized mistakes could be deployed as Easter Eggs for the hardcore gamers who quickly work their way through the main narrative. So there’s sometimes a hidden narrative underneath. Now whether he’s right or wrong is a question we’ll continue to explore.
William is told he can’t get hurt in Westworld. But what about being hurt by another guests? What’s to keep a guest from stabbing him thinking he’s a robot? Is there a safe word?
Joy: We talked a lot about the rules of the park. A lot of it isn’t made explicit in the series but there’s something called the Good Samaritan Reflex within the hosts. So say you’re in a bar fight and some guy has a knife and maybe there’s even another guest that you didn’t know and he thinks you’re a host and he’s gonna stab you in the back. In that instance, a good Samaritan host would seamlessly intersect and get in that fight and literally take that knife for you. Now accidents can happen — falling off a cliff and things like that. But you know it’s mitigated somewhat because even the animals — aside from the flies — are hosts, so no horse is going to buck you to your death.
The way the episode opens and closes suggests that Bernard told Dolores to go get that gun. Is that what we’re supposed to think?
Nolan: That’s an interesting theory.
Joy: It’s an interesting theory. We’re definitely supposed to think Dolores hears a voice and has a compulsion toward a gun. We’re not sure where exactly the voice comes from.
It’s unclear why Maeve wakes up during surgery. Is it because she’s been using that “3-2-1” countdown technique – something that the programmer Elise used earlier on Maeve when she was offline to get her to change modes – and instead of popping her out of that “dream” it’s switching her on when she’s not supposed to be?
Nolan: That’s part of the mechanism, she’s supplementing some of that, but there’s other reasons for why Maeve is waking up.
That sequence of Maeve wandering the complex, I found it to be really effective and the most disturbing part of the first few episodes. It was such a nightmarish contrast of the desperate humanity of her situation with the cold clinical environment that she’s in. Also, I also heard that was originally going to end the pilot and that you found a better place for it at the end of episode 2?
Nolan: Yes, we shot that for the pilot and it was the sequence I was the proudest of, directorially. We had a lot of fun putting that sequence together. Thandie Newton is f—ing fearless and an amazing actor. We shot part of it at a movie ranch, part of it at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, and shot part of it on our stages, then we stitched it all together. Almost everything in that sequence is practical [effects] including the transition of her closing her eyes and coming to on the surgical table. We loved that sequence so much and felt like we had so much going on in the pilot that that sequence originally kind of blew past. We felt like we had established Dolores’ point of view in the pilot then we switched more deliberately to Maeve’s point of view in the second episode to really see her experience. It’s one of my favorite sequences I’ve ever been a part of.
As great of a song as Radiohead’s “No Surprises” is, how are you using “No Surprises” from the OK Computer album instead of the perfectly on point “Paranoid Android” – or would that be too on the nose?
Nolan: There’s no saying we won’t get there!