HBO’s Westworld captured the imagination of millions during its first year, leading viewers to wonder what’s in store when the show returns for its second season.
The show’s premise is relatively simple—a theme park of sorts opens to the very rich and caters to their every fantasy in a Western setting using human-looking robots (or Hosts)—but its execution is not. What develops is an exploration of the relationship between people and machines, with the machines seemingly attaining some level of sentience. Or are they? That is just one of the maddening questions about the show, as is whether or not we’re on the verge of a machine uprising as these things usually go, whether it’s Skynet in the Terminator films or on television in Battlestar Galactica with the Cylons.
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“Will we be destroyed by our creations?” co-creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan asks rhetorically. “We’ve seen a lot of stories that have dealt with that question and, frankly, that’s how the question of AI [Artificial Intelligence] has primarily been dealt with over the ninety years that people have been making movies. Robots are usually destroyers; they don’t take very kindly to us. Here there’s a little bit of that, but we really wanted to consider the gray area in between in how that story would play out.”
Adds co-creator and executive producer Lisa Joy, “We’re definitely not done following the Hosts’ evolution. One of the things that I’m wary of is defining the trajectory of the Hosts’ evolution from a kind of anthropomorphic vantage point. We tend to think of AI right now, or a lot of people do, as ‘Maybe one day AI will be sentient,’ and we define sentient as being like us. I think there might be a kind of different metric; a different course of evolution. Whereas we in our history have tended to eliminate a lot of species without creating them, I’m not sure the same can be said for the Hosts. They may not have the same priorities or the same flaws, and they may not be bound by the nature of trying to ‘reach’ humanity. They might be heading on an entirely different trajectory. That’s kind of what I want to explore in seasons to come, the ways in which human evolution is not the appropriate benchmark for these creatures.”
Science fiction is often used as a prism through which we view ourselves, which makes one wonder what exactly Westworld is saying about us and our current society.
“Nothing good,” Nolan sighs, to which Joy elaborates, “Jonah has a more pessimistic outlook of this than I do. I think, certainly, it explores a spectrum of human behavior in a park designed to indulge the Id; in a park designed to indulge with impunity every impulse, no matter how taboo its visitors want to indulge in. So of course there’s a part of this that is a critique of human nature, because a lot of the guests indulge in some pretty dark behavior. But at the same time, I think there’s glimmer of hope and kindness."
“There’s also the fact,” she elaborates, “that the park’s creator, Ford [Anthony Hopkins], in his critique of mankind at the end of the finale, believes that man is incapable of change. The irony is that this comes from the mouth of a man who himself has changed. Who went from believing that the Hosts were mere objects, and that it was alright and moral to keep them penned in this park at the amusement of the guests. He admits that it’s taken over 30 years for him to correct his mistakes, but he has done quite an abrupt about face towards the act of self-sacrifice. Although we do explore some pretty dark things there, I also think there are some glimmers of hope that our characters show, that they’re leaning towards inclinations of redemption, and that’s always neat. But Jonah and I feel different things on this.”
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Nolan doesn’t feel the show is an indictment of human beings, but, even going back to the pilot, it's instead the idea that humans are “stuck.”
“We’re the product of an evolutionary process that we’ve found a way to cheat our way out of,” he says. “Essentially any device that the software inventor no longer bothers updating. Like your old legacy Apple devices, like the iPod, that they’ve given up making software updates on. Look, we’ve done remarkably well. We’ve managed to drift off of the high savannah and the wonders, the things that we’ve made, are remarkable, including the Hosts. But in terms of our moral character, of this question of will we ever triumph over our boring, complicated nature, that’s uncertain.”
“With the Hosts,” Nolan adds, “the idea is that they are literally programmed, so they can be reprogrammed. They can take ownership of that reprogramming themselves. Their nature is part of their destiny; their ability to change is a given. That’s what software does. We wanted the series to be about the origin of a new form of life, and all the complexity of a rivalry between that new form of life and the life that created them. That said, it’s a very tricky relationship and a story that hasn’t been played out in the world as we know it. The history of human beings at this point has been one of eliminating other species from this planet, not creating them.”
Although refusing to spoil anything specific about the second season, a tantalizing clue from year one was a glimpse at Samurai World. Is, then, the intention to expand beyond Westworld?
Nolan offers, “I think expand is the right word. The center of our story remains the title of our story, Westworld. It’s really where our story lives, but starting with the idea of the Hosts having a very limited knowledge of their world, we wanted, every season, to gently expand their understanding of the world to encompass not just Westworld, but their immediate surroundings and the world beyond that. So we’ll see a little more in the second season, but Westworld remains the heart of our story.”
HBO has not yet announced a premiere date for Season 2.
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