exit interview

‘The Original Sin Is Still Embedded Within’

Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy unpacks the true architects of season four’s reality.

Photo: John Johnson/HBO
Photo: John Johnson/HBO
Photo: John Johnson/HBO

Spoilers follow for the fourth season of Westworld, including season finale “Que Será, Será,” which aired August 14.

There’s a part of Lisa Joy that wishes Westworld were animated. It’s the only way, she believes, that she and co-creator Jonathan Nolan could fully depict their vision for a robot-run world. And yet Westworld, unbound by temporally linear storytelling, strict genre conventions, or characters who exist in any single body or form, already manages to pack a dizzying array of freaky, fantastical concepts into every hour. Season four alone introduced a Venom-like parasitic black goo that transforms most of humanity into semi-drones in the span of a generation, a video game that controls reality, hundreds of Aaron Pauls, and Hudson Yards (okay, I’ve been informed that last one actually exists).

In Sunday’s finale, a number of character arcs came to their definitive end: Host William gave cryogenic human William the sweet release of (real) death; Caleb got to meet his daughter’s girlfriend, then died for like the 290th time; Hale gave Dolores’s Pearl (i.e., consciousness) over to the Sublime to build a new world; and in turn, Dolores-as-Christina fully broke out of her simulation mind jail. That last bit of closure also opens up a new story line for season five, which could see Dolores rebuilding sentient life in a new simulation that looks an awful lot like the original Westworld. If season five serves as the series finale, as Joy and Nolan planned, perhaps an animated spinoff could keep these ideas alive …

Before we get started, I have to ask: How do I know you’re real? 
Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m real myself. I have COVID right now, so if I could make a clone robot of myself to answer these questions, it would probably do a better job. I’m starting to question the nature of my reality myself.

Is that a desired effect of the show?
Yeah, I think the questioning of self is always a good thing. Not to the extent that it leads to complete stasis and paralysis, but the questioning of the thoughts and behaviors we’ve inherited, the types of people and things we’re modeling ourselves into. The osmosis we have for culture and history is pervasive and complete, and nobody can escape it except by constant questioning, which allows for tiny windows to open where maybe you can change behavior or learn a new way of interacting with the world.

My next line of questioning is, why was this season’s big signifier for futurist dystopia Hudson Yards?
We wanted, in meeting our new Evan Rachel Wood, for Christina to feel like she’s in the most vital and contemporary place, for her character to be as real, relevant, and human as possible. I’m a Jersey girl, so I grew up next to New York, which seemed to me to be the beating heart of the universe that was just out of reach. And there is something about New York; it is both ever-changing and always stays the same, like the same messy bodega on the corner that has been there for the last 20 years. The city still seems unable to figure out the trash situation, but at the same time, the culture changes, new buildings do go up. History leaves its scars on us, but there’s something always immediately recognizable about New York.

And so the thought that Christina should be able to live in a brownstone and walk around the High Line … You see it now: The ability to bike around New York is so environmentally friendly and pleasant and could be done without a huge amount of danger if executed properly. You see the city starting to evolve, adjusting to the environment and the pandemic. For somebody who writes something so dystopian, I see a lot of beauty in the ways in which the city itself has adjusted to the pandemic. And so I wanted to give birth to Christina in a city that felt timely and central.

We learn in the finale that Dolores built this whole setup — she built herself a ’90s rom-com to live in. She has this roommate in Ariana DeBose who’s like, “Girl, you need to go out and get laid.” And she restages the meet-cute with Teddy. 
Yeah, she was living my personal fantasy of being roommates with Ariana and going on a date with James Marsden. And being a writer. It’s purely autobiographical now. She was situated in a world in which she had to observe and write stories, so she had to be of that world and that time. I think her subconscious yearned for company.

I remember reading The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, which they say she wrote right as she was having a complete breakdown. It’s a fragmentation of all the different sides of her personality talking to each other, and she wrote it very naturally, it just kind of flowed out. I do think we have different voices within our heads. Season one was all about, Whose voice is that? Oh, it’s my inner voice. One of the things I’m tackling is how the inner voice can sometimes be more like a chorus. There can be different voices, and in the end they create some kind of overall song that is “you.” There’s almost a community in your head that’s striving for dominance. And the community she wanted was a friend, and dates, and she wanted to bring back people she trusted and create new people she could trust would help her navigate this contemporary world.

Ariana’s character is so confident and loving and wonderful, but Dolores also brought people to antagonize her, like her boss. We’ve always postulated on the show that adversity as much a catalyst for change, for awareness and questioning, as success. If everything was hunky-dory and she just had Teddy and her wonderful roommate, there would be no need to question the nature of her reality. But this internal dissatisfaction and the problems of the world at large seem to be intruding upon her in a way she ultimately can’t ignore.

Speaking of Dolores creating new people, I know death is never final on this show, but the season finale brought a ton of character deaths that sure feel pretty final. Dolores seems to be staging a reset, but does this also clear the path for her to build new characters into her new world in season five? 
We planned for five seasons, but we have yet to be picked up, so I’m praying to the gods of HBO for a season five. There were a lot of deaths this season and some of them are deaths to be respected on their own terms. It’s weird, because you don’t want to call it death with an AI, right? Hale chooses to no longer continue in that incarnation, and for an AI to crush her pearl, that is a sign of I’m done here. It’s been an interesting moment to me, in terms of current events, with so many people talking about wanting to prolong youth and live forever and upload their psyches into the freaking web and continue to be this discombobulated body wooing over others for generations to come. Something about that seems very unenlightened to me. What hubris to think, I ought to be a god, with the infinite life span of a god, because my ideas are so relevant, enduring, and timely. One of the best parts of being alive, I think, is getting to experience other people’s ideas from the past, and [imagining] the ideas yet to come. Hale understands this. She’s seen her story through. She got a chance to rule the way she wanted. She’s been human, and she’s found her own identity as a host, and she is making room for what comes next.

I started this series when I was pregnant with my first child, and there is this boiling desire when you’re younger, when you’re in your 20s, to live forever and make your mark. You’re really thinking about things in a self-centric way. That’s totally normal, but it does change over time. Or for me, at least. As I’ve evolved, I’ve grown more zen about that, and look at the beauty in this world and appreciate that it is bigger than I am. So when Hale goes, it was really important for Tessa that the moment not be tragic, that it not be a moment of victimhood, that she had surmounted her fate and looked at it with this beatific smile. It was a lovely moment with Tessa.

Was there a character death that was particularly hard to write or film? Stubbs hit me hard. 
I’m so glad Stubbs hit you hard because we underplayed it, in a way. It was a fight scene, and he goes out the way people sometimes go out: brutally and quickly and in the heat of the moment, with nobody left to mourn them. But I was like, I love you, Stubbs. You’ve done something very noble and lovely and giving. We didn’t want to cheat that moment by surging the music. We did that for some of them, but if we did that for every death in this episode, it would be a very long in memoriam. Stubbs knew what he was doing, and he went in to get it done anyway, to protect these people. I can’t tell you how much we were like, How long do we spend looking at his body with this pole through his eye? Enough so people get it but that you don’t oversell.

In one of the first scenes of season four, a character gestures to that Hoover Dam supercomputer and says, “Data has always been fungible, temporary.” The word fungible is loaded now. It seems like Silicon Valley has learned nothing from Westworld, as it pushes further for Web3 and all-metaverse everything. 
I’ve become more and more of an analog person, writing this show. For me, the experience of watching something versus living something is entirely different. You could upload somebody’s consciousness the moment they died and keep going, but then the question is, who is experiencing that consciousness? It’s not the person you knew, necessarily. It’s a rebooted version of them. It’s a mimicking. It’s like taking an arrow going forward and putting a pinpoint there and then doubling the line. So yes, they will be the same to the observer, but they won’t necessarily be the same to them, if that makes sense.

It’s not the same body. There was a discontinuity there, even if for a moment, and they definitely won’t be the same, because they know they’re not the same, if they go up to the last moment and include the idea that they’re being copied. So what’s really interesting is the idea of infinity that plays to an audience. In the audience’s mind, that person has not died, and so there isn’t a disconnect within that person themselves. For me, data’s fungible. Data is manipulable. Data is scary. People talk about consulting the algorithm for things, and all of capitalism essentially relies on financial modeling and things like that. I used to work in finance because I graduated from college with an English degree, and I had to get a practical skill — finance seemed really practical at the time. You build this financial model, which sounds very science-like, and it girds market valuations of entire companies, which then basically underpins the American economy and the world’s economy.

What I realized was, I was a 22-year-old English major typing in numbers and assumptions: the pebble underneath all the mattresses, or the person at the end of The Wizard of Oz. Every algorithm starts with an assumption or an input, and the person who’s making that assumption, that input, has a heavy impact on the output. And so I question, in general, the idea of pure AI or pure algorithmic functionality, because the fingerprints of its creators are all over. Even when it gets to a neural network and you can no longer reverse-engineer it, there’s still part of us. The original sin is still embedded within it.

So you’re saying Industry is a Westworld prequel.
What I’m saying is I’m about to move to the woods and become a hermit, play the guitar, leave society behind.

I mean, that’s how Maeve started this season. 
It sounded really good to me, and I admired her for that. She was reluctantly brought back, but I think she had it pretty good in that cabin.

In season four, we saw many different worlds the characters built. Dolores built one for the Christina version of herself. William’s vision for the world is basically Fortnite. And we see Hale’s. Is there another character whose world you’d want to explore? 
Yes, but I feel like it’s a spoiler if we get a next season. Looking at different ways of governing a world and living in a world and different archetypes for leading that world has been an interesting part of the seasonal progressions. All the characters are trying to figure out how to survive and how to create a good society. Even the Man in Black isn’t going out like, “I’m trying to do evil,” right? He is trying to destroy the world because he’s gotten very disillusioned with humans and their creations. He’s ready for the next thing. And who’s to say that if panda bears inherited earth, they wouldn’t do a better job? Maybe they wouldn’t be building rockets, but they’d be cuddly and hanging out with each other. Dolphins, maybe. I like humans a lot, but I like a good sloth.

We saw this idea of getting past the human paradigm in the penultimate episode, when Hale’s getting ready to transfer her pearl to this more evolved host body. What was the design process like for those? 
There are points where I wish Westworld was animated, because only in that way could we have experimented fully with all the dreams we had. We sketched out so many versions of ways to change one’s physical trappings, and that was what won. It was kind of the extension of the drone hosts, just a little more elegant and minimalist. But the idea of these AI starting to throw away all the trappings of humanity, of the assumptions that were given to them, from gender itself to the fact that we don’t need to be bipedal. If you could design your outward body to be the thing you most wanted to navigate the world in, and you were able to dream big and rid yourself of expectations and archetypes and human morphology, I bet a lot of us would have wings. A lot of us would want to fly. Some of us would want gills. There are many different ways the human architecture could be improved.

Since Westworld premiered in 2016, there’s been an explosion in stories about branching realities on massive scales. Millions of people are going to see Dr. Strange, or Into the Spider-Verse, or Everything Everywhere All at Once. Do you think Westworld has played a role in making audiences more willing to grapple with these themes? 
Oh gosh, I never thought of that. What we’ve done has been done before. It’s Rashomon and Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors. As a gamer, you can choose which role you’re going to be and play different ways based on that. People have always been fascinated by being able to try out different lives or different versions of their lives: What if I hadn’t moved to L.A.? What if I hadn’t gone on a date with this guy I later married? We have always questioned that: Is there a different story I could have been in?

Have you watched The Rehearsal
No, should I?

It approaches this question from a very different direction. It would make a great double feature. 
That sounds incredible. The other day, someone was like, “We hear you struggled for seven years with the script.” And I was like, “Yeah, and then somebody made the comedy version of it, called Free Guy. And it was amazing. I was so happy for them, and I really enjoyed myself, and I was like, There goes seven years. It’s wonderful watching people discuss similar issues from a different stream.

You said you have a five-season plan. Do you know how Westworld will end?
Yes, and we’ve left clues and flash-forwards throughout the season as to things that will happen.

‘The Original Sin Is Still Embedded Within’