'I have the last shot in the series - I keep it in the back of my mind' - meet the Westworld creators ahead of season finale
Ahead of the hugely-anticipated season finale, the creators of robot romp 'Westworld' tell Ed Power how they keep the juggernaut on the road
You have to take your 10-gallon hat off to Westworld. HBO's $100m reboot of a largely forgotten 70s sci-fi movie about cowboy robots running amok in a futuristic theme park has become the biggest TV sensation this side of Game of Thrones.
It's given us Anthony Hopkins as a mad creator of self-aware androids. Ed Harris as a vengeful tycoon, dressed all in black and living out his wildest fantasies in the eponymous Wild West park. And, most heartbreakingly, Evan Rachel Wood as an abused lady 'bot turned terrifying force of vengeance and Thandie Newton as a brothel madam searching for her daughter. The machine revolution is being televised and it's proving a literal and figurative blast.
With the finale of season two airing this weekend (on Sunday in the US and the wee hours of Monday in Ireland), millions around the world are in a state of anticipation. There are so many questions - even at 90 minutes, can the episode possibly answer them all? Will we, for instance, finally find out if Ed Harris's Man in Black is an artificial 'host'? Can Rachel Wood's Dolores topple the Delos corporation, evil custodians of the park? Are we to be treated to another sequence in which the company's founder James Delos - cheekily resurrected as a host - dances badly to The Rolling Stones?
The imponderable that looms largest, however, is whether the makers of Westworld have a grip on a storyline that kinks and bucks like a runaway bronco. In season one - very loosely inspired by the 1973 Michael Crichton film - the cowboy theme park was presented as a playground for the rich and debauched. Imagine Disneyland if Disneyland allowed you sleep with and shoot robot prostitutes, not necessarily in that order.
Yet by the second season it had been revealed that the park is something even more nefarious, where the brain patterns of 'guests' are illicitly scanned and archived.
As the plot grew ever denser, alarm bells may have whooped, especially among viewers previously scarred by Lost - another cult drama that promised the moon and stars yet was ultimately revealed to be a puzzle box with nothing inside.
"I have the last shot in the series [in mind]," Lisa Joy, Westworld's writer, show-runner and co-creator (along with her husband Jonathan Nolan) tells the Irish Independent. "I keep it in the back of my head. We have those answers."
"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," adds Nolan at a public Q&A session later that evening.
"And that's absolutely fascinating and an engaging way to tell a story. But for us... 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."
Season two of Westworld has been a brain-bending roller-coaster for fans. Especially unnerving has been the transformation of heroine Dolores (Rachel Wood) from sweet innocent to cruel leader of the machine uprising.
There was an outcry from fans who liked the old demure Dolores just fine, which prompted Rachel Wood to wonder aloud on Twitter why male characters were not held to the same standards. Nobody, after all, was bothered when James Marsden's Teddy - Dolores's puppy-like boyfriend - was reprogrammed by his lover into a dead-eyed killer. Why hold a female character to a loftier moral code?
"We knew it was going to be a challenge for audiences," says Joy. "Audiences are just like us as writers - we grow attached to characters. In certain ways you don't want them to change.
"We're like that with our own friends. Part of what makes a relationship is understanding those changes, even if they disturb us at first. We knew this would be challenging: we have taken someone very easy to sympathise with and now she's not the victim, she is fighting back."
Dolores aside, even die-hards will admit Season two has been often confusing to watch. The story skips around multiple timelines; we are told upfront that one of the key characters, host Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), is an unreliable narrator, unable to distinguish between the here and now, and flashbacks to the past.
At its most bamboozling, Westworld is a hall of mirrors constantly doubling back on itself. One thing that has cut through the contorted plotting are parallels between the nefarious Delos corporation and real-world tech giants such as Google and Facebook. In their defence, Google and Facebook are not downloading our brain patterns with the aim of uploading them into robot bodies - as Delos has been doing. However, were the technology available, you have to worry that they might at least consider following suit.
"We are thankful for the viral marketing," laughs Joy. "I log on and there are so many cookies embedded in my computer - it's like they know what I need before I do.
"It's no surprise they are mining our data. [Westworld] just take it to the next level. It pushes to the forefront of our mind how it would be very easy to let it slide.
"What's so bad about Google knowing I need Kleenex? Look at it in the aggregate - see how information... can be used to target people based on their profiles and change the course of human history, as I believe it is already beginning to do. This knowledge that I need Kleenex has bigger complications than just needing Kleenex."
Granted an exclusive preview of the season finale, the Irish Independent can confirm Westworld continues to deliver twists and shocks right to the end. More than that, it challenges assumptions as to what popcorn entertainment should or should not aspire to.
The show isn't afraid to be cerebral and wordy - trusting that viewers will stay on board for the ride. In that regard, it might be thought of as the opposite of the comic book juggernauts currently dominating popular culture. This, Nolan acknowledges with a smile, is a huge irony.
After all, working with his director brother Christopher, he played a large part in the rise of the superhero, through The Dark Knight trilogy.
"I... hope we get sick of comic book movies," he says. "Though there are some really great ones... Having contributed to the superhero movie a couple of times, I'm not terribly sure how well that genre will age.
"There's some weird subconscious stuff that's been forming - a bunch of characters dressing up in tights beating the crap out of people."
Westworld finale airs on Sky Atlantic at 2am Monday and again at 9pm that evening. It will also be available on streaming service NOW TV.