Lisa Joy on Why the ‘Westworld’ Season 4 Finale Isn’t the HBO Show’s Endgame

[This story contains major spoilers for the Westworld season four finale “Que Será, Será.”]

It’s one last time around the loop for Westworld.

In Sunday night’s season finale, the nature of Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) plan — teased in the season’s penultimate episode — comes to light amid a new reign of terror by The Man in Black (Ed Harris). With the host version of William so ready to fill the shoes of his human predecessor and launch Hale’s (Tessa Thompson) new world order into utter chaos, the host must decide whether she’ll go down with her failed society or cede power to Dolores to try something new.

As viewers see, a host of Westworld’s hosts say goodbye to the old world as Dolores ushers in the promise of something different. Built from memory in the sublime — after both human and host-led society has crumbled — Westworld’s first fully functional host is now ready to play God.

It’s an interesting concept following the events of season four, which have seen the line between host and human never thinner. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy about just that, and broke down how several of the show’s other various themes played into this season — and where the show is heading (as it awaits a renewal).

When I spoke to a member of your makeup VFX team, he said something that really stuck with me. On Westworld, “everything old is new again.” That hasn’t felt more true than for season four. How much has that idea actually driven past storytelling, and will it drive future seasons?

I think it’s a really astute observation. From the very beginning, in season one, we talked about characters being on loops and, how do you break these loops? I think that even with human beings, that’s why self-help books are so popular in bookstores and online. We are trapped in certain behaviors that get recycled and repeated in different permutations again and again, as individuals and as a collective. The cycles of violence, the cycles of destruction, the cycles of rebuilding. So you’re hoping that with each epicycle, progress is made. That you’re moving towards somewhere good. There’s definitely downswings in history and in personal history, and so it’s the idea is of revisiting motifs and adjusting. Hale has control this season. What role does she make? Ford had control — humans had control — in the first season. What does that look like? Now we’re moving towards, Gods willing, a season in which Dolores has control and the cycle will repeat one last time. How will that be different? What new things can be learned? And, is it possible to even break out of that cycle?

The line between humans and hosts has gotten thin. It increasingly feels like we’re all just code, whether it’s genetic or computer. Especially when the hosts were dying by suicide earlier this season. Hale called it a bug but it felt more like a feature, that the hosts were struggling to find meaning in their lives — in a loop or not — just like humans do. Is that a fair reading?

I love you so much. (Laughs) To me, that is what I was getting at. In the end, Hale, for me, when she dies, it’s supposed to be a beautiful thing of grace and ownership. It’s not in any way, in my mind, a sign of defeat. Tessa did such a great job of owning that last look and being at peace with this universe. And it really came to me from, “Look, we are all human. We have mortality to deal with.” The thing that is beautiful is, within those limitations and within the foibles of human nature, there’s beauty to be found. I sometimes think that perfection is unremarkable. It’s just the same thing again and again, a perfect platonic form. Whereas if you’ve ever been in love, or if you’ve ever read a book that you love or seen a film that you love, it’s those little edges that make it feel personal to you, that make it feel like it’s touched you in a deeper way. So, for me, these hosts who are told to be perfect, they go on these nihilistic killing sprees and then they meet somebody who has broken out of their loop and is, for a moment — even if it’s a tortured moment — free.

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That kind of freedom and fallibility is, to them, a form of beauty. To know what it’s like to have silence and to have rest and to cede this world to someone else. To me, there’s a grace to that. Especially now, when people talk about immortality. Lots of rich people want immortality and to boot themselves up to the ever-after internet. For me, it’s like, “You know what, change and evolution comes from death.” One of the greatest things you can do for the next generation is to die and leave the world, hopefully, a little better. But hope that there’s an evolution and things that you wouldn’t have thought about, even the way society changes. When you get older, it’s just a little harder to adjust. I don’t necessarily think people who can’t adjust are evil or bad. I think they have lived a long life, and it’s OK to say with wonderment and curiosity and a kind of welcomeness, “I can’t wait to see what comes next.” Even if I don’t get to see it with my eyes.

Hale’s version of the world this season seemed to incorporate more universal design. Things felt more accessible with ramp-design around the city and the new version of the drones resembling amputees to a degree. Did you think about whether Hale, as a non-human, would imagine a world that humans simply couldn’t or wouldn’t about what our bodies can do or should be?

Absolutely. That’s absolutely it. It was the chance to question. The great thing about writing on Westworld is you get to look at humanity from an outside view, from the vantage point of a non-human and look at some of the absurdities of it. You know what I mean? We all obsess about bodies and body types and, it’s for what? I like to say that, honestly, it’s best not to think too much about being so good-looking or anything because humans as a species are really heinous. We look like the ass on a baboon. (Laughs.) Which is not to say I don’t find us beautiful. But a martian would probably find a lemur much prettier than a human. So there’s something about questioning anthropomorphic values of traditional abilities and representations of beauty, strength and power.

So if I had infinite money — which I do not — I used to doodle all of these ways in which I wanted these forms that Hale could have transcended too. It wasn’t just one form. It was Lego. Like, “You want to have 18 arms and four wheels today? Sure. And then you want to pop it off tomorrow and have wings? Great.” There’s nothing holding you to a bipedal human-based chassis. There’s no reason why a host would need to live in that skin or that skeleton. I think they would choose things based upon comfort, desire whatever they considered their personal brand of aesthetics. That maybe they would change those things over time, based upon where they were in life. They didn’t just get handed a kind of flesh sack that they have to live in forever.

The finale promises one more go around the loop, but it felt like the show could have ended there with viewers imagining what Dolores could build in a new age. If you get another season, why does manifesting that vision feel like a better ending than leaving it up to the viewers?

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Well, it’s really… it’s a funny thing. This is very personal. I think it’s because of COVID that I’m going to answer this more honestly than I maybe should, and more personally. I’ve always had this fantasy of humans not having to be humans, of being able to just be an orb of light. If we could all be orbs of lights and you could shine different colors and resonate, or sounds like beautiful notes, and you can make a sound together. So much about our physical forms, about the weight of society and its gaze upon us — we inherit a lot of things from the outside world that are impossible to shake off and that sometimes make connection difficult. That sometimes I think is even knowing oneself. You have to strip down beneath all of that and really hold on. I’m not saying that culture and race and gender doesn’t affect us, and it isn’t a beautiful thing. But I am saying that we are all from space, one human race. And we work as a collective to either continue to live on this earth or to destroy ourselves on this earth. I always like to be very clear. We won’t be destroying the earth. The earth is going to be fine. We’ll be destroying ourselves and the ability for the earth to sustain us.

Bernard plays a big role in ushering the show into its season finale and through so much of a season that really feels like a giant callback to this show’s beginning. So, how far back were Bernard’s calculations going in terms of choosing the right path? Was it from the point of season four’s beginning, or was he actually working before that, potentially influencing timelines from season one?

I think it’s that the chronology of earth is moving at his regular time period, and so he has these kind of fast simulations — multiple simulations — going on in the sublime, whereas he can test many, many outcomes. But by the time he goes back, that’s going to be a fixed period of time. So it’s when he goes back to Stubbs in that moment. But where the past comes into play is in predicting the future. He needs to know from his memory what their previous behaviors were. That goes into parts of the simulation. Then parts of the simulation too are just using every possible permutation and trying to eliminate them. So once he sees what the diner is serving, is this not that, he’s like, “OK, well, that eliminates half the simulations that I’ve lived in this bounded infinity that I was in.” He is just trying to guide it closer and closer to the end.

I’ve heard Dolores described as Arnold and Robert’s “first child.” It’s an interesting concept in light of her current role reversal and monologue on memory. Because memory has been a particularly powerful and constant theme around Westworld characters who have had children like Caleb, Mauve and Hale. It drives them, it defines them. Dolores promised to build her new world from memory, so will it be based on her fathers’ or something new born from her own memories?

Westworld deals a lot with memory, which is an issue that also I find to be incredibly important in my life. Because if you love someone, the idea of mortality, even if you love just a moment or that moment that you experience together, the idea of not being able to revisit it — it’s actually its own hell. With hosts, they’re lucky in a way. Their memories are so perfect. They never degrade. That’s why she had a problem for a season. Maude couldn’t even tell when she was because her memory was so vivid that it is as vivid as the present. It’s as though she’s living it again. There’s something really wonderful about being able to go back and live those moments, again, fully.

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But when I think about the sadness of the human condition and the deterioration of memory, there’s also beauty in that, right? Because it means that who they become blended with who you are as memories change. The love you have for them, maybe it makes them a little more beautiful, a little more patient. Maybe their laugh is a little more magical. They deserve that, and that’s the truth. Because that is the synthesis of you and that person. It’s like having a baby. It’s like having an incorporeal baby. And I think that memory and even the flaws in memory are a sign of love because we keep what we cherish.

You plant Easter eggs in the music and in the title sequences each year. “Perfect Day” really felt like an ode to Dolores’ journey, especially the line: “Just a perfect day. You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good.” Dolores is one of the only hosts that has actually had the chance to be bad and good across various physical evolutions. In the footsteps of Charlotte, Arnold and Robert, can viewers expect Dolores to explore what kind of God she wants to be?

Yeah. I mean, I think so much of what the show is about is if you’re convinced you’re good all the time — it’s like when you read the hero’s journey for writing fiction. We all have that instinct in us, and maybe it’s because what came first, the chicken or the egg? The three-act structure of the hero realizing the thing. Was that something that shaped who we are, or was that something that came from who we are? But either way, people tend to be — not in a bad way, but — egocentric. It makes sense. You’re in this body, so everything’s revolving around you and it would not be great to sit there being like, “I’m not the hero of this story. I’m actually a pretty sucky being.” Right? Not a lot of people go around thinking that.

By the way, it’s not to say people don’t have doubts and they don’t have insecurities. But the vast majority of people are, by definition, and as a need for survival, egocentric. I guess the thing that I think is most difficult is if you’re always convinced you’re good, if you’re always convinced that you and your side and your ideas are right, then how do you ever learn? How do you ever grow as a culture if every single person thinks that way and is coming from a different point of view?

I think part of what Dolores has learned is that she is exactly who she is, but she has been both. She has done things she regrets. She has done things that are noble. She has been misunderstood. And she has been seen. She has been loved and reviled and that’s human nature. That is the human experience. So the question is, having undergone and lived through all that, how does it change you? Who do you become? What becomes your guiding principles going forward? Not only on living your own life, but on interacting with society, and in her case, making the society.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.