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‘Upload’ Creator on Ingrid and Nora’s Journeys, Tapping Into the Horror Genre and AI Timeliness in Season 3

[This story contains spoilers from Upload‘s third season, including season finale “Flesh and Blood.”]

In the season three finale of Upload, Nora (Andy Allo), Nathan (Robbie Amell), Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) and the other characters win some, lose some and face a whole new set of challenges.

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A season-long effort to hold Freeyond accountable for its victimization of unsuspecting people is settled out of court, with the company delivering a staggering payout to the victims’ families and rebranding as Betta. But Nathan and Nora’s hope for their future together in the real world — with Nathan’s right as a “person” legitimized by the U.S. government — is still out of reach.

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As a part of that settlement, Nathan and Nora lose out on the chance to use the material Aleesha (Zainab Johnson) leaked to help expose the dark doings of the company, preventing them from moving the conversation about upload and download rights forward.

Ingrid also agrees to accept back-up copy Nathan’s proposal for marriage after two seasons of battling for his heart and deep insecurities based in original Nathan’s feelings for Nora. But the love triangle also takes a new hit as a result of the Freeyond settlement.

In the final moments of “Flesh and Blood,” both women learn that one of their Nathans has been destroyed as part of the settlement, which saw Freeyond erasing all the duplicate (and illegal) uploads. The problem is, they don’t know which one.

It’s a painful turn not only for Ingrid, Nora and Nathan’s mother Viv (Jessica Tuck), but also for audiences, who are now left unsure about Nathan’s fate in the series, which has yet to be renewed for a fourth season. Speaking to the season’s cliffhanger, and his larger approach to cliffhangers over the show’s three seasons, creator Greg Daniels explained he chooses to use storytelling tricks “to keep people guessing and having something to think about in between seasons.”

“There’s this long period in between seasons, and I don’t really want to give people closure because I want them to come back,” he added, laughing.

Daniels spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about some of Upload season three’s biggest character and plot developments; how they set up season four; his inspirations for two of the season’s most frightening examples of tech development; and how the show’s exploration of AI became timely amid two major Hollywood strikes.

At the start of the season, you set Ingrid up to move on from Nathan, but she ends up getting sucked back in and then, the season ends with her potentially losing her version of Nathan. Why did you not have her walk away and, essentially, avoid another possible Nathan heartbreak?

I think she’s a really great, complicated character. The one thing that is her North Star is that she has this vision of herself ending up with Nathan and this is how it’s supposed to be. It is kind of pulling her into comical scenes. It’s like when someone fixates on something and doesn’t realize that the ground is shifting under them, and they’re being led out onto the tiniest of tree limbs because of this fixation. It’s good for comedy. So she did learn, and it was very painful, at the end of season two that Nathan preferred Nora. But when she finds out that there’s another one that’s acting really lovey-dovey towards her and has no memory that Nora returned in the middle of season two, she’s just too tempted. She drops back in. I think, if I were her girlfriend, I would probably tell her not to go back to that, as her girlfriends do whenever she runs into them. But that’s kind of in our DNA. Having a second chance with this new version of Nathan, this copy, is also giving her a chance to do some things over that she did crazy the first time.

Kristine Cofsky and Robbie Amell
Holden (Kristine Cofsky) and Nathan (Robbie Amell) in Upload

Nora also had a season that doesn’t quite end the way she’d like, with her questioning the possibility of becoming a lawyer and the case against Freeyond being settled, so there are no answers to whether uploads are “real” and no rights for downloads like Nathan. Can you talk about where season three leaves us going forward?

I think that a lot of times when you commit really hard to your premise and your circumstances and your characters, you don’t know 100 percent where it’s going to go. You’re just trying to be true to what they wanted. We’d established that Nora wanted to be a lawyer — but couldn’t get the schooling because of the circumstances of her mom’s illness. But she had this interest in fairness and in justice that was part of the theme of the show.

And when you talk about are the uploads real, I think from a philosophical standpoint, that’s a really interesting question. That kind of philosophizing is part of the show and one of the genres. But I also think it’s about who gets to control people. You have a digital footprint and your private information is out there, and why are these big tech companies exploiting you all the time?

So her urge to get these rules to govern what happens to people — and to them, they are people — who think and feel, but are also being owned by the tech companies because they’re simulations — it sort of brings up a lot of questions about whether we’ve given too much power to the tech companies who know everything about us. That’s the underlying backdrop for questions about are they real people, and can we treat them fairly? It makes you think, are any of us consumers and workers real people, and do we deserve to be treated fairly?

You did a lot of world building this season, expanding how we understand the development of the “real” modern world with things like factory farming AR, and the virtual world, with a trip to the abandoned version of Lakeview. There’s obviously a lot of frightening things you tuck into the comedy of this show, but can you talk about your inspirations for those?

The cows thing was something that I was imagining because of watching nature documentaries about termites and their queens — those huge segmented bodies that are just pulsing and so out of scale with the other termites. There was a lot of, “What can we do to talk about factory farming?” Well, Nathan and Nora are in the real world, and they’re traveling across the country, so they hit this Oscar Meyer Intel factory farm. (Laughs.) But just trying to find something super grotesque, that was the goal. Obviously, there was no creature there. It was all visual effects, so there was an awful lot of notes and posts about can we make it really pulsate? (Laughs.)

And so much of my goal with the show is to mash up different genres. There was a bit of horror in season one, just when the head’s burned off. It was very shocking. But I think we got into the horror a bit more this time. In the pilot, there was a one-off line where Luke says that the first generation of uploads didn’t have eyelids, and they all went crazy. So that’s where that came from. But that whole storyline, the plot was executed really well by the writer. It was a whole adventure with the idea to sort of bond Ingrid with the new copy in something that wasn’t about their situation . It was more fun, like going to an amusement park for them.

Robbie Amell and Andy Allo
Nathan (Robbie Amell) and Nora (Andy Allo) in Upload

AI Guy became particularly timely this season, which rolled out during two strikes that partly centered around AI use and how we feed it and digital body doubles. Having watched Owen Daniels plays AI Guy so well, do you think a virtual replica could really mimic his skill? And what takeaways do you have about AI’s presence in the industry after writing about it for three seasons?

Owen does an awful lot of stuff that we don’t expect. He’s very comedy forward, and I am always surprised by the choices that he makes. I think he would be hard to mimic with AI, which is a funny thought. In terms of AI as a subject, it’s a huge subject. I was at MIT lecturing about Upload because of the sci-fi aspects and the VR aspects about a year and a half ago, and then because of that, they had me be a judge on an AI-generated film festival that they did in January. When they did that, I immediately wrote everybody I knew on the Writers Guild committee going, “We gotta get into this.” (Laughs.) There’s so many aspects.

I think that some of the time when we’re talking about AI on the show, we’re using the uploads to talk about it, like the replacing of human jobs. When you talk about AI in the sort of Terminator, scary way of thinking about AI (laughs) — and some of the ethical parts — I think that if you can’t put it back in the bottle, then it’s really important what value system the AI has. And so the storyline of Aleesha trying to train this adolescent AI and give it a good values is a metaphor for what we ought to be doing. We shouldn’t just let the AIs roam around Twitter and pick up all this garbage, the same way we shouldn’t let you know teenagers do that without any kind of adults trying to give them some values. That story with Aleesha was basically trying to quickly give some morality to the AI because it’s not going to be coming from Horizon. It’s not coming from the big tech companies.

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