[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
If there’s one Westworld character arc that’s never added up convincingly, it’s that of William, aka the Man in Black (Ed Harris). That’s not a dig at Harris’ performance, by any means. The actor has been one of series’ tonal linchpins: He’s an old hand at the mixture of stony menace and amused cynicism that the show’s thematically rich but conceptually ludicrous science-fiction premise requires. Unfortunately, his character has been somewhat underserved by the series’ writers, who last season failed to persuasively convey William’s Westworld-mediated descent into darkness as a young man (Jimmi Simpson). His metamorphosis from a wannabe white knight into the park’s black-hatted dragon (and, eventually, its majority owner) seemed more like an abrupt, illogical about-face than a living, breathing human’s formative episode of self-discovery. When Logan (Ben Barnes) awoke in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to find that William had slaughtered an entire camp of Confederados, it’s as if the latter man had simply been replaced by a bloodthirsty imposter.
This defect in characterization has come back to haunt the series on occasion, but never more conspicuously than in “Vanishing Point,” a William-centered episode that fills in details about the suicide of his wife, Juliet (Sela Ward). It’s not simply that the plot of this chapter awkwardly contradicts what has already been established about Juliet’s death in the first-season episode “Trace Decay.” What’s most frustrating is that her self-inflicted demise is presented as a despairing, impulsive reaction, triggered when Juliet learns about the William’s villainy during his annual vacation to Westworld. Said knowledge arrives courtesy of a digital card initially proffered to William by Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). (That object’s physical journey through the episode’s flashback sequences, while as predictable as Chekhov’s gun, has an admittedly queasy, dread-inducing quality.)
In theory, it’s not illogical that a spouse – especially one who is also an addict facing institutionalization – might react in such a dire, self-destructive way on learning that her partner has a secret life as a remorseless killer, even if his only victims are androids. Still, it’s not as if Juliet didn’t strongly suspect her husband has an irredeemably ugly side. Indeed, her singular ability to see through William’s respectable veneer to the monster underneath is one of few character attributes that the writers have deigned to give Juliet. It may be that digital proof of that monster is simply the final nudge that pushes her over the edge. However, the problem with positioning her death as the centerpiece of “Vanishing Point” is that the viewer is never afforded a substantive look at married life with William, the alleged living hell that compelled Juliet to drink her problems away. (Ward, unfortunately, doesn’t do much with the role other than slur, stumble, and shout.) The suicide itself is held up as evidence of William’s awfulness, a kind of confirmation that his Westworld wickedness is just an extension of his real-world depravity.
This is one of Westworld’s core theses: How an individual behaves within the park’s unreality is an indication of who they really are. However, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have generally been content to simply assert this as axiomatic without providing much in the way of proof. In the first season, the show functioned as a self-contained reality, much like Westworld itself, permitting no peeks at the outside world. During the current season, the series has ventured beyond the park on several occasions, but it’s almost always been to flesh out the history of Westworld’s early development. The writers have hinted at William’s corporate-minded ruthlessness, as well as his effort to counterbalance his image with stage-managed philanthropy, but most of what the viewer knows about his personality stems from his in-park actions, where he’s (almost) always depicted as a murderous son-of-a-bitch. Westworld wants the viewer to regard this as a red flag, an indication of William’s vile character, but it never draws a connecting line through the park’s boundary, so to speak.
Instead, the show offers up lots of vague, ponderous references to a disturbing darkness or stain within William, without ever adequately explaining what that means in practice. It’s strongly suggested that it means something beyond the fact that he enjoys terrorizing, assaulting, and murdering human-looking robots for recreation. The ultimate effect of this sort of wobbly writing is that it diminishes a tragedy like Juliet’s suicide to an empty plot device and makes Williams seem like more of a shallow proof-of-concept for the show’s worldview than a believable person.
“Vanishing Point” still offers plenty of interest, plot-wise, particularly a scene where Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) turns Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) into a kind Typhoid Mary who can wirelessly infect nearby androids with self-destructive commands via the mesh network. And, truth be told, there are some deeply poignant character beats in this episode as well. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) electing to abandon Elsie (Shannon Woodward) in the middle of nowhere to prevent himself from physically harming her again is quietly heartbreaking, all the more so given that his former co-worker will probably never truly understand his actions. Ford appearing like a digital phantom to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and confessing his profound, paternal affection for her is an unexpectedly moving moment. There’s something fitting about the notion that the cunning, world-weary madam is and always has been Ford’s secret favorite, much as sweet-and-savage Delores was Arnold’s most beloved creation.
The episode’s clearest moment of unvarnished horror occurs when William, unable to shake his buzzing suspicion that Ford is still toying with him, guns down a very human Delos security team – as well as his own daughter, Emily, alias “Grace” (Katja Herbers). Despite the problems with William’s arc, Emily’s sudden death is a genuinely devastating moment, and it’s a credit to Harris’ performance that William’s realization of what he’s done feels so authentically shattering. For all his self-satisfied wickedness within the “game,” William has never unleashed his violent proclivities on other humans (as far as the viewer knows). There’s something agonizingly tragic about the fact that he first does so by mistake, murdering his only surviving family member in the process. He’s crossed a moral Rubicon now, and it looks very bleak for him on the other side.
Emily’s death and William’s resulting suicidal despair point to one of Westworld’s themes that’s been neglected recently: the idea that constant immersion in a simulated reality could potentially lead to confusion about what is and is not real. In earlier episodes, William’s certainty that Ford has been mocking and misdirecting him through the hosts seemed like oblivious arrogance, befitting a billionaire who imagines that everything revolves around him. Here that vanity finally tips over into paranoid delusion, as William is unable to distinguish his own flesh-and-blood daughter from a scheming host. Westworld got some mileage out of William’s narcissism in the first season – “The Maze isn’t meant for you” – but it hasn’t touched on it much this year. Unfortunately, the park’s descent into chaos means that there’s no longer much space in the story for rumination on the psychological perils of virtual worlds.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- Another, more amusing reading of William’s self-centered delusions is as a commentary on Westworld’s notoriously fervent fan base, which every week outlines baroque theories on Reddit based on stray bits of dialogue and production-design details. It’s all too easy for self-flattering, obsessive viewers to believe that the writers are speaking to them in a kind of code, much as William is convinced that Ford is tweaking him via androids that speak in riddles and hinder his progress towards the Valley Beyond.
- During Juliet’s perusal of William’s profile, the interface indicates that he is a very rare “Type 47B,” a “persecutory subtype” and “paranoid subtype” characterized by “delusions.” Sounds about right, based on the evidence in this episode alone.
- William hides his profile card inside a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical science-fiction novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Not incidentally, Juliet derisively calls her husband “Billy” and interrogates him about his “pilgrimages” to Westworld. Given William’s increasing paranoia and dissociation, one is put in mind of the novel’s iconic line: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
- Ordered by Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) to hunt down any Ghost Nation stragglers after a skirmish with that tribe, Teddy (James Mardsen) finds that he is unable to shoot the fleeing Wanahton (Martin Sensmeier). It’s previously been established that some “awakened” hosts can retain memories after being reformatted, so it’s not a stretch for them to also cling to deeply ingrained aspects of their personalities. Hence Teddy’s lingering Good Guy tendencies even after Delores reprogrammed him to be a remorseless killer. The knowledge that he’s committed atrocities that run counter to his original purpose triggers an overdue moral and existential crisis for the poor cowpoke, culminating in suicide. RIP, Teddy. (And kudos to Wood, who gets a rare moment this season to really shine as an actor when she’s obliged to portray Delores’ sudden, unfathomable shock and grief.)