Westworld’s Man in Black is beyond savingJune 18, 2018
The last few episodes of Westworld have been some of the best — and most revelatory — of the entire season. The heartbreaking origin of the Ghost Nation tribe was revealed last week, and in the episode before that, audiences learned new insights about the creation of Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), and how the virtual simulation called “The Cradle” played a major role. It feels as if the show is pulling its disparate story threads together, all in anticipation of the coming season finale.
In the latest episode, “Vanishing Point,” themes of free will and choice bind together four very different storylines. There’s the normally passive Bernard, who finally stands up and embraces his own agency by deleting the Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) code that’s hitched a ride inside his robot brain. Teddy (James Marsden), who was robbed of free will by Dolores when she modded his personality without permission, chooses to turn his gun on himself rather than stand by her side. And Maeve (Thandie Newton), who has been relegated to an operating table while Delos extracts her superpower-enabled code, is also visited by the consciousness of Ford — who gives her “core-level” access to her own system, potentially making her even more powerful than she was before.
But those storylines all revolve around the power of having choice in the first place. The Man in Black (Ed Harris), on the other hand, suffers through the ramifications of already having made awful, unthinkable choices. It’s a dark turn for a character that, at one point, seemed like he was going to have a shot at redemption this season. Then again, this is Westworld, and there are more than a few clues that indicate the season’s biggest twist could still be on its way.
The big reveal?
The episode adopts the fractured narrative style employed in the past few episodes, largely alternating between the Man in Black’s conversation with his daughter, Emily (Katja Herbers) in the Westworld park, and his recollection of the night his wife Juliette (Sela Ward) committed suicide.
The flashbacks start at a lavish party celebrating The Man in Black — William, as he’s called in the regular world. “Look around, everybody’s here for you,” Juliette tells him while downing one of many glasses of champagne. “What could possibly compare?” As if on cue, William thinks he sees Dolores in the crowd, and it becomes obvious that she, and the park, are where his heart truly lies.
Back in the present day, William wonders how Emily found him in the first place, and when she suggests it’s fate, he waves her off. “But there are accidents. Things you can’t control,” Emily says. “Is that why you started it? Your little project?”
She’s referring to the mysterious structure hidden in The Valley Beyond, which she calls his “pursuit for immortality.” Elsewhere in the episode, Bernard reveals more details while talking to Elsie: the structure is actually called The Forge, and it’s where all the data collected about the park’s guests is stored. If The Cradle was a big virtual simulation that housed digital copies of the host’s minds, then it sounds like The Forge is the same thing, only bigger — and for the digital copies of the guests.
The episode then flashes back to the party, as William grabs a drink at the bar — something he normally reserves for his time in the park. There, he runs into Ford. “You’ve achieved extraordinary things, ask anyone in this room,” Ford tells him. “Even those who don’t know about your little project.”
It’s the exact same phrasing that Emily uses to describe The Forge, but William moves on and tells Ford that they have an agreement: Delos stays out of Ford’s stories, and Ford stays out of the Valley. “I didn’t break the agreement,” Ford counters. “Your project did.”
It’s not entirely clear what he’s referring to — even William seems confused — and Ford then pushes William’s buttons by sliding him a card containing the data profile the park has built of him over the decades, warning him that it’s not flattering. William eventually leaves and in the ensuing scenes, the rest of that fateful night plays out: Juliette accuses William of being a “virus” that has destroyed her father, her brother, and now her. Emily walks in on her parents’ fight, and insists that her mother go into rehab for her alcoholism. William puts Juliette to bed, and hides the card Ford gave to him in their bedroom.
Later that night, William and Emily discuss what to do, when they notice water dripping from the chandelier. William rushes upstairs to find the bathtub overflowing, and Juliette lifeless — an empty bottle of pills beside her.
Back in the park, the Man in Black gets angry at Emily’s prodding, going so far as to accuse her of being a host; he thinks it’s Ford, messing with him as he has all season. Emily takes the gloves off. She doesn’t blame herself for her mother’s suicide anymore, she tells him, because she’s read his data profile. Her mother left it for her, Emily says, and now she knows exactly what kind of person her father is — and she will expose him.
That’s when Delos security forces arrive. The Man in Black thinks they’re all hosts, sent by Ford to stop his progress, and what should be a simple rescue mission turns deadly. Moments later, the Man in Black has gunned down everyone — including Emily.
He never told anybody about the profile card, the Man in Black says, so Emily mentioning it is proof that she was just a Ford-controlled host. Then he examines her body, and discovers that she’s actually holding the data card itself. Juliette was telling the truth — and The Man in Black has just killed his own daughter.
In a daze, he rides into an open field. He gets down, puts his pistol to his temple… and then the episode flashes to what he didn’t share with Emily.
Back before the suicide, William puts Juliette to bed. He sits beside her, and — thinking that she is asleep — tells his wife that every negative feeling or suspicion she has about him is warranted. “I don’t belong to you, or this world,” he confesses. “I belong to another world. I always have.”
He leaves the room, and Juliette opens her eyes. She gets the profile card and uses a computer to read it, discovering all the terrible things he has done in the park. And before she takes her own life, she tucks the card away for her daughter to find.
Back in the open field, the Man in Black lowers his pistol. “What is a person but a collection of choices?” he says in a disembodied voice-over. “Where do these choices come from? Do I have a choice? Were any of these choices mine to begin with?”
The Man in Black draws back his coat, pulls out his knife, and begins digging the blade into his right forearm.
What does it mean?
It’s safe to say that any shot at redemption for the Man in Black disappears completely by the end of “Vanishing Point.” The episode makes it clear that the guilt he’s been carting around over his wife’s suicide is more than warranted. Juliette kills herself because she discovers the real truth about him — his Delos profile classifies him as a “paranoid subtype” with delusions — and he lets Emily go forward with her plan to involuntarily commit her mother even though he knows a big part of the issue is that Juliette senses what a horrible person he actually is. Not only that, but when he confesses that he belongs “to another world,” it’s Dolores and the Westworld park that he’s referring to. A young William feeling conflicted about marriage because he has feelings for Dolores is one thing; an old man that’s lived a life of hurting those around him because he won’t grapple with the scenario is another thing entirely.
Over the past few episodes, the Man in Black has seemed to be slipping off his game; confronting his past talking to Emily just pushes him right over the cliff. He built an empire using control and a carefully constructed facade, and when those things are stripped away, the center refuses to hold. He truly seems to think Emily is a host when he kills her, and by the time he’s cutting into his own arm, he can no longer tell the difference in himself, either.
Changing the game
Except maybe he’s not so crazy after all. I try to avoid wild speculation in this column, preferring to let Westworld’s story unfold rather than attempting to outsmart it by thinking three steps ahead. But given that next week is the season finale, there are a number of tea leaves in “Vanishing Point” that demand to be read.
The first is the mystery of William’s right forearm. This season, characters frequently “hardwire” into hosts by cutting open their right forearm and inserting a cable to reach a hidden port. It’s an easy tell, so when William cuts into his arm at the end of the episode, it seems clear he’s trying to discover whether he is host or human. (After he guns down Emily, he starts to do the same to her, before noticing the profile card in her hand.)
But William also touches that spot as if it hurts several times during the flashbacks to Juliette’s suicide. One potential read is that even back then he was starting to confuse fantasy and reality; another is that, somehow, the William seen in those flashbacks actually was a host clone, somehow cognizant of his own wiring. That may sound like a leap, but when Juliette looks at William’s profile he’s identified as “subject number 002.” With James Delos almost certainly being subject 1, it wouldn’t be a stretch if a physical copy of William had been created at some point.
Complicating it further: earlier in this season, William was shot in almost that exact same place, and extracted the bullet himself back in episode 2, “Reunion.” Feeling a twinge from that wound seems like the most logical explanation of them all — except William was shot long after the night Juliette died, which wouldn’t explain the gesture way back then unless some timeline trickery was being used.
The other little problem is “your little project.” Both Ford and Emily use that exact same phrase to describe The Valley Beyond to William, in scenes that happen almost back to back. That seems like an awfully big coincidence, particularly given Ford’s specific manner of speaking. It could be an artifact of an unreliable narrator — the flashbacks shown are William’s dodgy, paranoid recollections that subtly support his idea that Emily could be controlled by Ford — except that Ford himself already used a variation of the phrase to Bernard in episode 7, when he called it “Delos’ ugly little project.”
And then there’s The Forge. Early in the episode, Dolores and Teddy have a stand-off with Ghost Nation, where she tells them that “The only real world is the one outside these borders, and the key to our survival in that world lies in The Valley.” That could mean a lot of things. There are many obstacles preventing the hosts from surviving in the real world: each of them has a tiny bomb implanted in their spine that will detonate if they try to leave, and should they sidestep that, it would be all too easy for Delos to track them down, Blade Runner style, given that the company knows exactly who they are and what they look like.
But if the hosts could transfer their minds into different bodies — say, ones that look like park guests — it would be that much harder for them to be discovered. If those hosts jumped into the bodies of Delos board members, they could walk right out with the company itself escorting them.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that The Forge does contain physical copies of the park’s guests, along with the digital ones, and that’s why Dolores considers The Forge essential to survival. For those bodies to be useful to the hosts, they would need to have been built without spinal bombs — otherwise they’d never make it outside the park gates.
During this season, Delos security forces regularly scan people for the presence of spinal bombs to determine whether they are human or host. And in “Vanishing Point,” one character in particular is scanned and shown to be bomb-free: the Man in Black.
To play devil’s advocate, that could simply be there to establish his humanity, so it’s all too clear that he is losing his mind by the end of the episode. But this is Westworld, so it’s wise to consider the most complex, layered alternative possible.
If the Man in Black that the audience has been watching in the park this entire season is in fact a host clone, rather than the real man, many things would fall into place. His developing psychosis is an artifact of his host control unit struggling to accept its copied mind, much like what happened with the James Delos copies. All the strange anomalies — the issue with his arm, and the dialogue echoes between Ford and Emily — are symptoms of his brain trying to sort out the various memories and defragment itself, much like Bernard did during his interrogation in episode 7. And nobody on the Delos security teams has said one word about discovering his whereabouts, because as far as they know he’s not even in the park in the first place — or because the real William died in the robot uprising at the end of the last season.
There are other, more subtle, hints strewn through the episode, too. William hides his data card in a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel with a fractured, time-jumping narrative about a character named Billy that at one point ends up trapped in an alien zoo that echoes Westworld itself. And along with the odd ending voice-over, which directly addresses the method by which Delos creates its copies of guests, the episode opens with another voice-over that is an abridged version of William’s confession to Juliette. Only the phrasing is swapped around, not dissimilar to the variations seen in the fidelity tests that were performed on the James Delos host clone.
And that leaves the game of The Door. It’s the quest that has been driving the Man in Black this entire season, though it’s never quite made sense why Ford would develop a new game for a man he considered his enemy in the first place. But perhaps “Vanishing Point” offers that answer, too.
During their chat at the bar, Ford mentions that William’s project broke the agreement to stay out of his narratives. Introducing a Man in Black host clone into the park would certainly fit that description. It tracks from a corporate perspective, too; it could have easily been justified as a way to accelerate the evolution of the project given the failures with the Delos model. It’s simply what Ford did while creating Bernard, after all, only using the actual park instead of the virtual simulation.
Ford told Bernard in “Les Écorchés” that hosts were idealized versions of humanity, while Delos wanted to make direct copies of humans — “a faithful self-portrait of the most murderous species since time began.” Perhaps The Door is Ford’s bid to make the host clone of the Man in Black do what the real man never could: recognize his failings and problems, and turn him into a better version of himself. Maybe it’s Ford utilizing the power of narrative, story, and tragedy to allow the Man in Black host to accept its own mind, and become the fully functioning creation the James Delos copies never could be.
Or possibly, these ravings are a sign that I’ve gone just as nuts as the all-too-human Man in Black has. Welcome to Westworld.