Westworld: Who Cares About the Man in Black?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Vanishing Point,” the ninth episode of Season 2.


Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.

David Sims: Well, after last week’s fascinating journey into the psyche and backstory of Akecheta and Ghost Nation, this week we got the same treatment for that dastardly Man in Black himself. That’s a little bit of a comedown. For one, this season has spent so much time on William—on his experiments on immortality, his ongoing obsession with Dolores, his quest across the park. Did viewers really also need a full explainer on his wife’s suicide, something that’s already been alluded to plenty by other characters? And did it serve much purpose as the penultimate episode of the year? I don’t think so.

If this is the start of William’s last hurrah on the show, then I’d be a little more willing to buy into all these flashbacks. But I remain unconvinced. Even though the man has been shot multiple times and left for dead, has now killed his own daughter, and has contemplated blowing his own brains out, I don’t think the show wants to be rid of him. William’s amoral capitalist complex is what’s holding up the entire park; he’s the show’s chief villain, and having him disintegrate is a big part of Dolores and Ford’s twin rebellions. At this stage, getting rid of him might feel pointless—maybe the show creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, want to see what comes out the other side of this final breakdown.

Still, watching the breakdown happen was alternately wrenching and dull. It feels like William long ago lost touch with reality—he’s the gamer who can only think of his life as it relates to the game, who can’t even recognize his own family member when she’s staring him in the face. I wasn’t exactly shocked that he pulled his gun on Emily even after all her attempts to get through to him, but I will be disappointed if this is really the end of her character, since she had become much more compelling than her dad.

In flashback, there was William the philanthropist, hosting fancy fundraisers and sighing as nasty rich people blathered on at him. This was the life he chose to ignore when he came into the park, one where he’s a highly regarded, moral man, a façade that only one person can see through—his wife, Juliet, played by the tremendous Sela Ward. In “Vanishing Point,” the viewer finally got some idea of who Juliet was to William, but it was a pretty superficial impression.

Sela Ward as Juliet in Westworld’s “Vanishing Point” (HBO)

Juliet is a drunk, as has been previously mentioned, and aside from that, she isn’t afforded much character detail. Ward is such a naturally charming actress that her appeal and force of personality feel concrete nonetheless, but “Vanishing Point” only showed Juliet at the end of her life. As she snapped at William for the last time, he admitted to hiding his sociopathic side within the boundaries of the park. Then she took her own life.

Like I said, this has all been referenced beforehand; I am waiting to see what further utility there is in having it depicted onscreen, but my guess is not much. William’s journey is now complete, and the only thing that’s interesting about him is his data-gathering operation. That, it seems, will be the real point of next week’s finale showdown between Dolores, Bernard, Charlotte, Ford, and Maeve (and whoever else wants to mix it up alongside them). I don’t know that I care if William is involved at all. Sophie, are you any more interested than I was?

Sophie Gilbert: Interested, but only because the flashbacks to the world outside the park have felt like such a relief this season. Emotionally involved? Not at all. Westworld, for me, over the last nine episodes, has been a process of admiring things rather than caring about them, noting the artistry and the subtext and the symmetry in a detached kind of way. The doubling up of William and Dolores this episode as they both inadvertently murdered the only two people who love them was a neat trick, but it lacked emotional oomph. Dolores’s downfall was the Fordian arrogance of thinking she could change someone’s nature, create something new, without consequences. William’s was being so delusional and grandiose that he shot his daughter because he was convinced she was a host sent to trick him. (Delusion, you might have noted, was one of William’s three key personality characteristics on the Delos flash drive, along with “persecutory subtype” and “paranoid subtype.”)

There were undertones of Greek tragedy in the William backstory: how he (seemingly) killed his own child in a fit of insanity, but also sacrificed her to the Herculean labor he’s carrying out in his own addled mind. And it was noteworthy that he seemed to see the awful things he’d done as some kind of preordained, innate darkness rather than a series of choices he made for the simple reason that doing so gratified him. For someone so obsessed with control, he’s quick to blame his actions on elements he can’t manage.

But I’m sorry, I am pissed that Westworld killed off Emily, one of the most intriguing female human characters it’s ever had, while the Man in Black swaggers on, ad infinitum, riddled with bullet holes and more hateful with every passing hour. If his host foil is Dolores, his (once) human counterpart is Ford, because both of them keep bouncing irritatingly back into a show that’s simply more compelling when they’re not around. Anthony Hopkins seems about 20 percent committed to the scenes he’s in, which is fair given the interminable clichés and term-paper Plotinus quotes he’s spouting. (“Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.” “All this ugliness, all this pain, so they can patch a hole in their own broken code.”)

Talking of clichés: a ballerina music box charged with symbolic power? A fancy-schmancy party where zillionaires laugh about how poor people might have to read books but rich people are far too privileged? Can we just not? Meanwhile, of the four characters still worth caring about this point, Emily’s dead, Elsie’s been ditched by Bernard to protect her from a battle he thinks is too dangerous for her to be around (Et tu, Bernard?), and Maeve is in a kind of sentient but nonverbal coma. Bernard managed to delete the Ford code in his head with surprising ease, but if I know one thing about men with god complexes on this show, Ford’ll be back.

All this is to say nothing of the episode’s flashback to Juliet’s suicide. I agree with you, David, that it felt largely unnecessary—it’s been easy enough to deduce from previous scenes that her ending her life was closely related to her husband’s fixation on Westworld. And bodies piling up is nothing new in this show. But there was something troubling about seeing Emily on the ground, Juliet in the bath, Clementine spookily passive and controlled by programmers, and Maeve carved up into pieces and imprisoned on a cold slab while Ford coos about how she’s always been his favorite. Next week’s fight had better be a good one. Spencer, what do you hope is brewing in the Valley Beyond?

Spencer Kornhaber: What I’m hoping for is a showdown that feels more climactic than it felt to finally learn what’s in the Valley. Viewers worked on theories all season … and … Bernard just … blurted it out when Elsie asked. We’d each likely guessed at the existence of a cloning facility but didn’t know the specifics till now: “All the guests, laid bare, in code, on a server.” Bernard then doubled down on the odd underselling of the setup for the big finale by announcing his goals as if on a shareholders call: “We need to get there first to secure it and leverage it to end all of this. Dictate the outcomes that we want.”

Stipulated: In that moment, Bernard was locked in internal struggle with Ford, and it’s possible the park’s architect got him to lie to Elsie about what’s up with “The Forge.” If so, it wasn’t this episode’s only shoulda-been-bigger development that might have been a fake out. Sophie, you noted how quickly Bernard deleted his parasite from his hard drive—we suspect digital-Ford just went into hiding, right? And the death of Emily was so abrupt, accomplished in one quick flash of gunfire, that I have to believe the show hasn’t fully killed her off. If it has, I agree it’s a huge loss, and not only because actress Katja Herbers smirks and widens her eyes with the same panache as Carrie Coon.

For the Man in Black’s flashbacks to come at such a crucial point in the season highlights how hungry viewers have been for any sketching of the larger world and deepening of the characters who, though shown every week, mostly remain two-dimensional. Yes, the tale of sad rich people with portentous music boxes was entirely hackneyed and also redundant with what we had already surmised. But the mere depiction of actual family, actual hurt—rather than the synthesized, implanted, reverse-engineered kind that the hosts feel as real but we viewers still don’t quite—offered the kind of emotional rawness the show has desperately lacked. Emily was the embodiment of it.

Perhaps the key to reviving her character is indeed in the Valley Beyond. Whatever happens there will in part be a clash of visions: Bernard wants to “leverage” the encrypted souls of the guests, Dolores wants to somehow weaponize them (by using them as a new and improved host army?), and the Ghost Nation is heading there to escape into another world. Meanwhile, Delos will guard its assets, presumably by using Clementine’s mind control. We know how this ends up: with the Valley becoming a sea in which poor, betrayed, self-destructed Teddy floats. Over nine weeks, Westworld hasn’t successfully built suspense around getting the how of its foreshadowed flood answered, but here’s hoping the splashy ends of this season justify its all-too-dry means.