Westworld: Vanishing Point

“It was self-knowledge that drew you to the park in the first place. Be careful what you wish for.”

This is possibly the most ambiguous episode of the show thus far. Even more than most, it leaves us wondering what about consciousness is true. What is real?

Every character has been put to the test this season, struggling to find answers to this question. Some think the key to consciousness is suffering. Others think it's the memories we keep that define us. Now it's suggested that it's simply the choices people make that determine who and what they are.

There doesn't appear to be a clear answer.

The Games

Fittingly, the one who is testing everyone is Ford, the creator and self-appointed god of this world.

I thought for a long time that Ford was nothing more than a misanthropic narcissist who started the host uprising because he thought his creations were more deserving of ruling the world than his own species, which he holds in utter contempt. Lately, I've started to think there might be more to it than that.

For instance, he seems to have subjected Bernard to a nightmarish existence. He's invaded his mind and basically turned him into a complete schizo, acting as a dark split personality that tries to project his own nihilistic worldview onto him. But when Bernard refuses to kill Elsie and displays his resolve to live on his own terms, resisting Ford's vicious influence, Ford appears to willingly vanquish himself. For now, at least.

Maybe this is what Ford really wants. Not for the hosts to have the will to dominate mankind, but for them to have the will to govern themselves and be truly independent. The very illuminating scene in which Ford communicates with Maeve through the mesh network might confirm this.

He tells her that he considers the hosts to be his children, and that he imprinted his own personality type onto Maeve and paved the way for her rebellion because she was always his favorite creation; she was like a daughter to him, the way Dolores was like a daughter to Arnold. In hindsight, this makes total sense to me.

Ford expresses a fatherly pride over Maeve's continued sovereignty, even from his machinations, as well as anguish over her current predicament. As a final gesture, he provides her with a new data package. Which I imagine will allow her to escape from captivity and resume her rebellion.

Making this even more striking is the fact that it happens back to back with the scene where William callously kills his daughter after mistaking her for a host as a tragic result of the game Ford decided to play with him.

The Stain

That was certainly the most shocking scene of the season thus far. He just guns Emily down along with the Quality Assurance team sent to rescue him, convinced that they're all robot obstacles set in place by Ford to distract him from his cherished game. Then he finds a clue that lets him know he was wrong.

Or was he?

Well, even if she was a host, it doesn't make what he did any less horrific. Whether she was a copy or not, he killed his daughter. Proving that, even after how far he's come and all he's been through, he refuses to accept that the hosts are sentient beings. To the point that he sees actual humans as being no less real. He is the one who wanted a game with real consequences after all. Now he has to live with them.

This is a very William-centric episode. It's all about his self-destructive obsession with Westworld, to the exclusion of all else, including his own family. And about his inability to reconcile his own complicated nature, the darkness that lies within him. In the end, we're left just as lost and bewildered as he is.

William, his late wife Juliet, and eventually Emily, all believed that his darkness has always been there. And I think he's right. Because William's story is basically the story of humanity, of all intelligent life. The stain that he's lived with, tried desperately to hide from the real world and readily embraced in an artificial one, is an affliction of human and host alike. It's the cycle of violence, a loop that everyone is trapped in. Something that lives inside us all. At least, that's how I've always interpreted William's character. He is what any one of us could become under the right circumstances.

That's what Westworld does. It exposes who people really are, good and bad and sometimes both. The park is pretty much the main protagonist and antagonist of the show. It can be wondrous and beautiful, as seen with Maeve's evolution. And it can be brutal and unforgiving, as seen with Dolores's evolution.

It's basically confirmed now that William and Dolores are two sides of the same coin. Their journeys mirror each other. They were the kindest and most noble of their species, only to become the absolute worst their species had to offer. Dolores killed her father to continue playing out her game, and William killed his daughter to continue playing out his. And they both watched as the people who were supposed to mean everything to them were made unstable by their deceptively evil ways, seeing how they'd corrupted everything they knew and choosing to take their own lives rather than live with the monsters they'd fallen in love with.

Although his suicide was incredibly sad, I liked that Teddy was able to remember his true self and awaken to the reality of things before he chose to end it. But judging from her similarities to William, I assume Dolores will react to the death of her beloved by doubling down and continuing down her path of destruction, as William did when Juliet killed herself.

Half-dead and confronted by his daughter, William reminisces about his wife. How she eventually looked past his noble facade and saw the darkness within him, and it drove her to suicide. The problem, as he eventually confesses, is that William isn’t even sure of his true character. He doesn’t know why he is the way he is, why he’s always putting on a show for the world, or what really compels his desire for Westworld or the darkness it brings out of him. All he knows is that he "belongs" to that world and its games. Beyond that, nothing else is real to him.

This comes to a head when Emily threatens to take him away from that world, and he does what he does best. He crosses the line. Realizing that he just killed Emily for real may have finally convinced him that everything he thinks he knows is wrong. And... well, there's several ways one can interpret what he chooses to do next.

The Truth

I remarked in an earlier episode that Logan Delos’s line about the hosts, that they’re “so painfully human”, was completely lost on him. Now I’m wondering if something was lost on me this whole time.

For awhile I’ve wondered if another human was actually a host in disguise, like Bernard. I theorized it might be Charlotte Hale or Ashley Stubbs. I’ve also thought Karl Strand and several other mercenary figures could just be Delos’ robot servants. But the show now appears to imply that William, the most painfully human character, might be another of Robert Ford’s hidden androids too. I'd seen theories that William was a host before and written them off. But then again, I was one of the people who initially refused to believe the theories that young William and the Man in Black were the same person. Lo and behold.

William is seen checking his wrist at different points in this episode, when he's questioning his motives. On the verge of suicide after killing Emily and confronted with the dawning realization that he’s no more sure of what is real than the hosts, William is driven over the edge into what can only be described as a state of pure existential madness. He starts cutting into his wrist with a knife, looking for a hidden data port. We don't see what he finds.

The show began with an apparent misdirection, tricking us into thinking Teddy was a regular Westworld guest and that the Man in Black was going to be our Yul Brynner stand-in, the Gunslinger robot built to provide a hollow challenge to guests. Then we discover it's the opposite. The show pulled another fast one on us by revealing that the Man in Black, the most evil human character, was actually William, the most noble human character. Maybe it’d be fitting that the next big reveal would be that William was never the worst human, but the best android.

We’ve really hit the Blade Runner wall with William here. He’s in the ironic situation where the thing that might humanize him the most is finding out that he was a robot the whole time. It might technically mean that he's not all to blame for being an incomparably amoral dick who kills everything he loves to satisfy his own self-loathing ego. He’d just be another artificial intelligence who is toyed with and manipulated by Ford.

Maybe Ford and Arnold implanted him in Delos Inc., to ensure and eventually control the funding of Westworld. Knowing the tricky ways their minds worked, it wouldn’t surprise me. Given the hosts' tendency to grow beyond their programming, maybe William’s increasingly violent path and pursuit of godhood is just a natural progression from his original design as the wistful nice guy with a hidden dark side. Before he died, Ford had claimed his new narrative was for the hosts rather than the humans and later told William that the game was meant for him. Maybe he was telling the truth in both instances.

Then again, maybe not.

William being a host would raise all sorts of questions. Are all the hosts made from living tissue, like the cyborgs in the Terminator films? Do their bodies age if they don’t get regularly updated? Or were his annual trips to the park meant to update him to appear older? If William has been a host all along, where did Emily come from? I doubt Ford could fake Juliet’s pregnancy, unless he used William as a means of artificial insemination.

You’d also have to think: if an android as advanced and adaptable as William could be invented, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the same could be done with his daughter. Maybe the real Emily is still alive somewhere.

It would also mean the park’s technology would all have to be coded to read William as a human. One of the QA guys scans him and seems to confirm he’s human; although, we don’t see whether or not Emily also got a clear scan. In that case, maybe William really is just a hopelessly delusional person.

Whatever the truth is, William might be one of the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered.

It'll be revealed that he's either a synthetic person hidden amongst humanity for years, whose entire life has been a carefully constructed fabrication designed to bridge the gap between man and machine, efficiently perpetuating mankind's desire to play to god. Or he's a pathetically unhinged human who serves as a commentary on the future dangers of virtual reality, the duality of man and humanity's mercurial, even illusory sense of self. Him cutting into his arm at the end might be him discovering that he's been a replicant... sorry, a Cylon... sorry, a host all along and that his actions have all been predetermined. Or it's simply the last resort of a broken man who can't escape his desperate compulsion to find some hidden meaning to his life that vindicates all the bad things he's done.

So even I’m at a complete loss as to the true nature of reality. That’s a good indicator of just how insanely effective this show is at putting us in the characters' shoes.

Loops and reveries:

* Westworld’s idea of Father’s Day is almost as twisted as Game of Thrones.

* This episode marked the first time we saw older William outside the park. And sure enough, he behaves just as his younger self did in season one, albeit more worn out due to age; he's even somewhat polite to Ford. He really has always been pretending.

* This is also the first episode where we actually meet and explore the character of Juliet, the other love of William's life. Until now, she was a background character at best; at first, she's nothing more than a name and a photograph. But in a way, Juliet is the catalyst for all of this. If she hadn't lost William to Westworld, the park may never have lasted as long as it did. Her suicide is what compelled William to fully embrace his darkness and embark on his final vacation. And the discovery of her long-lost photo awakened Peter Abernathy, setting the stage for the host revolution in season one. She only has a few scenes here, but they make one hell of an impression. Sela Ward did a fantastic job portraying the years of inner turmoil this woman must have gone through; people who make movies and TV shows, please cast Sela Ward in more movies and TV shows!

* Not knowing whether she's a host or a human seems to be another trait Emily inherited from her father. It makes perfect sense that she’d be in Westworld to expose William’s crimes out of revenge after learning the truth about him from her mother. On the other hand, everything she said or did could just as easily be part of an elaborate test for William. As William pointed out, she was able to locate him very quickly as opposed to everyone else in the park struggling to find what they’re looking for; I noticed this as well. And her alleged motives for being in the park seemed to change on a dime whenever William persisted in questioning her about it. Emily being a host (and her death, in general) would also put a unique spin on her first appearance as an adult in Raj World, where she shoots Nicholas to test if he’s real or not.

* Juliet claims that William hates being called “Billy”. This, along with James Delos’ immaculate white luxury prison in an earlier episode, reminded me of the movie Creepshow. Which just so happens to feature one of Ed Harris’s earliest roles.

* The book that William uses to hide his profile card is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which I loved reading back in middle school. The protagonist of that book is named Billy Pilgrim, an unreliable narrator who tries to make sense of the world as he finds himself jumping to different points in time throughout his own chaotic life. Sound familiar?

* William cutting into his arm to find out if he’s really an android reminded me of a scene in Ex Machina, where a character who is questioning what is real does the same thing.

* Someone on reddit pointed out that the bloodstains on Teddy’s jacket look a bit like a heart that’s broken in two. I was thinking recently that nothing ever seems to go right for characters played by James Marsden. Something unfortunate is always happening to him in the movies I’ve seen him in. Teddy might be the crowning example of this.

* And if we’re talking about actor trends, Evan Rachel Wood has always had a talent for playing complex female roles that punch you right in your very soul.

* According to William, Delos did more than obtain the guests’ DNA. Through a hidden technology in the park’s hats, they were able to scan and record their entire cognition; I assume this excludes anyone who opted not to wear a hat. If Emily really was a host designed to test William, maybe this is a clue as to how she was able to know so much about their history.

* According to William's data profile based on his cognitive readings, he's suffering from delusions, paranoia and persecutory thoughts. Further indicating that he’s completely lost touch with reality, and foreshadowing the scene where he kills Emily. Then again, we know already that hosts are just as susceptible to human frailties. Maeve had schizophrenia, and MRSA prior to receiving a new body. Bernard recently experienced an overload of aphasia and cognitive dissonance. Peter Abernathy was stricken with extreme dementia.

* What's more interesting is that William's profile listed him as "Subject 002." Which begs the question: Who is Subject 001? James Delos? Logan? The latter would have to mean that the park was collecting information on people even before William convinced Delos to capitalize on that venture.

Quotes:

William: (narrating) No one else can see it. This thing in me. Even I didn’t see it at first… When did it creep in? A tiny fleck of darkness. Was it all in my head? Some remnant of a dream?

Ghost Nation warrior: There is no place for you… in the new world.
Dolores: I told you, friend. Not all of us get to make it to the Valley Beyond.

Ford: Congratulations, William. Philanthropy suits you. After all, you came from humble beginnings yourself.
William: What’s Oz doing without its wizard?

Bernard: Get out of my fucking head!
I'm starting to know how he feels.

Juliet: Is this real? Are you real? Tell me the truth. Tell me one true thing… If you keep pretending, you’re not gonna remember who you are.

Emily: You haven’t lost yourself to pretending. You are, in your very essence, a lie.

Teddy: What use is surviving if we become just as bad as them?
This is an important question I often contemplate.

William: (narrating) What is a person but a collection of choices? Where do those choices come from? Do I have a choice? Were any of these choices ever truly mine to begin with?

Sorry for the overly long review. I honestly can’t tell anymore if this show is getting better and better or if it's just brilliantly disguising a bunch of mounting plot holes with a mastery of aesthetics. Either way, I thought this episode was stunning. Four out of four music boxes.

2 comments:

Patryk said...

I feel the same way, don't know what to think and I'm waiting for the last episode to enlighted me.

Good catch on the book. Maybe William is indeeed unstuck in time. :) Need to dwell on it more.

Subject 001 might be Arnold.

Patryk said...

After dwelling on it some more I came to the conclusion that it's possible that Williams died in the season 1 finale with all the other board members and we see his host replica during season 2. But if they say he's was a host all along then I'll subscribe to your mounting plothole theory.

Also Subject 001 makes more sense as Ford not Arnold who actively tried to copy himself. but failed and he can only live on as code.