Ed Harris on Westworld
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

It’s probably just a coincidence that tonight’s Westworld is airing on Father’s Day. But as (probable) coincidences go, it’s a good one. Mean, but good. Much of “Vanishing Point” is spent on William, both in the present and in the past, as we finally get more concrete information about his wife (played in flashback by Sela Ward), her suicide, and how William’s actions contributed to her death. This information is framed in the present as a confrontation between William and his daughter, Emily. (I’ve been calling her Grace for some reason? Yeah, that was dumb.) Emily wants some sort of emotional catharsis from her father, but it’s not something William is prepared to give; it might not even be something he’s capable of giving. Tensions escalate until he retreats back to his conviction that she’s just another one of Ford’s hosts. A Delos security team arrives to take both of them back to civilization; William fights back, with tragic consequences. Happy Father’s Day, all.

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This no-turning-back moment is something that’s been waiting for William for a while now. He’s obsessed with finding something “real” in the park, an event with actual consequences. Now those consequences have finally found him, first in his own substantial injuries, and then in the death of his daughter. The murder of his daughter, to be specific. While season two has had heartbreak and upsetting discoveries, Emily’s death still manages to be a big deal. The show has been threatening it ever since William first accused his daughter of being a robot, but it’s still a shock to see how far he’s fallen, and how much of his sanity has crumbled. After spending all of the first season lording over the park and demanding a game with actual meaning, William has finally found himself in a real world, one where his ability to kill at the drop of a hat is no longer enough to get him what he wants. And unsurprisingly, he can’t handle that discovery, so he starts losing his mind, and his daughter suffers as a result.

As a plot twist, it’s important, the biggest in the hour (the only thing that comes close is Teddy offing himself), and a necessary dramatic moment to push us forward into the finale. But it’s also frustrating: Seeing Emily, one of the few sane people around, taken out of the game so abruptly feels like a waste even if it is justifiable from a structural standpoint. For such a grim show, Westworld has dabbles in television’s usual reluctance to kill off major characters. (I mean, even Ford came back.) That makes sense from a writer’s standpoint, because major characters represent a time investment on the part of the audience, and an important story tool—if you’re going to get rid of someone we’ve been watching for weeks, you need to make sure that the net gain of the sacrifice is worth the loss. And this season would feel toothless if it didn’t have at least a few deaths. So I respect and understand the necessity of Emily’s death without being entirely happy about it.

The episode doesn’t say much else with its time. Considerable dramatic emphasis is put on the idea of William’s “stain,” and the concept still plays more like a metaphor than a specific character point. That’s not surprising, given how much of this show is about speaking in metaphor, but it creates a distance between the audience and the characters that puts emotional moments in isolation. Juliet (Ward) killing herself is powerful because it’s framed to be powerful—the direction and performances, the choice of shots and music, all work together to inform us that, yes, a powerful and important event is happening. But removed from those stylistic choices, it has all the lingering impact of a word problem.

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This is something I’ve struggled with off and on throughout the show’s run, and I’ll admit that it’s as much an issue of personal preference as it is one of critical judgment. When I’m watching an on-going show, I want the characters in it, human or robot or other, to have enough specificity for me to feel like their world is more than just an abstract representation of our own. Occasionally Westworld has achieved that, and in rewatching the first season, the cumulative impact was strong enough that I didn’t mind all the symbolism and remove. But reviewing the show week to week confirms my frustration with William as a character, who is less a complex individual and more an idea of “antihero” reduced to its most basic parts.

What do we know about William? He married rich; he’s good at pretending to be nice; and he has a darkness inside of him. Little of what we see in this episode offers new information, beyond actually seeing Juliet in person the night she decides to kill herself. The profile Ford provides William, the one that Juliet looks at before making her final decision (the one that Emily has in her hand when her father guns her down), is a clever touch, but it’s just as much a symbol as anything else. What is the “stain” he keeps talking about? Is it his growing paranoid about his own identity as a person, as his final scene in the episode seems to suggest? Is it his violent impulses? “A seemingly nice man who is secretly a bastard” is a starting place for a character, not an end point, but it’s pretty much all we’re getting here. The closest we have to something tangible is the brief glimpse we get of William’s profile—and, of course, the fact that he shoots his daughter rather than accept the truth of what she’s telling him.

Moments of this work, but despite Ed Harris’s best efforts, William isn’t interesting enough to have earned the amount of time we’ve spent watching him. Again, the show’s insistence on timeline confusion works against its effectiveness as a drama. And not just in William’s story. I spent too long watching Bernard wandering around the Mesa trying to figure out how in the hell he’d escaped from Charlotte before realizing this was the earlier timeline (the one where he’d just left the Cradle with Ford in his brain, not the most recent one where Charlotte has figured out he’s a host), and while part of that’s on me as an attentive viewer, I’m not sure the effect is worth the effort it takes to keep up with all of this. It really seems like a way to confuse us so that we don’t realize how much of the season was a stalling game to keep us waiting till the final revelation of the Valley Beyond. There are plenty good bits in season two, but there is also too much of characters wandering around and making semi-arbitrary choices simply to fill out the run of 10 episodes.

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Bernard decides he has to abandon Elsie because Ford is trying to push him into killing her. Why didn’t Ford have Bernard kill her in the first place? Is this some sort of abject lesson? Bernard scrambling to erase Ford from his system has some dramatic weight behind it, but it feels like the midpoint of a story that we’re going to have to wait another week to see the end of. A few of these scenes work relatively well in isolation—Ford telling Maeve he considered her his favorite, and identifying himself as her father, before giving her the chance to save herself; Teddy killing himself because he can’t bear to protect Dolores anymore—but it’s hard to shake the feeling that they would’ve had so much more power if the show was actually structured to support its emotional climaxes, rather than based on a semi-arbitrary need to keep us confused as to what happens next.

William finally crossing a definitive line that even he can recognize is a big deal. The idea that he’s paranoid about his own identity is something that should’ve come up more before now, but still, it’s a good fit for the character, given what we know. “Vanishing Point” works best when it’s telling a story about a man who keeps breaking his family just by being himself. But given how long we’ve been waiting to hear that story told, it suffers from considerable anticlimax. Last week’s episode was powerful in part because it was so unexpected. This week, we spent too much time finding out what we already knew.

Stray observations

  • Given the nature of the Valley Beyond (it’s a giant server designed to hold brain scans of all the guests), I wouldn’t be surprised if William decides to try and bring his daughter back somehow.
  • The Westworld hats are brain-scanning devices. Which is cute, although not everyone wore a hat.
  • I suspect a large part of my frustration this week is that I find vague comments about “the darkness inside me” to be profoundly uninteresting. It also buys into the romantic notion that William’s evil isn’t just selfishness and arrogance, but some kind of remarkable horror show, which I struggle to believe. It’s another reason why it’s so disappointing to lose Emily; she, at least, was willing to call him on his bullshit.
  • Charlotte and the tech guy have figured out a way to transfer Maeve’s wifi ability to another host; using Clementine, they’re able to program her to send a signal to a room full of hosts, making them kill each other.
  • I believe we saw William’s wife in an earlier episode this season, played by a different actress; but since that was in a flashback to the Jimmi Simpson time in William’s life, I guess it makes more sense to cast someone new for Juliet as well. (Ward is good in a role that could’ve easily disappeared.)
  • William puts the card with his profile on it inside a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m not sure if that says anything, but I do like that book a lot.
  • Evan Rachel Wood does some really excellent work after Teddy shoots himself; there’s a moment where she seems frozen under the weight of her grief and you can’t tell if it’s a function of her robot mind or just an understandable reaction to the horror in front of her.
  • It’s hilarious that we really did have to wait a whole season to get to the Valley Beyond. Presuming we do get there next week.

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