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Is Westworld moving forward or going in circles?

An episode where lots happened — but it’s not clear how much of it meant anything — has us divided against ourselves.

Westworld
The Man in Black sure can pull off a snazzy look.
HBO

Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and internet culture reporter Aja Romano get together to discuss the latest episode of HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld. This week, they’re discussing the second season’s ninth episode, “Vanishing Point.” Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!

Todd VanDerWerff: I don’t entirely know what to make of “Vanishing Point,” an episode that promised to take this season in some interesting directions thematically and then sort of did and sort of didn’t. If you’re heavily invested in the question of whether the Man in Black is a Host, well, this was the episode for you.

And even if you’re not, there was some interesting material on just how important death is to the experience of sentient beings — if you can’t die, or take control of your own narrative in some way by having the option to die, then you’re, in some ways, not really alive. Or something.

I liked “Vanishing Point” a lot while I was watching it, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if there was anything to it. Some of that is by design, as this season seems to be leaning extremely heavily on its finale to pull everything the season has done into focus. That’s not always the wisest choice, but hey, plenty of TV shows have done it, and a few have even succeeded. But just as much of that is wrapped up in how episodes heavily featuring the Man in Black almost inevitably are only satisfying to the extent viewers are willing to explore the show as one of Ford’s games. And sometimes I am one of those viewers, and sometimes I’m not.

Call me a sucker, but I really did find the scene where he apparently just finally has a break and kills his own daughter (or does he??? is she a Host??? we never get to see the results of the “is she a human” test!!!!!!!!!!) surprisingly gutting. The connection between William and Emily has always been more suggested than actually depicted, but in watching the two of them finally just reach their limit with each other, I finally got the sense of them as a family filled with exasperation and hurt.

So that was there, and it wasn’t bad. Sela Ward was there, too, as the older Juliet. And then there was a bunch of other stuff that happened, like Ford admitting Maeve was his favorite of his creations, or Teddy shooting himself to get out from under Dolores’s thumb, or Bernard desperately trying to rid himself of Ford’s ghost. It was a lot, and I’m not precisely sure the finale can wrap it all up. But it’s sure going to try, I’m certain! Aja, what most gripped you in “Vanishing Point”?

Is Westworld moving in circles to mark time, or with purpose?

Westworld
Take off the hat, Emily! It wants to steal your secrets!
HBO

Aja Romano: Honestly, I think what gripped me most was my ongoing sense of frustration that this show is treading in slow circles, which was especially intense during this episode. Because while you’re right that lots of stuff happened, I’m not sure how much of it advanced the plot, or told us any more than we already knew. Sure, it was satisfying on a structural level to see the parallel between Wyatt and the Man in Black play out, with the final leg of their journey to the Valley Beyond involving them each losing someone they loved (not that I believe for a second Emily is actually dead). And I appreciated the narrative symmetry between Teddy and Bernard each absenting themselves from the person they were trying to protect.

But there were a lot of other things that struck me as unsatisfying narrative detours or dead ends. I’ve lamented the way Clementine has been steadily downgraded over time from a self-aware host to malware, and while I want to believe the show has better things in store for her, I mostly feel like it just never knew what to do with her.

After all, look at Teddy. Of all the Westworld characters, he and Bernard are the ones who’ve been caught most completely between the opposing forces in the park, and in that sense, his choice at the end of the episode is tragic and full of pathos and all that; but from the perspective of Westworld’s ability to really give its characters meaningful narrative arcs, Teddy’s has been among the most meandering and “eh, whatever” of the show. As great an actor as James Marsden is, even he can only work with what he has, and I feel like the show has never been able to give him much because I think it’s always less interested in characters than it is in working out its philosophy through symbolic acts and speeches about Calvinism.

Which brings me to Ford, whose master puppeteer act has really lost me because it seems designed less to actually incite plot development than to, I dunno, showcase the writers’ ability to quote Plotinus? And when it does cause plot development, like when he unlocks Maeve’s “core permissions,” it feels like the show is wheel-spinning. Can there really be still yet another level of secret master coding in the hosts that we haven’t already seen, that gets to be dramatically unlocked as Maeve levels up yet again? Apparently, yes. That’s really annoying.

I think it’s interesting you bought the emotion of his scene with Maeve, because I feel like Ford claiming Maeve as his favorite was absolutely something he’d do as an act of manipulation and not as an act of fatherly devotion; and I’d rather it be the former than the latter, because it’s not like Maeve needs his evil code seal of approval. I will say that I appreciated Bernard debugging himself — but then that also makes the last few eps of Fun Times with Bernard and Head Ford a giant detour in itself, and it makes his whole season two arc pretty much a repeat of his struggle to cast off Ford’s influence in season one, and that’s also really annoying.

But all of this assumes that Westworld is interested in feeding me straightforward narrative developments, which I’m not sure it’s ever been. Am I watching the show the wrong way? Is the show gaslighting me? Help!

Todd: This is one of those things I’ve been asking myself the deeper we get into Westworld season two: If the show isn’t trying to be a conventional TV narrative, should I be dinging it for failing to engage me on the same level as one? And I honestly don’t know.

On the one hand, plenty of TV shows told unconventionally have managed to get me interested in their characters. Not everything has to have the straightforward, meat-and-potatoes plotting of something like The Americans. So I feel like the fact that so many of the Westworld characters seem like ciphers to me at this point should count against the show.

On the other hand, them being ciphers is kind of the point. On some level, this is a show about the unfulfilling nature of modern life and the ways we lose ourselves in technology. Who is the Man in Black in this episode but some guy who neglects his marriage and his kid because he gets super into Fortnite or something? On that level, Westworld is more successful ... but do I care? And does that matter?

I was talking about this with a friend earlier this week, and we got into discussing Jonathan Nolan’s last show, the wonderful CBS drama Person of Interest, which took the typical case-of-the-week format and gradually turned it into a series about the rise of artificial intelligence, the global surveillance state, and what it means when humanity is no longer the dominant species on Earth. That show, too, had a central character who could be a little dull, and a narrative that insisted his dullness was the point. But it surrounded him with far more colorful figures, and the case-of-the-week structure always meant something was going on. Yes, that show had more bum episodes, but it also achieved real moments of sublimity.

Westworld just isn’t at that level for me yet, even when I enjoy it or find it confounding or have fun untangling its weirdnesses. Wanting a TV show to have characters I care about feels hopelessly bourgeois to me on some level, but I can also point to lots of shows that have deeply uncompromising cinematic visions and slightly thin (or even basically nonexistent) character work. Westworld is pretty, to be sure, but it always feels like Prestige TV 101.

None of this is to obscure from its very real pleasures. It’s one of the TV shows most engaged with the action of reading it as a TV show. I liked Ford’s comment to Maeve, for instance, because you could almost see it as the show’s writers admitting they didn’t quite realize how popular Maeve would prove with the fans — or how much Thandie Newton would kill it in the part. And even when Ford tries my patience, watching Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright fuck around is so much fun.

Which leaves me with a bit of a conundrum — I enjoy Westworld until I really start thinking about it. And yet it’s a show where the most fun to be had comes from thinking about it on a deeper level. It’s just that when I start doing that, it all unravels for me. Anyway, let’s talk about how Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, and the Man in Black have basically been doing the exact same things for, like, three episodes now. The whole show feels stuck in place in a way the finale could fix, but this is a dangerous game the series is playing.

Why Person of Interest succeeded where Westworld too often struggles

Westworld
Welcome to Westworld, Sela Ward.
HBO

Aja: I’m really happy to hear it’s not just me contemplating all of this. I’m especially into the comparison between Westworld and Person of Interest, because I think one thing that show did really well was using its procedural premise to make sure you cared about its characters, so you were always invested in the human cost of its escalating sci-fi dystopia. Westworld has always been capable of delivering great character-focused episodes, like last week’s. But this season really has kept our main protagonists marching in place, and it’s harder to invest in and root for characters who aren’t really doing anything new.

Did we learn anything new this ep? We already knew Dolores and William will destroy all in their path to the Valley Beyond and/or the center of the maze; we already knew the Ghost Nation could override the code of other hosts; we already knew that Bernard’s drive to protect Elsie (whose stricken face when she realized Bernard was leaving her again was my favorite moment this episode) was greater than his drive to obey Ford; we already still didn’t know if Emily is a host, a human, or a host-human hybrid; and we definitely already knew William was paranoid and delusional.

I guess we learned from the flashback that Sela Ward is as good in the role of a haunting dead wife now as she was in The Fugitive 25 years ago. But I’m not sure that after this episode, we’re any more prepared for the finale than we were several weeks ago.

I did appreciate that the flashback tried to hint at the toll William’s double life had taken on the relationship between Emily and her mother. I felt the ballerina motif was a little clunky, but I appreciated the show’s look, however brief, at the emotional gap his lies had engendered between the rest of his family.

It’s also fitting, given that we’re finally at the point where hosts are slaughtering other hosts and humans are slaughtering other humans: Maybe the truth at the center of the Westworld maze is that all human connection is a lie, and our caring about the fates of these characters only reveals that we’ve bought into it.

Todd: I guess I’m just not as down on this episode in the end. The question of who in William’s family is or isn’t a Host is sort of tedious, yes, and I hate that if Emily is revealed to have been one, it will reward his weird brand of faith. (I’m increasingly thinking of William as another character influenced by one particular Man in Black in a show produced by J.J. Abrams — Locke from Lost.)

But I also sort of like the idea of Emily as this member of a corrupt, distorted family, trying to understand what’s happened to her sense of self by endlessly pursuing her parents’ secrets, even past the deaths they may or may not have earned. (We have yet to figure out what happened with William.) Now, if any of this has any real meaning is, again, reliant on what happens in the finale. But I did like the episode for making me think about some of this stuff, for making me consider what value we might place on suicide and death in a world where immortality becomes a thing you can buy.

I’m worried I’m reading too much into the show at that point, but I also know Nolan is capable of exploring these ideas from his Person of Interest work. I’m waiting to see, but I haven’t lost hope.

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