Westworld: Ed Harris’ William is a Warning About Fan Culture

William's descent into tragedy on Sunday's Westworld, "Vanishing Point," confirms his standing as a symbol for fandom's worst aspects.

Ed Harris and Katja Herbers in Westworld
Photo: HBO

This article contains major Westworld Season 2 spoilers.

William really has past the point of no return. He may have been there the whole time, embracing that dark hole he found when he “shed” his skin years and years ago. But standing above the dead body of his daughter, ready to mutilate her flesh and still convinced she was a robot, it wasn’t until he saw the video card in her hand—a confirmation that this isn’t a game, and he really is has lost himself to his demons—that it all sinks in. He just killed his daughter, the last tenuous connection he had to reality; he sold his future and his soul for a few more minutes at the arcade.

It was a hell of a sign off for Father’s Day, as well as a yardstick for just how far gone the Man in Black is. Introduced wearing the same charcoal attire of Yul Brynner’s evil robot in the original Westworld movie, William turned out to be far emptier than any robot. As we considered in our review, he is King Lear to Emily’s Cordelia, except even the other legacy he chose over the love of a daughter wasn’t a legacy at all. It’s a fantasy world that he told his wife he “belongs to.” It’s pathetic, as well as perfectly fitting in what William and his many forms have come to crystallize throughout Westworld’s whole run: the face of when fan culture goes wrong.

This is not to say that all members of fan culture are crazed, unhealthy malcontents who’ll kill their flesh and blood to play video games. Yet William suffers from varying degrees of all the issues we have come to consider the downside of obsessing over a reality that is not real. It’s in fact quite fortuitous this episode ran this weekend, as Monday also marked the World Health Organization finally legitimizing what many describe as “video game addiction” over the years by defining it as “gaming disorder.”

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As WHO revealed in its 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases, gaming disorder is now a quantifiable mental health issue. WHO’s Dr. Vladimir Poznyak even said to CNN, “One [factor] is that the gaming behavior takes precedence over other activities to the extent that other activities are taken to the periphery… Even when the negative consequences occur, the behavior continues or escalates.”

This describes Old Man William to a tee. He went from at least projecting the posture of a captain of industry, albeit with a threadbare foothold on reality, in season 1 to giggling like an idiot as his daughter tells him she is about to expose a lifetime of deceit in season 2. In fact, much of Sunday’s episode, “Vanishing Point,” is about tracking William’s descent. He has been shot, his daughter is forcing him to remember the suicide of his wife, a suicide that he indirectly caused, and he can only think about how this must relate to the game’s narrative.

William has always been a character of questionable morality, being introduced as Dolores’ assaulter, however there was some ambiguity as to who he is outside of Westworld. We are told in season 1 that he saved another guest’s sister with his philanthropic contributions, and as season 2’s flashbacks reveal, he at least had a semblance of “nice guy” William from the Jimmi Simpson timeline. He knows his Plutarch, much to the chagrin of intellectually incurious blue bloods, and Harris takes on a relatively humble posture on a night celebrating his charitable works.

However, as the hour concedes, and as his wife assumes, it was always a sham. “I don’t belong to you or this world. I belong to another world. I always have.” He is essentially saying the fantasy of Westworld, which for 30 years has been the same narrative loops for him to pretend to be the hero (and then the villain), is more important to him than his wife or daughter. In those earlier scenes, his daughter was concerned for William, fearing that he was being abused by a wife’s addiction. Only after her mother’s death did she realize her father’s own concealed addiction had consumed him to the point where he thought choosing glorified video games over reality was somehow a noble acceptance of self-identity.

This choice drives his wife into his grave and his daughter away, and this in turn causes him to double down on it, going back to the Westworld park to attack Maeve and her daughter, and then Dolores again. One might even posit that William’s reaction to losing his wife and alienating his daughter revealed a darker side of fandom culture. He responds to the loss of a female presence in his life by lashing out at women in the gaming culture, abusing Dolores and Maeve with the type of viciousness that some gamers might attack female NPCs in Grand Theft Auto, and then perhaps harass female game designers during the height of gamergate nonsense.

Either way, his loss of self is not all that different from self-described video game addicts, who see their personal and professional relationships deteriorate. Ryan van Cleave was married and expecting his first child, as well as a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, when he became addicted to World of Warcraft. He eventually kicked the habit and wrote a book about it, Unplugged, but only after he lost his job, drove his wife to nearly leaving him, and was then still playing World of Warcraft for 60 hours a week while neglecting his infant daughter (and then second child). He told The Guardian in 2011, “Playing WoW makes me feel godlike. I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent… a computer malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cellphone battery—the littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering.”

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The irony is of course William has all the power in the world. The park he convinced James Delos to continue investing in is a rich man’s folly, and he was able to hide his own addiction under a rich man’s deflection: charity, education, and even apparently the more insidious pose of “fidelity” to a wife he cheated on every time he visited Dolores’ ranch. As his wife surmises, “If you keep pretending, you’re not going to remember who you are.”

Similarly, William’s failures take on what appear like other intentional critiques of fan culture. When William tries to second guess every moment of his life in his park, wondering how his daughter found him or why she was concerned, he became lost in the forest and unable to see the trees. This is not that different than fans who analyze and theorize (and nitpick while they fantasize) every aspect of a creative work.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were famously bemused that so many Reddit users figured out many of the Westworld season 1 twists. And I personally think Nolan might inch closer toward frustration with the way folks cannot accept the endings of film’s he’s co-written, like The Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar, always assuming what they are seeing is a lie. It’s always a “trick” where the heroes are dead, the sequences are a “dream,” and the filmmakers are specifically creating a narrative just for the most fanatical to see—and come to despise.

William has given his life and love to the Westworld park, yet he hopes to burn it down. Yet despite that fatalistic intent, he still picked it over his family every time until he winds up hating that which he loved, the park and Dolores, and not giving a damn about what he have cared for. He drove his wife and daughter away and then put his daughter in the ground; he’s a satire for the fan theorist who decries the series he is constantly obsessing over. William ended “Vanishing Point” babbling to himself, a tragic, pathetic figure who lost everything, including his grip on whether his life is real or a program. At a certain point, it doesn’t even matter.

He is a human creature of great failing, as well as a cautionary tale.