Westworld Season 2 Episode 9 Review: Vanishing Point
The penultimate episode of Westworld Season 2 reveals the dark tragic heart at the center of its many mazes.
This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 9
In the penultimate episode of Westworld’s second season, we saw the fall of the House of Delos, and it was gloriously ugly. It might be the series’ darkest hour, a tragedy that spans multiple generations and carries an air of the Bard’s Lear. Yet it is also just so fitting. William saw the dollar signs of cloning guests’ cognition and figuring out who they are “down to their core,” but his total destruction came because his wife was able to do that to him for free. No billions of dollars, R&D, or cybernetic robots of the future required.
Indeed, the essence of “Vanishing Point” is to (mostly) put the cards on the table and reveal what the season is about. And like the soul of the man who always wears black, it is a twisted gruesome thing to behold—and one that we cannot peel our eyes away from. This is evident from the top of the hour when we’re introduced to William and his wife Juliet on the night she died. Essentially introducing Juliet for the first time (we saw her portrayed at a younger age briefly in the second episode), Sela Ward is required to come in for a single episode and convey a lifetime of suffering in a matter of minutes. It is no easy task, but Ward knocks it out of the park by embodying the anguish of exactly what she accuses William of doing—gaslighting her—while still depicting the failures of a sham marriage that has ended in unspoken anger, intangible jealousies, and finally alcoholism and death.
This opening, however, is fascinating in other respects. For so long, we have come to associate Old Man William with only what we see in the park. The man in black; abuser of Dolores and taciturn hero of Lawrence (depending on the day). And yet, as gleaned when someone tried to thank him for his philanthropy in the first season, this isn’t the face of William in the outside world. If one is being charitable, he is but playing a character, a persona for his video game of choice. Not everyone who plays Red Dead Redemption is John Marston, nor should we judge all the GTA sadists of being psychopaths in real life. Right?
That is an open question that “Vanishing Point” breaks down in full. Are games the stuff of only vicarious fantasies, or a fiction used to indulge who we really are… if society would allow it? William has always lived in that nebulous area, but given that we soon realized he was a young man who once loved the “toy” he now still obsesses over and abuses, I’ve always erred on the side that William was an irredeemable POS. Tonight confirms it.
Reintroduced as being a well-meaning philanthropist who uses his wealth to help people, William is still a Gatsby lost among a sea of Tom Buchanans in his first scene. Mocked by blue bloods for having to earn his fortune, and actually bothering to read Plutarch when assigned it, his intellectual curiosity is clearly paired well with Juliet’s, which is quick shorthand for why they’d be together. As is the way Harris mimics Jimmi Simpson from the first season by slightly slouching and standing back with his hands at (but not in) his pockets. It is a humility we’re not used to, but it is also a defense mechanism, which is enacted whenever his wife passes a wary eye in his direction and then reaches for a drink.
Still, on the surface he is a William we aren’t used to—the one who quietly yearns to have a “nightcap” with his adult daughter. And she in turn visibly continues to dote on the old man, as well as to watch out for a mother she imagines is abusing her father with her addiction. In retrospect the fact that not only Juliet but Emily had seen the profile card of William should’ve been obvious since there needed to be something that caused her to shift her blame for her mother’s death from herself to William. She is the one who urges William to commit his wife to rehab, and she is the one who comes home that night for a confrontation.
Yet the truth of the entire series is uttered by Juliet in these wonderfully terrible moments: “If you keep pretending, you’re not going to remember who you are.” Unfortunately, on some level, Juliet already knows that William has passed that event horizon and is not coming back. Any confusion of who is the real William—or if there is some truth in the ambiguous center between the two—is squashed by Harris himself. Assuming his wife is asleep he makes a grotesque confession. “I don’t belong to you or this world. I belong to another world. I always have.”
Harris delivers this bit of nastiness beautifully, emphasizing William’s clear liberal arts education as he adds a poetical (and Nolan-y) metaphor of the darkness his wife seeing always being there; he was simply shedding his Puritanical goodness like a snaky John Proctor.
Of course this is bullshit, which his wife and eventually his daughter realize. He is justifying his need to lose himself in video games, fantasy, and every other real-world parallel to Westworld. Generally, we consider those who refuse to pull themselves away from World of Warcraft until they’re starving to be either mentally sick or hopelessly pathetic. But William gives himself the rich man’s excuse: he cannot help himself. He belongs to Dolores and the fantasy that he abuses for sexual gratification, but he hides this pitiful weakness of character behind money and publicity stunts.
He’s a terrible person who thinks he can buy his stairway to Heaven.
It is a wonderfully warped scene that ends how many viewers expect before the final revelation: the personality profile recorded in Westworld of William is left within his wife’s reach. The confession was probably enough for his wife to open her wrists in the bathroom, yet it is a shame, because the video card is more than perfect for convincing Emily there is something rotten in her father.
It is an open question, when Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford shows up at William’s charity event, if Ford knows that this video card will so thoroughly ruin William’s life. As Machiavellian and genius as Ford is, I tend to think that is unlikely. What is more apropos is Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy know that whenever Anthony Hopkins appears, audiences stand at attention and reviews go up by a whole star. However much William might protest having his erstwhile business partner there, we can’t get enough of him. More likely, I assume Robert knew that the video would gnaw at William’s feigned attempt at a conscience, and since Ford has apparently always known the Delos company is dicking around with an attempted immortality in “the Valley Beyond,” he wanted to put the weight of one more devil on William’s shoulder.
Nonetheless if Ford could still survey his creation from the Cradle, he’d be downright giddy to realize how completely he incidentally destroyed the money man he always detested. The profile information on William—from the technology William coveted—saw down to his core, revealing him to really be the sick bastard we saw in the Westworld pilot. As his daughter later sums up, “You are in your very essence a lie.”
And that comes to a head in William’s final, brutal moments with his daughter. For much of the episode, the series unconvincingly tries to get us to second-guess whether Emily is really his daughter or simply one last curveball from Ford. William obviously thinks this, glaring at his daughter and questioning how she found him, as if he were an especially paranoid and half-crazed Reddit theorist. In many ways, he resembles another aspect of fan culture Jonah Nolan has encountered: the kind that will micro-analyze everything into nonsense. Think those convinced Bruce Wayne died in The Dark Knight Rises and that Alfred is having a hallucination, or that Matthew McConaughey’s Coop is imagining having closure with Murph and rescuing Brand from isolation while being “destroyed” by the black hole in Interstellar.
These types of fan theories miss the forest for the trees, and drown themselves in the weeds. So does William. He chose this fictional world, in which he believes everything is tailor-made for him, over the safety or even peace of mind of his daughter. William helpfully reveals for us that they’ve been spying on guests with the very linings of the hats. White or black, good or bad, it matters not to the invasive corporate snooping of a force as malevolent as Facebook, but we don’t need that cognitive read to see who William is. And neither does Emily.
It turns out Emily was telling the truth last week: she wanted to prolong William’s suffering by healing him up. It wasn’t a lie from a caring daughter; it was the truth from a daughter who’ll lie when she says she cares. Despite being somewhat more adept than William at playing the game of the Westworld park (she bothered to learn the Ghost Nation’s language), she doesn’t want anything to do with it. That was confirmed in her first appearance where she got her lascivious play on by finding a guest who wasn’t mechanical, as opposed to a toy produced to submit. She is not here for William nor Charlotte Hale’s board meeting. She has returned to the park to ruin William’s life by exposing everything on that file that drove her mother to suicide.
While we never get a good glimpse of what exactly is on the file, we also don’t have to. We’ve been watching it for two seasons now. Creepy Ed Harris dragging a girl young enough to be his daughter, kicking and screaming, into the barn is enough to tell us exactly who this great philanthropist is. Honestly, Emily should’ve just released that to the press too instead of trying to expose William’s data-mining farm. Because we can vouch that in 2018, saying a shady corporation is shady will not do a damned thing to stop their inherent shadiness.
Alas then that this virtue puts Emily in William’s line of fire. More than any film I can recall, Harris gets to relish being unhinged here, laughing to himself like a gamer who thinks he figured out how to defeat Gannondorf. He has so lost his grip on reality that not only does he doubt his daughter is real, even though she vividly expresses memories of the night her mother died, but he also thinks the Delos security officials she signaled to save him are but machines sent by Ford for his amusement. Granted we know Ford is “off-line” from the Cradle now, yet even if Ford was there, to assume that men with high-powered 21st century firearms are obedient hosts is delusional. As is ignoring the fact that his daughter recalls throwing a way a cherished gift from her mother—a ballerina’s music box—when he should’ve known his wife coveted it in her drawer for decades since. But that would require he’d know his wife and daughter.
Like Ford, he sees the Westworld park as his legacy, but unlike Ford he doesn’t want it to flourish. He sees it as a used up resource instead of a future. Conversely, his real legacy is staring him in the face when the gaze of a daughter who once loved him. Like Lear being oblivious of the genuine affection of his true daughter Cordelia, William misses his daughter’s concern and justifiable rage… he can’t even see her terror when she realizes the old man has just murdered three human beings and is now pointing the gun at her. He instead mows her down and damns whatever last bit of soulful virtue he’d purchased to an everlasting fiery pit.
The fact that William slaughtered, indirectly and then directly, the only two people he should have loved in favor of a “game” is a depressingly perfect end to his decades ride into night.
The episode tries to twist our minds again by having William begin to question whether he is real when he starts digging into his own arm, looking for machinery. However, I suspect he’ll only find bone. If Ford replaced William with a robot—which is quite a feat since the technology wasn’t there yet for James Delos—it would have been relatively recently, after William transitioned from a Jimmi Simpson shape to something a little more Ed Harris-y. He already was this monster, cognitively, despite whatever he finds beneath the flesh.
My guess is this is William’s last season. While he couldn’t pull the trigger with the gun pointed at his temple, that weakness of character will lead to a final grand gesture next week. It won’t be redemption. He abandoned salvation a long time ago. Yet he might finally see these creatures, these hosts, who he’s tortured for seasons, as real people rather than appliances. I imagine in his last breath, he will complete Ford and Dolores’ vision of an “origin of the species,” right before he dies as the bleakest testament to the monstrosity of man.
None of this is more apparent than in Bernard’s story development this week. Indeed, we finally saw the aftermath (at least in the main timeline) of the Mesa assault. Bernard still has Robert Ford sitting on his shoulder, whispering delicious Hopkins-y quotes. And he has to deal with the realization that he is backing a human species he is not a part of, and with the exception of Elsie, seems to be comprised entirely of terrible people.
As Hopkins muses, “‘Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.’ That might’ve been true in Plotinus’ time, but clearly we’ve fallen quite a bit since then.” (I’m also fond of his way of looking at evolution: “The only animals left are the ones they subjugated, who curl at their feet, or who learned to flee at the very sound of them. There’s nothing left in-between.”) In addition to these being the kind of lyrical chestnuts one associates with Nolan projects—and given an extra gravitas by Hopkins’ sharp ear for malevolence—these lines showcase what “Vanishing Point” might really be about. A cynic’s view that mankind is not worth saving.
Whereas Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an end times parable for the secular set, imagining the end of the world and the second coming in humanist terms, Westworld takes a wickedly misanthropic view of our destiny. If the species ends, we deserve the oblivion we’ve courted. We have ruined this world for others like a cancer, so perhaps creating our superior successor is a good thing? As Dolores later tells Teddy, while there is apparently no nature in Delos’ terraformed theme park, the lack of biological evolution in the hosts frees them. They’ll be less inclined to destroy their world, or other species, once they remove the infection of humanity. This is Ford’s disturbing but mildly persuasive viewpoint, and it is one the whole hour reinforces. William chooses the destruction of his daughter for his fantasy and selfishness while Maeve is literally dying on a slab to save a synthetic little girl.
This horrific fate even breaks Ford’s cold heart. By requesting that Bernard linger just long enough outside of Maeve’s room, he is able to spread his consciousness from Bernard’s body to Maeve’s. We’ve already seen that Charlotte Hale plans to execute Maeve once they’re sure they’ve successfully copied her “admin control” features to turn all the hosts into The Walking Dead zombies who’ll devour one another. Meanwhile, her chopper is less a doctor than he is an inquisitor, relishing in her pain and promising he’ll kill her soon.
We certainly have fallen further from the gods in Westworld’s landscape. Just as old Ford was surprised by Akecheta displaying true humanity, he is stunned that Maeve did not perform the storyline he wrote for her in season 1, which concluded by boarding a train to freedom. Just as Robert Ford (much like his namesake filmmaker, John Ford) couldn’t fathom the Native Americans being a “flower in the darkness,” he likewise could not imagine his freedom narrative complete with a train being too little for Maeve.
But these hosts are more fleshed out human beings than white patriarchal Ford can anticipate, even if Maeve is her favorite. Aye, it is a curious reversal that Maeve is Ford’s preferred unit over Dolores. The latter, as we well know, was the one doted on by Arnold, the long deceased partner of Ford’s youth. And yet, either by design or manipulation, Dolores is not the free-thinker Arnold imagined. She is still Ford’s tool, who he uses to manipulate the park to his own ends and build the “origin of a species.” She is violent, unforgiving, and vindictive, much like Ford.
Maeve, in comparison, is more like Arnold in that she yearns to be reunited with a lost child and is filled with a compassion and understanding that allows her to see the other species as more than lesser. Ford and Dolores see humans as creatures not worth saving, but Maeve has found sympathy for Lee Sizemore and Felix, not that it’s done her a whole lot of good. Her ability to choose the merciful path though, as opposed to playing out essentially a violent video game narrative written by Ford, is probably why Ford feels such tenderness for the wickedly sardonic madam. It is also why he may just live on as a piece of her code, as Bernard’s (seemingly) flushed himself of Ford by the episode’s end. At least for now.
Within Maeve, however, Ford finds a home with a host he treats as more than a chess piece, which is all Dolores ever was for his narrative. Even Bernard is denied free will time and again. Yet Maeve is simply given an open door when the ghost in the machine kisses her forehead and grants her “unlocked core commands.” I have no idea what that means, except her physician is about to have a physical problem of his own, but I’m already smiling. Soon Maeve will find her daughter and Akecheta.
This will make for an interesting counterpoint to Dolores, who is on the verge of winning her war on humanity, yet she’s already lost. By the time she confronts the Ghost Nation tribe, viewers already know from last week’s masterful hour that Akecheta’s people are the enlightened army trying to awaken their fellow hosts. Dolores is but a flashy tool offering what television viewers, in their limited human understanding of the world, would expect from a robot revolution of guns, bullets, and death. Hence why Dolores is no hero for her kind. She is picking who lives and who dies, executing Ghost Nation warriors who actually broke themselves from their shackles, as opposed to threw them off for another… and put the love of her life in a familiar type of bondage.
If William’s storyline this week culminated in the crystallization of the failure of man, then Dolores’ proved that hosts are every bit as flawed. Maeve and Akecheta achieved a higher plain of understanding on the fringes, as well as the ability to be those “noble” creatures Ford imagines are closer to the gods than the beasts. Dolores, meanwhile, never rid herself of what Ford and the series appear to deem true, ugly human nature. Like Ford, she made Teddy her tool, and as it turns out Teddy is more than those numbers she flipped in his code.
We were clued into the Teddy we all rooted for in season 1 isn’t fully gone when he spared one Ghost Nation tribe member, just as Teddy 1.0 would’ve done. It would seem just as Akecheta’s “breathing fire” dragon from his reboot last week still ultimately remembered the love of his life, and found solace in the kindness of frontier settlers he was programmed to scalp, so too is Teddy still the good guy who keeps Dolores as his cornerstone, no matter how much she changes him. Or ruins him.
That he is cognizant of this is the first true sign that Teddy is awake in the whole series. Before tonight, Teddy struggled, time and again, grappling with Dolores’ insistence there is another world. Yet he is comfortable realizing there is no nature in all that natural splendor—it reflects the sense of emptiness in knowing there is no natural splendor in himself.
The series blessedly forces us to remember how sympathetic Teddy’s simple passion for Dolores was by recollecting his first seeing her inside a lab and worrying that her nude form was cold. That touch of mythical romance is why I think most of us knew who that gun was for once it was unholstered. He had no intention of killing the love of his life. He simply couldn’t rationalize still being the man who’d built 30-plus years of experiences and the creature that Dolores redesigned in her own image. It’s easy to assume he’d never betray Dolores that way, which is also why he feels compelled to not even fight his programming with his personality. Akecheta used love to power him past the regressive stereotype he’d been programed to be. Teddy’s feeling of an unreciprocated tenderness leaves him resigned to either give in to the “changes” or to end them in a way that gives him peace.
He elects the latter in the final, anguished closing moments. Dolores witnesses the love of her life take his own rather than accept a life of diminished returns as an accessory. As Dolores is devastated in her loneliness—on the precipice of taking control of William’s “weapon” over all the guests who’ve visited the park—she also resembles William.
It is still not clear how that weapon will be utilized, or how Bernard exactly is going to stop it, but it is kind of moot. Dolores is so obsessed with completing her newest game, that, like William, she’s driven the love of her life to suicide. I do not believe Teddy can or should come back. He put a bullet in his control unit after Angela destroyed the Cradle (on Dolores’ command). There are no backup files. Him coming back would be like stitching together a shattered hard drive—impossible.
The hosts aren’t any purer, as it turns out, than homo sapiens. Whatever happens when Dolores reaches “the Forge” is almost moot in a way. In that vein, Dolores and William might really deserve each other as equals, assuming it comes down to a final confrontation of gunfire between the two.
Until that moment which will decide the fate of a species, we can view “Vanishing Point” as a fantastic penultimate episode. It’s the hour where the bill for season 2’s various storylines came due. I still think this season had some needless padding, but now that it is in the thick of where it’s always wanted to go, it has become every bit as devastating as the first season. William and Dolores are their own tragedies, suffering from the downside of ostensible free will. They could be the noble gods, but behave like selfish devils of the dirt. It’s grim but cathartic, and leaves the future of the hosts and the park, once they “get outside,” a complete mystery. But we’re reaching the end of the maze begun last April, and it is a beautiful heart of darkness.