The following contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Westworld Season 2
Westworld Season 1 was all about the puzzle. What’s in the center of the maze? Who is a secret robot? How is there a third Hemsworth brother?
But the most creative, and simply executed puzzle that Westworld Season 1 presented was the character of William. We watched as Jimmi Simpson portrayed the young, idealistic character, swept up in the romance and excitement of this new, utterly fake world. Meanwhile, Westworld was showing us all along what would happen to that young idealist.
William grew up to be something terrifying: Ed Harris. More specifically he grew up to be the ultimate black hat – an ultra-capable game-obsessed survivor who is as familiar with the Westworld landscape as he is the back of his own, scarred hand.
It was an undeniable stroke of genius for season one to present the story of William in the past and present simultaneously. It was both sleek and braggadocios timeframe smudging storytelling and a legitimate way to drive into the dark heart of one of the show’s most important characters.
But would Westworld Season 2 be able to maintain this double portrayal of William? Both Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris did remarkable work at portraying this flawed man during two very different potions of his life. Now that viewers know the “trick,” however, is there any purpose in bringing two actors back to play one character once more?
The answer is yes, as it turns out. Westworld seems to be operating under a fundamentally sound principle: the more great actors on your show, the better. If that means we must maintain a flashback format to incorporate two great actors, then so be it. Thankfully, Westworld Season 2 is doing something worthwhile and fascinating with both the Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris versions of William.
At different points of our lives, we are all somehow both fundamentally different and fundamentally the same. It’s one of the grand ironies and mysteries of life and it’s one that the engineers at Westworld have to confront all the time. The hosts maintain the same bodies, given a patched bullethole here or there, but their code changes. Humans aren’t that dissimilar. Our “coding” changes based on the experiences we take in.
Young William and Old William live in the same body (if we accept that Jimmi Simpson grows up to be Ed Harris, which I can totally buy). They have the same base personality. But their experiences make them far different men. Westworld Season 2, Episode 2 “Reunion” presents this dichotomy clearly through both versions of William.
“Reunion” catches up with Young William in the past, shortly after his first experience at Westworld. His adventure with Dolores has hardened him, made him realize some fundamental truths about the human condition – his human condition. His time in the park was so profound and transformative that once he’s gotten over the shock, he fully realizes the park’s value.
Still, his heavily Scottish-accented father-in-law does not. So William spells it out for him.
“You’re right,” he says. “This place is a fantasy. None of this is real. Except for one thing – the guests. Half of your budget goes to marketing because you don’t know what they want but they do. This is the only place in the world where you get to see people for who they really are. If you don’t see the business in that, you’re not the businessman I thought you were.”
That’s right: Westworld is Facebook. Young William is Mark Zuckerberg. This is why it pays such dividends for the show to keep Young William around in flashback because revelations like this change the show in powerful, intuitive ways. Westworld, the park, has never been about the hosts. It’s about the guests. It’s a place where thousands of incredibly rich people visit to have their deepest, darkest desires exposed.
William knows this because he had his deepest, darkest desires exposed: the desire to be a hero, even though you know you’re a natural villain.
The knowledge of this touches on every other young William interaction in the episode. After an entire season spent falling in love with Dolores, he’s able to calmly enlist her to play piano at a party. He even is confident telling her that she is little more than a thing. No, she’s not a thing. She’s a reflection.
“You know who loves staring at their own reflection? Everybody,” he says.
He’s right. The massive success of Westworld will go on to prove that. The irony, of course, is that no one likes his or her own reflection more than William. That’s why the “Old William” portions of “Reunion” are crucial. This Ed Harris version of William has come close to self-actualizing. He’s accepted his role as the boogeyman. The problem is that while he was so self-assured about the purpose of the park as a youth, he still feels like there is something missing in his own life.
Now, with Robert Ford’s final gambit, William has the opportunity to experience something real.
“I’m gonna level with you, Lars,” William tells Lars after rescuing his old host bandit friend for the umpteenth time. You’re not a bandit. You’re a two-bit tour guide. For the first time you got yourself a real revolution. That’s why your place exists. They wanted a place away from God … a place where they could sin in peace. But we were watching them. Of course judgement wasn’t the point. We had something else in mind entirely.”
William knows that Westworld was a place to be a hideaway from God because he helped design and pitch it like that. After he’s spent decades testing his mettle and will inside the park, however, he wants God to come back. He wants rules to the game so he can more properly be judged. Ford making this whole thing real finally gives him that opportunity.
Old William is like the character in The Most Dangerous Game if he wanted to be hunted by other human beings rather than hunting them himself. That’s because he’s grown into himself. He understands exactly what he needs. He created a system of judgement for the rich and elite of the world and yet because he knows that, he doesn’t feel as though his mettle has been properly judged.
That’s how Young William and Old William are two sides of the same coin. The same men with the same desires but with an entirely different set of life experiences to guide them.