clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Westworld ruined The Man In Black

Nothing gold can stay

Ed Harris as the Man in Black in Westworld. John P. Johnson/HBO
Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

The Man in Black cements himself as a villain in Westworld’s pilot episode. He’s a smirking, black-clad menace who takes pleasure in taunting the robot hosts. When he shoots Teddy in the pilot, it’s because Teddy continues to play the valiant boyfriend — essentially, he’s boring, and The Man In Black has better things to do.

Just in case you still thought he was a cool dude, The Man In Black then drags Dolores into a shed to — apparently — rape her.

There’s a lot of debate about whether he did or didn’t. I fall on the latter side of the argument, but I also don’t think it makes a difference. The scene absolutely is staged and shot to imply that Dolores was raped. Westworld’s creators want you to think the worst of The Man in Black.

At least, they did.

In case you thought this was just about the pilot, this article contains big ol’ spoilers for all of Westworld’s first season.

It’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. One of the Westworld fandom’s biggest theories was also one of its earliest: that Jimmi Simpson’s William — the earnest, host-loving frenemy of chaotic evil bisexual Logan — is actually the younger version of The Man in Black.

For some, it was disappointing that mysteries that were meant to last the whole season were being cracked by fans so early. But there was still a compelling question: If William was The Man in Black, what made him change so profoundly?

Here’s the problem though: William is boring. And William, as we know him, doesn’t change.

Evil is fun to watch

Morals be damned, The Man in Black is interesting to watch. A well-timed smirk on Ed Harris’s weatherworn face can light up a scene. The character is godlike, inscrutable and brutal. He might be a wealthy 60-year-old who loves cowboy LARPing, but he also exudes charisma and menace. How he treats the other characters is pretty heinous—but that tension made his scenes engrossing. The same could be said of Charles Dance’s performance as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Evil in action.

Neither character is good. But everyone wants to know what they’ll do next.

The Man in Black drives his own narrative. He rescues Lawrence, hunts down clues and kills anyone to get ahead. His friendship with Lawrence is built up over the first X episodes, and ends abruptly when The Man in Black realizes that Teddy is the host-guide he needs instead. These are big, dynamic changes, and we tend to be attracted to characters who grab control of their own fate. The Man in Black is, if anything, a doer.

William is his opposite. He starts off likable — an everyman to Logan’s hedonist. But a likable character is not the same as an interesting character — or even a well-written one.

Over the course of William’s arc, he doesn’t change meaningfully, nor does he drive the plot. Logan and Dolores make every decision about where William goes; he’s just along for the ride. Sure, he loves Dolores. But he’s largely in the dark on what is happening to her, and he’s unable to do anything but catch her when she swoons.

William gets a glimpse of something bigger when he realizes Dolores is potentially sentient — but he can’t see past this being their love story, to the wider reality that every host has that same potential. This selfish focus might be the one thing he has in common with The Man In Black. William wants to be Dolores’ hero, and he wants her to be his special girl. For all his bluster about being a nice guy he still sees the most important woman in his story as nothing more than an NPC.

William’s transformation from lovelorn tool to cold-hearted killer happens in a montage, robbing the audience of a chance to see the character develop meaningfully. Logan shows him that, surprise, Dolores really does have robo-guts after all. Over the course of a night, William then butchers an entire camp of Confederate hosts. He spends the rest of his vacation killing his way through Westworld.

We may not want to admit we’re attracted to characters who take whatever they want and don’t mind resorting to violence, and we can certainly relate to people who are trying to do the “right” thing, but few of us can put ourselves in the shoes of a character who begins at one end of that spectrum, becomes disillusioned, and instantly flips to the other extreme.

Narrative problems

Westworld juggles a lot of stories on different timelines. It would be difficult to stretch William’s transformation over the whole season without giving away the final twist. But imagine how dreadful it would be to watch a decent, likable character going bad — and the dawning realization that we know exactly how horrible he will get.

Well, we don’t have to imagine that because we can watch Breaking Bad. But the point is, the need to keep the connection between William and The Man In Black a secret makes the transformation less believable. And worse, it makes The Man In Black less interesting. The reveal diminishes both characters instead of giving them more depth.

It’s hard to come up with a backstory befitting such a character as extreme as The Man In Black. And let’s be honest: mystery suited him. He was frightening, cruel and competent. When the twist is revealed, we know everything there is to know about The Man In Black: His robot girlfriend was a robot. He had an existential crisis, suddenly and violently. The character William’s single redeeming trait — that he was not cruel to the hosts — is instantly discarded.

The Man In Black’s transformation should have been agonizing. Instead, it’s dealt with in a few moments, and now we know that he used to be the most boring guy on Westworld.

What could have been the show’s biggest character moment tries to skate by on the shock value of having a good guy go bad. But all it actually did was inextricably link Westworld’s best character with its worst.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.