[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Westworld seasons 1 and 2.]
Back when Game of Thrones was still on, I watched the first handful of seasons through completely. But as the series moved past what George R. R. Martin had already written, I started losing interest. The story didn’t seem as solid, and the character motivations started getting wobbly. Watching the show turned into paying attention when my favorite characters were on, and otherwise zoning out. Eventually, that half-watching turned into scanning the credits for the names of my favorite actors. No sign of Aidan Gillen? I’d skip the episode entirely. I fully accept that this is a bad way of watching anything, but I’ve been watching Westworld this way, too.
I love Ed Harris, even though I’m also intensely scared of him. (Or maybe because of that?) I love how incredibly weathered his face is, his gravelly voice, and the fact that he looks totally unapproachable. So as my investment in Westworld waned — it feels too gamified, and character development was being put on the back burner in favor of more and more twists — I dropped back to just watching the Ed Harris scenes. It’s not that I admire his character — the Man in Black is a heartless killer — but I do admire his performance. Even in something like National Treasure: Book of Secrets (which is, to be clear, a great movie), he can make a one-dimensional character feel fully human, simply by how seriously he seems to take his work.
You don’t need to have watched any shows this way to know that cherry-picking scenes means not getting a full picture of what’s happening on a show. In terms of specific storylines, I’ve been told I missed a detour to Shogun World, as well as most of the self-contained episode “Kiksuya.” And broadly speaking, I can tell I’m missing much of the philosophizing about artificial intelligence and the nature of free will that’s supposed to make up Westworld’s backbone. The bits and pieces of it that creep into the Man in Black’s storyline can be confusing as a result. But that doesn’t make my Ed Harris bingeing any less enjoyable.
The “all Ed Harris” version of Westworld is a story about legacy. The series’ main themes — the idea of loops and repeating behavior, the question of what’s real and what isn’t, and robots breaking free from the people who made them — are still present, and form the springboard for the Man in Black’s storyline. Chunks are missing in the form of the scenes with Jimmi Simpson, who plays William, Harris’ younger self. But the story is still clear, and the big first-season twist is still tragic: the young man Dolores (the show’s lead character, a robot played by Evan Rachel Wood) fell in love with aged into her tormentor.
The show’s second season becomes much richer, since it doesn’t have to deal with hiding the Man in Black’s identity and extends to his life outside of the Westworld park. Though the bulk of his scenes still take place in Westworld, the most affecting ones are those that focus on his family life, either in flashbacks set in the “real” world, or as his daughter tracks him down to free him from his obsession with this man-made world. These personal details are what make the show fascinating to me; the shoot-’em-up action is just a perk.
The Ed Harris Only approach to watching Westworld doesn’t necessarily make the show any better or worse. I’m definitely not watching it as it’s meant to be watched, which renders any criticism I might have on the series irrelevant. And this method still hasn’t freed me from the show’s fondness for gotcha reveals and florid monologues. But watching this way highlights a microcosm of the show that sheds some light on what Westworld does best.
Questioning the nature of existence and free will is most interesting when it’s tied to characters who have been fully fleshed-out, people we can relate to in one way or another. None of us have been in the Man in Black’s exact shoes, given that we don’t live in a world full of perfectly human-looking robots. But the sense of having to put on a mask in order to be more relatable, having trouble communicating with loved ones, or becoming obsessed with seemingly impossible things aren’t alien experiences to us.
My habit of essentially creating TV supercuts of my favorite actors is definitely a symptom of how much media there is to consume, and how little time we have to consume it in. It’s not how I’d ever dream of recommending watching a movie or show to a friend. (When I actually admit I do this, I normally frame it as a joke or a bit, not something to be taken seriously.) But it’s my way of gaming how Westworld has turned itself into a game. As a whole, it’s not a show I enjoy unconditionally, so I’ve found the method of watching it that works for me. Now that the third season of the show has begun, I’m planning on keeping up the same way… once Ed Harris finally shows up again.