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Character Study: The Man in Black

On ‘Westworld,’ William is certainly a villain, but what he doesn’t understand is that his sins are a matter of choice—not part of some “game”

HBO/Ringer illustration

Westworld has a strange overreliance on hats, and how they ostensibly define the humans who enter the park. In Westworld, the line between good and evil is, quite literally, black and white: Choose the black cowboy hat if you’re looking to indulge in the park’s violent delights; take the white if your intentions are a bit more virtuous. (Also, don’t ever take off the hat, because that’s how Delos is collecting data? No, really.) But how a guest chooses to participate in Westworld or its adjoining parks has a nominal effect on the experience: Guests are still invincible—at least they were, before everything went haywire at the end of Season 1—regardless of their decision-making. In other words, choosing a white or black hat at the beginning of a Westworld trip is perfunctory, and subject to change based on the whims of the person wearing it—none of it should be taken seriously.

Unless you’re the Man in Black, it seems. The heavy-handed thematics of Westworld have been most embraced by the park’s chief financier. His first trip to the park in Season 1 as William, the young fiancé marrying into a very wealthy family, began with noble intentions (and a white hat). But the longer William spent inside the park and the more he became enamored with Dolores, the quicker he descended into darkness, both literally and figuratively. But as William explains in Season 2’s penultimate episode, “Vanishing Point,” the process of experiencing Westworld for the first time was like a snake shedding his skin, revealing the monster within. When William looks in the mirror, he sees an agent of chaos, not unlike Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger from Michael Crichton’s film, the original Man in Black.

William does have one thing right: He is a convincing villain, but it’s not for the reasons he thinks. By choosing to believe this darkness is innate to his own nature, William deflects blame for his actions in the park. It was never really a choice, William believes, because this was always what he was like on the inside. William simultaneously acknowledges he’s an awful person without taking any responsibility for it.

As we see in a series of flashbacks in “Vanishing Point” set in the real world, William’s philanthropic efforts and genial demeanor have fooled nearly everyone, except his wife, Juliet. As he puts her to bed after a night of heavy drinking, he confesses that what she’s been feeling all these years of marriage was genuine: The “real” William spends his time inside Westworld. Unbeknownst to William, Juliet is awake for the full spiel, and takes out the flash drive William hides in a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (subtle, Westworld!) that contains the results of what’s basically a Myers-Briggs personality test from his time inside Westworld. Juliet is understandably horrified by the highlight reel of William’s rape and murder spree—you’ll also notice William has three personality types listed, which suggest he’s prone to paranoia and delusions.

It’s the key to unlocking the maze of Westworld’s most aggravating character. We spend so much time—too much time, if we’re being honest—on the middling in-park adventures that William believes are part of a “game” created for his enjoyment: a delusion of grandeur on the largest scale. The “game” is why William refuses to accept that his daughter, Emily, is really there in the park, and not another cog in Robert Ford’s master plan to mess with his head. There are horrifying real-life stories of people who get so invested in a video game that it literally kills them. William is Westworld’s cautionary tale for these contrivances, a tale that reaches a brutal climax in “Vanishing Point” when he kills his daughter after mistakenly assuming she is a host.

For William—who’s somehow still limping around after getting shot six times, including once in the goddamn chest—the only thing left to do is question the nature of his own reality. Near the end of the episode, William begins to cut open his arm, expecting to find the wiring built within all the hosts of the park. Westworld leaves that reveal up in the air; all the better to stoke the Westworld subreddit flames until next Sunday’s finale. But whether William is a human or a host-human hybrid is beside the point. He’s out of touch with reality and can only think of his life in the context of a grandiose game in an artificial world. Even in what could be the waning moments of his life, William never learned to take off the black hat or, more importantly, realize that it had no meaning to begin with.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.