The Two Heaviest Hitters on 'Westworld' Finally Squared Off
This post contains spoilers through the fifth episode of Westworld, "Contrapasso." Head to our Westworld show hub for more reviews, theories, and deep dives.
In the old-timey bars of Westworld, conversations of men thunder like the commandments of gods. These mere mortals lord over their contrived surroundings, control the behavior of their robotic disciples with the flick of a wrist, and leave a player piano dittying long after they've sidled off for a whiskey. Compared to the hosts (and the viewer), visitors and game-makers in Westworld live in the clouds, but in "Contrapasso," the fifth episode of HBO's sci-fi series, two god-like men descended to our level.
We still know very little about Dr. Robert Ford and "The Man in Black," the park titans who crossed paths in Westworld's version of the Heat diner scene. Ford's the genius roboticist who set out to create mimicking A.I. with his partner Arnold, who died tragically in an early iteration of the park. Precisely 34 years, 42 days, and seven hours later, Ford remains enigmatic, spouting psychobabble while cooking up a new narrative that could either fulfill Arnold's dying wish -- to evolve a host android's bicameral mind to a level of true consciousness -- or derail it. There's a sinister edge to Ford's ambition. Is he good or evil?
The Man in Black is as much of a walking, talking conundrum. In the first episode, he shoots Teddy dead and drags Dolores to the barn for, because it's happening on HBO, what we assumed was a jolt of hedonistic pleasure. Were creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy toying with our expectations and memories of Yul Brynner's original Man in Black? Over four more episodes, The Man in Black morphed from renegade park-goer to man with a mission, waxing poetic on life, death, and freedom to his robot hostages. He's headed through the Maze like a kamikaze pilot, and the possibility that he's an older version of White Hat William only makes his drive more frightening. But if he's looking to crack Westworld open and send the imprisoned androids off their loops, is The Man in Black good or evil?
The meeting between Ed Harris' Man in Black and Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Ford in "Contrapasso" inched us towards answers (and delivered on what we really want out of Westworld: lean, mean, powerhouse acting from two screen legends). Do we know more about Ford and the MiB? Let's carve open the conversation to find answers beneath the skin:
Ford: "I never like to drink alone."
If you're an imaginative conspiracy theorist, you heard Ford divulge his preferred social circumstance and wondered whether the Man in Black might be another Old Bill, i.e., a robot in disguise. "Contrapasso" featured the second appearance from Old Bill, last seen drinking with Ford in the premiere episode; it's unclear if this new scene is a flashback occurring moments before Bernard confronts Ford in the depths of Delos' mesa HQ at Westworld, or if it's a whole new chat -- but these mirroring moments don't seem like coincidence. Although, based on the tension in this scene and Ford's distaste for humanlike robots, this may be a "know thy enemy" situation more than a check-in with an unaware bot.
The Man in Black: "Teddy, you know who this is? Everything good that's ever happened in your life, and everything rotten, this is the man you have to thank."
There's a spark of vengeance when Ford enters the Man in Black's sights. Thirty years playing Westworld hardened the black hat, but one look at Ford toggles on a vindictive rage. We glean that, whatever the Man in Black hopes to accomplish by completing the Maze -- freeing Dolores? freeing the entire host population? freeing Delos employees from Ford's sick game? freeing his own paranoid mind from a prison of mortal doubt? -- aims to stick it to Ford, an unjust creator. Ford doesn't seem worried. He's been one step ahead the entire time, and comfortable with the Man in Black plowing through Arnold's in-game path to enlightenment. "Far be it from me to get in the way of a voyage of self-discovery," the scientist says.
Teddy: "Looking for a man named Wyatt..."
Ford: "That last part doesn't sound familiar."
You can't trust anyone in Westworld. That goes for creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who tell us to question everything in this dialogue scene. There's an ongoing debate over whether scenes involving Dolores all take place within the same timeline, or if we're watching a past Dolores and a present Dolores simultaneously discover/rediscover the path of the Maze. One thing we know for certain: Dolores is not on her loop in Teddy and the Man in Black's timeline. Maybe she's with William. Maybe not. But misdirection is a tool in both a player and writer's handbook. The Man in Black manipulates Teddy by encoding Dolores' disappearance in language his loop programming understands. "Your stories could use a little embellishment," the Man in Black tells Ford. Faithful viewers should consider this a meta-comment on Westworld; just because a character believes the reality doesn't mean the reality is to be believed.
The Man in Black: "I always thought this place could use a real villain. Thus, my humble contribution."
Ford: "I lack the imagination to even conceive of someone like you. The urgency, however, doesn't quite fit the character. It betrays a certain anxiety."
OK, so maybe the Man in Black isn't a robot. Ford built his hosts to live in fear and obey. The Man in Black is a chaos agent -- though, like the awakening robots, he has become unhinged from reality. He sees the rules, faced the rule-maker, and wants to dismantle everything to prove a point. It's the true gamer instinct, the speed runner who wonders if he can beat Super Mario Bros. in record time by sliding down a buggy pipe. Art becomes pragmatic, reduced to function and dying to be broken. The NES scenario isn't too perilous. For the Man in Black, whose glitchy game sports hundreds of armed and dangerous adversaries, the move sounds downright villainous.
The Man in Black: "Wyatt, on the other hand, is something new. Someone to stop me from finding the center of the Maze."
Another tip that Dolores likely reached the Maze's center years back is the existence of Wyatt, who sounds like Minotaur of the labyrinth. The Man in Black's showdown with the cyberpunk will be the boss battle we deserve.
The Man in Black: "The world outside is a world of plenty. A fat, soft teat people cling to their entire life. Every need taken care of, except one: purpose. Meaning. So they come here and they can be a little scared, thrilled. Sweetly affirmative bullshit. Then they take a picture and go home."
There's been scant discussion of what existence is like outside Westworld's walls. Logan and William have talked about their corporate life back home. Theresa mentions a childhood visit to the park, Bernard phones home from the isolated work location. In "Contrapasso," Elsie learns that someone is beaming information out of the park via laser-based satellite uplink. The Man in Black -- who we know funds some sort of humanitarian foundation in the real world -- describes life beyond Westworld as a depressing utopia, which makes me imagine complacent Wall-E humans with more bipedal movement. People often wonder where Westworld could go after Season 1. The answer seems clear: into the world of plenty. The Man in Black is ready for a disruption.
The Man in Black: "The man I'd be asking died 35 years ago. Or maybe he left something behind... I wonder what I would find if I opened you up."
Sorry, "Ford is Arnold" and "The Man in Black is Arnold" theorists, "Contrapasso" is here to debunk you. Literally, anyway. With all the talk of consciousness and ulterior motives on the Delos corporation side of Westworld, the idea that Arnold may have downloaded his or a loved one's mind into the 3D-printed husk of a host is a rampant conclusion made by many Westworld diehards. The idea gains steam here. The Man in Black could be joking that, like Kissy the poker dealer from Episode 1, Arnold might have a portion of the map inked into his scalp. Or maybe he believes that Arnold, dead for years, could still be firing between synapses, either in a host's mind or Ford's own.
"Even at death's door you're still a loyal pet."
Ford's psychic lordship over the hosts becomes more and more unsettling with each passing week and each effortless flexing of his muscle. We now know there's a Asmovian "protection code" built into Westworld's robots: Ford is the master, they are the servants, and if anyone tries to slice his cranium open, they'll jump into action to save him from harm. If there's a literal switch to flip at the end of the Maze, it may be connected to Ford's power. Arnold may not have approved of his partner treating hosts like slaves. The Man in Black certainly doesn't.
Ford: "Mr. Flood, we must look back and smile at perils past."
A harmless Sir Walter Scott quote, a triggering code word for Teddy's kill mode, or a oblique allusion to "the Incident," in which Teddy may have played a murderous part? In Ford's case, all three could be true.
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