Westworld Stumbles with a Shaky Cliffhanger in “Vanishing Point”
(Episode 2.09)Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO TV Reviews Westworld
Is there a word for the penultimate episode of a season that always, inevitably has shit go down? They are messy cliffhangers, not because we don’t know what will happen to our heroes, but because we don’t fully know the upheaval that the finale (and the next season) will bring. These episodes are Franz Ferdinand and the finales are World War I. In Westworld’s “Vanishing Point,” a few poor Archdukes bite the bullet and send the remaining protagonists hurtling towards the Valley Beyond (and its clone-creating Forge) equipped with a heaping helping of self-loathing on top of their already crippling sociopathy.
If ever we weren’t certain the series was pushing us to see just how close The Man in Black (Ed Harris, who does good work here showing the cracks and crevasses in his façade) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) have become, this episode holds our hand all the way up to the front of the class to show the diagram it’s drawn on the whiteboard. William’s descent into total madness, by way of Ford’s fantasy games Inception-ing William’s Westworld plans, is plenty understandable, but the series is far more effective when it shows us the well-made “how” rather than revelling in the consequences.
That means when director Stephen Williams takes a huge tonal leap, flashing back to William’s time with his wife and daughter at a charity event—and reusing some of the same shots and imagery from the fantastic montage at the end of “The Riddle of the Sphinx”—it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Watching tech mogul William mope around and deal with the intoxicated Juliette (Sela Ward, whose complex performance requires her to go through all the duplicity of a well-worn relationship, just like Ed Harris is doing, but also be drunk at the same time) would be great even if Emily (Katja Herbers) weren’t around. But she is, and their family dynamic is exactly that: dynamic.
They get pissy with each other because Juliette is always drunk, William is always running off to be a psychopath in a fake West, and Emily is caught in between. Not to mention that William has commissioned his own brain profile so that he might one day live forever. Yikes. No wonder that profile notes some serious sociopathic tendencies. Delusional? You bet he is. That’s why he emotionally (then physically) abandoned his family. That’s why he still believes Emily is one of Ford’s hosts in the present.
Emily tells him that she knows about his project and wants in, giving a hell of a transformation from the caring daughter to the daughter that cares to live forever, thank you. She learns that the brain scanners are in the hats (so it wasn’t just all great costume design? Good thing they weren’t in Strict Middle School World) and calls some Delos folks to come take her bullet-riddled father to the hospital. But, yes, William has lost his final marble and kills a lot of very human people—including his own daughter.
That’s a great and fucked-up mirror to Maeve (Thandie Newton), who we learn had a different story planned for her by Ford (Anthony Hopkins), though she chose to go find her daughter. Maeve, who’s all flayed and imprisoned like a Game of Thrones character, has great gory makeup and a heart of gold. She’s also Ford’s favorite host—makes sense she’s the closest thing to a god they have. Now, however, the experiments that Delos has done on her, well…
You know how if you sync up all your devices to one of those voice-activated home systems, it’s super convenient, but in the back of your mind you remember what happened in Maximum Overdrive? That’s what the Delos techs have effectively done here, isolating the code causing Maeve’s psychic Wi-Fi (Psy-Fi?) and putting it in other hosts. This causes a little hell-in-a-cell action that’s just another glimpse of humanity choosing cruel violence over equality yet again.
That’s the sales pitch Ford makes to Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), whom the former is inhabiting, for why the latter should shoot all the humans and join his host brethren. They’ve got a Smeagol/Gollum relationship that’s plenty enjoyable and just as toxic, though Bernard purges this toxin on the opposite end of the tech-spectrum from Tolkien’s tragic figure, giving him a boot to the recycling bin instead of screaming into a puddle. He speeds off to the Forge, leaving Elsie (Shannon Woodward) behind instead of executing her.
That scene’s two potential endings are even more apparent in the scene where Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden, transformed from aw-shucks cowpoke to supersoldier and back again) have a little private talk. It’s too intimate and too uncomfortable, like when you get cornered into a conversation where you know you’re about to be dumped. In Westworld, ending a relationship is a little messier. Marsden leaves it all on the dusty court in the scene, hearkening back to his innocence with a simple stance and accusing with a detached objectivity. When he shoots himself in front of Dolores, breaking something basic inside of her, one would imagine, it is consequences coming full circle for Dolores’ ruthlessness and the epitome of her free-choice philosophy. “Vanishing Point” is an episode of comeuppance for characters we weren’t sure it’d matter to. William’s delusions inflicted it upon him, Dolores’ intimate betrayal inflicted it upon her. And now we’re stuck waiting to see if they (or we) really care.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.