(Warning: Spoilers below.)
I was going to write this piece last week, so imagine my worry watching Sunday's "Westworld" that the show would go ahead and invalidate my premise.
Well, it certainly tried. Episode seven of HBO's fantastic sci-fi western dropped the kind of bomb fans have been expecting since it premiered in October: That a main character we long thought human, Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, is in fact another robot host designed by Anthony Hopkins' increasingly sinister Ford.
The narrative balance of the show continues to shift toward the bots with not only that twist, but also the burgeoning plot by Thandie Newton's host Maeve to escape her "Groundhog Day" existence managing a brothel in Ford's eponymous theme park. Then there's Evan Rachel Wood's host Dolores, whose empowered hero moment in episode five made her even more of a wild card. On top of that, the hosts' performances — particularly Newton's awakening Maeve — have steadily become the best on the show.
Despite those developments, however, my premise remains: William and The Main in Black are the most interesting storylines on "Westworld."
Jimmi Simpson's William and Ed Harris' The Man in Black are both humans who've donned spurs and six-shooters to visit Westworld, but for wildly different reasons. William's a first-timer dragged along by his thrill-seeking brother-in-law-to-be, Ben Barnes' Logan. The Man in Black, meanwhile, is a longtime visitor searching for the theme park's deepest secrets.
But what unites the two, and what sets them apart from the rest of "Westworld's" major players, is the same thing that makes William and The Man in Black the most relatable characters on the show: They, like us, find meaning through their interaction with technology.
Our obvious point of comparison for "Westworld's" ultra-immersive theme park is gaming. Early episodes found Ford pontificating in Westworld's gloomy offices like some game designer on the luminescent stage of E3. Simon Quarterman's narrative director Sizemore boasts that the park's visitors are "getting to know the characters they're most interested in: themselves." And Ford's claim that they return to Westworld for the little things, for its quirks and its easter eggs, rings at least somewhat true to this longtime player.
That explains The Man in Black. In his implacable hunt for a maze rumored to lie at the center of Westworld, Harris' gruff gunslinger resembles the "Mortal Kombat" player who won't rest until he can fight Reptile. (Of course, he doesn't have strategy guides or gossiping friends lighting the circuitous way.)
William, meanwhile, lies on the other end of the player spectrum. He's the novice who imports his own morality into that of his avatar because he can't — or won't — discern the fake world from his own. He's the player who obeys traffic signals in "Grand Theft Auto."
Now, seven episodes into this first season of "Westworld," both William and The Man in Black are already finding the same serendipitous meaning in the park that their archetypal players do in games.
The Man in Black wasn't to be seen in episode seven — like HBO big brother "Game of Thrones," "Westworld" is spinning out enough characters that some episodes just skip a beat or two. But the last time we saw him, The Man in Black was riding away with James Marsden's Teddy from slaughtering, against impossible odds, a whole Union Army camp that had captured them. Harris' look of amazement as Teddy cranked the howitzer told the whole story: Sometimes, the real experience is getting there, not getting there.
Episode seven also saw William continue his journey with Dolores — and, after much agonizing aloud, consummate his feelings for her. Westworld, he tells her in a moment of realization, "doesn't cater to your lowest self, it reveals your deepest self." This one's more debatable: What does it say about your character if you loot people's homes in "Skyrim"? Murder the Little Sisters in "BioShock"? Nonetheless, the engaged William's decision to be with Dolores — a much realer decision, to be sure — indeed says something about him. In that moment, his relationship with Westworld goes from one-way to two.
Whether The Man in Black finds the maze in the park or William further repudiates his life outside it, their characters' arcs will continue to be what I await most when I watch "Westworld." Hopefully, their arcs will continue to mirror my own and others' interaction with technology, and continue to lend insight into the meaning we create from it.
And hopefully we don't find out that they're hosts, too.