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How WESTWORLD and READY PLAYER ONE Are Telling Two Different Sides of the Same Story

While splendorous, this post has spoilers through Westworld season 2, episode 2, “Reunion”

I can’t believe it took me this long to see it, but when I did it was like a schooner emerging in a Magic Eye puzzle. Westworld‘s The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and Ready Player One‘s Wade (played by Tye Sheridan in the film version) are two sides of the same arcade token. They’re both profoundly obsessed gamers on an Easter egg hunt, who only feel completely themselves when traversing virtual worlds created by eccentric geniuses. Each are on an immersive quest through the hidden underbelly of a popular entertainment system to bring change to the outside world.

Maybe it was inevitable for two properties so steeped in–and so keen to comment on–gaming, virtual worlds, and pop culture. Yet while Wade is the plucky underdog heroically battling against a soulless corporate behemoth, it’d be generous to call The Man in Black an anti-hero. Undoubtedly he’s more complicated than Wade. Less hero and less villain than he is purely self-motivated.

But we already know what motivates him.

In three conversations, “Reunion” did more to connect the emotional dots between William (Jimmi Simpson) and his future as a black hat than the entirety of last season. The first was the conversation The Man in Black had with Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) in the bar, where he tells the newly re-rescued bandit, “They wanted a place hidden from God, a place the could sin in peace, but we were watching them. We were tallying up all their sins.”

Judgment’s not the point. They had something else in mind entirely.

The second was William’s pitch to James Delos (Peter Mullan) that the magic in the park wasn’t in the experience, but in the personal data they could covertly mine and profit from. It’s the origination point of what the Man in Black references in the bar. Data mining and who knows what else.

The third happened underground in the park, when William had Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) sitting naked and vulnerable. He domineered, towering over her, totally in control. “You really are just a thing,” he said. “I can’t believe I fell in love with you.” Really, William? Really? You can actually see Simpson go full Ed Harris in the moment, completing the circuit. We don’t even need to see the intervening years to know what happened: William had control over his obsession until it took control of him.

Together these conversations offered context for the character’s grand revolutionary change. From meek, to mesmerized, to crushed, to bent on crushing. William started as a Nice Guy™, fell in love with a damsel in distress, felt betrayed by her when she didn’t fulfill what he felt was owed to him, and began perversely thinking of his violence toward her (and toward Thandie Newton’s Maeve and presumably countless other women) as some element of his self-actualization. Of his story. But it’s always, always, always been about Dolores and her tacit rejection of him–which she, as a re-programmable, exploitable object had no control over. He probably still says, “I can’t believe I fell in love with you,” before nodding off by the campfire every night.

His single-minded obsession with experiencing something real in Westworld all stems from that first desire for her feelings about him to be as real as his for her. The head-slapping irony of it all is that she would one day be capable of choosing the kind of relationship he wanted if he’d simply waited and supported her. His original sin was accepting that she was an object.

Contrast that with the PG-13 bravery of Wade surfing through the OASIS, learning about inclusion as he uses someone else’s nostalgia to mine secret nerd treasure. It’s good fun! His real-world isolation makes him an everyman! His life-eclipsing hobby is widely socially accepted! Meanwhile, even in a sci-fi universe in which Westworld and the other parks are normal entertainment options for bored elites, The Man in Black is a freak. He’s the one person in the world who chooses to live on the Las Vegas strip. He and Wade are both nerds, but most people in Ready Player One aspire to Wade’s level of geekdom. Absolutely no one is out there trying to beat The Man in Black’s high score.

Ultimately, Ready Player One lionizes trivia knowledge and pop culture passion as something uplifting and hopeful, while Westworld shows what playing the same video game for a few decades can rot a man’s soul.

It’s absolutely fantastic to have Simpson back, and the sequence where Angela (Talulah Riley) sold Logan (Ben Barnes) on the park with a reverse triple axel Turing test was sublime. But the atomic bomb on top of the sundae was Giancarlo Esposito rolling in heavy as the new El Lazo, dropping a monologue about mighty elephants staying trapped by small wooden stakes and the oppression of their indoctrination. Perfection. I hate to see him go, but I kind of love that he’s gone. He came, he conquered, he went.

It’s also shrewd of the show not to focus so much on The Man in Black’s quest, particularly because it isn’t laid out in some Sherlock-esque puzzle. So far he’s picked up a familiar ally, gone back through a familiar town, passed some speech checks, and will continue on presumably to Sweetwater. It doesn’t seem like he has to solve anything, so much as he has to get back out without being shot too many times. He wants to burn it all to the ground, but so far this is less King’s Quest and more Fallout 4. He’s definitely not gonna have to know all the lines to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for a recreation or anything.

Our trek through memory with Dolores was also outstanding (particularly juxtaposed with her scenes as a sentient badass). It’s clear that both Ford and Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) knew on some level that they were digital pimps in the early years. Ford leaned into it, and Arnold leaned away from it. At least when it came to protecting his favorites. Without these treks into the outside world, Dolores would be more like Neo in Matrix Reloaded, thinking she’s a superhero fighting a winnable fight only to learn that she’s only been programmed to think she’s outside her programming. The knowledge of what the hosts are truly up against, that there’s a world outside the park, is a major piece of intel that allows her to strategize. Her cockiness is what allows her to steal an entire regiment for her bidding and to believe she can convince a colonel to join forces. It also helps that she’s taken a god hostage: a tech who can bring hosts back to terrifying somnambulistic life.

Never content to revert to one-dimension, Maeve’s bristly interaction with Dolores unraveled the tapestry of the latter as a Chosen One. Maeve is on her own mission, and she doesn’t need or seek permission to do so from the person telling others to earn their freedom by following her orders. It’s difficult to know which host is more dangerous, and it’s possible this won’t be the last time their paths collide.

Stray Questions:

  • Can we get an El Lazo spin-off show starring Esposito?
  • What does Dolores mean to do with those giant earth-movers?
  • Have you ever seen anything so full of splendor?

Images: HBO, Warner Bros.


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