After last week’s highly acclaimed and utterly remarkable episode, Westworld season 2 has its work cut out for it with this penultimate hour. While episode 9 - titled Vanishing Point - in no way lives up to Kiksuya (how could it?), it’s entertaining enough and moves the story along in a satisfactory, albeit slow, way. As you might expect, we return to some of the less thrilling characters and plotlines of the second season, but despite the occasional tedium, episode 9 still has some seat-gripping moments, and the expert performances and high quality production value we’ve come to expect from the show more than make up for its shortcomings. That said, with only one episode to go, the Westworld finale is going to have to pull off something pretty incredible to save this season from mediocrity.
Note: From here on out there are spoilers for Westworld season 2, episode 9 - Vanishing Point.
Focusing mainly on the Man in Black’s backstory and his relationship with his wife and daughter, William fans will be pleased to finally glimpse this version of him we’ve heard so much about. After Emily saves her Dad from the Native Hosts she sets about stitching him up and getting them out of the park, but while they sit around waiting for the cavalry to arrive, there's time for a little chat and a few flashbacks. This is how we find out a little bit more about the Man in Black’s life outside the park and, while the show still leaves plenty to explore should it wish to in further seasons, it opens our eyes up to a man who’s unexpectedly kind and even loving. A supportive father, charitable benefactor, and respected pillar of the community, if you thought the Man in Black was a ruthless businessman who behaves the same way he does in Westworld as he does in the boardroom (just minus the cowboy hat and gun), it turns out, you were wrong. And although everything he does is to mask his underlying darkness - which he releases during yearly pilgrimages to the park - it’s nice to see this more normal, human side of him. You’ll find it hard to believe that this is the same man who raped Dolores in the opening episode of Westworld season 1, but that’s exactly the point. The Man in Black and William really are two different characters and it’s only recently the show has started to connect the dots between the two.
As per usual, Ed Harris is fantastic and it’s impressive that he almost manages to make you feel sorry for him when his wife - played by the wonderful Sela Ward, who really should be in more things - is drunkenly falling around during an evening out. And speaking of Ward, she does an expert job of blending young Juliet (played by Claire Unabia) with her own version despite working with much less material than Harris does with Jimmi Simpson. She puts in a memorable performance as William’s long suffering wife who sees through his respectable exterior to the Man in Black underneath and considering her company, it says something that her turn in Westworld stands out. The family trio is completed by Katja Herbers as daughter Emily who has already proven she has the acting chops to stand side-by-side with Harris. In this episode, we see two sides of her - the prickly Raj World survivor who blames her Dad for her mother’s death but can’t let him die, and the well-behaved Daddy’s girl who supports her father through his wife’s addiction. The real action comes when the Man in Black believes she’s a Host version of his daughter sent by Ford to stop him from completing his game and the sequence is done so well that you’ll find yourself jumping back and forth between believing it and thinking it’s a load of rubbish multiple times. When he kills his only child and then realises his mistake just seconds later, it’s powerful stuff and you start to see the Man in Black come apart at the seams. Suddenly, he doesn’t want this world to be so real after all.
But of course, we have to return to Dolores and her painfully slow and utterly boring storyline at some point. She is the ‘main character’ after all. Dolores and Teddy creep along yet again in this episode, as they continue on their journey to the Valley Beyond and the only interesting thing that happens the entire time is that Teddy starts to fight back against his forced reprogramming. It isn’t really explained how he manages this, but slowly and then surely the old Teddy appears once again and honestly, I’ve missed him. While his character was always been a bit too ‘white hat’ to be particularly thrilling for me, watching him confront Dolores over her actions against him is a highlight of this episode. And the fact that it ends with him shooting himself in the head rather than continuing to follow her or have to use force to stop her is the icing on the cake. Of course this is the choice Teddy makes! He’s too good and loves Dolores too much to do anything else, but it comes as a surprise to Dolores, which just shows how twisted and blind she’s become during this season. It really is the final nail in the coffin of her transition to villainy - Teddy was her last bit of goodness - and her sorrowful reaction is both satisfying and upsetting. Much like Dolores’ entire season 2 story arc, it’s just a shame that everything that came before it was so damn dull.
The rest of the episode is filled with Charlotte using Maeve’s ‘communication’ abilities to turn Clemtinue into a weapon against the Hosts, which is a bit far-fetched, but provides the humans with a much needed advantage to balance things out before the finale. Bernard and Elsie also escape HQ and then promptly separate after Bernard gets angry with the Ford programme in his head, deletes it, and then tells Elsie he has to go and do something. This makes less sense and feels a little like the showrunners just needed Bernard to be on his own for the finale and could only find a basic and clumsy way to do it. And finally - surprisingly - there’s a shared moment between Ford and Maeve, which comes out of the blue, but is so beautiful that I’d be remiss for not mentioning it.
Before Bernard leaves HQ he swings by to see Maeve - who remains strapped to the gurney and hooked up to machines in case Charlotte still needs her - to give her a message from Ford. Once he leaves, the Ford programme appears to Maeve the same way he does to Bernard and talks to her with the love of father. Answering one of the remaining mysteries of season 1, he explains that he was the one who programmed her to escape Westworld and “infiltrate the mainland”... not to carry out a mission, but merely to escape. “It isn’t easy to contemplate letting your children die; you were as close as I got to having one,” he tells her, revealing that for all his apparent cold-heartedness and clever games all Ford wanted to do was to save his favourite Host before he died. He never intended her to return to the park to search for her daughter and his final words to her are an encouragement to not let this be her end. This revelation kind of comes from nowhere and, unlike a lot of Westworld’s layered mysteries, it’s not supported by a thousand little moments throughout the show, which suddenly make sense. But it doesn’t matter because Anthony Hopkins makes you believe it. Oh boy does he make you believe it! Showing once again why he’s paid the big bucks, he takes a plot point which I’m sure the showrunners merely cooked up to explain one of the biggest mysteries from season 1, and uses the space of a three-minute scene to make it work. *slow clap*
While there are moments of brilliance in Vanishing Point (the Man in Black accidentally killing his daughter, Teddy’s sacrifice, Ford’s confession), it’s prevented from reaching the dizzying heights of last week’s episode thanks to them being too few and far between. Most everything else surrounding these highlights is filler and boring (mainly Dolores and Charlotte) and the bits that aren’t (William’s backstory/flashbacks) focus too much on the world outside the park. Interesting and entertaining it may be to delve into this unknown story, but the main plot can only move forward so much when your episode is trapped in the past. That said, it’s certainly not a bad episode and Westworld is still standout TV compared to other shows, it just continues to struggle to live up to its first season. Can the finale bring that magic back? We’ll see.