There are only two episodes left of Westworld before the show goes on an extended hiatus to film its second season. As such, the screener well has run dry for critics because someone always manages to spoil the ending, and if the narrative keeps rocketing the way it is, there are some huge reveals waiting at the end of the season finale. Hopefully one of those reveals is the identity of the Man in Black (Ed Harris) so fans can finally put to bed whether or not William (Jimmi Simpson) is the same character in an earlier timeline.
Truly, I hope it turns out the Man in Black and William are different people, if only so that all of Dolores’ character growth and awakening grasp on her reality isn’t undone for another three decades while William grows up to be a psychopath. And while last night’s “Trace Decay” provided the strongest suggestions yet that audiences are witnessing multiple timelines, there is nothing to indicate William and Dolores aren’t in the present (whenever that happens to be). If anything, the town Dolores is from being buried up to the church steeple indicates William is part of the current narrative and not a hyper-real memory of the past as Ford looks at the same church steeple while ruminating on his new narrative.
This lines up with a scene from “Dissonance Theory” where someone from Behavior is sent to fetch Dolores from Las Mudas as they cannot tell if she’s with a guest or not since Ford’s new narrative is sending the park into chaos. It is only when William confirms Dolores is with him that the Behavior Specialist backs off. Now it’s possible Ford has thrown narrative monkey wrenches into the park multiple times, but it seems reasonable to believe William and the Man in Black are simply different guests.
But if that is the case, it reopens the question of who the Man in Black is and why he gets such preferential guest treatment even by Westworld standards. Right now we know little of him, more than ever now after his monologue in “Trace Decay.” Married for thirty years, the Man in Black is a father and philanthropist who lost is wife a year ago and — in his grief — set off the chain of events that would lead to Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) awakening. Weird that his marriage year coincides with the first major disaster the park suffered…or is it? If the Man in Black is not William, I suggest he is the lone survivor of Westworld’s deadly breakdown in its early days. He’s Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin).
I’ve argued before that HBO’s Westworld exists in the same timeline as the original 1973 film. Over the weekend, to put my money where my mouth is, I sat down to watch the Michael Crichton version. Coming into the film with two months worth of stories from the new version made it impossible to divest the two. The original Westworld had a pace akin to a snail (it took a full hour out of an hour and twenty-eight-minute runtime before the robots began to malfunction), but there are still so many ambiguous loose ends left by the time the credits roll, it’s easy to start filling in the gaps with speculation. If Ford and Arnold wanted to wrest complete control of their world back from the Delos goons, what better way than to allow an “accident” on Delos watch that kills everyone in the park? Everyone except Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), who manages to outwit the robotic Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). The film ends before Martin leaves the park, leaving it possible he only delayed his untimely demise. But we know Delos sends in a clean-up team as the park is up and running again in the 1976 sequel Futureworld. With the Gunslinger dead and all the other hosts powered down, it seems likely Martin could’ve survived until he was found. But what is a corporation to do with the lone survivor of a catastrophic failure in park security? Pay him off, obviously.
During his vacation at Westworld, audiences learn lawyer Peter Martin went through a messy divorce six months prior, but he doesn’t seem distraught about it. If anything, he seems perfectly content with the outcome as it means a good life for his kids. When he first arrives at the park, Martin feels silly but quickly gets into the spirit of things. The look on his face during a bar brawl is one of childlike glee. He enjoys shooting the Gunslinger. He enjoys drinking to excess. He enjoys the warmth of a robot prostitute. But then it all goes wrong. One wouldn’t hold it against Martin if he never wanted to return. Of course, people work through trauma differently, and it’s entirely possible Martin would want to return, to face his fears and extract cathartic revenge on the hosts.
So imagine this is how it plays out. Martin is rescued from the wreckage. As a lawyer, Martin is able to wring a ridiculously large sum of money from Delos as amends for his suffering. Martin then uses that money to become a titan of business, a philanthropist, a god. He remarries — after all, 30 years of marriage means the Man in Black didn’t meet his wife until his was well into adulthood — but the trauma of the park has indelibly changed Martin as a person. This leads to strife in the marriage that ultimately ends in his wife’s suicide. Also, as part of his settlement, Martin can visit Westworld at will, and is even granted special privileges not afforded to regular guests. This would explain why he can kill hosts with impunity, scalp them, and even his past transgression of taking them apart to see how they work. Haunted by his past, Martin even takes on the visage of his original tormentor, becoming the Man in Black.
This theory would give some pathos to the Man In Black’s journey. He’s spent so long trying to figure out why the hosts turned on the guests, the black cloud of survivor’s guilt hanging over every aspect of his life. It turns his search for the Maze into a white whale. If only Martin can get to the center of the maze, he can discover the real reason behind the hosts’ existence.
Or maybe he’s just William. We’ll find out (hopefully) by the end of the month.