Westworld’s Man in Black Is a Classic Bad Gamer

By
Ed Harris as the Man in Black. Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

The video-game elements of Westworld are pervasive. They’re embedded in the character-creation stage as guests enter the new world, the repeating cut-scene-like set pieces, the hosts’ death and resurrection, and the larger narrative form. That last feature impacts some of the most interesting and innovative pieces of Westworld more generally: In an RPG-style video game, the illusion of player autonomy creates a sense of realism. Your ability to make whatever choice you want, follow whatever story line looks most fun, be as good or as bad as you choose, or to set aside the game missions entirely and run around the world collecting random items instead, is central to some games’ sandbox-y, full-immersion identity. 

The same is true of Westworld, to an extent. The guests — especially the black hats — thrill to the possibility of true in-game freedom. They are released from the bonds of real-world morality, which perversely allows the game to feel “real.” In the most recent episode, William asks Logan why he becomes a horrible person as soon as he leaves the real world. We know the answer, of course — this is Logan’s real self.

Much of Westworld explores exactly this idea. It pushes and prods at the moral stickiness of bad behavior toward not-quite-human people. It digs into the line between humanity and programming, and it’s slowly begun to take apart questions of personality and memory and choice. I’d suggest that not enough of Westworld has really tackled those questions seriously yet, or at least, it hasn’t done so to an extent that yet justifies its graphic, disturbing, and too-familiar depictions of sexual violence. (For my taste, I suspect Westworld will not adequately explore those issues until the moment Dolores fully wakes up, takes a crash course in 20th-century feminist theories, and wrangles all her fellow hosts into staging a revolution).

But we do have the Man in Black, a figure who stalks around the background of Westworld like a skeptic who’s walked backstage at a magic show and tries to peer inside the mirrored cabinet. At least through its fourth episode, Westworld’s preoccupation with video-game structure has been duplicative, but not particularly additive — we see the video-game influence all over the show, but Westworld hasn’t done much to twist or comment on or otherwise develop those ideas further. While we wait around for Dolores to pass the Turing test, the Man in Black is the one figure who’s really complicating those structures, and throwing a wrench into the host-guest binary.

You could see the Man in Black as a sort of hero of Westworld, a truth-seeker perpetually trying to pierce the veil of the game’s elaborate superficial distractions. He wants the real game underneath, the one that actually points toward something beyond diversion and side quests. He’s not there to be entertained or placated — Westworld’s silly bandit hunts and well-controlled bank robberies are no longer worth his time. He’s sure that there’s some other level of meaning hidden inside the park’s landscape, and he’s going to find it.

He’s a completionist. He’s that person who plays every single mission in every single tiny village of Witcher 3, discovering every possible shack and outpost on the map, hunting down every last mythical beast, forging every potion and every piece of armor. He’s also the player who identifies and then plays around with the game’s bugs. We can see it in episode four, “Dissonance Therapy,” as the Man in Black pursues what he’s hoping is the final, hidden key to how Westworld really works. He needs to learn something from Armistice, the woman with the snake tattoo, and she won’t tell him unless he helps her with her mission. It is a classic video-game-story structure. Need some information/weapon/key/map/insert MacGuffin here? Oh, this non-player character has access to it, but you’re going to have to help her out with a little side quest first!

Except the Man in Black has no interest in waiting for the usual mechanics of the mission. “I don’t have time for any ‘color by numbers’ bullshit,” he tells Armistice — as good a description of repetitive video-game fetch-quest structure as any. He goes marching into the prison two days ahead of schedule, pulls off a fun outside-the-box escape with some literal exploding cigars, and derides his mission’s quest character in the process. “You always seemed like a market-tested thing,” he tells Hector, the smoldering, scarred, leather-clad bank robber. It is not a compliment.

But there are obviously some real problems with reading the Man in Black as the “best” at playing Westworld’s game, the one who can see through the superficial spectacle meant to impress the casual players, the one who knows enough to seek the deeper game. If he’s the “best,” what does that say about the game itself? What does that say about the lengths he’s gone to pursue the game, and about the way he treats the hosts who we’re supposed to see as increasingly human? Dolores is as close to an unmarred moral center as we have in Westworld, and he violently assaults her in the first episode. If they stand in his way, he slaughters hosts without a thought. Why shouldn’t he? They’re not real.

Dolores is one crux of Westworld’s exploration of humanity and morality — the figure whose slowly growing personhood poses the most challenge to Westworld’s crucial host-guest divide. And if she is at one pole, the Man in Black is at the other. His pursuit of the maze is the deepest, the most “real” form of playing the game we see depicted on the show, and at the same time, he is unquestionably a monster. He is a critique of every bad fan, every gamer who plays the game “wrong,” every player who’s more interested in taking the game apart than in appreciating it for what it is. If Dolores is on one end, pushing at our preconceptions about what makes someone a person, the Man in Black is at the other, insisting on the falseness of Westworld even as he dismantles it for his own purposes. His single-minded vision of the game as just a game — of the hosts as just robots — also dehumanizes him. 

There’s been another buzzy recent series where we’ve seen a similar dynamic — on the most recent season of Orange Is the New Black, the guards who treat prisoners as animals quickly become less human themselves. There, the political message is crystal clear, and the depictions of violence and death are intended as sharp, pointed rebukes of their real-life equivalents. There’s no similarly visible equivalent for Westworld, not yet. If the Man in Black is the gamer whose inability to respect the game reflects his own inhumanity … so what? At this stage of the series, it’s not yet clear what the consequence might be for the Man in Black’s bad, violent, over-intense fandom. Or if it’s even actually a bad thing.

All we can see now is a man relentlessly pursuing some secret level of a game, and casting aside everything else in order to do so. It is, as he tells the random player around the campfire, his vacation. It remains to be seen whether that vacation is really Westworld-approved.