The most momentous scene in “Contrapasso,” the halfway point of the first season of HBO’s Westworld, wasn’t William finally killing and taking the path to become a black hat, and it wasn’t even the weird gold-painted robot orgy in Pariah. It was when the increasingly delusional godhead of the park, Dr. Robert Ford, sauntered away from playing a Debussy tune on a saloon piano to confront the Man in Black face to face in the episode’s penultimate scene. At first glance it seemed innocuous, like nothing more than a tête-à-tête replete with knotty dialogue and cocky personalities. But in Westworld nothing is as it first seems, and the fateful meeting revealed another sinister layer to the show’s increasing number of good-vs-evil mysteries.
“You boys want some company?” A nameless barmaid host asks the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and Teddy (James Marsden). “Nah, just whiskey,” the Man in Black offers back, clanking down a few gold pieces to get her to shut up, not knowing that he’ll get a bit more than the whiskey. He’s confronted by Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and although he is clearly surprised, it stems from the fact that the pair are already acquainted. “Isn’t this a rare honor? Teddy, do you know who this is?” asks the Man in Black. “Everything good that has ever happened in your life, and everything rotten — this is the man you have to thank.”
Harris’s steely portrayal is of a man who thinks he knows everything about playing the game because he knows there is a fateful construct to everything going on. But that won’t stop the Man in Black from still playing the part. “You know I always felt this place was missing a real villain, hence my humble contribution,” he tells Ford, who knowingly responds with a laugh: “I lack the imagination to even conceive of someone like you.”
What Ford doesn’t lack are the resources to create much worse. If Ford’s meddling in the previous episodes about his new narrative indicate anything, it’s that something bad is coming, if not someone.
The Man in Black then calls out Wyatt, the newly minted bad guy in Teddy’s backstory who remains a ghostly figure on everybody’s minds. But he could be just that. We intentionally don’t have a true sense of who Wyatt is, just a few unreliable flashbacks from Teddy. In this sense Wyatt isn’t a real villain. He’s just a concept that Ford uses to represent the park’s need for duality: the white hat and the black hat. Good versus evil. “Is he just another stooge for the tourists to mount on their wall at home, or have you finally made a worthy adversary?” The Man in Black asks, challenging Ford again, hinting that Wyatt could also be someone created to stop him from finding the equally mysterious Maze.
Despite such a cut-and-dry concept for the tourists, the Man in Black’s participation echoes one of Logan’s lines from earlier in “Contrapasso.” He tells William — whom a large swath of the Internet thinks is the Man in Black in a past timeline — “Don’t you get it yet?” he says of the park, “There is no such thing and heroes or villains. It’s just a giant circle jerk.
The NSFW image aside, Logan is onto something that informs Ford and the MiB’s tangled conversation. On one side, the Man in Black thinks “there’s a deeper meaning hiding under all that,” and that it represents something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true. But he can’t ask the person who really created it. Arnold died 35 years ago, and “almost took this place with him. Almost, but not quite thanks to me,” he says in another comment that links him to Logan and William.
But the Man in Black is missing something. He’s far too self-congratulatory. The VIP playing the game may look and act like a villain and even have figures like Wyatt challenge him in the park, but it’s all a ruse. The real villain is the one who has created the game: Ford. And Ford knows it.
“Is that why you came here, Robert? To talk me out of it?” the Man in Black says to Ford of the unplanned encounter. “On the contrary,” Ford responds. “Far be it from me to get in the way of a voyage of self-discovery.”
As Ford leaves, he tells Teddy, “We must look back and smile at perils past,” alluding to a quote by Sir Walter Scott, which could also be an oblique reference to the catastrophe following Arnold’s death the Man in Black referenced during the conversation. The phrase also seemingly offers Teddy some much-needed rejuvenation. But the Man in Black is soon to discover that he doesn’t have as much power as he thinks he does. When two men are vying for the right to be all-powerful, it doesn’t matter who is good or bad. Both can’t win, and the Man in Black is about to discover that.