WESTWORLD, 2.4 – ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’

westworld - the riddle of the sphinx

While enjoyable, this season of Westworld’s lacked the compelling mystery and pleasurable sense of discovery the first year’s episodes delivered in spades. It’s only natural for any television series to settle into a groove and become more predictable, but a feeling was growing that the writers don’t have much left to surprise us with. However, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” was a welcome salve to uneasiness about the Westworld’s direction after three episodes, although in some ways it’s also made the task even tougher for future instalment…

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“You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.”—Akecheta.

As expected, Grace (Katja Herbers) was taken by the Ghost Nation tribe to their other prisoners; Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) among them, who was surprised to find Grace doesn’t want to evacuate the park. By the end of the hour we’ll be given more information about why, but for now it was clear Grace is a seasoned park-goer (as she can speak the tribe’s language) and it’s interesting the writers have added her to the cast. One of the show’s weaknesses is that most of the ‘second tier’ characters, Stubbs includes, are rather dull compared to the headliners, so for now the presence and mystery of Grace helped you tolerate charisma-vacuum Stubbs.

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“You think death favours you, that it brought you back. But death’s decisions are final. It’s only the living are inconstant, they waver, don’t know who they are or what they want. Death is always true. You haven’t known a true thing in all your life. You think you know death, but you don’t.”—The Man in Black.

It remains unclear what the Man in Black (Ed Harris) hopes to achieve by playing Ford’s “game”, although the storylines gave us more clarity about what’s going on. Indeed, this episode in general did a good job making things feel less vague and cut the ambiguity at times.

The MIB’s ongoing adventure took him to Lawrence’s (Clifton Collins, Jr) home town, only to find it’s been overrun by Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) and all the Confederados that Teddy let go last week. And if you were heartened to see Teddy decide not to execute these men on the orders of Dolores, this episode will make you regret his show of mercy.

The MIB and Lawrence are soon embroiled in the town’s situation, caught off-guard and taken to join them in a church, where Craddock gleefully shoots dead their nominated spokesperson. But it seems the MIB’s realised part of this game involves finding the “Valley Beyond” (or “Glory” as Craddock refers to it), so he manages to sweet-talk his way out of immediate danger by giving the Confederados a cachet of guns buried in an unmarked grave, that Lawrence was planning on using to escape when their captors get drunk.

While painted as the show’s villain, the MIB had an opportunity to do something good for once, although he clearly wouldn’t describe the choice in a positive light. But, nevertheless, while Craddock entertained himself by torturing the townsfolk using nitroglycerin (like asking a nervous barman to walk twelve paces balancing a shot glass of the stuff on the back of his palm, only to blow his arm off with a rifle when the task was achieved), the men’s despicable antics began to eat away at the MIB’s sense of decency. Whisper it, but one might even think he has a soft spot for likeable Lawrence, so once Craddock started on Lawrence’s wife it was a step too far far the MIB.

Or, rather, Craddock’s talk of being “favoured” by death, due to his resurrection after Dolores/Wyatt shot him dead, just got under the MIB’s skin. As flashbacks to his wife’s suicide interrupted the scene (suggesting she took an overdose in the bath tub), the MIB glassed Craddock with a smashed bottle, shot all his men dead, force-fed Craddock some of the nitro, then allowed Lawrence to shoot his torturer with a rifle that blew him to smithereens.

It was a rousing subplot for the MIB, which certainly made you warm to him a little more. Again, the “ghost” of Ford inhabited Lawrence’s daughter, almost as if he’s completed another ‘level’ of the narrative, but the MIB doesn’t his actions are enough to redeem him. But his help was enough for a few of the town’s men to join him on his quest, riding out across the plains, until they come across a lone rider revealed to be Grace. And, as predicted after last week’s episode, she calls him “dad”.

It’ll be interesting to learn more about their backstory. We already know Emily (who now goes by Grace?) blamed her father for the suicide of her mother, so there’s must be a tense relationship. Grace wasn’t introduced in the Westworld park, so appears to have been there for a different reason entirely. I have a theory, but more on that later…

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“Is this now?”—Bernard.

A big part of season 2’s mystery was suddenly answered in this extended length episode, thanks to Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) storyline. He was taken to a cave in the remote Sector 22 by Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), seemingly under ‘the spell’ of Ford, which is where he left Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) after Ford compelled him to deal with her. It was insinuated that Bernard strangled his work colleague to death, of course, but there was enough uncertainty to make her return plausible… and here it is.

What was interesting here is that Bernard, again malfunctioning, was forced to reveal to Elsie that he’s actually a host. I also appreciated the clarity over why Bernard’s having these breakdowns, because his brain’s still damaged after he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head last season. It makes sense, too, that Ford rebuilt Bernard rather hastily, so now he’s not operating as intended. The problem is that Bernard seems to need a regular shot of cortical fluid (the white goo we’ve seen him inject before), and the head trauma means his memories are bleeding together.

Together, thanks to Bernard’s haphazard memories, they find a secret facility built into the rear of the cave. Inside, they discover a various lab technicians have been murdered and ‘drone hosts’ now lay inactive on the floor. There were some great moments when Bernard became a spectator inside his own memories, too, and in general this episode did a much better job communicating when we were inside Bernard’s head - with eerie use of slow-motion and sound effects. But the true purpose of the secret bunker only became known in conjunction with this week’s most surprising storyline…

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“They said there were two fathers; one above, one below. They lied, there was only ever the devil. And when you look up from the bottom, it was just his reflection… laughing back down at you.”—James Delos.

The opening sequence (echoing Lost’s “Man of Science, Man of Faith”?) with an unseen person going through their daily routine, set to the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire”, was a fantastic way to begin the episode. It was also an expensive needle drop for HBO, too!

The person listening to the vinyl was revealed to be James Delos (Peter Mullan), the Scottish billionaire who invested his fortune in the Argos technology that led to the creation of hosts and the themed parks. I wonder if he’s Scottish because Sir Richard Attenborough was in Jurassic Park, which also originated from a Michael Crichton novel.

James’s introduction has been one of the biggest new pieces of the puzzle, and I enjoyed seeing what his purpose in the story really is.

Here, Delos was visited by William (Jimmi Simpson), which places this sequence as happening decades in the past, probably shortly after he invested in the Argos tech. And there was a strong suggestion James is a patient in some kind of experiment to reverse the effects of his terminal illness.

William has a conversation with his boss that ends with him passing over a folded piece of paper. The scene ends, but is repeated later in the episode, only now the paper’s revealed to be a typed script of the conversation they just had. The truth wasn’t too hard to intuit, but theories about why Delos really invested in become obvious: he intended to cheat death by uploading his consciousness into a host built to resemble his human self, and thus achieve immortality. The harvesting of guest DNA presumably aides in this effort somehow, which is what the parks are doing on the side, and William has sat down to talk with numerous “builds” of James… that keep falling apart in less than a month. Mullan does a fine job whenever his character struggles to remain his composure when the glitches start to appear, too, rather like someone suffering a stroke.

By the end of the episode, it’s the MIB (that’s the old version of William for those not keeping up) who comes to see James in his room with the Stones playing, and his boss doesn’t even recognise him by this point. This James Delos is the 149th human-host hybrid they’ve managed to create, only to fail. The problem of transplantation being that the mind rejects the reality it finds itself in.

westworld - the riddle of the sphinx

The MIB doesn’t even see the point in continuing their project anymore, as his perspective on life and death has changed over the decades, perhaps suggesting their final interview was taking place shortly after his wife’s suicide. James isn’t a particularly nice person, so why should he get to live forever, when a nice person like the MIB’s wife dies? Money buys you everything, but the MIB’s had enough and decides to leave this latest incarnation of James to deteriorate without hitting the termination protocol (which freezes his motor functions and incinerates the room he’s in). It’s a cruel streak his younger self didn’t have.

In a twist I, somehow, didn’t see coming, it’s revealed that the secret facility Bernard and Elsie have found is where the hybrid James Delos was being built, over and over again. They even find the last failed version inside his room, having gone utterly crazy, carving up his own face with shards from a broken mirror. Elsie kills James, ending his misery, before Bernard recalls why he was sent to this facility by Ford: to retrieve a control unit for a second human-host hybrid. But what he doesn’t tell Elsie is that he ordered the drones to kill the lab technicians, so the bloodshed and scenes of violence they discovered down there was all his doing and wasn’t related to the host uprising on the park’s surface.

But where did Bernard take the second control unit, and for whom? The obvious guess would be his dead boss Ford, of course. He’s the only human character of note that’s been killed, who might have planned for that to happen all along because he found a way to perfect the technology James Delos couldn’t. But maybe that’s too obvious?

The only other feasible person would be Arnold, the co-creator of the hosts along with Ford, who Bernard was modelled on. Is there a downloaded consciousness of the human Arnold somewhere? Is it floating around the park’s digital space, just as Ford’s consciousness seems to be? Are the cyber phantoms of these two men manipulating events, like competing players of the world’s most expensive RPG?

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In Summation:

I appreciate episodes that are confident enough to let the curtain drop on their mysteries little, giving us solid answers that provoke further questions, or beg for more details. It was certainly a surprise that the reason for the park’s existence seems to have been explained less than halfway through the season, with Delos trying to perfect a way for humans to live forever inside host bodies after their biological body die. That’s a pretty standard sci-fi idea, so they wisely didn’t keep this one simmering for the whole season.

But maybe the deeper truth is a little more controversial, if Delos have perhaps been luring wealthy people into the parks, only to clone them, kill them, and then create host duplicates they return to the outside world. Human-hybrid doppelgängers that that are under Delos control? Do that enough times and soon every billionaire and politician would be your puppet, allowing you to manipulate governments and global business with ease.

But if the MIB has shutdown the hybrid project, is it possible his daughter Emily/Grace was in the parks with a secret map to the bunker we saw James Delos being rebuilt? Does she perhaps want to resurrect her late mother, against her father’s wishes? The MIB came to believe humans are mortal for a reason, but his daughter may not agree and her grief is driving her down a different path. And if you were heir to the Delos fortune, whose grandad was secretly trying to bring himself back in robot form, wouldn’t you be investigating this clandestine part of the family business? It would also make sense of the interlocked hexagon on the map, which resembles the infinity symbol (a nod to immortality).

Or does it make more sense that Ford planned his own murder, so he could be reborn as a host, having cracked the code? Maybe this code that prevents the mind rejecting its new reality is what Charlotte Hale has been trying to smuggle out of the park inside Abernathy?

“The Riddle of the Sphinx” refers to a mythological creature that guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes. It would kill anyone who failed to solve its riddle “what is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?” The answer is man, because of a human being’s stages of life: four legs as a baby, two as an adult, then three when elderly (including a walking stick). But if immortality is at the heart of what Delos are up to, then the Sphinx’s famous riddle will no longer apply if old age and death can be avoided.

Lisa Joy made her directorial debut with this hour, and she did a very good job. As a co-creator of Westworld she obviously has a masterly overview of the show and its characters, so this was perhaps no surprise, but there were some great moments and imagery that stood out.

I also caught the stylistic references to Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which concerned three men trying to find a room that will supposedly grant your most heartfelt wish, and in Westworld that wish is to live forever. Maybe the three men are Arnold, Ford and William? Or would you include James Delos in that, but he’s failed? Interestingly, season 2 has been titled “The Door” (season 1 was “The Maze”), so perhaps this Door is analogous to Stalker’s “Room”…

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