“The Riddle of the Sphinx” is a perfect example of everything I both love and dislike about Westworld.
On the negative side of the ledger, we have a long episode that’s full of “plot blocking,” when a narrative beat is delayed for no other dramatic reason than “Uh, it’s not the proper point in the running time yet.” Three times, characters are about to discuss something important before there’s suddenly some distraction. Moreover, the show specializes in the constant tease of vague abstractions, rather than misdirection. How many times are we going to reference “the real purpose” of the park, forgetting that there is far more power in the specific? How many times are we going to see Bernard watch himself do a simple task and redo it? Even in the compelling-as-hell scenes with James Delos, we know he’s a robot once William says the word “fidelity.” Rather than make us think one thing and then surprise us with another, Westworld often feels like one of those trivia rounds where you are given less and less cryptic hints for a single answer. And that can’t help but feel laborious in a 71-minute episode. Again, it’s not just about economy, but the way the show holds onto its cards.
But when the show finally plays those cards? As the saying goes, “Always late and worth the wait.”
Thus the fireworks that unfold when our two threads of the episode loop together, as Bernard and Elsie come face-to-face with “James Delos.” This is a serious dread-and-horror confrontation and it works precisely because we now have all the information and know exactly what to expect when they enter the chamber. Hence, dramatic fireworks. I should add that Peter Mullan’s performance in this episode highlights why he’s one of our great character actors (check out Top of the Lake if you haven’t, stat). Even better, we finally get into the meat of the park’s “true purpose,” and that is, of course, rich people’s quest for never-ending life — a revelation that makes the episode’s title, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” a purposefully ironic one. “What animal walks on four legs when young, two when adult, and three when old?” The answer, of course, is man. But when we take humanity and put it inside hosts, they have no such worries. They’re born as they are. Always only needing two legs.
By introducing this quest for eternal life, Westworld exposes the horrors of eternal limbo. From the very start of the episode, we see that James Delos is already trapped in his cycle, ever on the rotating bike, listening to those rotating records, in a circular room, shown off with circular camera movements. He’s trapped in the “cognitive plateau,” as the episode calls it. It’s not just some handy-dandy metaphor, but a direct comment on life without death. There is no God for Delos, and no way to be one himself. He’s got nowhere to go. Nothing to gain. And nothing to lose, except everything that makes life meaningful.
If there’s one thing Westworld has steeped in its DNA, it’s the notion of cost. As Delos tells William, “If you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering.” And as the scene implies with the Stone’s “Play With Fire” needle drop, that offering is not a big glass of whiskey but a horrible cost. Exploration of the cost of death is precisely what makes this one of the more thematically unified episodes in the show’s run. Beyond just Delos, Bernard is facing the difficulties of his own mind rejecting “reality,” yet still trying to desperately hang on. It’s not just about cortical fluid, of course: It’s in that final, haunting lie to Elsie, telling her he is definitely still in control of himself. He’s not in control, at all. Even worse, he can control those white drone robots. This is a terrible power that can bring terrible cost. But like everyone else? Bernard just wants to go on living.
Similarly, there’s so much to be made of the life and death games being played by Major Craddock with the fate of the townspeople. Does he have a death wish? Nah, it’s actually the opposite: With nitro on hand, Craddock deals out death willy-nilly, all because he’s a man who’s escaped its clutches twice now. The truth is that death terrifies him, so he has to compartmentalize and say he now finds it meaningless. In reality, he’s trying to control death and use its power over others. And so, William has to correct him: “Death is always true … you haven’t known a true thing in all your life.” It’s no accident that we then learn here that William feels the burden of this truth quite heavily. He lost his wife to suicide, a loss that his callousness probably helped inflict. In a flashback, he even outright admits to Delos that this whole venture was probably a mistake. William is carrying around the guilt of someone who has created great cost in others, but like most terrible people, he isn’t quite sure what to do with the cost he still creates. He can only press on with his naïve, equally callous pursuit of how to “fix it.”
William still thinks this is all about playing it “to the bone.” Which brings me to the thing I must admit leaves me troubled: Again and again, this episode suggests the characters are “still in Ford’s game,” that Ford still seems to be controlling it from beyond the grave. My understanding of the season-one finale was that Ford wanted to blow it up and leave it all to chance, but in this episode, the hosts are re-routing the railroad west with a kind of Manifest Destiny zeal, Clementine drags Bernard out to Elsie’s cave, and the young prophecy girl is talking to William yet again. I thought we left all of that behind, but Westworld is doubling down. And it just can’t help but feel … small? Undramatic? Airless? Luckily, the show has one smart play against this instinct when the girl tells William, “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”
And thus, we come to the episode’s last surprise: The escaping female colonizer, Grace, is none other than William’s daughter. With just one simple look, you get so much confrontation, heartache, affinity, and distance between them. It can’t help but remind me of a line earlier in the episode, “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” And Grace seems to remember a lot. Which emboldens the lesson that so many great and terrible men need to remember: We are only what we leave behind. So, for William, what he said to Delos is also true for himself. Some men are better off dead.
• Despite my issues with length and pacing, this one is beautifully directed by Lisa Joy, who gets full marks in actually understanding cinematic language instead of just going for cool aesthetics.
• Welcome back, Shannon Woodward!
• “I still don’t trust you, but I figure I might need your help.” You can only get away with a few moments like this in your narrative, but right now, a whole lot of relationships in the park depend on it. Oof.
• Another violence reversal with the Chinese railroad workers putting their oppressors under the rails and driving the spikes into them. Still, I couldn’t help but think, “When their bodies decompose, that will hurt the railroad integrity!”
• Who else noticed how they slightly aged-up young William in the second Delos meeting?
• Pretty sure that isn’t how nitro works, but it’s certainly more entertaining.
• Is the third Hemsworth going to do anything this season?
• “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” This line actually gets at one of the strange things about watching Westworld: the cognitive dissonance between the characters on the show and us, the audience. We know things they don’t, but it’s rarely played for dramatic irony. Instead, we just watch the characters’ fascination with not knowing what’s going on. It’s a weird thing to behold.