At last: a really great episode of Westworld in season two! “The Riddle of the Sphinx” has loads of confidence, a really thoroughly conceived and beautiful new set, some fun Lost echoes, and a strong story that builds and builds and then goes pop! at the end. It winds its way through the show’s favorite philosophical touch points (nature of humanity, death and resurrection, intersection of technology and the mind, blah blah), but rather than have lengthy monologues shakily moored to some vast, uncertain timeline, they’re rooted in deliberately small-scale place, and in one individual’s story. The episode also plays with tone in a way that too many Westworld episodes ignore, and the result is an installment of the series that finally feels truly scary and surprising and tense.
Episode four of Westworld is not perfect. It is too long, and it’s weighed down by a story that’s both unnecessary and mostly nonsensical: Ed Harris’s Man in Black is following a mysterious game set up for him inside the park, and this involves a very long and rainy set of monologues that ends in a shootout and the apparent death of lots of people we’ve been given no reason to care about at all. It takes forever and it does nothing. (When the terrorizing villain-host in this plot orders the shot-glass-carrying woman to walk “nice and slow, you hear?” I groaned, and when she complied, I shouted “are you kidding me?!” at my TV.) The episode is great; think how much better it would’ve been if we’d spent less time watching Ed Harris watch the rain, or if Jonathan Tucker’s talents had been better supported by a character we had real investment in.
Aside from everything to do with the in-park Man in Black story though, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is by far the best episode of not only Westworld’s second season, but the whole series to date. It’s an example of what the show can be when it leans deep into a few characters rather than spreading itself wide, endlessly hauling people across an undifferentiated map. The first several episodes of the show have high points, but for the most part, the stories look remarkably like the Westworld landscape itself: littered with featureless, disposable bodies piled in lumps around the park, and scenes full of bodies that should be meaningful but instead look like a grim, careless variety of garden decor. But episode four leans into what are already Westworld strengths (beautiful design, robots are creepy) and addresses some returning weaknesses.
A few things set “The Riddle of the Sphinx” apart. The simplest and most powerful of these is that much of it takes place in one beautiful, very small set, and involves a slowly unfurling story between two characters. The basic DNA of the episode is that James Delos (Peter Mullan) and William (a.k.a. the Man in Black) spend a lot of time together in a single room, and Westworld gets to perform its favorite trick: someone who looks like a human, and who thinks he is a human, is actually a robot. We learn this early in the story, and then we stay trapped in that room with James and William, stuck inside the claustrophobic aftermath of repeating, failed attempts to harness a human mind inside an inorganic frame. We watch as James learns the truth about himself. We watch as James, stuck in time without realizing it, becomes a mirror for William’s slow curdling into the Man in Black. Over and over, we see the same cup of coffee and hear the same script. It’s an episode about hanging out with a few characters dealing with the same problem, and we watch that problem twist and slip and expose things about the characters.
This is not complicated stuff! It’s a bottle episode; it’s a beloved trope for a reason! But a long time spent hanging out inside a bottle episode is a remarkable relief for a show like Westworld, which loves bigness and often mistakes complexity for intelligence. Too often, Westworld’s characters feel swallowed up inside the immensity of their surroundings; they get lost inside byzantine timeline jumbling and dwarfed by the park’s many canyons. Stuck inside a single room, the scale feels more human, the pain has more impact, and the episode’s timeline games (leaping forward years between each meeting) feel like a useful, emotionally crushing way to tell the story.
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” also does something that Westworld hasn’t been particularly successful at yet this season — it pulls together two of its plot threads, letting them collide into a really gangbusters final act. All of the in-park meet-ups this season have lacked emotional intensity (the Maeve and Dolores confab was particularly underwhelming). But here, the Bernard and Elsie plot winds up toward the moment they open a mysterious, unmarked door and find the circular room we’ve been stuck inside all episode. The two plots — William and James, Elsie and Bernard — coalesce in a truly horrifying conclusion, with Bernard and Elsie staring at the still-looping, fundamentally wrong James Delos, an abandoned Frankenstein’s monster left to grin horribly while performing his daily Peloton routine. We spend so much of the episode trapped inside William and James’s perspective, the conclusion with Elsie and Bernard lets us rediscover the beautiful cage we’ve been watching for so long with fresh, outside eyes, so we can see it now as a ghastly haunted house.
And any account of “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is incomplete without an appreciation for how gorgeous it is. The visual language of the opening scene, one that strongly echoes the second-season Lost premiere in the very best way, goes hand-in-hand with the underlying narrative scheme. We move through tiny details that we read as luxury and freedom (stylish furnishings, a relaxed morning, comfort and masturbation and goofy dancing), and then gradually the whole thing turns on its head with the reveal of the cage, the falseness, the flaws. The final confrontation between Elsie, Bernard, and the shambling monstrous remnants of James Delos is cast in a nightmarish black and red that turns James’s mid-century-modern enclosure into a hellmouth. And then what looks like a hugely overdramatic immolation at the beginning — when William destroys the James-bot in a wall of fire — becomes a cleansing conflagration by the end. It’s the kind of on-the-nose art direction that could so easily feel over the top, but “The Riddle of the Sphinx” earns every frame of it.
I still have my reservations about Westworld. I’d love if it could dump half its current stories and focus more on a few strong characters. But an episode like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” goes a long way toward recharging my Westworld batteries, and it creates goodwill for what the show could be going forward. Dear Westworld: please, fewer monologues about violent delights. More of this! More Peter Mullan! More meaningful plot overlaps, more characters trapped together, more horrible uncanny valleys between machines and men. More dramatic, dense gutsiness. Fewer meaningless piles of guts.