Westworld S02E04 Review: “The Riddle of the Sphinx”

Although nearly all the action in this installment takes place within the park, it shows us how Westworld’s technology and its owners’ ulterior objective affect the wider world. Two relationships guide us through these revelations: William and James Delos; Bernard and Elsie.

Now we know the terms of the deal between William and James. Delos invested heavily in the park, keeping shareholders happy by profiting from guests’ data somehow, and William promised him immortality in a host body. The trouble is, it isn’t working yet. After 30 years and 149 attempts, they still can’t make a James-bot who lasts more than 35 days. William explains, “The engineers call it a cognitive plateau. … It’s more like your mind rejects reality, rejects itself.”

William reneges on James

It’s ironic that James’s dynasty is dead―himself, his wife, Logan, and Juliet―yet the Delos company continues to pursue immortality. Old William has changed his mind about the project, which is reflected in the episode’s title. The Sphinx’s riddle was, “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?” Oedipus answers her, “Man,” understanding that morning, noon, and evening are metaphorical: one day as one life, where night implicitly means death. Invoking that riddle in this context is a clue to William’s perspective. He has come to understand that our limited lifespan is essential to what we are, who we are. We wouldn’t be the same people if we didn’t have to deal with aging, pain, loss, and death.

Yet he doesn’t shut down the project. He tells the tech guy to observe James #149’s degradation (an excellent double-edged term with clinical and emotional connotations). He told James outright, “The world is better off without you, Jim, and possibly without me.” William believes someone may deserve immortality, but we can only guess whom he has in mind. Perhaps he wants to bring back Juliet, his wife dead by suicide, to set right a great wrong in his life and then destroy the project.

In the present, William in Black and Lawrence need supplies and munitions. Things are awry in the park. “These tracks are supposed to go north, not east.” Railroad workers are killing hosts (and people?) and using the corpses as railroad ties. For some reason. The dynamic duo head to Lawrence’s hometown. William was expecting the usual pushover pack of cousins, but they run into Major Craddock and the last of the Confederados, who may be off-script, but they’re as cruel and nasty as ever. Perhaps Dolores was right, that not all hosts are good enough to survive. The Confederados have always been villains, antagonists, cannon fodder for the guests to kill guilt-free. They are video game bad guys come to life, and they ain’t fellas you’d want to get to know. William bides his time.

William & Craddock

In the shot where he takes the upper hand, telling Craddock, “You think you know death, but you don’t,” the camera pivots around William’s hat to show the characters from the other side. It’s a near-literal turning of the tables, the mirror image of which we see when the camera passes behind James while old William reneges on their deal.

William in Black sets up a cathartic piece of poetic justice and lets his trusty sidekick do the honors. Lawrence shoots Craddock’s bellyful of nitro, and he ’splodes real good.

Bernard was dragged to the cave where Elsie has been in time-out, and he seems convinced that Ford had Clementine bring him there for a reason. But first he needs cortical fluid. Elsie learns that Bernard has been a host all along and fixes him up, but makes it clear she needs his help and doesn’t trust him. They explore the facility while Bernard has multiple flashbacks to the last time he came here, doing Ford’s bidding. They find Delos-149, still alive and raving mad. (He even pedals backwards on his exercise bike.) Bernard protects Elsie from him, she incinerates the poor bastard, and Bernard deduces the purpose of this secret project.

Elsie has her head on straight. Her reactions to this whole mess are priceless.

Fuck that. They’re gonna get us all killed so some asshole can live forever? … Fuck Ford and his game. Fuck these assholes and their project.

Bernard says he printed a control unit for a second human-host body, but he doesn’t know who. If he was acting on Ford’s commands, it would be a person important to Ford. Perhaps himself.

Bernard takes control unit

Appealing to Elsie for her trust, Bernard says, “The things I did before, I wasn’t in control. But since Ford died that’s all changed. For the first time I get to decide who I want to be. Please give me that chance.” She agrees, having him promise not to lie to her or hurt her. Of course he immediately has another murdery flashback, which he keeps to himself. I suppose this is meant to make the audience doubt his motives, but it’s not actually a violation of the promise. Killing the lab workers definitely falls into the category of “the things I did before, I wasn’t in control.”

Speaking of which, Ford is pulling a lot of strings from beyond the grave. Apparently he can commandeer semi-awake hosts like Clementine to do things for him. We don’t know yet whether this is done according to predetermined instructions, some adaptive procedure, or realtime commands issued by proxy. If Ford’s final game was to free the hosts and disable the security protocols so the humans had to reckon with them for real, isn’t he cheating by intervening? It might be cheating from a writer’s perspective, too. “Ford set all this up before he died” is a deus ex machina twice over.

Elsie & Bernard

The Ghost Nation natives are rounding up humans but not killing them, although they are killing hosts. Why do they keep human captives for all of one day, march them to a new location, and let them go? (Grace, for one, ain’t sticking around to find out. Good for her.) I think this is another of Ford’s interventions, for what purpose I don’t know. The leader of the Ghost Nation, Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) whispers to Stubbs, “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” A posthumous hint from Ford to someone who remembers him, possibly.

Grace gets herself geared up again quickly and runs into her father’s posse the next morning. William has said several times that his daughter hates his guts. If that’s so, why is she risking her life to find him? Wild speculations spring to mind, but that’s what comments are for.

Questions

  • What book was James reading? The cover had an embossed image of two women’s faces in a cloud of smoke.
  • What kind of whisky did William bring James? I couldn’t make out the label.
  • Was there a symbolic meaning to all the circles in the James-bots’ habitat? The round room; coffee cup, cream pitcher, sugar bowl, and tray; end table and hourglass; and the discs on the exercise bike. The solid white and red records are visually similar to hosts’ cortices and human-host control units, respectively.
  • Did anyone make sense of Ford’s hint? “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

Author’s Note: I apologize for the tardiness of this review. I ran out of steam last night and crashed before I finished writing, and today real-life obligations took precedence. I will try to post before I go to bed in future.