Westworld just unveiled one of the darkest and best episodes in the show’s history — “The Riddle of the Sphinx” — which also happened to mark the directorial debut of the HBO drama’s co-showrunner Lisa Joy. Below, Joy takes some of our burning questions about the episode.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of James Delos (Peter Mullan) was such a horrifying and mesmerizing tale. Can you first talk from a writers’ room standpoint about coming up with that?
LISA JOY: [Jonathan Nolan and Gina Atwater] wrote this beautiful script, and we hinted at the real goal of the park as far back as season 1, how it’s one thing for the guests and something else for the owners, and you realize what they are doing in this park is far beyond just indulging people’s appetites for entertainment. And the big founder, patriarch, and mogul, James Delos, it’s his bid for immortality. And he’s determined to make a copy for himself, and of course, it’s taken some trial and error. You’ve seen the hosts in their loops before, and the humans are always in control. And somebody like James Delos is used to calling all the shots. So we loved the idea of having an episode that unfolded where you can see the tables are turned and now James Delos is on a loop, one he doesn’t understand and he’s not in control, where he’s now the victim.
What kind of coordination, if any, was done between Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson, in terms of aligning their performances for this episode?
There was some coordination. I did talk to both of them in advance because they’re playing the same character, just evolving over time. So Jimmi’s performance had to shift subtly from the first iteration to the second, and it also couldn’t be distinct from what Ed was doing. Of course, you never want to tell actors to copy each other, but in this case it was really important they see what each other was doing. They were playing the constant to James Delos as the variable in an experiment. So their blocking had to stay very similar in terms of where they were sitting and how they were sitting. I asked both actors to do a rehearsal where Jimmi and Ed would see what was happening. Jimmi actually watched a lot of what Ed was doing as the man he was going to become and began to tailor his performance to that. Everything from his posture — being a little weaker, a little more at the edge of his seat, rather than back in comfort like Ed sits — everything was thought about, trying to show in the subtlest of details the evolution of their character. I couldn’t be more grateful to both actors.
Peter Mullan did such a fantastic job, and I think it’s interesting that both with him and with Peter Abernathy, you guys are portraying glitching less like robot malfunctions and more like familiar human disorders — Abernathy was like he had dementia, and Delos is like a severe speech impediment …
I spoke to Peter Mullan before shooting, and he’s such a delight about how to keep his character human and relatable. It’s like he has this nervous tic. His body is doing these tiny revolts. They’re mechanical but read as psychological, something that seems like a neurological condition. He’s a character so used to being in control of everyone not used to being in control of his own body. It really changes your feelings of allegiance to him because you see him brought down to this state that I think we all fear, losing agency and autonomy of our bodies. It’s what the hosts had to reckon with all first season. He’s one of the villains, but you can’t help but pity him.
And connecting the loop aspect, you have William’s question to Delos, “If you can’t tell does it matter?” which is what Angela asked him in season 1. That’s basically the central question of the whole show, right?
Yes, right. It absolutely is. And to have it mimicked back to them. We’re asking questions about who are we, what qualities define us, are duplicable — even with the greatest of technologies — or is there something essential to us that we cannot replicate? It’s something we’re grappling with, this question, along with the nature of good and evil. For me, this episode was really fun because it took characters who were villains throughout all of season 1, and you don’t forgive them necessarily, but you can still empathize with them.
Well, humans are empathy machines — as you once told me before season 1 began, not that you can tell by looking at Twitter. At first, I was wondering why they would burn the room rather than just switch him off and dump the body. Then in the end, it seemed clear you were going for a metaphor of him being in hell. But if was wondering if you came up with a technical explanation for why they had to refurbish that room with the same stuff 150 times?
Part of it is it’s just visually cool. You’re starting with him lighting a cigarette and the Rolling Stones song “Play With Fire.” He talks about devils and angels. I wanted to ask: Can you have sympathy for the devil? You see two elemental forces in this episode. You also see rain in Westworld for the first time with the battle with the Man in Black, a baptism in that fight scene. And then you see fire. Both can represent the cleansing away of the past, and the question is whether the past can really ever be washed away, or does it always repeat one way or another.
One last thing: I think the railway tie scene might disturb a few viewers. It seems like you’re doing a macabre revenge twist on Chinese railway worker exploitation. What can you tell us about why you included that?
Part of the show is playing with the tropes of Westerns. The full story of all the different people who went into building the West … [the park] is a picture of a picture of a picture that’s as much about how we reinvent history to suit the people telling those histories as much as history itself. For me, I’ve always been fascinated by tales of the Chinese railroad and the workers and the conditions of the workers who built the railroad. America is built on the labors of the oppressed. The story in the first season, we had these hosts, and we focused on the female characters, you put them through hell, again and again; at what point do they revolt? Much the same way, you see these hosts forced to play this role of Chinese railway workers, and they decided to rebel against the people forcing them to work to the bone.
For more, see our deep-dive recap of “The Riddle of the Sphinx.”