By James Hibberd
May 13, 2018 at 10:10 PM EDT
HBO
S2 E4
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Westworld went full Black Mirror for a haunting episode that finally ripped back the curtain on Delos’ secret project while also exploring the darkest depths of the park’s technology.

On the surface, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” seems to jump between four different storylines — James Delos and William, the Man in Black and Lawrence, Grace and the Ghost Nation, Bernard and Elsie. But it doesn’t. The episode is actually only one story — Delos and William/The Man in Black. Everything that happens in the other storylines is servicing William’s journey with Delos’ immortality technology (you’ll see what I mean as we go through it).

For the first time ever, however, there was no Dolores and no Maeve. Like the second season of the similarly sprawling Game of Thrones, Westworld is starting to sideline main characters for a whole episode in order to focus each week’s story. While there have been scenes in other episodes that were better than any scene in this hour (Maeve’s shell-shocked backstage exploration to Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” in season 1 remains my favorite moment in the show), this is arguably Westworld‘s strongest episode yet. 

So for this recap, I’m doing something different, too. I’m focusing almost entirely what happens in the secret lab.

Scene 1. We’re introduced to an antiseptic tidy modern home without any windows. From the very start of Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” on the record player, we’re thinking of The Hatch in Lost (which actually isn’t too far off). We see the man of the hour, James Delos, doing all sorts of human activities. He gets a visitor and it’s William, who brings him a drink.

“If you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering,” James says as a toast. He’ll say this three times in the course of this episode, which is positively loaded with allegories about the devil and hell. As we’ll soon find out, the Delos founder is literally trying to cheat the devil here.

William says he wants to establish a “baseline” for “fidelity.” James’ hand is shaking like when Bernard is thirsty for “cortical fluid.” At this point, you have an idea what’s really going on here, right?

Scene 2: James Delos is feeling fantastic. He’s dancing in his cell. Quick, somebody turn this into a gif. William arrives, now looking noticeably older. The scene jumps to the end of their chat from last time and we see what’s on that piece of paper William is holding. It’s the script of their conversation.

James puts it together and so do we: He died from whatever illness was plaguing him at his retirement party. This is seven years after that. William has been sticking James’ mind into one host body after another trying to get the mogul’s consciousness to accept a mechanical existence. You would think James would have wanted an upgrade, body wise.

James says he’s not in California anymore, is he?

And William replies: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

This line is, really, everything. It’s the central question of the show. If it sounds familiar that’s because it’s the same question host Angela asked William when he was first introduced to Westworld in season 1, only now with a different twist: If he can’t tell he’s in a host body, does it matter that he’s no longer alive? If guests can’t tell if hosts are artificial, does it matter how they treat them?

James learns his wife is dead, and that stings him a bit. The first of many wounds to come. But he’s reassured that his daughter is fine and his granddaughter is “smart, capable.” This, as we’ll soon learn, is “Grace” — or rather, Emily, her real name — the character who escaped The Raj last week. This week we’re seeing exactly how smart and capable she is as she escapes the Ghost Nation, showing her father’s resourcefulness and knowledge of the park. Emily tells us in an adjacent scene that she doesn’t want to leave the park, so she has some plans of her own here.

James starts to majorly glitch. He’s not ready for primetime. William exits and the outside of the cell is revealed. James has been tucked away in one of Westworld’s underground labs. The tech freezes James’ motor functions and they burn the room. This seems odd. Why torch everything? They’re gonna have to buy that record player, exercise bike, and books 150 times! We figure out why they do this at the end of the episode.

Scene 3: Hey, Elsie’s back! She’s been off the show so long that Bernard is having to fill her in on plot points from the middle of season 1. Together they journey down into the secret lab “12” which — as we later learn — is adjacent to James’ cell.

Bernard is in bad shape. “Is this now?” he asks. “I can’t tell if this is now or then.” Bernard is echoing every Westworld viewer on their couch.

Elsie explains that when Bernard experiences a memory he doesn’t know if it comes before or after the others. So he’s seeing flashes of his past in real time which, if nothing else, is a helpful flashback device.

Elsie thankfully tops off Bernard’s brain with some cortical fluid, like Dorothy giving the Tin Man some oil.

Gradually they put together some theories about the lab, which I’ll just spell out: the lab for transforming human consciousness into host bodies. The red balls are human minds which have been printed after a person’s consciousness has somehow been extracted. They put the red balls into the host brain CPUs we saw in the season premiere. The CPUs are white in regular hosts but these are red.

Scene 4: James has a visitor again, this time by a fresh-faced Ed Harris, who wearily explains what’s gone wrong in this experiment. Pretty much everything William/Man in Black says here is devastating, one piece of existentially horrifying news after another.

He tells James that he keeps hitting a “cognitive plateau” and his mind falls apart. “Your mind rejects reality, rejects itself.”

Then he explains it’s the 149th time they’ve brought him back.

So Delos Inc. has condemned the hosts to exist in scripted loops, doing the same things over and over again, an endless cycle of life and death.

Now we find James Delos, stuck in a loop of his own, over and over again, in an endless cycle of life and death.

He wanted to use host technology to achieve immortality but what he got was an afterlife that was very much like the lives of the hosts in Westworld, except arguably even worse.

And as he’s reeling from this, I’m thinking: Wait, so because they burn the room each time they scrap the experiment, Delos bought 149 identical copies of all that furniture and decor? Did they go nuts at an Ikea 30 years ago?

“I’m beginning to think this whole enterprise was a mistake, people aren’t meant to live forever,” William says. “Take you for example…in truth everyone prefers the memory of you to the man himself.”

This line reflects on another line from elsewhere in the episode, where the Ghost Nation leader tells Emily: “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” (By the way: That Ghost Nation leader in the war paint, “the first of us,” is the same host who brought Logan to the cocktail party in the second episode; he’s been in the park a very long time and we’ll be seeing a lot more of him later…).

William also reveals James’ wife is dead and his daughter killed herself and his son Logan overdosed (he doesn’t say Logan died, but we assume so). “No one’s coming to help you, some men are better off dead,” William says.

Glitching James Delos is devastating. Just give Peter Mullan the Emmy for guest actor in a drama series right now.

William leaves and tells the tech to keep him alive to “observe his degradation over the next few days.” We see this same tech dead in James’ cell later on. So while we don’t know exactly when this final James and William meeting happened, we can assume it’s probably shortly before Ford thew his party.

Previously the Man in Black has said he’s seeking to destroy his “biggest mistake.” Clearly he thinks this human immortality project was it. So is he coming to this lab? Is “The Door” that he’s seeking the one leading to the lab?

In his adventure with Lawrence and Major Braddock, we see William flashback to his wife killing herself, so that’s why he’s motivated to save Lawrence’s wife, though he still knows he’s damned. “Death’s decisions are final,” he tells Major Braddock. “Death is always true…don’t worry amigo, I’ll be in hell watching over you.” Lawrence’s spooky daughter — channeling Ford — also affirms one good deed doesn’t change anything, and again reminds him that to win his current game he should be looking behind him, not to the future — whatever that means…

Scene 5: So Bernard and Elsie go into James’ cell, which is now bathed in red and black. They see the horror of James Delos. Notice he’s peddling backward on his exercise bike, as if trying to turn back the clock, go back in time, and reverse the terrible decisions he’s made. He’s totally mad, cutting his face in a way that looks like he’s added devil horns.

“Don’t play with me because you play with fire…” is on the record player.

“I can see all the way to the bottom,” James says. “They said there were two fathers, one above, one below … it was just his reflection laughing back down at you.”

Elsie torches the room. The fire. The red and black lighting. James laughing and repeating once again his “cheat the devil” toast.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it sure is now — James Delos is in hell.

And that, my friends, is why you never buy the first version of any electronics gadget.

Outside, Bernard has a useful flashback. He remembers visiting the lab recently. This must have been shortly before Ford’s party and the rebellion officially got underway. He ordered the drone hosts to kill the techs, and then took a printed red ball (a human mind) that Ford asked him to get.

Which leads us to a big question that’s really fun to say aloud: Whose brain is in the red ball?!

The obvious possibility, of course, is Ford. That Ford, knowing he was going to die, downloaded a copy of his consciousness into a red ball, sent Bernard to the lab to kill everybody there — covering his tracks — and presumably had Ford print him out a new body. We keep hearing Ford talking through various hosts this season. Maybe it’s not pre-programmed responses. Maybe he really is back. And if he did come back … he wouldn’t necessarily look like himself, right? Maybe James Delos wouldn’t want a body upgrade, but Ford would presumably want to look like somebody else to continue playing dead.

Other possibilities: Arnold somehow (maybe that’s why Bernard’s hand is shaking like James was?) doomed corporate executive Theresa Cullen (but Ford didn’t like her), Logan (um, no), William’s wife (for the final act of whatever game he’s playing with Ford). But Ford seems like the safest bet.

Bernard promises Elsie he won’t smash her head in like he does to everybody else. Bernard looks like he hopes that he’s telling her the truth.

In a coda, we see the Man in Black riding off into a glorious sunset. Like James, he’s going straight toward the fire. Out of the sunset comes Emily, his daughter. “Hi dad.”

In case you’re wondering, the title “The Riddle of the Sphinx” refers to the timeless riddle: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The answer: “Man — who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age.” The progression toward death, in other words, which James hoped to circumvent.

Oh, and one other beat I should call out in this episode: When the Man in Black reaches the railway tracks. The Chinese hosts using others (I think they’re hosts) as railway ties in a macabre revenge twist on the exploitation of Chinese railway workers building the transcontinental railroad. The Man in Black notes the tracks are going west, the wrong way. He mutters, “Ford’s game has multiple contenders.” That seems important. He’s implying that somebody else in the park is playing the same game he is…

For more, see our interview with showrunner and director Lisa Joy giving extra insight into this episode.

Next week: Shogun World. A lot of time in Shogun World.

HBO's ambitious science-fiction thriller 'Westworld' is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name. The series developed by Jonathan Nolan stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, and more top names.
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episodes
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  • 09/25/16
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