As beautiful and puzzling as the sphinx itself, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is a divisive episode that may split the audience, but will leave people talking about it. Featuring the return of a fan-favorite character while omitting a few mainstays, some threads are connected while the whole cloth is pulled in different directions. SPOILERS follow, so tread no further if you are not yet prepared. If you need a refresher on what happened last week, point your browser here.
“If you aim to cheat the Devil, you owe him an offering.”
The Rolling Stones song “Play with Fire” opens the episode, but instead we’re asked if we can find sympathy for the devil as we pan around (and around) a stylish, circular little living space that turns out to be the apartment/cell of James Delos (magnificently played by Peter Mullan). Delos finds out that he has died, and his consciousness is now in a host (“If you can’t tell, does it matter?”). It turns out the reason William was able to convince Delos to back Westworld financially was so that he could try to achieve immortality. Delos wanted to be able to “live on” as a host. There’s a problem, though. His mind, unable to accept reality, can’t effectively bond with his new body, and quickly deteriorates. Each new version of the host is destroyed (along, for some reason, with everything else in the apartment). After years and 149 attempts, William tells Delos that the process won’t work (never mind that the monitoring tech later says Delos was stable until William walked in) and that he thinks it’s meant to be. Man, or at least some men, aren’t meant to live forever. He tells Delos that his wife, son, and daughter are all dead, then leaves him to rot in his glass cell.
The series of scenes focused on Delos are ingeniously layered to create for us a subconscious sense of inescapable, cyclic time that Delos feels. From the round room to the repeating conversations, to the swirl of coffee, director Lisa Joy shows us that Delos achieves a form of immortality, but the Devil is not cheated so easily, and his Hell seems fitting retribution for the suffering of the hosts.
“Is this now?”
Bernard, whose failing mind has left him lost in his own series of loops, is reunited with season one favorite Elsie (Shannon Woodward), his former coworker in Behavior. Elsie is not pleased to see him, since the last time they met, Bernard (under Ford’s orders) was choking her out in the abandoned theater. It seems he left her chained in a cave to prevent her from ruining Ford’s plans. He fills her in on what’s been happening and in turn, she helps him understand what’s happening to him. Due to the damage to his system, Bernard has a faulty sense of time. At any given moment, he doesn’t know if what he’s “experiencing” is happening now, or if he’s stuck in a memory of it.
The pair step into Hell as they enter the chamber where William abandoned Delos. Delos, now deranged, attacks Elsie, but Bernard saves her. Delos gives a maniacal speech about the nature of his torment before Elsie incinerates him. Bernard flashes to a memory of Ford sending him to retrieve another control unit (the digital “brain” on which a human’s mind is stored), leading to Bernard slaying several humans and drone hosts. He doesn’t remember who was imprinted on the unit, but signs seem to indicate it was Ford himself.
“Time is coming.”
Grace, the mysterious guest from the Raj is driven by the Ghost Nation to a camp where Stubbs tells her rescue is coming to get them out of the park, but she tells him she’s not interested in leaving. The hostages are taken in front of “the first of us” (Akecheta, who was the man pitching Westworld to Logan in “Reunion”), presumably to be killed. Grace escapes and Akecheta tells Stubbs “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” then…lets him go.
“You haven’t known a true thing in all your life.”
William and Lawrence find their way back to Las Mudas (home of Lawrence’s wife and daughter). They are taken captive, along with the rest of the citizens, by Craddock and what remains of his Confederados. The sight of Craddock menacing Lawrence’s family brings William back to memories of his own, he remembers his wife’s suicide (which his daughter says was his fault). In a spectacular, rain-soaked gunfight, William kills the Confederados, risking his own life to save Lawrence’s family. But is that enough to redeem him? Not according to Ford, speaking once again through Lawrence’s daughter. William tells Ford he wasn’t trying to redeem himself, just playing Ford’s game. They ride off towards Glory, and run into Grace, who with a smirk greets William, “Hi, Dad.”
Wrapping It Up
Delving into Delos’s “living” hell made for maybe the best single installment of Westworld, but there’s only so much that can be shown in a episode (even if it clocks in at over an hour), and it shows at times. Previous episodes have done a better job of incorporating all the main characters so the audience doesn’t lose sight of what all is happening. The scenes with Elsie and Bernard are muddled and the dialogue seems too overtly expository, a sign that the writers may be stretching too far in an attempt mystify viewers. We, like Bernard, have limits to how many plotlines and timelines we can keep in mind at once. Or maybe I’ve just reached a “cognitive plateau”.