WESTWORLD: SEASON 2, EPISODE 4: THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX
You aim to cheat the devil, you owe him at least an offering. – James Delos
I’m beginning to think that this whole enterprise was a mistake. People aren’t meant to live forever. – William
Coming off its worst episode of the young season, Westworld delivered its best of 2018 on Sunday. Despite still being at times confusing, there was a lot happening, but it was done to bring various threads together. What didn’t make sense to be included last week made far more sense by the time the credits rolled two nights ago.
The litmus test for Westworld should never be based on whether or not you understood everything that happened. If it is, stop watching this show. And, if you think you comprehend it all, you either don’t, you work on the show, or you’re a sociopath and need mental help. This is a series that exists to twist the twists and to make even the most absurd of pretzels appear unrecognizable. That said, the key to making it all work is to allow the audience to stay two steps behind, rather than holding them in the wrong county…
…or in a fake “house” to try and study them, only to incinerate them and start over once the stability fails.
What we learned on Sunday is at least one of the background purposes for the Westworld park “host” concept, namely, to find a path to immortality for James Delos. Peter Mullan was superb throughout the episode, as he had to play various stages of his own Groundhog Day sequel, changing a few small things to illustrate versions of Jim. If you noticed, his hands shook while trying to pour cream into his morning coffee in the first scene, the next time he was more patient and it didn’t spill, and the third was much more successful.
The point here is that as William continued to modify Delos’ consciousness and find a way for it to thrive in a host body, which was created to look identical to the original. They would get closer, but year after year, they simply couldn’t crack the code to a sufficient degree outside of short term growth. As more time passed, William’s disillusionment, his disappointment, and his pessimistic view of the world made the efforts increasingly untenable. Jim’s daughter went from alive to dead, his wife as well, and all the while, he remained inside Facility 12.
Not in Carlsbad, California.
Westworld had tangible effects and without question was also a cash grab and a selfish, dangerous idea, but it was also a trial balloon of sorts to see if man could indeed become deity. The answer to that question will always be no, EXCEPT in a created universe where the normal population was originally created and maintained by a human. It’s a way to play god and to use that perceived power to get rich and also to observe the guests and take that gained information, using it further to…you guessed it, get more power and make more money. There may be and assuredly are altruistic purposes as well, but this isn’t a show that generally presents an optimistic view of society.
Largely, Westworld is about a mix of the dawn of artificial consciousness juxtaposed with the eternally relevant truths of original sin. Also, it concerns itself with the penalty of sin. The park eliminated penalties as part of the fantasy, but as always, the penalty for sin is death or sacrifice. Again, it’s entertaining, but it’s not a crowd pleaser. This ain’t a Pixar movie folks.
Bernard finds Elsie Hughes shackled inside the cave in a mysterious area of the park, reminding us Shannon Woodward is still an actress on Westworld. If that sounds snarky, it’s unintentional. She’s very good and the character is perfect for the unfeeling cynicism that pervades every corner of the series. I’m glad to have her back, even if I could do without all the profanity.
Elsie is skeptical of Bernard and doesn’t find out until about the midway point that Ford is dead. She’s basically “awoken” to a new park, and for all intents and purposes, a new world. You can’t blame her for not trusting the dude that assaulted her and put her in that cave. It’s a lucky break for him that he’s useful and needed, because it’s highly possible she’d have put a bullet in his brain within seconds of her own freedom without what’s in his head.
Bernard’s visions give us a glimpse into the past or some alternate version of it, but Lowe himself can’t determine whether or not what he’s seeing is indeed a flashback or part of the present. The sequence where he tries to convince Elsie not to blow open that door, where they then discover what’s left of Jim Delos, is a piece of narrative foreshadowing that you should expect to see happen again. It’s likely to be frustrating, because now the writers can use Bernard as a character that may or MAY NOT actually be in any scene. It could become supremely obnoxious, however, if it’s employed properly, it could lead to one or two big reveals at crucial moments near the end of episodes.
With all the important things that happened during this 75 minutes, it was actually simpler than usual. Major Craddock turned out to be what we expected, which was in fact not a good guy. He basically went after Lawrence’s village as if the inhabitants were defenseless deer in the woods. There was no morality to be found anywhere, and he chose to play with fire.
Speaking of which, Jim Delos listened to that Rolling Stones vinyl off the top of the episode. “Play With Fire” is a tune that originally existed as a B-side and was later included on Out of Their Heads in the United States. It’s about a guy’s relationship with a high maintenance, societally elite woman. But, rather than going deeper into that side of it, even though we could, let’s talk about the SECOND time we hear that song.
When we discover that Jim Delos’ house was inside the secret laboratory in the cave, we see his instability has led him to kill and also to injure himself with a shard of glass. But, when we hear “Play With Fire,” it keeps looping over and over again. Here we have a nod to the player piano, which repeats everything using very simple technology. Considering the level of advancement in Westworld (and in Westworld), the basic nature of the record player is a stark contrast, done to show the past to the present, but also to me to illustrate how Delos was trapped between the traditions that he grew up with and the changes around him.
Also, it might be an indicator of how much time has passed in the world and how it appears to Jim as if it’s one day to the next, when in fact it’s one decade to the next in some cases.
How sad it must have been for Delos when the Man in Black version of William walked into that room and he realized Jimmi Simpson had become Ed Harris. This was a lengthy process, and it always ended the same. Remember, trial number 149 began to fall apart after around 35 days, and again, Jim reached “cognitive plateau.” It’s when William determined man was meant for mortality, and there was no cheating the devil. The offering for sin is unchanging and immovable.
Death is undefeated…well, with one exception, dependent upon your beliefs. The undercurrent of “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is that cheating death doesn’t work, no matter how hard you try. Look back to multiple scenarios within the episode. Craddock didn’t “recognize death sittin’ in front of him” in the form of the Man in Black, but continually talked about it as if he controlled the survival of Lawrence’s village with his nitroglycerin games, not to mention the few remaining Confederados, and himself. James Delos gave away what little was left of his life to try and obtain immortality. Unfortunately for him, this was no “lucid dream” and Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” wasn’t playing on empty New York City streets.
Bernard’s final vision is the one that might be a game changer. He sees himself instructing the drones to massacre all the lab technicians and scientists in Facility 12, then snapping their own necks. This comes directly after they retrieved a human-host control unit, although as yet we don’t know who it belongs to. That mystery becomes of the utmost import, and in that moment, we also realize that immediately following a promise to Elsie that he won’t harbor any secrets, he knows he can’t tell her about this, because he’s just now beginning to earn her trust back in the wake of the revelation he was under Ford’s control before the old man’s death.
The Raj-themed narrative made little sense last week, but we knew Grace was important. I would suggest to you the name “Grace,” before we find out she’s William’s daughter, Emily, is also something to keep in mind as we continue to learn about her character and her relationship with her father. The initial concept of grace, or unmerited forgiveness gifted by God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, doesn’t seem to apply yet, but it could be the one opening where the Man in Black can begin to recover pieces of his own humanity. The past between these two will likely be explored in future episodes, although it appears we’re headed to a Samurai land next week.
It’s not coincidental to me that Grace arrives by herself, without an army and indeed as a ray of beauty shining through a setting sun amidst a broken shell of a man-made and man-inhabited world. The sunrise and sunset reflecting life and death, knowing it will rise the next day in a state of worldly rebirth. She arrives as the Man in Black’s…for lack of a better word, light. She’s not perfect and she’s by no means Messianic, but she could be the positive trigger that leads the Man in Black back to his William roots, rather than further down the Jesse James tracks.
William isn’t pure evil, which we’ve known for quite some time. He’s not a good guy, at least not yet, though that could change. He’s most accurately described as CORRUPTED, which reflects what happens to the hosts after time, what happened to Delos himself when his instabilities cropped up, and what happens to those inside the park that use the fantasy as a way to enter their own personal dark side. He’s in the middle of a game that he seems to comprehend better than any of us, but he also recognizes and accepts his own flaws of character. Lawrence’s daughter breaks out of her loop to tell him one good deed doesn’t redeem him, and he tells her he never expected it to do so. She cryptically responds that looking forward is looking in the wrong direction. When we look to our past, we see our blemishes and we realize where we harmed others or made the wrong decisions.
Is this a veiled way to lead to a story of confession or repentance? It could be, but what I initially took from it was that William didn’t attempt to do the right thing – even if it meant Craddock’s hilarious exploding death – for any other reason than because he felt it was the course he should take. So, perhaps there IS redemption in that deed, at least outside the confines of the game. We learned so much more about William during this episode, and he’s always going to be the most interesting character in the series.
Back to grace (and Grace), it’s not achievable through works, at least in Christianity. It’s unmerited and gifted, can’t be attained through a conscious “Yea” or “Nay” list, and it’s unconditional and eternal. William’s daughter rides up and says, “Hi dad.” Is there forgiveness in that line? We don’t know yet, but what we’ve seen from the Man in Black is almost never laudable. But, there’s good to be found within him, even if its been buried under a huge pile of bleakness and negativity.
This episode renewed my faith in the show. Last week’s hour concerned me and was filled with logical fallacies. It makes me much more interested in the rest of this season and brought some answers to motivations, even if much will always be left unexplained. Just as we’re never going to understand all the details and intricacies of any theology, because the essence of God is that only he would be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, Westworld is always going to keep a few cards inside its sleeve.
I don’t know that we needed 75 minutes this week, but that’s going to happen from time to time and at least this one didn’t feel bloated. The time was used wisely and consistently. We didn’t even talk about Akecheta and his “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” I could write for weeks on that sentence, which was a doozy to say the least. It was a big night for HBO with the episode and the season finales of both Silicon Valley and the excellent Barry, which I reviewed prior to the premiere.
There’s always going to be a lot to get into with Westworld. Some of what I’ve said is either untrue or may be entirely off base, but that’s the fun of it. My approach to the show might be different than yours, which means we can learn from each other’s impressions. Nothing is cut and dry inside the Jonathan Nolan-Lisa Joy universe, and if it were, the show wouldn’t be worth watching. Joy did a great job in her directorial debut last night, and Nolan and Gina Atwater wrote a heck of an episode. I dug this one a lot.
One final thought. The “Play With Fire” we hear in Delos’ final moments as Elsie puts him out of his misery keeps repeating after, “Don’t play with…” and never gets to fire. Although she uses flames the same way William does, I feel it could have been more effective if the needle skipped back following “Don’t play” and instead left open the idea that one shouldn’t try to play God. Considering that’s the lesson we’re taught over and over again in Westworld, that would have been a nice touch.
I’m @JMartOutkick. I also can’t pour cream that well.