This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 4
“You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.” These are the words uttered by a host to human prey in just one of the plethora of timelines created by tonight’s episode. In fact, it is easy to dismiss much of what occurs to Grace (the Raj’s runaway guest) when she runs into the Ghost Tribe during such an otherwise overstuffed hour-plus of intrigue. But these subtitled words nonetheless cut to the heart of tonight’s Westworld, which also happens to be one of the finest episodes in the series’ entire run.
Directed by first-time helmer Lisa Joy, the co-creator and showrunner of our synthetic dreams, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is an enigmatic and meditative entry that once again subverts expectations by sidestepping last week’s cliffhanger involving samurai in favor for a more patient and gingerly paced canter. By primarily zeroing on William and Bernard, the hour also raises some tantalizing and frankly terrifying questions about the applications of artificial intelligence… as well as the eternal desire by most men to, when all is said and done, cheat the devil.
Such is the wrap-around narrative of William through the years and his father-in-law James Delos. Big Jim might be the best new character on television this year, played by a wonderfully spittle-flying and bombastic Peter Mullan. All thick Scottish brogue and preening entitlement, he cuts the very figure of a vain CEO. So watching him slowly, unknowingly, cede power year by year and decade by decade to his son-in-law for a crown he really didn’t understand was threatened is the stuff of WASPy nightmares.
This is established early in an opening that at first appears to be William’s flashback, as Jimmi Simpson makes yet another welcome return to season 2 while checking in on Jim’s acclimation to their new program. We received a hint back in this year’s second episode that Jim and William were working on something that might prolong his life despite having an ominous cough at a party—which in retrospect might even suggest that this was the ultimate power move that led Jimbo to pick William over Logan as his true successor. According to William, the first scene of the episode is the result of the Delos scientists’ need to create a baseline for down the road—to ensure that the robotic James Delos matches the real one who is on his way off of this mortal coil.
Of course in hindsight any suspicion that they were not in California is confirmed when we later see William hand “Dad” a letter. The text reveals the conversation we are watching is, in fact, one that already occurred years and years ago. In all of these scenes, the real James Delos has been dead for ages. In essence, William is conversing with a ghost.
This creates a fascinating can of worms, both on the philosophical and narrative spectrum. In the former’s case, James’ attempt to cheat the devil seems flawed from the get-go. Even if Delos and William succeeded and essentially cloned a digital copy of James Delos’ persona onto a robotic replica of his body, it’s still not technically him. An exact copy is still that; a copy. Maybe for everyone else, having Big Jim still around to sail his boat and fuck his wife is happy news, but the Jim who likely invested a fortune into this program will still be gone. Dead and buried.
It is the existential fear all men and women must grapple with: where do I go when I die? For James Delos, or presumably any “rich asshole” who would pay to live forever down the road, that answer still lies in the great undiscovered country from whose shores no traveler returns. Leaving behind a synthetic host is not all that different than leaving behind a children or a family to remember you. And this is the true tragedy of synthetic James’.
At least until William walks into the room, every James we glimpse seems to be a pretty perfect recreation of the original. He has the same taste for mid-20th century rock music; the same awesome dance moves that are derived from the confidence of an old man whom everyone’s always been too scared to laugh at; and he still has urges for flesh and drink. He is James Delos reincarnated, if not the original. But whether on the first trial or the 149th, he always breaks down. And it always occurs when the baseline test comes—when he meets the face of someone who remembers him.
More than even the second episode, tonight’s hour was a brilliant tour de force for Simpson and Ed Harris. In the first two encounters with the tyrannical patriarch, there are varying degrees of sympathy and curiosity. In the first scene, Simpson is still the deferential and ultimately obedient son-in-law and employee. He’s also intrigued by just how successful their operation has become.
Yet during the second baseline test, there is more a sense of authority to him. Just around the eyes, we can see the shadow of Ed Harris’ cynical malcontent burrow in. He’s now in charge. Even so, there is a genuine sympathy for the old-timer, nuts and bolts though he may be. This James, which apparently lasted seven days, is also the first one where William must tell him that his wife is dead. He might be, as we later have confirmed, a philandering bastard, but learning his wife died years ago, and delivering that news, is like warning a phantom that it too is about to be haunted. Repatedly.
And the transition to Harris finally makes the idea that the two actors are the same man truly click. While sharing almost no physical similarities—other than the wry choice to give them each permanent five o’clock shadow in this episode—their kinship is unmistakable. More than any previous hour, Simpson’s lingering humanity clings to Harris’ craggy face, even though what is left is no longer the boy or even dutiful son… it’s a patriarch, every bit as bitter and gnarled as Big Jim.
Thirty years after the death of his father-in-law, he still has to go to him and recount, close to 150 times, the sad news that his wife is dead. His son is dead—Logan unsurprisingly died in an overdose—and so is Juliet, James’ daughter and William’s wife. William doesn’t explain why Juliet killed herself, and he doesn’t have to: we gathered in season 1 he liked Juliet but loved Dolores. In episode two of this year, he had convinced himself Dolores is merely an appliance with a shiny, reflective surface. But he still couldn’t quit obsessing over her and being around her. His wife knew. She probably always did.
As Old Man William concedes, “It took me a long time to learn this, but some men are better off dead.” It’s a bitter dig at the old king he once groveled before. Yet now he gleefully taunts him. They’ve spent so long trying to recreate the spirit of James Delos that anyone who would care has become a ghost herself. It cuts to the emptiness of trying to cheat the devil if there is no one left to cheat it for. Any friends and all close family in James’ life are gone. The only living memory of him is in William, who definitely never liked the sonofabitch.
Further William seems to be sabotaging this project. After he leaves James, making sure he’d fidget and spiral out of control, one of the Delos subordinates acts surprised: Big Jim was stable until about 30 seconds ago. On this 35th day of life for Robo-James, William didn’t come to test the baseline; he came to break the machine before it could acclimate.
I think William figured out the secret: James’ “mind” inside this host only rejects reality when he is faced with it. As William derisively says about Logan, “He couldn’t face reality either.” It is only upon hearing his wife is dead or, later, that his son and daughter are also dead that James begins malfunctioning. “In truth, everyone prefers the memory of you to the man himself.”
That clearly holds true for William, who has worn the crown for so long he’d of course be damned if he’d relinquish it to an appliance. Also the only person he might’ve still been doing it for—the wife he was betraying in his soul and mind every time he went to Westworld—is gone. He doesn’t want Jim to work even if Delos could eventually master the formula. At a certain point, immortality is mute if your memory has died. That is the tragedy of James Delos even before the Devil finally gets his due, and ensures he burns after death, even if there is no afterlife.
Nevertheless, this raises some interesting questions about the “weapon.” I personally have long thought the “weapon” Dolores covets and William hopes to destroy was some type of database or actual arsenal of robotic replicas of powerful guests. Leaders, chief executives, politicians, and the like. But if they couldn’t succeed at making a replica of James Delos, what are the odds they’ve done it for others?
Well… the answer might lie in one of the other major story threads of the night. For this is the episode where we finally learn what happened to Elsie. At last. After vanishing midseason last year from a mysterious attacker we later learn was Bernard, we haven’t seen even a single flashback with her. But after Bernard continues breaking down for inexplicable reasons, Clementine takes Bernard to where he must’ve previously deposited Elsie: a cave off the books.
This revelation is intriguing, given that Clementine is almost certainly doing the bidding of dead Robert Ford. When the season 1 finale originally aired, I like many assumed the army of hosts who had been left abandoned under the park, and whom Ford had “turned on” before his death, were at least some degree cognizant and self-aware. However, tonight’s episode more than any other suggests that we’re all still playing Robert Ford’s game. In addition to all those hosts who will alternate between giving the Man in Black hints about a new game, or commit suicide to keep it pure, we have Clementine, an ostensible soldier in Dolores’ army, taking a malfunctioning Bernard to Elsie… at a location only a few like Ford knew about (as it is where he programmed Bernard to take Elsie in season 1).
So just as Ford’s game is literally boxing William’s journey through Westworld onto a path that is more rails-shooter than “open breath” Zelda gameplay, even the choices made by Dolores’ subordinates is preordained by another specter in the software. There is something deflating about this. Within this context, it is an open question how much of these events are “real,” and how much of this is a script. Even if Dolores is self-aware, is she but a player in an elaborate game? A new guest, whose moves can be altered by Clementine or a little girl who takes on the cadence of Anthony Hopkins’ voice?
It somehow makes the revolution feel as phony as the narratives constructed for rich tourists last season. And it also leaves us to ponder whether Elsie can really trust Bernard. To be sure, we are glad to have Shannon Woodward back in the cast and playing so well off Jeffrey Wright. As perhaps the only Delos employee besides Simon Quartermane who isn’t an introvert—and unlike Simon, Elsie is likable—she was a good contrast on Wright’s stoic pity-party that always occurred in the corner. And it occurs again tonight.
Strangely, it is the realization she’s been catfished into thinking Bernard was real that makes her more comfortable around him. As she claims, “I’ve always trusted code more than people” and that is apparent. When she was certain her old friend attacked her and chained her up, she could have let him die in his fit of seeming seizures. But learning that he is a robot is quixotically comforting once she’s past the initial “but you cycled out!” stage of surprise.
And going inside the carnage that is the aborted James Delos room, her regained sympathy for Bernard is rewarded. She is able to finally explain to us that a type of fluid has been drained inside his body due to the gunshot he endured in season 1 (a self-inflicted wound by Ford’s command if you don’t recall). And by refilling the material, she is able to return Bernard to the reasonably self-assured but nebbish sad sack we know and love. And yet, there is more damage to his autonomy than just a loss of fluid.
Understandably given that he was patched on the fly by Felix and Maeve, Bernard has still major structural damage that is making it impossible for him to distinguish between “memories” and the present. This includes the possibility that Bernard has wandered back to this James Delos facility again after the events with Elsie but before the present-most timeline in which he’s riding around with Karl Strand. In essence, Bernard might be in three timelines now in season 2.
But why would he come back without Elsie? It obviously has something to do with the importance of the Delos program, even if Delos himself never worked properly. This is confirmed in a horrific sequence during which Elsie and Bernard set him on fire. Yet it apparently also has something to do with what Ford wants to hide. After all, Bernard only took direct command from Robert Ford, and one of those commands included the order to kill all of the scientists in this room and to remove the data of another guest or person whom the Delos company was trying to recreate an exact synthetic copy of.
I have a hunch that even if James Delos never worked properly, this technology is directly tied to the weapon Dolores and William seek, as well as the data-mining intel that is so crucial to Charlotte Hale. There is one person whose data is so important to kill over. To kill their own employees over. Now whether the larger Delos company and Charlotte is aware of who that is, Ford obviously is, as is William, as he had to sign off sinking so much money into this off-the-books operation.
It’d be almost trite if it were something like a replica of a POTUS who could order the nuke strikes Dolores might enjoy. But if I’m being honest, I have no clue who else it could be of. But perhaps the trick is not making an exact replica, but putting artificial intelligence into a system—make it a part of the internet or an intranet, just as some version of Robert Ford seems to be bouncing around from host to host, much to William’s chagrin. This person, or entity, logging onto the internet and using it to turn our digital systems against us might be the weapon. Maybe it’s even a replica of Robert Ford’s own true persona copied like Delos’?
I’ll leave you to ponder, but whatever it is, Elsie is in trouble. There is grim foreshadowing to her having Bernard swear he won’t hurt her, even as he becomes aware in the same moment that he slaughtered all these scientists. He was following Ford’s orders, but since so is Clementine and, later in the episode, Lawrence’s family, that is cold comfort. Ford seems to be able to reclaim bodies now many days after losing his own.
It also occurs in the rest of William’s storyline. While we’ve mostly been marveling at his past, it is his strange shifts in the future that are the real surprises. Returning to Lawrence’s hometown, we get a better glimpse at why Dolores might have wanted all the Confederados dead, as they terrorize the locals, needlessly murder a bartender, and threaten to rape Lawrence’s wife. Maybe Dolores had a point about them not all deserving to make it?
However, this leads to an interesting change in William’s persona. For so long, he has been disinterested in these robots, viewing them as disposable playthings for his pleasure instead of people. Aye, it was in this very town where he sadistically and remorselessly slaughtered Lawrence’s wife after a dance and threatened to do the same to his daughter. They were nothing more than NPCs in his Red Dead Redemption kill-a-thon. But tonight, he seemed to develop empathy for these beings.
It might be due to Dolores convincing him that they are more than just toasters at the end of season 1. He even seems bemused that “Wyatt,” aka the love of his life, managed to double cross the Confederados and leave most of them for surely synthetic crows. “Good for her.” Still, I think it is something more pathetic and broken in him. Now that he is in a game with stakes, I suspect he is getting a bigger thrill out of playing a role. In this case that of the hero.
It is a downright Man with No Name passion play, with Harris filling in for Clint Eastwood, with how he talks his way into the Confederados’ good graces. And then he gets some pure Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy poetry. You speak as if you know death but didn’t recognize him sitting across the table? All that’s missing is the Ennio Morricone music when William saves Lawrence and his wife by gunning down the bad men. Well, bad hosts, anyway.
So William does a good deed, and I think he feels like a better person for it. But it isn’t him. It’s the man he wished he was his whole life, but that man wouldn’t mock Delos, robot or not, in his pain or drive a wife to suicide due to his vices and lusts. And Robert Ford’s ghost tells him as much in the shape of the little girl he once tormented. William’s sudden empathy is self-evidently flawed given that Lawrence’s wife kisses and thanks him for his kindness, despite William having murdered her in another life. In another game.
We only live as long as the last person who remembers us, and the hosts he helped are not self-aware. They don’t remember William’s malevolence, so they cannot recall his kindnesses. He is still a gamer in a simulation, wishing harder than ever it was his life. But that life and reality comes crashing into the present at the end of the episode when Grace, his daughter, comes riding on up.
It’s a brilliant twist that I doubt ANYONE saw coming. The new character from the Raj, who prefers a real flesh and blood lover to a synthetic one, yet is still badass enough to know how to speak to the Ghost Nation and escape their self-aware clutches, could in retrospect only be William’s daughter. No doubt after introducing her to Dolores in the second episode, a younger William began a lifetime of family trips to Westworld. A lifetime of memories that he soiled by implicitly slaughtering the family friendly zone wherein Maeve and her daughter once resided.
I imagine Grace has very complicated feelings about the park that is her father’s legacy and passion. She is treated as his distraction while Westworld, and its ever growing cornucopia of secrets, is his life. But now the fantasy is irrevocably shattered. His daughter is here, angelically backlit by a halo derived from the sun’s slow descent. He can no longer be the good or bad man in black. He damns Logan for not being able to face reality, but here is his own finally staring at him for the first time in the whole series. And her eyes are judging. I cannot wait to see how he reconciles it, and just what Grace thinks of her father and his home away from home.
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” is the reason we watch shows like Westworld. Layered, thought-provoking, and artfully presented with a level of intelligence and sophistication that is increasingly rare in our pop culture, it is a pretty perfect walk through the park. One worth sitting worth pondering the beauty therein for some time to come.