Westworld Season 2: Peter Mullan As James Delos Is Perfect
Westworld season 2 tapped Peter Mullan for a small, but crucial role and in this week’s episode, he does not disappoint.
In its fourth episode, Westworld Season 2 needs to present a complex science fiction concept. So it did what one of its major sci-fi TV forefathers did: turned to a Scottish guy.
Going into its second season premiere in 2005, Lost needed to finally reveal what was in the mythic “hatch” The season one finale never quite made it inside so it was widely assumed/hoped/demanded that the season two premiere would finally address the contents of the hatch. It did and the ultimate answer was pretty big.
The hatch was a scientific station left behind on the Island by a hippie research group in the ‘70s. It was a big, complicated jump forward in the show’s mythology that risked alienating a sizable portion of the audience who didn’t want to get into all this sci-fi mumbo jumbo.
Ultimately the reveal didn’t alien most viewers and that’s because of what else was in the hatch. Among all the ‘70s era scientific instruments and orientation videos about electromagnetism was also a person. More specifically: a charming, longhaired Scotsman by the name of Desmond who likes to call people “brother.”
When a science fiction show wants to introduce a big, heady, scientific concept to its viewers it had also damn well better introduce a Scottish person along with it just so we all feel a bit more grounded and comfortable.
That’s what Westworld does in Sunday’s absolutely fantastic episode “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” The episode presents the show’s most stunning science fiction concept yet: “human hosts,” and to make it all go down easier it also gives us a Scotsman, William’s father-in-law James Delos (Peter Mullan), to better comprehend it.
James Delos isn’t as soft, cuddly, and warm as Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick). But he may be something even more important within the context of the show. He’s human. He’s human as all hell. As portrayed by the wonderful Scottish character actor Peter Mullan, Delos is one of the most recognizably human characters on the show thus far.
That’s a roundabout way of saying he’s a righteous asshole. But even just “straight up asshole” is one of the most powerful characterizations Westworld has produced for a human character yet. Westworld works because of its robotic host characters. These are the characters the writers clearly enjoy writing for and it’s not hard to see why. Watching these hosts experiencing sentience for the first time and bumbling around like eager children (or hardened murderers in Dolores’ case) is fascinating.
On the flip side, however, that has made for some pretty two-dimensional human characters. Aside from William, there are not many human characters on Westworld who are believably three-dimensional. Most of them end up being complementary characters to the hosts who take them hostage or requires their services in one way or another.
That’s what’s so quietly revolutionary about Delos as a character. He’s also somewhat two-dimensional (again: asshole) but whether it’s because of Mullan’s phenomenal acting, the writers’ excitement for the “game” they’ve concocted for him or a combination of the both, he just works.
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” presents James Delos four times. And almost every time we’re presented with a different version of him reading off of almost the same script. The episode opens with Delos going through an early morning fitness routine and pouring himself some coffee in a comfortable room that also undeniably has some cell-like qualities.
Delos’ early morning routine is interrupted by the arrival of his son-in-law William and they have a little conversation about matters we are not privy to yet.
“William my boy! Where the hell have you been?” Delos says.
William and Delos sit down and Delos pours them some Scotch.
“Little early for me,” William says.
“Little fucking late you mean. Besides if you aim to cheat the devil you owe him an offering.”
William tells Delos that this is just a baseline interview. The Corporation wants Delos to do the interview with someone he’s familiar with so they got better results. Delos is a little confused by the process and he asks: “So what’s the idea? That afterwards you and I have the exact same conversation? Seems a little far fetched doesn’t it, William.”
Seems pretty far-fetched indeed. But this is a far-fetched show. In encounter two, we see a new routine for Delos. He still works out, he still has his coffee, but the song on the record player has changed. He’s spritelier, energetic. And his hand doesn’t shake as bad when he pours his cream.
After he and William share almost the exact same conversation, we finally get to see the contents of the letter that William hands over. It’s he and Delos’ conversation. It’s all of it, word for word.
“And here I thought you were just pissing away my money,” Delos says. “I take it I didn’t recover.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“How long’s it been?”
“Seven years. Give or take.”
Just like that we humble viewers of Westworld have seen our first host built with actual human consciousness. We’ve seen the key to immortality; the presumed next step in our evolution all thanks to another one of science fiction’s friendly Scotsmen.
The performance that Mullan pulls off here is remarkable. These scenes between William and Delos work so well for two reasons. One is just that they’re cool. It’s a cool concept in a cool setting with cool characters. But the other one is that this repetition of the scene three times with subtle differences almost perfectly mimics the experience of acting, itself.
This race for the Delos Corporation to make the first Forever Human is as much an art as it is a science. And acting seems to be one of the arts they’ve chosen. I was in one play in high school (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which is the single greatest and most important thing ever in the English language. That thinkpiece will come eventually) and my drama teacher/director always wanted to make sure the actors understood that one does not “memorize lines,” one “learns lines.” It’s not enough to memorize information and call it a day. You have to rehearse it and in the process “learn” it. Learning is art. Memorization is science.
What we’re seeing with this newly robotic Delos is the experience of him learning his lines. It’s a wonderfully intuitive place for the writers of “The Riddle of the Sphinx” to put their actor and that actor performs it beautifully.
By the time encounter number three rolls around, we, the audience; have learned some of Delos’ lines along with him. And if we’re paying close attention we’ll notice some of them have changed.
“Little fucking late you mean. Besides you aim to cheat the devil you owe him an offering.” becomes “Little too fucking late you mean. Besides you cheat the devil you owe him an offering.” This line likely changes because based on William’s aged appearance (may we all be so lucky to take the Simpson to Harris aging path) and Delos knowshe’s cheated the devil.
Delos has learned his lines perfectly. And he’s learned a lot more on top of that. The problem is that it’s taken so damn long.
“So how long has it been?” Delos asks.
“Longer than we thought.” William responds.
“Let’s get me the fuck out of here.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“I’m as fit as a fi. I’m as…”
Delos can’t quite transform his thoughts into words. Just like in encounter two, his mind has failed him.
“You’re feeling it more, aren’t you?” William tells him. “The engineers call it a cognitive plateau. Your mind is stable for a few hours or a few days and then you fall apart. It’s more like your mind rejects reality. Rejects itself.”
William tells Delos that this is their 149th iteration of him. He’s survived 35 days now. But the second William challenges him, taunts him, his mind collapses once more.
“I’m beginning to think this whole enterprise was a mistake,” William says. “People aren’t meant to live forever. Take you for example. Ruthless philanderer with no ethics in your business or family dealings. In truth everyone prefers the memory of you to the man himself.”
William is right. Delos is a philanderer. He has no ethics. He’s rough around the edges, crass, and his continued existence is probably a bad thing for humanity at large. That’s also why he works so well as a character in these four scenes. His archetype (again: asshole) is so well-ingrained in our consciousness that we can recognize the enormity of how accurately the Westworld programmers approximated human life.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s portrayed by Mullan. What follows William’s taunting of Delos is the kind of physical acting that the science fiction genre frequently requires but rarely gets the appreciation it deserves. Delos stands up in a fit of rage but his legs can barely support him. His face is a minefield of various ticks as he tries to get his words out. It’s clear that he’s feeling everything and that he’s a perfect approximation of the wrathful person who came before him. His mind just can’t express it. It’s broken somehow. And the experience of watching it break is amazing. Mullan’s tortured, malfunctioning visage is the best special effect yet on this show.
There is, of course, a final encounter. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” paces itself perfectly and tips its hand just enough so that it’s clear what Elsie and Bernard in the “present” are going to find when they open up that closed door. In one episode Peter Mullan’s James Delos goes from human (maybe) to robot-human to slightly better functioning robot human to almost completely functioning robot human to horror movie monster.
And in case this whole thing wasn’t metal enough already, the 149th iteration of James Delos’ last words are:
“They said there were two fathers. One above one below. They lied. There was only ever the devil. When he looked up from the bottom it was just his reflection laughing down at you. You aim to cheat the devil. You owe him at least an offering.”
What Westworld is presenting in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is no less revolutionary than the very concept of the singularity. The singularity is the notion that one day humanity and machines will seamlessly merge. That’s what the Delos Corporation is trying to accomplish and goes a long way towards doing so. That’s a big idea and Westworld brought in a Scot so we could better accept it. James Delos brain may have rejected his new reality but thanks to some deeply empathetic and smart acting from Peter Mullan our brains don’t.