Westworld Season 2, Episode 4 Recap: "The Riddle Of The Sphinx"

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO.
I would really like to meet the person in charge of coming up with episode names for Westworld. How long does it take? Do they really just sit there trying to come up with a somewhat-obscure-but-still-kind-of-accessible allegory to encapsulate the overarching themes? Or do they think of a really good one that then informs the plot? Anyway, the reason I ask is because Episode 4, known as “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” is a great example of a title that perfectly sums up what we’re about to watch, without going all Friends and just telling us it’s the one with the hosts that are actually human.
The title refers to a scene in the Greek legend of Oedipus, in which he comes across a sphinx guarding the city of Thebes. If he answers its question, he may pass. If not, he will die. The question goes as follows: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening? The answer, as Oedipus rightly guesses, is “man” — you crawl as a child, you walk as an adult, and you stoop on a cane in old age. It’s an elegant way of introducing an episode that revolves around the idea that we may never have to reach that last stage — except, as in all things Westworld, it’s a little more complicated than that.
The episode opens to the dulcet tones of “Play With Fire” by the Rolling Stones on a record player. We find ourselves in an apartment straight out of my West Elm dreams: creamy whites, dove greys, reclaimed woods, and modern trinkets that tie it all together. The camera pans through as James Delos goes through his daily activities: he stationary cycles, smokes, drinks water, stops his music, showers, pees, eats an apple, feeds his fish, masturbates. While pouring cream into his coffee, his hand flutters and misses. Just then, a screen announces a visitor. In comes William, bearing the gift of Scotch. Their exchange is important, and gets alluded to several times through the episode, so I’ve transcribed it in full below for reference later on.
Delos: “William my boy, where the hell have you been.”
William: “It’s good to see you again Jim”
Delos: “Thank god for that. The most potent thing these fuckers will give me is grapefruit juice.”
William: “It’s a little early for me.”
Delos: “A little fucking late you mean. Besides, if you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering.”
Delos: “So, when can I get out of here?”
William: “Soon. The observation period is almost over and the last step is a baseline interview. It’s a conversation that will give them something to refer back to.”
Delos: “Alright, well let’s get on with it.”
William: “This is the interview.”
The baseline is a script that they have unwittingly (on Delos’ part at least) been reciting verbatim. From this, and the future conversations they have, it becomes clear that Delos, dying from a disease with no cure, funded a project that would use the same technology used to create hosts in order to create a human-host hybrid: a robot body, with the imprint of a human brain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that technology has been perfected, hence his breakdowns.
Fast-forward into the future, and Old William is riding with Lawrence when they come across a group of railway workers who are USING GUESTS AS THE WOODEN SLATS OMG.
The tracks are going the wrong way, so William decides to detour by Lawrence’s hometown, which sounds like something Ford would orchestrate as part of this new game.
Bernard, meanwhile, is alive, and dragged by Clementine to a cave in the middle of the desert, where she leaves him. Inside, he finds Elsie, who is more than a little pissed to see the man who left her to die. Even after he explains that Ford was controlling him, she’s wary. Of course she is. She doesn’t even know he’s a host.
When she finally realizes, she’s confused, but not as much as, say, Lee Sizemore. She’s been around enough hosts to know how convincing they can be. Bernard is continuing to malfunction, though, and collapses on the floor twitching. Elsie puts him out so she can figure out what’s wrong, and he has a scary dream about drone hosts, eyeballs and those control unit brains.
Once again, he wakes up confused about his reality: “Is this now?” Elsie tells him that he has extensive cortical damage (“If I didn’t know better I would say you shot yourself.”), which is causing him to become untethered from reality. It’s kind of a lucky break, since the visions caused by his brain injury are what enable them to figure out that they are in a secret refurbishing station. A hidden level opens to the door to a lab marked “12,” and they enter, hoping to find something to help them locate Peter Abernathy. (Is this the same lab he was in with Charlotte Hale in the alternate timeline?) The carnage inside the lab indicates that something’s gone very here — later, a flashback shows Bernard ordering drone hosts to kill everyone inside, perhaps to keep the secret of what they’ve been up to. But more on that in a second.
Back in the park, the Ghost Nation bring the mystery lady from Colonialworld (whom, we know from the end of the episode is actually William’s daughter) back to their camp, where they’re holding other guests and Ashley Stubbs (this is what must have happened to him in between his disappearance, and him finding Bernard on the beach). He tries to reassure her that all will be well, but she’s not all that worried, or concerned with how to get out of the park. Later, she escapes with a flourish. Daddy’s little girl, indeed.
William and Lawrence arrive in town, only to find it deserted. Turns out the Confederados Teddy set loose have set up shop there, and not in a nice way. William tries to make a deal with them, but but doesn’t realize that they might be even more crazy and vicious than he is. He does have one thing to bargain with, however, and that’s the location of “Glory.”
Since the next flashback takes place back in James Delos’ pod, it seems fair to assume that “Glory,” or the “Valley Beyond,” have something to do with this secret project. The music’s changed (Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand”), and Delos’ dancing is lit, but everything else is the same. He and William repeat the conversation once more (it’s been 7 years since he died) — but it doesn’t take him long to start bugging. As William leaves, he gives the order to start the process over again, and the chamber incinerates.
Meanwhile, in the decimated lab, Bernard recovers somewhat after Elsie injects him with cortical fluid. She’s trying to decrypt the system the dead technicians were working on, which appears to be the same one that Bernard found inside Peter Abernathy’s head. He has a theory about what’s been going on: they weren’t building regular hosts. (“The hardware is the same, but the language is different.”) The final piece of the puzzle is revealed when Elsie blasts through a locked door and finds the pod where host James Delos’ host lived.
It’s with a clever leer of irony that the creators of the show have dosed Wiliam with a taste of his own medicine in this episode. The Confederados are crazed, and violent, but are they really doing anything worse than the Man in Black did last season? The parallel is more obvious than ever when Major Craddock makes Lawrence’s wife dance with him and carry a shot glass of nitroglycerin, to the same mournful tune that played when it was William doing the torturing. This causes William to flash back to his wife’s death by suicide. (He found her.) It’s an interesting set up, because it casts doubt on the motives behind what comes next: William killing the Major and wiping out the rest of the Confederados, and saving Lawrence, his friend.
Are we witnessing the redemption of William? Does he actually cares about Lawrence, and the people close to him? Or does he think this will bring him forward in the game? He claims it’s the latter when confronted by Lawrence’s daughter, the same host who told him that the maze wasn’t meant for him in season 1.When he laughs off her mention of a “good deed,” boasting that he’s just been playing along, she warns him: “Then you still don’t understand the real game we’re playing here. If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”
Finally, we learn what became of the James Delos host in one last flashback to the pod. He’s on day 30 this time, which is some improvement, and he can deal with minor improvisations. But it’s taken almost three decades to get that far. William is now Old William, and after 149 builds, he’s decided that maybe people aren’t meant to live forever. He tells Delos that he’s terminating the project, which causes him to glitch and throw a fit. When William leaves, he tells the tech not to incinerate: “Leave him, might be useful to observe his degradation over the next few days.”
Sure enough, Delos, or what’s left of him, is what’s behind that locked door in the lab.
He threatens Elsie, and Bernard has to intervene. Incapacitated, he mutters: “They said there were two Fathers. One above, one below. They lied. There was only ever the devil. When you looked up from the water, there was just his reflection, laughing back down at you.”
Elsie and Bernard incinerate him, still shaken from their discovery. “Tell me that was a host, and not a human,” she says. “I think it was both,” he answers.
Bernard’s realization that Ford sent him to that lab to print a control unit for another human, opens up the theory that Ford is actually still alive, controlling this game as the host version of himself. Elsie and he strike a truce — they need to help each other to find that other unit. Still, if I were her, I wouldn’t be too quick to trust Bernard. He’s not fully under control, and that makes him dangerous.
The episode ends with William and Lawrence back on the road. As they ride out of town, they see a woman riding towards them: it’s mystery lady, aka William’s daughter. Things are about to get CRAZY.
Additional Thoughts:
- There have been a number of references to water in this season, first starting with the credits, then with the small sea filled with dead hosts in the premiere. Delos’ final words about “looking up from the water,” combined with the shot of a host skeleton being dunked in the water in last shot the opening credits, leads me to think that that’s part of the human-host making process.
- Logan is officially dead. RIP.
- Native Americans are also playing a much more significant role this season. First, there’s the host that Dolores killed in the premiere, denying him entry into the Valley Beyond. The Ghost Nation chief who whispers to Stubbs that “you live only as long as the last person who remembers you,” seems to be part of this quest by William and Delos to cheat death.
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