Westworld: The Riddle of the Sphinx

“If you aim to cheat the Devil, you owe him an offering.”

Now we're really playing with fire.

This might be my favorite episode of the show so far. Westworld delivers intellectually entertaining material every week, but this was on another level.

The Man in a Box

We spend a lot of time with James Delos, the titan of industry who heavily invested in Westworld and the host technology years ago, leading to everything that's happening now.

I knew something was off from the beginning, with the Lost style opening that slowly rounded Delos’ bright and opulent penthouse. But as these interludes progress throughout the episode, we, and Delos, begin see just how off things really are.

Upon receiving a visit from William, Delos learns that he is actually dead and his consciousness has been imprinted onto an android model of his body. The penthouse he's been cooped up in is actually a cleverly disguised testing area.

Turns out, this was the real goal William and Delos had in mind with Westworld, the host tech, and the data-mining. Immortality, or the next best thing; this was something Robert Ford alluded to in the very first episode. Delos was hoping to cheat death by artificially resurrecting himself, a perk that his Richie Rich associates would no doubt benefit from as well.

It gets really twisted when we start to see the flaws in this experiment.

Delos only has a short period of time before he deteriorates due to a "cognitive plateau," his copied mind breaking down in the face of a reality it is unable to accept. Which has happened countless times in the near thirty years since he died. Every time a new “build” of him fails, William incinerates Delos and starts all over again.

The failure to achieve this goal as they hoped is partly why William is such a jaded, self-loathing person in the present. In his last visit with Delos, which takes place shortly before his latest vacation in Westworld, William decides to take his frustrations out on his former boss.

On top of finding out (for the 149th time) that he's just an expensive imitation of his actual self, Delos is told that his current existence is that of a glorified guinea pig, that people value his memory and legacy more than him, and that no one is going to save him from this because his wife died of a stroke, his son overdosed and his daughter committed suicide. Finally, out of sheer spite, William opts to just let Delos wallow in rage, misery and mental instability instead of terminating him.

Needless to say, Delos bought more (and less) than he bargained for. I mean, goddamn. That's a lot to process.

The Man in Black

Back in the present (if you can call it that), William and Lawrence are captured by Major Craddock and the surviving Confederados after stopping over in Lawrence's hometown. In typical Man in Black fashion, William seduces these psychotic hosts with Lawrence’s hidden cache of weapons and the promise of a path to Glory.

Craddock decides to waste time sadistically terrorizing the townsfolk, Lawrence and his family in particular, which clearly displeases William. This is noteworthy, considering William cheerfully slaughtered everyone in that same town just last season.

It seems William no longer enjoys inflicting pain and misery like he used to. Perhaps this is because he knows the consequences of this game are real now. Or perhaps seeing his own brand of cruelty embodied in Craddock makes William realize how awful he’s been. He recalls his own wife’s suicide and how he failed her. This prompts him to go white hat on his new allies, laying waste to all of the Confederados. He even allows Lawrence to personally (and explosively) kill Craddock.

Ford’s new story really does seem to be for William and the other humans as much as it is for the hosts. Like Teddy in the previous episode, William chooses to be the good guy when given the chance, reminding us of the man he was upon first arriving in Westworld. Originally, decimating the Confederados was the first step William took to become the Man in Black. So maybe this really is the start of his redemption.

Though carried out with the Man in Black’s trademark malevolence, his altruistic display actually earns the respect of Lawrence and the whole town, where before he sowed only fear. He gains a few rebel allies to join them on their quest as well; since these guys don’t automatically commit suicide, I’m assuming this means William is on the right track. In the end, he and his new gang encounter “Grace,” who turns out to be William's estranged daughter, Emily.

This opens a whole new can of worms. I imagine William will be even less inclined to be a total asshole with his disapproving daughter around. It also puts a spin on his fixation with real consequences. It will definitely feel real when his own child is in danger of the sentient androids he’s spent years using and abusing, like Dolores or Maeve. The stakes have never been higher for our Man in Black.

The Cave of Wonders

These themes of self-realization and determinism are also explored in Bernard’s storyline. After getting knocked out, Bernard is dragged to a remote cave by Clementine. Inside, he discovers his former protege, Elsie, still alive after a Ford-controlled Bernard caught her sleuthing last season. He releases her, cluing her in on recent events, including his true nature. They form a fragile alliance after she saves him from a cognitive lock.

Bernard’s skewed focus continues to have a dramatic effect on the show’s atmosphere. According to Elsie, his memories are unaddressed due to his head wound. He remembers little, and what he does remember is completely out of sync. This sense of depersonalization allows him to retrace his steps. As a result, Bernard unveils a secret facility hidden within the cave.

The facility contains a lab full of dead scientists and drone hosts. After getting a boost of cortical fluid, Bernard tries to piece together what was going on there as Elsie explores the lab.

They eventually find a secure door that Elsie wants to break into. Interestingly, Bernard seems to acknowledge that his present experience with Elsie is actually just another memory he is lost in. This left me somewhat confused. Was all of this just a memory he’s reliving after the fact, or is it his future self from two weeks later that's remembering it?

Cognitive Lock vs. Cognitive Plateau

Behind the door, Bernard and Elsie discover what it was the lab is meant for. They are confronted by the 149th version of James Delos, still alive and totally insane. William didn't know it at the time, but leaving Delos alone to suffer may have been the most progress he ever made with the experiment. As we know now, the crucial key to consciousness, both human and artificial, is suffering. So, after descending into madness, murder and self-mutilation in the wake of his many regretful decisions, Delos was able to finally grasp reality and survive well past his expiration date.

Even this doesn't last long for him, since Delos tries to kill Elsie and gets taken down by Bernard. They lock him in his chamber and burn him for the last time. As another malfunctioning robot said, Westworld really is a prison of its makers sins.

This experience and their shared disapproval of Ford and the Delos Corporation's actions inspires Bernard to embrace his new freedom, which Elsie obliges on the condition that he not lie or hurt her ever again. He promises her he won't, but then remembers that he's the reason all of those lab techs are dead. Under instruction from Ford, Bernard had previously entered the lab to procure a control unit for a host-human hybrid like Delos. When the scientists arrived, Bernard and the drone hosts horrifically killed them all, and then the drones hilariously snapped their own necks. Bernard probably should think twice next time he makes a promise like that.

Now we're left to wonder what Bernard did with that robo-brain he retrieved and who it was meant for. An obvious answer would be Ford, since he was the one who originally spoke of "calling forth Lazarus from his cage" and most viewers are just waiting for Anthony Hopkins to pop up again. Others are speculating that it's actually meant for Arnold, and that the Bernard we're seeing two weeks later is actually a hybrid version of Bernard and Arnold. Maybe that's the key to this experiment. The merging of human intelligence with artificial intelligence. If so, that'd be a fascinating sort of transhuman concept to explore.

Loops and reveries:

* "Play With Fire" by The Rolling Stones. Already symbolic of Delos and William's disastrous attempts at playing god, but it's taken to a darkly comic extreme when we see how the failed Delos builds are dealt with.

* There are a few different meanings of “the Riddle of the Sphinx.” In Greek mythology, a sphinx presented itself and asked those who passed: "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed." Those who got it wrong were devoured by the sphinx. The tragic hero Oedipus answered that it was man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs in adulthood and finally uses a walking stick in old age. The sphinx kills itself upon receiving an answer, sometimes by devouring itself. Others interpret the riddle as being in relation to the Philosophers Stone, a legendary substance sought by ancient alchemists who saw it as a symbol of perfection that could turn mercury into gold and grant eternal life.

* The railway worker hosts are nailing people into the ground to make new tracks. William notes that they’re directing the tracks west when they should be set to the north.

* Before reuniting with her father, Grace/Emily was a captive of the Ghost Nation along with Ashley Stubbs and a few guests. She easily escapes, after which the Ghost Nation leader, Acheketa, leaves Stubbs with a cryptic message and apparently releases him and the others. Don't know what that was about. The Ghost Nation refer to Acheketa as the First of Us, which is true; he was one of the original hosts created for Westworld along with Dolores, Clementine, Angela and even Craddock.

* Even though she apparently loathes William, Emily has a lot in common with her father. She's a ruthless corporate type who doesn't care much for other people, just like him. And she's evidently just as obsessed with the virtual reality of the parks as he is.

* I know a lot of people were hoping Elsie was still alive. I was not one of them, and this episode didn't do much to endear her to me. She continues to be just as inhuman as the likes of Lee Sizemore and Charlotte Hale, and her extreme lack of caution nearly gets her killed again. However, the ending suggests that she, like William, might be willing to evolve beyond her initial characterization. So that's something, at least.

* After his heroic gesture, William receives a cryptic message from Ford through Lawrence's daughter. He's told that one good deed doesn't erase his evil past, but also that he should look to his past rather than the future he seeks. Maybe Ford is hoping William will eventually strike a balance between the good man he once was and the mean bastard that he is now.

* Someone shared a meme about how Jeffrey Wright and Peter Mullan are "recent graduates of the Louis Herthum school of acting." I have to agree. It's amazing and chilling how they're able to humanize even the malfunctioning robots. They look like people suffering from an extreme case of Alzheimers. A broken android is essentially the same as a broken human. Mullan gets extra props for making Delos such a standout character, despite only having a handful of appearances.

* There were a lot of things this episode reminded me of. Delos' plight screams Black Mirror. As I said, the opening scene reminded me of our introduction to Desmond in Lost. The manner of immortality that William was testing out on Delos is like an unpolished version of the cortical stack technology from Altered Carbon. The baseline test William administers to Delos seems like it was clearly inspired by the Voight-Kampff and baseline tests from the Blade Runner movies. I'm sure there's more, but it escapes me at the moment.

* My hat is off to Lisa Joy. The direction of this episode was absolutely stunning. I especially loved all the symbolic imagery. The spinning record, the 360 shot around Delos' gilded cage, the wheels of his spin bike, all establishing the fact that Delos is trapped in the ultimate loop; the record player is broken when Bernard and Elsie find him later on. In the final meeting between Delos and William, the first thing we see is a close-up of the fish in its bowl. In the beginning, Delos' habitat is bright white and perfectly clean, with every need catered to, a heavenly setting. In the end, the habitat is in disarray, with red lighting against the dark exterior, which makes it suitably hellish when combined with Delos' crazy ramblings.

Quotes:

Acheketa: You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.

William: You think Death favors you? That it brought you back? But Death’s decisions are final. It’s only the living that are inconstant. They waver, they don’t know who they are or what they want. Death is always true. You haven’t known a true thing in all your life. You think you know death, but you don’t.
Craddock: Is that so?
William: You didn’t recognize him sitting across from you this whole time.

William: You’re feeling it more, aren’t you? The engineers call it a “cognitive plateau.” Your mind’s stable for a few hours, a few days, and then it starts to fall apart. Every time. At first we thought it was your mind rejecting the new body, like an organ that’s not a perfect match, but it’s more like your mind rejects reality. Rejects itself.

William: I’m beginning to think this whole enterprise was a mistake. People aren't meant to live forever.
This line especially felt like it was written by Charlie Brooker.

James Delos #149: I’m all the way down now. I can see all the way to the bottom. Do you want to see what I see? They said there were two fathers, one above, one below. They lied. There was only ever the Devil. When you look up from the bottom, it was just his reflection laughing back down at you.
Here's an article dissecting the hidden meaning of this nonsense and how it relates to the themes of the episode.

Bernard: For the first time, I get to decide for myself who I want to be. Please, let me have that chance.
Elsie: ...Fuck it. I always trusted code more than people anyway.

As much as I loved this episode, I struggled with finding a way to write about it. There was a lot to unpack and I still feel like I barely scratched the surface. Four out of four nitro shots.

3 comments:

Patryk said...

For what's it worth I think You did the episodes justice in Your review. It was just as fascinating to read as it was to watch. And I definately think it was the best episode so far.

But one thing bothers me (about the plot not the review), William said hios wife took too many pills but here we see a bloody bath. At first I thought maybe also his daughter killed herself, but no. So did he lie or is he misremembering up until the point of his one good act?

On a side-note: The "I'm not a robot" checkbox below this comment box is some next level unintentional meta-humor.

Logan Cox said...

I've seen that pointed out too. Maybe they'll explore who William is outside of the parks, and what went on with him and his family. There's still a lot about him that remains a mystery. I didn't realize it until I started writing this review, but I don't think they've mentioned his last name once yet. He's just William.

And as for the "I'm not a robot" checkbox, yeah, I've mentioned the same thing in my Mr. Robot reviews. Can be very meta at times.

Patryk said...

I'n reaching him, but if Delos represents Devil + Gelos then William might be represent a fallen angel (mirroring his white to black hat transformation) and his last name will turn out to be Morningstar or something. But that might be too heavyhanded for this show. They don't do obvious.