Westworld, Season 2, Episode 4: “The Riddle of the Sphinx”
Written by Gina Atwater & Jonathan Nolan
Directed by Lisa Joy
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” has been the tightest and most succinct episode of Westworld Season 2 thus far. Enveloped in alternate timelines and memories this week’s episode has finally drawn together the threads behind the Man in Black, James Delos, and the true purpose of the park.
Who is James Delos?
Throughout the course of this episode we learned the fate of James Delos, founder of Delos Incorporated who own, among other things, the entirety of Westworld and its research. For over thirty years James Delos has lived, died, and lived again within an observation chamber, his gleaming Californian apartment. Westworld is meticulous in its uncanny unpicking of reality, and Peter Mullan does an excellent job of portraying James as he glitches living out the same conversation again and again. We learn that James, dying of a disease, invested everything into Westworld’s research in the hopes of living forever, but the technology was never perfected far enough to allow James to leave.
James is clearly a businessman through and through, but when played against Ed Harris’ icy composure as the William/the Man in Black it’s hard not to empathize with his emotional breakdown. Learning of the death of his wife and daughter sends James into an all-too-human spiral, while his cognitive degradation allows Peter Mullan to go full horror show with the role. When we stumble into the observation lab in the show’s final moments the screen is saturated with red light, James’ corruption has consumed him and turned him into a monster, but it is the Man in Black’s willful abuse that haunts the scene.
This series of flashbacks chart the Man in Blacks actions before he dons the black hat and enters Westworld in Season 1, and we can now see how he came to believe that he ought to die in the park. “People aren’t meant to live forever”, not James Delos, and not William either. However, this episode doesn’t only give us backstory as to the Man in Black’s intentions in the park, because the present day narrative is simultaneously tracking something rather new in the Man in Black’s story: a good deed worthy of a white hat.
A Family Reunion Like No Other
In the new robot-run Westworld trouble is catching up on the Man in Black in the form of Major Craddock and his band of Confederados, whom Teddy probably should have finished off last week. The Man in Black, together with Lawrence, who appears to be remembering things from previous cycles, head to the town of Las Mudas where Lawrence’s wife and daughter live.
We know that the Man in Black is without scruples, once the town has been captured by Major Craddock he gives up Lawrence and his family in a heartbeat. But once things get serious something changes inside the Man in Black. In the same episode, we see him continue past prisoners being executed and used as railroad tracks, something else entirely is triggered when he sees Lawrence’s wife being made to poison her husband. The falling rain, the liquid poison, all swirl together in a memory of Juliet’s suicide, the Man in Black’s wife, and the discovery of her lifeless corpse in a bathtub overflowing with water.
The Man in Black chooses to save Lawrence, his family, and the town. He passes judgment upon the Confederados, and in doing so he plays the game as a true white hat would. As we are duly reminded, this doesn’t mean the Man in Black is absolved of his past sins, but it’s the beginning on a path that might well change him. In the closing scene, Grace, the escapee guest from The Raj park, reveals herself as the Man in Blacks daughter, presumably Emily Delos, and a new player in the game for Peter Abernathy. Will this change how the Man in Black values his life, and what game, exactly, is he playing? It seems the Man in Black is headed towards his own revelation, perhaps one which will need him to learn to play as a white hat once more to see his journey through to the end. What’s certain is that when you play riddles with a sphinx, you either discover the truth, or you die.
A Game of Control
In Bernard’s story, we follow not only the discovery of James Delos’ observation lab but also a series of revelations for Bernard himself. Memories of his actions under Ford’s control have begun to resurface, and though Bernard feels ready to finally choose his own actions the specter of Ford’s command is hard to forget. Westworld does a fantastic job of interweaving timelines and flashbacks into a consistent narrative, blurring just enough that we experience Bernard’s disoriented perspective without losing track of the stories arc.
We don’t know if we can trust Bernard, awakened to his own consciousness yet haunted by his own violence, we don’t even know if the trace of Ford’s control has truly left, and nor does he. Westworld season 1 liked to play a game with the audience over whether you could tell the difference between human guests and hosts, now we are playing a much more subtle game of guessing who exactly is in control, and how far the hosts’ free will extends.
Now that the Man in Black is reunited with his daughter, and Lawrence has seen his family saved, it only remains for Maeve to finally reach her own daughter, and to wreak what havoc she may once her goal is fulfilled.