Best of the West: ‘Westworld’ episode 2×4 ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ highlights science of immortality

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In the wake of the hosts’ revolution, this season of “Westworld” consumes itself with exploring a different relationship between life and death. Across storylines, this episode reveals a myriad of forms of introspection regarding mortality.

Ghost Nation

Perhaps this mortality is best embraced by the Ghost Nation itself — or at least by its name. The mystery of Ashley’s (Luke Hemsworth) reappearance in the two-weeks-post-gala timeline is touched upon, as we see him and Grace (Katja Herbers) both captured by Ghost Nation hosts. Just as their leader — who might be Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), the old host who pitched Westworld to Logan (Ben Barnes) years ago in a flashback — appears to sentence the prisoners to death, Grace, who is proficient in Lakota, realizes their plans and manages to flee. The leader then approaches Ashley, holds a knife to his neck and whispers in English, “You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.” He and the rest of the hosts vanish instantly in just the first of many musings on where life ends and death begins that are presented this episode.

William (present)

William (Ed Harris) and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), continuing on their journey west for the “game” Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) hosts previously told William about, soon arrive at a railroad, the tracks of which are just being laid. According to William, these tracks are usually meant to go north but are now facing westward — more people than he had anticipated are also converging west. The two decide to instead head through Las Mudas, the town where Lawrence’s perennially abandoned wife and child live.

Once they arrive, they (along with the rest of the small town) are captured by Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) and the Confederados, fresh from their Dolores-assisted defeat. Craddock explains that he’s basically holding the whole town hostage until the residents reveal where their hidden weapons store is, as the battle against Delos left the Confederados decimated. Lawrence, in perhaps an ill-advised act of trust, reveals to William where the weapons are hidden. William immediately rises and shares the weapons’ whereabouts with Craddock. He says that, in return, the Confederados must free him so that he can help them find what they’re looking for — the promise in the west that seemingly everyone is after.

Soon afterward, Craddock and William share a drink. William, growing antsy, advises Craddock that they leave as soon as possible. Craddock reveals that his relaxed attitude is a result of his direct brush with death when Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) killed him and brought him back to life earlier on. He goes on to call himself death’s loyal servant, and as if to prove it, he summons Lawrence’s wife (Olga Aguilar) and asks her to take a brimming shot glass of the potent explosive liquid nitroglycerin to Lawrence, who is being beaten just outside. She complies after looking beseechingly at William.

Lawrence’s wife’s doe eyes trigger a vague memory in William, nothing more than frantic running up a set of stairs, a brimming bathtub and water dyed red with blood — but enough for us to piece together more of what exactly happened to William’s family in the past. William then berates Craddock’s confidence in his relationship with death and attacks him, freeing Lawrence and his family and dispatching the Confederados.

The next day, after Lawrence and his wife sincerely thank William, he saddles his horse and prepares to continue west. However, Lawrence’s daughter (Izabella Alvarez), catching William alone, tells him that one act of goodwill doesn’t erase his past; she speaks flatly — another one of the hosts Ford uses to communicate his posthumous messages to William. She tells him that he is misunderstanding the game he must play by focusing on moving forward. Perhaps moving further into “the game,” we’ll see William continue to reflect upon his past.

William is confronted soon enough by a much more physical reminder of his past — as he and Lawrence’s men ride west, a silhouetted figure approaches from the sunset. The group is greeted by Grace, fresh from her brush with the Ghost Nation. She is less of a stranger now than she was before — she greets William as her father.

William (past)

Though William’s current contemplations about his past center his wife Juliet (Claire Unabia) and daughter, his scenes that take place in the past are all about his relationship with his father-in-law James (Peter Mullan). These are scenes of impeccable composition, with a slow camera panning around Jim Delos’ stark, minimalist apartment and coming to rest on several circle motifs — a turntable spinning the Rolling Stones’ sneering “Play with Fire,” vinyls littering the surface around it, a stationary bike, a saucer of coffee and cream.

William (Jimmi Simpson in his younger form) soon enters, and Delos greets him with gruff fondness as William informs him that he’s there to conduct some sort of interview. Delos asks William the purpose of this interview, with mounting impatience. William simply responds, “Fidelity,” and presents him with a piece of paper that he reads with shock.

The next scene with Delos begins much as the last one did, with no explanation offered at what was so shocking. But soon enough, the circle motifs along with the paper begin to make sense. William enters; Delos, wearing the same clothes and having poured the same coffee and greeted William with the same gruff fondness, is in a behavioral cycle — he’s not Delos at all, but actually a host built in Delos’ image after his death seven years prior, stuck in this narrative loop.

The paper William presents at the exact same point in the conversation is a script, detailing every word Delos has uttered. Like the vinyls host-Delos is partial to, the priority of these conversations is indeed fidelity — the “recorded” Delos has to be as near the “live” version as possible. When William goes off script, however, host-Delos struggles to keep up; William has him terminated in favor of building a stronger model.

The final visit between the two begins to take on a much different tone; now, William is older and much closer to our present timeline. He at first goes by the script, but soon haphazardly speaks with harsh candor, revealing that his wife (Delos’ daughter) committed suicide and his brother-in-law Logan overdosed. As Delos’ host, having presumably had familial love programmed into him, is going mad with grief, William continues to lament their project of immortality. For some people, a memory is better than they were as a person, and William believes that Delos is one of these people.

As he leaves Delos raging inside the apartment, William commands the technician not to terminate him this time. With his new loss of faith in the form of immortality afforded by human host copies, perhaps he feels that a natural fade-out would be more fitting for a Delos struggling to come to terms with emotions he wasn’t alive to experience.

Bernard

Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is also confronted by a resurrected figure from his past this episode, albeit one who never actually died — it turns out Elsie (Shannon Woodward) survived after her disappearance at the hands of Bernard last season. She distrusts Bernard, but after a direct confrontation with his malfunction — and thus her first realization that he’s actually a host — she reluctantly helps temporarily fix him. She also agrees to work with him for the time being, understanding that he was under Ford’s control when he had first dispatched her.  

Initially unable to find a facility nearby, Bernard hallucinates his past self entering the cave and opening a secret panel. Bernard is dumbfounded, but the two nonetheless find and enter the secret lab, which is also filled mysteriously with carnage. Here, Elsie repairs a severely malfunctioning Bernard.

When he comes to, she points out an anomaly she saw in his code that might explain the hallucination — his memories aren’t indexed within his mind, and so he has no way of knowing their order or, indeed, where within them is his present. Soon, one of these invasive memories revisits him — he realizes that he was the one who commanded the hosts staffing the lab to kill the scientists whose bodies filled the lab’s entrance. He tells Elsie that, although he doesn’t remember what was being built here — it wasn’t a regular host-creation facility.

Meanwhile, Elsie discovers a door behind which she believes lies this secret asset to which Bernard was alluding. She shoots the lock, and the two enter the room, which is bathed in an eerie red glow and littered with broken furniture. In one corner, a dilapidated record player is skipping and looping on “Play with Fire.” Although Elsie and Bernard are still confused, we now have some idea of what was hidden here.

As if on cue, a host-Delos with a heavily scarred face steps off his stationary bike and attacks Elsie. As Bernard manages to kill him, he looks up at him and whispers strange last words: “They said there were two fathers, one above, one below. They lied. There was only ever the devil, and when you look up from the bottom, it was just his reflection laughing back down at you.” Is this cryptically dim view of the afterlife the titular riddle of the sphinx?

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].