Sunday night’s episode of Westworld dropped a bombshell: Things start actually making sense.
Rather, some things start making sense, as the show addressed major questions about what exactly is going on in this park head on. It’s an extremely gratifying move toward providing answers—if also a little frustrating because of how many more questions even those answers raise.
“Riddle of the Sphinx,” while a patience-testing 70 minutes long, might earn the distinction of the best episode of this series so far, something I never would have imagined saying about an episode that not only didn’t feature our rebel queen and main reason for watching this series, Thandie Newton’s Maeve, but didn’t even deliver an update on Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores and the host uprising.
The episode marked co-showrunner Lisa Joy’s directorial debut, and possessed an emotional intimacy that had been missing—perhaps understandably; this is a series about robots—as we learned more about Ed Harris’ William and the greater purpose of the park and its technology.
Early on in Westworld there was a sense that this show wanted to be more than just its clever premise—a robot theme park where guests indulge their vices, hijinks ensue!—and say something meaningful.
Part of what’s left me lukewarm about the series in the past is that it never justified the big ask of asking viewers to endeavor (or, at times, suffer) through that ambition. That gimmick was enough, and the attempts to mine it for something intellectually deeper consistently fell short. It’s one thing to challenge audiences to solve a complicated puzzle, but the bigger picture needs to be interesting enough for them to want to go through the effort of solving it.
“Riddle of the Sphinx” changed that, full stop. There were so many revelations and game-changing twists. Humans who become hosts! Elsie is alive! Bernard is evil! William’s daughter is actually the girl from the India park?!
Let’s rewind a bit.
The episode opens not with the familiar player’s piano but with a record player spinning the Rolling Stones’ “Playing With Fire.” The camera tours an apartment decorated to very clearly indicate we’re in the ’70s. (If only those kinds of period clues were in the park to help us keep track of timelines.)
Jim Delos, the man who created the technology company which owns Westworld and the other theme parks, lives in the apartment, which is actually less of an apartment than a fancy holding cell. He’s visited by his son-in-law William—the young Jimmi Simpson version, not the Ed Harris version—who asks him a series of seemingly benign questions, which we soon learn is meant to diagnose his cognitive functions.
On another day, Jim goes through the same routine, is visited by William again, and has the exact same conversation, a repetition that evokes the first episode of Westworld in which we see the hosts unknowingly doing and saying the same things every day as orchestrated by a narrative. Yep, not only is this a host version of Jim, Jim is dead. William, and presumably Delos, is experimenting with technology that would enable a person’s mind to live on after death in a host version of their body.
But there’s another “not only.” Not only is Jim dead, but he’s been dead for seven years at this point in the episode. That means that this experiment isn’t succeeding. Host Jim keeps reaching a “cognitive plateau” in which his mind and body start shutting down after a few days. He’s not ready to go into the real world.
In the second episode of season two, a flashback to William and Jim in the early days of the theme park ambiguously suggested that William had grand ideas about the real purpose of Westworld. There are hints that he was alluding to the park being a veritable focus group, a means for blackmailing the rich, or some Facebook-like data miner, and all of that could still be true.
But “Riddle of the Sphinx” reveals one alternative purpose for the host technology: a certain kind of immortality, at least of the mind, or the ability to bring loved ones back from the dead.
This purpose, however, appears to be top-secret. The parallel storyline of the episode finds Bernard reunited with Elsie in a cave. He thinks Ford has brought him there for a reason, a reason that gradually presents itself when Bernard starts seeing his past memories play out in front of him, revealing that he’s been to that cave before. It’s an entrance to a secret facility.
Because Bernard is continuing to glitch, his memories are all out of whack. Elsie tells him, “When you’re experiencing one [memory], you’re not sure whether it’s coming before or after the others,” simultaneously describing what it’s like to be a viewer of this TV show. Those memories, however, help them discover that Ford had him printing a control unit—basically, the mind for a host—for another human, but he’s not sure who. He also stole the control unit and killed all the lab technicians who saw him do it.
Bernard’s memories also help them discover that the facility is where the host version of Jim and his apartment are located. Prior to this revelation, we see Jim visited again by William, but this time it’s the Ed Harris, older version of William. It is the 149th attempt to bring Jim back as a host. Decades have passed, and it’s never worked for more than about a month without Host Jim reaching a cognitive plateau. “Your mind rejects reality,” William tells him. “I’m beginning to think this whole enterprise is a mistake. People aren’t meant to live forever.”
The host version of Jim has a violent meltdown after this, and rather than terminating him as he has the previous 148 times, William lets him vent it out. In fact, he’s still rampaging when Bernard and Elsie discover the apartment in the facility, and they’re forced to kill him. What this means is that William had to have visited him rather recently. Did he do it just before entering the park this last time? Or during?
At the time Bernard and Elsie discover Jim, William is still in Westworld playing the “game” that Ford left for him. We are reminded through a conversation he has with Lawrence that he once had a daughter. The last scene of the episode, after all those other reveals, might be the most jaw-dropping. He encounters a woman on the horse, the same woman who fled the imperial India park and washed up on the shore of Westworld in last week’s episode three. Her two words when she rides up to William: “Hi, dad.” She’s his daughter.
Like we said earlier, for everything we learn in this episode, we’re left with even more burning questions.
Is finding his daughter part of the game for William? Did William know she was in the park? Did she know William was in the park? Are there other human-host hybrids? How dangerous are they?
And what are we to make of Bernard’s murder spree and his lie about stealing the control unit? He tells Elsie that now that Ford is dead, “For the first time I get to decide who I want to be.” But does he really get to decide? It seems as if Ford’s and Arnold’s manipulations are still controlling him, as evidenced by the murders he feels the need to lie about to Elsie.
All of this happened and there was not a single update on the uprising and revolution, which is presumably the main driving storyline of the season. It is wild that this is an episode that changes everything, but also changes nothing in terms of the arguably biggest plot of the series. There are so many characters and so much going on in this show that it speaks volumes about the failed ambition of it all that the strongest episode Westworld has produced is one that excises major storylines and characters completely, instead focusing on just one.
That’s the interesting thing about this episode, and this entire season, really.
Last season I couldn’t stand the amount of time devoted to the Man in the Black Hat/William and his maze, especially at the expense of far more interesting storylines involving the hosts becoming sentient and plotting their rebellion. (Again, all hail Maeve.)
It’s early yet, but this season the hosts’ rebellion storyline already seems to be spinning its wheels. Dolores/Wyatt as a badass renegade? Tantalizing in theory, thus far a snooze in execution. Meanwhile the dive into the ulterior motives DELOS had in creating the park beyond manufacturing an indulgent guest experience has been fascinating, made all the more so by “Riddle of the Sphinx” and the revelations involving William. It charts a promising new direction for the rest of the season.
We’re already being asked to retain a lot. Remember how all the hosts drowned and Bernard wailed about how he killed them all? That still hasn’t been addressed... at all. Everything revealed in “Riddle of the Sphinx” is almost entirely new information, rather than answers to previous questions. We have more puzzle pieces than ever, but now we’re finally excited to start putting them together.