TV reviews

Westworld 2×04 – ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ – TV Review

Directed by: Lisa Joy-Nolan

Written by: Gina Atwater & Jonathan Nolan

The forward momentum that began with last week’s episode ‘Virtù e Fortuna’ has gathered a furious head of steam that has left this viewer so giddy at getting some answers, I’ve probably missed another 10 questions that have been raised along the way.  That this propulsive, exhilarating offering was achieved largely through a similar approach to storytelling that slightly hamstrung the second episode is ironic, but as the Man is Black is informed late in the episode, “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

The biggest reveal is that the refugee from the colonial park (apparently, the consensus is that it is named Rajworld) is called Emily (Katja Herbers); and is the daughter of William (Ed Harris).  It was obvious that she would have a part to play, but this was seismic.  As we discovered through the episode, MiB has a lot to answer for.  Making a great moment particularly lovely was John Grillo’s cinematography as she rode up to William to offer the most loaded greeting you could imagine.  With her face in shadow until the last minute, there was something of Harrison Ford’s introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark about it.

But there was so much leading up to that moment.  We now know that one of the most popular fan theories is correct and the Delos corporation have been harvesting human minds to import into hosts.  The late James Delos (Peter Mullan) was the subject of this first attempt at immortality, with versions of his mind being transplanted into a host replica of his body over and over again, only for his host body to reject his new reality at a certain stage, like a transplant patient rejecting an organ.  This is shown through repeated conversations with young William (Jimmi Simpson), until finally Ed Harris strolls in and we realise just how long this has been going on. “This is the 149th time we’ve brought you back,” the presumably pre-MiB William tells Delos, “you’re on day 35 now and only now starting to degrade.”

William decides that enough is enough and resolves to end Delos’ purgatorial existence, a decision which also appears to be the catalyst for his rampage through the park and his fixation with its destruction.  There is no mercy here however.  In an act perhaps as cruel as anything he has carried out with a gun, he tells a glitching James about the death of his wife, the suicide of his daughter Juliet, Logan’s unsurprising demise via overdose, and that everyone prefers the memory of Delos to the man himself.  He then leaves, denying Delos even the customary immolation that came with every previous failed cloning.  This was thrilling, disturbing storytelling, and an elegant way of imparting exposition.  Everything about these scenes is brilliant, from the performances to the lovely Stalker-inspired set design, with its motif of circular objects as symbolic clues to Delos’ Sisyphean existence.  The record player was a particularly pleasing retro touch, harking back to simpler, analogue days.

The kind of existential time-loop purgatory endured by Delos is not a new dramatic device.  Recent decades have seen Groundhog Day, Black Mirror, Happy Death Day, and The Prestige among others play with the idea in various ways.  Here, Westworld takes perhaps its first plunge into full-on horror as Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and a happily not-dead Elsie (welcome back Shannon Woodward) encounter the insane, ‘degraded’ host-Delos still interred in his living panopticon tomb.  Mullan is incredible in this episode, injecting pathos and, yes, humanity into what was a despicable man.  From bopping around his cell to Roxy Music to his broken, rotten end, it’s a performance of astonishing range.

Which brings us to Bernard and another outstanding display.  Jeffrey Wright has a claim to be the season’s MVP so far, given the rather one-note characterisation of both Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) up until now.  The beleaguered host is being assailed by the spectres of memory from all side and is having real trouble keeping his timelines in order (a concern shared by many viewers) and Wright has done great work in juggling this confusion.  Luckily for Bernard, he finds Elsie, who is in a surprisingly forgiving mood, given that he choked her out and left her shackled in a cave.  The cave turns out to be the underground lab where they come across the mad shell of James Delos, the horribly butchered engineers that were working there and some equally kaput faceless drones.  Worryingly, just as Bernard promises to never hurt Elsie again; we flash back to him involved in the slaughter that took place in the lab.  The drones murder the engineers before snapping their own necks.  Poor Elsie should probably sleep with one eye open.

One memory Bernard has managed to retrieve from the Gordian Knot of his tangled synapses is that Ford had him print another ‘control unit’, like the one used to implant James Delos’ consciousness into a host body.  The whereabouts of this unit, and whose code it contains is surely now the central puzzle, or riddle, of the show.  It’s clear from the episode’s title that we’re dealing with the realities of humanity and a way to overcome them, cheat death and live forever.  The attempt to bestow this upon Delos failed, but it now appears that Ford had succeeded where William couldn’t.  Is this code now gumming up the head of Abernathy, or is he something of a red herring and Maeve’s daughter is going to come into play?

Among all the delicate brushstrokes of character history and revelations, MiB’s contemporary story line was something of a Jackson Pollock spatter.  He and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) are captured by Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) and the sorry remnants of his Confederado army.  The wily William naturally prevails; a nitroglycerin shooter and a bullet in the back enough to bring an explosive close to that chapter.  It’s something of a blunt instrument of a strand, and doesn’t really progress MiB’s storyline – he could easily have bumped into his daughter without it – but it’s a possibly mercifully direct, simple diversion from the intricate warp and weft of the rest of the episode.

‘Riddle of the Sphinx’ is an extraordinary hour of television that is not only easily the strongest episode of the season, but contributes to added appreciation of what has gone before as various pieces slot into place.  It was beautifully paced, acted and written.  Returning to Dolores and Maeve feel like it must be an inevitable comedown, but surely there is too much writing savvy on the show for the lack of nuance in both characters to continue?

When we have the return of the brilliant Elsie, and the intriguing Emily to add to an embarrassment of riches of rich female characters, the game Westworld is playing must surely be upped.  We can also rub our hands together at the thought of getting to explore ShogunWorld for the first time.  Bring it on.

What did you think of the latest episode of Westworld? Let us know.

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