“What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”
This is the riddle the Sphinx posed to Oedipus in the Greek tragic play, Oedipus Rex. The answer, of course, is a human being, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then evolves to walking on two legs, and finally uses a cane in old age. Growing from child to adult and eventually aging and dying are essential stages in the human experience. Last night’s Westworld episode leaves us wondering – if death is a necessary part of life, what is life without death? If you can’t die, are you even human anymore?
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” marks showrunner Lisa Joy‘s directorial debut, and she gave us a fascinating – yet horrifying – look at what it means to be human, and what happens when you try to alter the natural progression of life. This episode also took us back to the past, gave us the answer to Delos’ secret research project, revealed the identity of a new mysterious character, and returned a missing one. Let’s break down this “Riddle” and see what answers we can find!
James Delos and William
The episode opens with a montage of a man’s morning routine as “Play with Fire” by The Rolling Stones plays in the background, in a nice bit of foreshadowing (although “Sympathy for the Devil” would have been an equally inspired choice). We finally see that the man is James Delos (Peter Mullan), and as his hand trembles we wonder if this is a side effect of his terminal illness or…something else? A woman’s image appears on the wall to notify him he has a visitor – young William (Jimmi Simpson). William brings him a drink and tells him the observation period is almost over, but he needs to conduct a baseline interview before James can leave, “to give them something to refer back to.” William asks questions to ensure “fidelity” – as we see later, this means they want to ensure that they have reproduced James accurately.
It appears they have, because in the second conversation we see, William shows James a paper with their entire conversation word for word. James realizes they’ve accomplished what they’ve set out to do, and wants to go back to his life. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It’s been seven years – the real James succumbed to his illness, his wife died of a stroke, and besides, they need to keep him a bit longer for observation. James begins to glitch, and reluctantly agrees. As William leaves, he tells the tech outside the room that James is having the same problems as before. She mentions that he made it to day seven, so it’s progress. They decide to terminate, so she powers James down and incinerates the room.
When William visits a final time (this time played by Ed Harris), James doesn’t recognize him; this visit is likely during William’s final visit to the park. When James realizes who William is, he asks how long it’s been. “Longer than we thought.” James wants out, but this time William is more forthcoming about his situation. As James starts to glitch, William explains that he’s reached a “cognitive plateau” – his mind will be stable for hours, or days, but it inevitably breaks down. William believes his mind isn’t rejecting the host body, but rejecting reality, and itself. James doesn’t remember any previous attempts, but William informs him they’ve tried 149 times.
They are getting closer to a solution – this time he’s lasted 35 days – and perhaps in another year or two they might have it. William, however, is starting to believe it was a mistake; that “people aren’t meant to live forever.” He calls James ruthless, unethical, “a veritable shithead” who people would rather have as a memory than have back in their lives. James gets angrier and more unstable as William informs him about Juliet’s suicide and Logan’s death by overdose (a sad but completely unsurprising revelation). No one is coming to help James, and the world is better off without him…and possibly without William as well. William walks out as James begins to rage and destroy his room. The new tech outside asks if they should terminate, but William cruelly decides to leave him so they can observe his degradation – it could be useful to the project.
Moving forward in time, we see what happens to “Grace” (Katja Herbers) after she escapes the tiger and is found by Ghost Nation. She is taken to a camp with other surviving humans, including Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) – helping to answer his cliffhanger from last season. We also see a familiar couple who haven’t been onscreen since the season one premiere – Craig (Currie Graham) and Lori (Lena Georgas). Craig was responsible for killing Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and cutting Sizemore’s (Simon Quarterman) grand speech short during the saloon heist and Sweetwater shootout.
A woman, Ehawee (Tantoo Cardinal), comes over to Stubbs and speaks to him in Lakota. Grace translates, telling Stubbs she said “time is coming” – or something is, anyway – surprising him with her knowledge of the language. She replies that most people ignore the Ghost Nation narratives, and that she doesn’t like most people (who could blame her?). Stubbs explains he’s been observing them, and they seem to be collecting humans, but only killing hosts. Are they doing this on their own, or is this another part of Ford’s game? Anyway, Stubbs assures her that there will be an evacuation soon, but Grace doesn’t want out (hmmm – sounds like another character we know…).
Grace later speaks with Ehawee as they are being led out of camp and learns they are being taken to “the first of us,” who turns out to be Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) – one of the original hosts present at the demonstration to entice Logan Delos to invest. He mysteriously urges the humans to “release yourselves from this burden.” Grace manages to free herself and run away; Stubbs, however, is not so lucky. He ends up with a knife to his throat, as Akecheta tells him (in English), “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” Stubbs closes his eyes, expecting to be killed, only to have the knife removed. He looks around to see the members of Ghost Nation are gone…curiouser and curiouser. It looks like we have to keep wondering what they are really up to with the humans.
Bernard and Elsie
Elsewhere in the park, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) drags Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) to a cave and leaves him there with a gun. He enters to find none other than Elsie (Shannon Woodward) – solving the other cliffhanger from season one. Bernard had shackled her there with protein bars and a bucket under Ford’s orders. Apparently Ford doesn’t hate all humans, even though he had no hesitation about killing Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in season one. Regardless, she is not pleased to see Bernard, even after he frees her from her chain. Elsie grabs the gun while he tries to explain, but he begins to break down. He desperately hands her his tablet, and she realizes he is a host. She powers him down, telling him she will help him – but only to get answers.n
Bernard begins to have flashes of memory from a secret lab (more on that later) before waking up and asking Elsie, “Is this now?” Elsie has programmed him to ignore his cortical damage, but he desperately needs more fluid. She thinks they will be rescued soon, only to have her hopes dashed when Bernard explains no one is coming until Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) secures Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) and the data he has stored. They are in the middle of nowhere with no hope of fixing Bernard, until he sees another memory in which he opens an entrance to the secret lab. He believes Ford programmed Clementine to bring him here.
Bernard continues to flash in and out of memories from his previous trip to this lab, which ended in a bloodbath. Elsie is confused by the lab’s existence, wondering what Delos is doing there. They are confronted by a drone host, but Elsie kills it before it can harm them. She demands to know if Ford had a hand in whatever secret project Delos was running here, but Bernard doesn’t think so. Besides, Ford is now dead. Elsie injects him with the fluid he needs; once he wakes and thanks her, she explains she still doesn’t trust him but will need his help. She explains she can’t access the lab processor, which uses a different operating system – and the same encryption key as Peter Abernathy. Bernard mentions the database stored in Peter was larger than anything in the park.
As Bernard reverts back to more memories – which Elsie explains are “drifting around” with no way of determining their chronological order – Elsie attempts to find out what’s behind a locked door. Bernard comes back to the present but not in time to stop her from going in. What follows is a nightmarish scene symbolizing James Delos’ personal hell. They enter his room to find it in shambles, the tech dead, and James gone insane with deep cuts covering his face. He rushes at them before Elsie can shoot, but Bernard is able to throw him to the floor and subdue him. James looks up at Bernard and says, “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.”
Bernard and Elsie leave him and mercifully incinerate the room, putting him out of his misery. Bernard tells Elsie what he’s learned from his memories – that the secret project was an attempt to map human consciousness onto a control unit and transfer it into a host body, achieving immortality. The experiment failed with James Delos, but Bernard admits Ford sent him to this lab to print another control unit for a human. He doesn’t know whose it is, however. Elsie is determined to get to the Mesa Hub and contact the mainland for help, and Bernard convinces her he can help and promises not to hurt her – he is in control of himself now. On the way out, Bernard remembers using the drone hosts to kill all the human techs in the lab – except for one human he finished off himself. Maybe Elsie should watch her back…
William and Lawrence
William and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) continue on their journey west. They run across an encampment of Chinese worker hosts laying track, using people as railroad ties. Given William’s mild reaction to the gruesome scene we might assume they are only other hosts, but you never know with him. Presumably these workers grew tired of their mistreatment and are getting their revenge. William remarks that the tracks are now heading west instead of their usual north and thinks he may have some competition in Ford’s game.
They take a detour through Las Mudas – Lawrence’s home – and discover the remaining Confederados have taken the townspeople hostage until they give them provisions for their trip to Glory. Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) refuses to make deals, instead demanding they tell him where their stockpile of weapons is located. Lawrence tries to convince William to plan an escape, saying they will be killed once the Confederados get what they want – Lawrence fears for his wife and daughter. He remembers William also has a daughter (is this a sign of awakening or one of Ford’s tricks?) and asks if she would want to watch William gunned down. “Probably,” he replies. William then stands up and divulges the information Craddock needs, offering to take him to Glory. He says Craddock doesn’t truly know what it is.
The Confederados find the weapons and proceed to torment the townspeople, shooting off the bartender’s hand (with the help of some nitro) for spilling liquor. We get a glimmer of disgust from William at this scene, showing us there may be some decency and empathy left in him after all. Later, Craddock’s men beat Lawrence as his family looks on. Craddock reveals his twisted ideas about death, saying he’s died but death sent him back – he is now here to do death’s bidding, like some kind of dark messiah figure. He forces Lawrence’s wife to take a drink of nitro to her husband. While William watches her walk out into the rain, he remembers finding his wife dead in the tub, prompting him to tell Craddock he’s wrong about death.
You think Death favors you, that it brought you back. But Death’s decisions are final. It’s only the living that are inconstant and waver – 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. You didn’t recognize him sitting across from you all this time.
William smashes a bottle and thrusts it into Craddock’s face, then takes out the rest of the Confederados one by one. He finally takes the glass of nitro from Lawrence’s wife, pours it down Craddock’s throat, and lets Lawrence have the honor of “lighting the match.” Craddock isn’t likely to come back from death this time. Lawrence’s cousins are grateful to William for saving the town and offer to join him on his journey, even as William admits most of them won’t be coming back. Lawrence’s daughter tells William one good deed doesn’t change who he is – she (or rather, Ford) remembers. William denies any good deed, instead remarking he’s playing Ford’s game “to the bone.” She replies he doesn’t understand the real game, and if he’s looking forward, he’s “looking in the wrong direction.”
The final shot of the episode shows William and company riding into the sunset as a figure rides toward him. It’s Grace, who reveals her true identity when she greets William with two words: “Hi Dad.”
Conclusions and Speculation
This is a heavily William-centric episode, as all of the storylines tie back to him in some way. We see the failure and bloody aftermath of his experiment with James Delos, William’s daughter trying to make her way to him or his secret project (perhaps both), and the continuation of his journey to rectify his greatest mistake – and possibly redemption in the process. But what is his greatest mistake? Is it only the attempt to transfer James’ consciousness into a host, or do they have experiments with other test subjects in progress? There may be others awaiting the same treatment, as their humans bodies are dying (or possibly already dead in some cases). Maybe the location William and Dolores are both seeking is full of cloned humans in host form, in limbo until the kinks are resolved and they can be united with their downloaded selves.
What better weapon could Dolores hope to find? She could simply transfer her chosen hosts’ control units into these human copies. They could make their way to freedom – undetected – while discarding the unneeded host bodies; say, in a flood perhaps? That begs the question though: what makes you, you? Is it your physical form, your memories and personality, or both? Or is it something greater than the sum of those parts – something intangible and impossible to duplicate completely? If Dolores and her followers succeeded in transferring themselves to new physical forms, would they be able to move on as normal…or would there be a disconnect between their bodies and minds?
On that note, who is the human Ford downloaded, and were they united into their host body before his death? One intriguing possibility is Arnold, which would explain why “Bernard” is acting so strangely when he is found on the beach (and missing his scar). I find it difficult to believe Ford would have been able to map his consciousness 35+ years ago though. If not him, perhaps Ford mapped his own for transfer to a new body, but that would render his sacrifice and speech to the board meaningless.
A strong possibility is William, who very likely did map his own consciousness in anticipation of a successful result with the James Delos trial. It would give extra weight to his remark to James that the world may be better off without him, meaning he had decided not to attempt transferring himself. But what if Ford did? If the game “ends where [William] began,” maybe William will be forced to confront his younger host self and make the choice – live forever (at least, a version of him) or destroy his attempt at immortality and let “a new god walk” – allowing the hosts to take the world from unworthy humans.
Recalling the episode title which was taken from the tale of Oedipus, perhaps William should look to the concluding lines of Oedipus Rex as a word of warning, and of advice:
People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”
- Lisa Joy hit a home run this episode – hopefully she will directing many more to come. William’s rain drenched shootout and the eerie and disturbing end to James Delos were absolutely brilliant.
- James Delos’ room should look familiar – it’s the same room accessible with Charlotte Hale’s password on the Delos Incorporated website, where you can access clips and other hidden clues – some yet to be revealed.
- I loved the touches of the fishbowl (mirroring James’ existence) and the hourglass (for a man for whom time has ceased to have meaning).
- James’ remarks about being “all the way down,” looking “up from the bottom,” and seeing the Devil’s “reflection” could reference behind trapped in hell, but also make me think of being underwater – perhaps there’s some connection here with the sea of host bodies from episode one?
- What is Ghost Nation doing? Are they saving humans for Ford, someone else, or of their own free will? Are they even saving them? What “burden” does Akecheta want them to release themselves from – humanity? Life? Death? So many questions…
Needless to say, I loved this episode and can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has in store! Let me know your thoughts, ideas, and theories in the comments!