‘Westworld: Season 2, Episode 4 - Riddle of the Sphinx’ - TV Review

“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”

The answer, of course, is people, who crawl as babies, walk on two legs as they get older, and then need a cane in old age.

The Riddle of the Sphinx comes to us through Greek mythology.  The Sphinx, a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird, decided to sit outside the gates of Thebes and ask the riddle of everyone who entered the city.  If they failed to answer correctly, she would kill and eat them.  Then, along came Oedipus, the original Mofo, who gave the answer above.  So frustrated was Sphinxie that her riddle had been answered, she threw herself from the walls of Thebes, dying as a result.  

Let’s unpack that story with the idea that it is also the title of this week’s Westworld.  First of all, the riddle itself is about the passage of time and humans growing older, very pertinent to Westworld in general and this episode in particular, especially since we learned that one of the goals of Delos was to create a host into which the consciousness and memories of a real person could be implanted, thus granting them in effect immortality and halting the aging process.  Westworld could end the riddle at noon, so to speak.

The creature asking the riddle is a hybrid monster, a chimera (a term that also comes from another beastie from Greek mythology).  It is human and not human, having parts of a human but also animal elements.  It is dangerous, disruptive, and threatens the well-being of the community/city.  Sounds like a host to me – human elements but not human.  Dangerous, disruptive, and threatening the well-being of Westworld (and the other worlds) now.  The whole story is about how having the right information (or being able to deduce the correct answer from the information supplied) is the best way to stop threats to the community.  In the absence of information, all of the guests and Delos employed in Westworld right now are well and truly screwed.

The person who solves the riddle is Oedipus, who, for a reward for vanquishing the monster that had laid the city to siege, is made king.  Indeed, at the beginning of the play from which we get most of our information about him, Oedipus Tyrannus, better known by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex, Thebes is suffering from a plague and Oedipus enters and tells the gathered crowd he will stop the plague because he is “the riddle solver, the one with answers.”  The irony, of course, is that Oedipus is completely wrong about everything.  What starts off as a search for the murderer of the previous king turns into an investigation about who Oedipus’s real parents are. I have written about Westworld’s Oedipal complex before, but I think it safe to note Bernard has gotten a whole lot more Oedipal.  Not in the Freudian sense – he’s not into his mom – but in the investigatory sense.  Bernard does not know who he truly is, and his own beliefs about his own memories and identity turn out to be wrong.

This episode played with metaphors and references, starting from the very title and continuing through the episode.  It also features a number of callbacks.

We open on a mod record player turning, pumping out the Stones’ “Play with Fire,” a song in which the singer notes that the girl is very wealthy, but should not play with him “‘cause you’re playing with fire.”  Damn, son.  We’re not three seconds into the show and between the title and the soundtrack, the audience is overloaded on the textual references.  Especially since we then learn this is the room of Jim Delos, a terrifyingly wealthy man who has been playing with fire (and who, we will learn, at the end of each cycle, literally plays with fire as he and his room are incinerated by the technicians as he begins to break down).

We see him exercise, eat, read, clean up, shower, jerk off, pour cream in his coffee (missing the cup with most of it), and then his visitor arrives.  A young(ish) William enters.  They banter.  William has brought scotch.  Jim drinks.  William does not. “If you aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering,” Jim tells him.  He is in some sort of facility under observation.  “Do you know where you are?” William asks him.  At this point, the riddle solvers among us know already Jim is a host.  That is the first question asked of hosts when they come back on line.  (Great answers, of course, from comedians: Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t know. An abandoned Apple store?” from his Emmy parody and Billy Crystal’s “The waiting room for the CIA? The waiting room at CAA?” in his City Slickers Westworld parody.)  William tells him they need to establish a baseline, another phrase told to hosts when they are undergoing a diagnostic.  William hands him a paper.  Cut to The Man in Black and Lawrence.  It is a scene that will play out several times.

We see what might be Bernard’s dream (remember the thematic importance of dreams this season), and he rescues Elsie, back from season one and not dead.  Just chained up and having eaten far too many power bars.  “Is this now?” he asks her.  Passage of time reference – Sphinxie, I’m looking at you.  Bernard tells Elsie there is a secret lab in the cave and he watches himself (memories?) enter and unlock it.

The Man in Black and Lawrence get captured by the Confederados that Teddy let go last week.  They are sadistically holding the town hostage, looking for the weapons that Lawrence’s revolutionary group have hidden in the graveyard.  The Man in Black not only knows where the weapons are, he knows where the Major and his men are planning to go.  Oedipus-like, he’s the riddle-solver, the guy with the answers.

William has a very similar scene to the first one with Jim Delos in his rad pad.  We learn Delos has been dead for seven years.  Delos asks William if he is still in California, to which William responds, “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” which is the response given in “Chestnut” (Season one, episode two) to William by Angela when he asks her if she is real.  This idea is proving to be one of the central conceits of the series – if you can’t tell the truth about something, does it matter if its true or not?  

Bernard wakes up, “I think I’ve been here before,” he tells Elsie.  Oedipus-like, he’s the riddle-solver, the guy with the answers.  And yet he also tells her, “Maybe we don’t want to know” what is behind the locked door.  You can’t unring the bell, unlearn the knowledge or unscrew the mom (looking at you, Oedipus).  Knowledge brings answers, not happiness.  Ask the sphinx.  Oops, sorry you can’t anymore. (Too soon?)

Major Craddock thinks he knows what’s going on, and what’s more, thinks he is the baddest hombre in Westworld.  “I've served death well, and in turn, it will be watchin' over us as we cross these lands,” he tells the William in Black.  “You think you know death, but you don’t know,” comes the response.  And faster than you can say Freud, we’re back in Oedipus territory.  Because Oedipus thought he knew.  He thought he was the riddle solver, the answer guy.  Told he would kill his father and marry his mother, he ran away from home, figuring that would keep him safe.  Too bad he was adopted.  Here’s the thing, kids – if you are told you will kill your father and marry your mother, there are two things you should never do – kill any man and marry any woman.  Oedipus thought he knew fate, but he didn’t know.

The Man in Black subsequently introduces Major Craddock to death in the form of forcing him to drink nitro and then shooting him so he explodes.  In a very violent show, this moment seems a pinnacle that verges on cartoonish; however, we’re having another Oedipal moment.  The name of the play is Oedipus Tyrannus, not “Oedipus the King” but “Oedipus the Tyrant.”  The point of the play is that at the beginning, Oedipus promises to cast the murderer of the previous king out of the city in order to end a plague.  When he discovers that he is the murderer, he could say, “Ah, what’s a little plague?”  He could point out he is the riddle solver and that the city needs him.  He could point out that he is the tyrant – the all-powerful ruler.  Instead, he exiles himself.  He does the right thing in the end.  So, does The Man in Black, who spends much of the episode watching as the Confederados torture and kill the people of Lawrence’s community.  When the Major decides to asplode Lawrence’s daughter, The Man in Black finally ends the plague of Confederados by doing the right thing and gunning them all down.  He does care about the hosts, even though he knows they are not “real.”  But if you can’t tell the difference, does it matter?

William in Black in Ed Harris form comes to visit Jim Delos and we learn what the problem is.  Delos-as-host suffers from “cognitive plateau.”  He is fine for a short period, but then the host stops working.  It’s not so much the mind rejecting a new body as “the mind rejecting reality.”  But if you can’t tell, does it matter?  Apparently, yes.  As Delos’ mind in a series of host bodies decays, William concludes that preserving the mind of a dead person is much harder than creating an entirely new host personality.  The hosts work as created beings, not so much as receptacles for a real human personality and memories.  Delos has been brought back dozens of times, and the best lasted a month or so.  William is not so sure any of this is worth it.  He tells Delos his daughter is dead, and that he believes the attempt at immortality was a mistake, for a few reasons.  Two of the suggested ones are that the cognitive plateau Delos has reached has resulted in a sort of metaphysical Oedipus Groundhog’s Day, in which Delos is doomed to learn every day that he is dead, his daughter is dead, nothing he thinks he knows is right.  The tragedy of Oedipus Tyrannus is not father killing and mother marrying, all of which happened long in the past.  The tragedy is that Oedipus is only now learning that it happened, and everything he believed and thought he knew about himself is a lie.  Delos gets to relive the worst events of his life over and over, learning that what he thinks he knows is wrong.  Second, as William tells him, “The world is better off without you and possibly without me,” and that “People prefer the memory of you to the man himself,” or as my mom used to say, “How can we miss you if you don’t leave?”  Delos the man is an a-hole.  The haze of memory and time (Hi, Sphinxie.) allow us to remember Delos as better than he was, celebrate his vision for the company, and the positive qualities that he embodied, instead of the cutthroat, nasty-to-his-own-children, self-centered nasty old sonofabitch he actually was.   Memory makes things better.  

At the climax of the episode, Bernard and Elsie find Jim Delos’s rad pad.  The technicians outside the pad have all been killed.  Delos is alive but cray.  Two things occur to me in this scene, as we hear “Play with Fire” again.  One: We see a broken hourglass, the sand falling out of it.  We saw him throw it earlier.  Delos’ room contains an ancient and visual reminder of the passage of time (“like sands through the hourglass…”).  An hourglass works by flipping it over, running the same sand through the same hole.  A repetition that marks the passage of time.  A broken hourglass becomes shorthand for lost time, broken time, time that will not run again.  Delos is done.  

Bernard and Elsie finish him off and burn the place one last time.  They return to the exterior of the rad pad and in a flashback, we see that Bernard was the one who killed all the techs.  Like Oedipus, he doesn’t know who he is or what he has actually done.  Elsie makes him promise to not kill her and be a good boy, and he does, but since he doesn’t seem to know that he was the killer, if you can’t tell, what does it matter?  

Our closing thought and reveal come via Lawrence and The Man in Black.  “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”  Damn.  And true.  Back to Oedipus.  Had he “looked backwards” instead of forward, he might have seen the truth of his life before he married his mom.  Meanwhile, Lawrence’s daughter is channeling Ford, taunting William.  Ford’s dark designs have not yet been made clear, but like fate in Oedipus Tyrannus, Ford is constantly lurking, driving the action forward.  

Finally, Grace, escaped from the Ghost Nation, rides up to The Man in Black and party.  “Grace,” he greets her.  “Hi, daddy,” she responds.  Not only do we now meet William’s estranged daughter, but we close with an Oedipal moment – the child correctly recognizing her father, and the tension between murderous father and murderous child is apparent.  

No Maeve or Dolores this week.  You can’t have it all.

Okay, Westworld, I’m in. You’re getting interesting.  Let’s see where we go from here.  Who’s up for a ride to Thebes?  See what Sphinxie is up to.  No, Bernard, you may not ride shotgun.  See y’all next week in the park.

Kevin Wetmore, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor

Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University.  His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.  For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.

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