Lisa Joy’s Directing Debut, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” Gives Us Westworld‘s Best S2 Episode Yet
What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? The answer to the ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’ is ‘man,’ and the riddle itself about aging: crawling baby, to walking adult, to elderly person with a cane. It’s interesting, then, that the Westworld episode of the same name is about humanity’s attempt to do the exact opposite.
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” marks Westworld co-creator and co-showrunner Lisa Joy’s directorial debut, and it just so happens to be the juiciest episode of the season thus far, giving us a lot more insight into what the hell is going on at Delos Corporation, and what the point of this whole park is.
It also happens to be blissfully Dolores-free, which made me surprisingly happy. I’m here for the host revolution, but having this episode without her just made it more apparent to me how insufferable I find her this season. Like, if I were a host? And she messed with me? I’d totally be plotting a coup. (Team Maeve for life!)
The official HBO synopsis of the episode is: “Is this now? If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction.” These words, spoken by both Bernard—‘Is this now?’ (echoing S1 Dolores)—and Lawrence’s daughter giving voice to Ford’s instructions to the Man in Black—‘If you’re looking forward, you’re looking in the wrong direction’—speak to going to the past for answers, which is exactly what the episode does, from the perspective of both host and human memory.
From the beginning of the episode (in very Desmond-on-Lost fashion), we follow the progress of James Delos in what is known as The Delos Experiment. Delos did not survive the illness he was suffering from in the previous episode, but William, who is running the company at this point, has been taking point on resurrecting Delos via host technology. They have the same conversation in this very retro, circular room in over and over again, until William becomes Ed Harris’ age.
The goal? To have a stable version of Delos in a host body. Only the attempts, while lasting longer and longer each time, don’t seem to be taking. Humanity and personality, it seems, can’t reliably be reduced to code. After Day 35 of the 149th attempt, Older William finally decides that enough is enough, concluding that “People aren’t meant to live forever.” He tells Jim that people are more in love with the memory of him than they ever were with him as an actual man. That his daughter (William’s wife) killed herself, and that his son Logan overdosed. Finally, he hits Delos with, “The world is better off without you, Jim. Possibly without me.”
But rather than terminate this attempt the way he has all the others, William leaves Delos in there alive to rage, saying to the attending tech that “It might be useful to observe his degradation over the next few days.” Which brings us to Bernard.
Since Bernard has a host’s brain, he is capable of accessing all his memories at once. However, because of the failure he’s going through, he can’t quite process at any given moment whether he’s in a memory, or whether he’s actually living a moment. It’s through this prism that he pieces together what he remembers about the Delos Experiment.
Having been dragged to a cave by Clementine (is she working with/for Dolores? Is she solely a part of Ford’s hand in the game? Both?), Bernard re-lives a memory of having found Elsie (she’s back!), where he’d brought her, knocked out, to leave her chained there with nothing but a bucket for relieving herself and some protein bars for sustenance. She’s understandably pissed that the man who was her mentor ended up chaining her to a cave wall.
He frees her, and she holds him at gunpoint, not willing to trust him at first. Then, he starts glitching again, and she realizes that the man who was her mentor…is a host. She learns this and a lot of other fun facts, like everything that’s happened in the park while she’s been missing, as well as the existence of this whole other lab, called Protagoras, in which Delos is involved in the work of attempting to codify and print human consciousness, putting it into host bodies so that people can become immortal.
Together, they discover the remnants of the Delos Experiment: a Protagoras lab in complete disarray, with dead techs and fallen drone hosts everywhere, as well as a locked door, behind which they discover the room where Delos is being heldstill alive, and still making haphazard attempts at his loopbut with the last tech we saw him with dead.
When they enter, they find that Delos has gone completely mad, and has been carving at his own face when he looks in the mirror, not able to reconcile what he sees. Bernard and Elsie put the failed experiment out of his misery.
In his memory with Elsie, he begs her to let him help her figure out what’s going on as he remembers more about his involvement with this lab. He realizes that he was ordered by Ford to print a control unit for another human, what looked like a red sphere that he removed from the 3D-printer and put in his pocket, but he doesn’t remember whom it was for.
She still doesn’t quite trust him, but he swears to her that his violent behavior was all Ford, but that now, with Ford dead, he can now, for the first time, decide the kind of person he wants to be, and he is not a killer. I love Elsie’s response—“Fuck it. I always trusted code more than people anyway.”—and she makes him promise never to lie to her, or hurt her again. He says “Of course.”
However, as Bernard continues to process the memory, he remembers that as part of his effort on Ford’s behalf, he was also responsible for setting the hosts on the lab techs, and then on themselves. He’s the reason for the carnage in the lab. Yeesh. Ford clearly didn’t want this work continuing after Bernard got this last control unit.
Of course, we can’t forget about the family reunion that happens in this episode, as we learn that Grace, the new guest from last week’s episode, is the Man in Black’s daughter. That would explain why she knows so much about the park, and why she seems to be as connected to it as he is.
I’ve got to say, while I didn’t call this specifically, it also didn’t surprise me, as I figured the Man in Black’s daughter would turn up eventually the way they’ve continually mentioned her.
What’s interesting is that she’s turned up now, as her father has been seemingly trying to “set things right” in the park by “burning it all down,” all while playing Ford’s game. Earlier in the episode, as he and Lawrence deal with Major Craddock, who was set free by Teddy last week, the Man in Black reveals that his daughter probably wouldn’t mind seeing him killed in front of her, unlike Lawrence’s daughter, who loves him.
I have to wonder how true that is, as her behavior since we’ve met her has very much been “Like father, like daughter” even before it was confirmed they were father and daughter. She seems very much cut from his cloth, and when she meets him in the final moment of the episode, she doesn’t seem displeased to see him. However, she also seems to love the park, and her father is now on a mission to destroy the park and Ford’s game. Will Grace allow that to happen?
Grace used her knowledge of the park to escape having been captured by the Ghost Nation, which seems to be very much on its own side, though even they are a part of Ford’s game. The “First of Them” enlightens an imprisoned Stubbs that “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you” before straight-up disappearing. Ghost Nation, indeed.
That seems to connect to what happened to Delos: with his immediate family dead, and all the lab techs working on the Delos Experiment dead, the only ones who remember the Delos Experiment are the Man in Black and Bernard. Meanwhile, Delos is more widely remembered as a more mysterious figure who has died, and everyone seems to have a different idea of who he might have been in life.
This season, Westworld seems to be drawing a lot of influence from the world of philosophy, what with last week’s episode leaning into Machiavelli so hard. This week, it’s all about Protagoras, who Plato credited with being the first sophist, and whose statement “Man is the measure of all things” Plato interpreted to mean that there’s no such thing as an objective truth. There is only what individuals deem to be the truth.
While the word ‘Protagoras’ isn’t spoken in the episode (at least, not that I remember), the HBO featurette after the episode is titled “Creating Westworld‘s Reality: Creating Protagoras,” in which Joy goes a little deeper into creating the lab and her choices for directing the episode. I’d definitely recommend giving it a watch if you haven’t already, but it’s there where I learned the name of the lab first and decided to look up what the heck a Protagoras was.
In addition to the above philosophy about subjective truth, there are also sophists themselves who, according to Wikipedia, in addition to being teachers of all things rational and practical, believed “that divine deities could no longer be the explanation of human action.”
What makes a human being a human being, or a conscious individual a conscious individual? Is consciousness merely a program, are we all just on a loop, and if so, should an individual human’s consciousness be downloadable? Or, as Bernard seems to suggest, does free will truly exist, and does it actually make a difference? Is an individual consciousness not only unique, but in exclusive control of itself?
These are the questions this episode wrestles with beautifully, and sets the season on a path toward answering. Or, at least answering enough for Westworld‘s purposes.
What did you think of this week’s Westworld? Let’s talk consciousness and philosophy below!
Westworld airs Sundays at 9PM ET on HBO.
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