The Best Thing on TV This Year Was: 'Westworld'
Season 2's 'Riddle of the Sphinx' pulled HBO's lagging sci-fi drama together, and gave us pure hell.
It was hard to be a Westworld fan this year. Season two didn’t shit the bed as hard as True Detective’s second season, but it came close. However, amidst a mess of convoluted plots, a show-offy narrative structure and lack of emotional connections, we were given ”Riddle of the Sphinx,” which is hands-down the best episode that Westworld has ever produced.
The episode begins with a close-up of a record playing The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire.” The haunting tune soundtracks a slow camera pan around a circular room outfitted with minimalist, ‘60s-style chic-albeit-Kubrickian decor. Right away, it’s a strange visual for those of us who’ve gotten used to the alternating Wild West vistas of the park and the stark futurist laboratories below it. Then the camera pans to James Delos (Peter Mullan)—whose company owns the park—pedaling a stationary bike before setting upon his morning rituals. The record, the bicycle wheels, the milk swirling in Delos’ morning coffee all provide visual cues. Circles. The camera pans out: even the room is circular. We don’t know where he is, but it’s clear that he’s secluded, quarantined, under observation, a prisoner of sorts (LOST fans were fast to recognize how similar this was to Desmond’s introduction, too).
Delos’ son-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson) arrives bearing a bottle of whiskey. Delos pours two glasses; William refuses. “You aim to cheat the devil, you owe him an offering,” Delos says, downing his liquor. He tells William that he’s ready to get out. William says that he must administer a test to determine if Delos is ready. When Delos asks what they—William, or whoever’s observing him—are looking for. William responds: “Fidelity.”
Thus lays the groundwork for the sequence that’s repeated three times in the “Riddle of the Sphinx.” The second time we see Delos, there’s a new record (Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand”), but it’s the same bike, same room, same circles. This time, William presents Delos with a transcript of the exact conversation they’ve been having for years, right down to the devil line. Turns out Delos’ company has been trying to inject the consciousness of its founder—who’s been long dead—into host versions so that he can live forever. Westworld is not just in the entertainment business; they’re trying to master immortality. When the Delos-bot experiences a verbal hiccup (“Get some fresh aid...air,”) William knows it’s another failure, and they torch him. “Play With Fire,” indeed.
There are so many other show stopping scenes in this episode, including The Man in Black’s thrilling shoot-out with Major Craddock’s gang, or Bernard’s ghastly memory of commanding faceless robots to violently murder a team of scientists, but it’s the repeated Delos sequence that showcases Westworld’s greatest strengths: increasing tension, genuine emotion, mindfuckery, and its ability to provide wealth of deeper meaning, if we so wish to look for it. For those who like to dig, there’s a lot to find: Dante’s circles of hell, the life cycles of man (which is what the show’s title refers to), purgatory, God and the devil, and even a little bit of Frankenstein.
The damnation of everyone involved with Westworld culminates when Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) stumble upon the circular room. Long gone are the scientists, and this model of Delos has been left to deteriorate. A pulsing, red light renders the scene into a straight-up horror film. They find Delos on the bike, pedaling backward. He’s mutilated his face with broken glass; he’s killed a lab technician. By attempting to play God, Westworld has created hell.
“They said there were two fathers,” Delos says, after Bernard subdues him. “One above and 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.”
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