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‘Westworld’ Review: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ Is Pretty Long, But Explodes One Narrative With Important Answers

Season 2, Episode 4 features a big twist while ignoring nearly half of the show's series regulars.

Westworld 204

HBO

[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 2, Episode 4, “The Riddle of the Sphinx.”]

Programming Update

As always, a reminder that while screeners for the first five episodes of “Westworld” have been available to critics for a while now, this reviewer has not seen past this week’s episode. Thus, any speculation included here is not affected by knowledge of what’s to come.

Diagnostic Report

No romance. No Dolores or Teddy or Maeve. Instead, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” continues to pull back the curtain on the show’s mysteries, as we visit and revisit James Delos (Peter Mullan) in his gilded cage, coming to understand that following his death, the corporation now led by William (Jimmi Simpson) tried to give him the gift of new life by transplanting his mind into a new body.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been a successful experiment, as even after decades, 149 different iterations of Delos still fall apart within the span of weeks. (As William explains, it’s less a matter of the mind rejecting the body and more that the mind rejects reality itself.) Viewers learn more about this as Bernard discovers Elsie (who is still alive! hooray!) and the two of them find another secret facility within the park, which turns out to be where the multiple models of Delos have been created and then ultimately destroyed for decades. (The chaos that occurred there may have been, in part, Bernard’s doing, but a full understanding as to why remains elusive).

What the Delos scenes do offer is new insight into what the more long-term plans for the park and its technology might be, even while the older William (Ed Harris) keeps playing Ford’s last game, dragging Lawrence back to his hometown in the park, where Major Craddock (played by the always electric Jonathan Tucker) is torturing the locals. William eventually takes control of the situation and enlists a few new allies to continue his mission. But the final moments throw a new twist into the mix: the reveal of who exactly the young woman we saw escape a tiger attack last week comes into play. “Hi, Dad.”

Westworld Season 2 Episode 4 Ed Harris

In the Year… Wait, What Year Is It?

By introducing William’s adult daughter (Katja Herbers) officially we’re clearly establishing the passing of decades over the course of the show’s action (Herbers is 37 years old), even before we consider the revelations that come with the Delos scenes of this episode. While Herbers’ character was originally said to be named Grace, it’s clear following the final moments of this episode that this was an intentional misdirect on the part of the producers (given that Episode 3 revealed that William’s daughter’s name was Emily). That said, there’s no reason William’s daughter’s full name could be Emily Grace — it’s hardly the biggest deceit implemented by showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

Emily/Grace has already proven herself to be a fascinating character, thanks to her very specific perspective on what Westworld and its fellow parks are like, as well as her depth of knowledge and unique set of ethics. Now that we know she’s a Delos heir, we can’t wait to find out how, exactly, growing up in this world affected her.

Player Piano

The Mariposa player piano was not seen nor heard; instead, Delos’ personal turntable provided the most interesting needle drops of the episode. As if this show didn’t already seem to cost a fortune, good Lord, HBO paid for the actual Rolling Stones? Sure, “Play With Fire” isn’t probably as expensive as “Satisfaction,” but it still makes a statement when a show gets the rights to a band like that.

Meanwhile, “Do the Strand” by Roxy Music is less so in this regard, but the lyrics — as well as the song’s backstory — are interesting in how they invoke the Sphinx as well as a number of other elements that prove essential to the story. Bryan Ferry was apparently quoted at one point as saying that the Strand was “the dance of life.” Watching James Delos shake his groove thing to it has a cruel irony, given the truth of his circumstances.

Paired Off

While we experienced pretty much no romance this week, it was nice to see Bernard and Elsie reunited again, even though Elsie (quite fairly) has very little trust for the man she only just found out is a host. (For the record, that scene was one we might have expected to see ages ago, but it was somehow even more delicious to get it so late in the series and in such a fashion. Shannon Woodward played it brilliantly.)

Westworld Season 2 Episode 4 Jonathan Tucker

These Violent Delights

It’s been a long time since we watched Season 1, but one question has haunted the wisest of viewers ever since Episode 7, “Trompe L’Oeil”. As we wrote then:

When the dead body filled with nitroglycerin on top of the horse explodes, WHY DOES THE HORSE ALSO EXPLODE? If you rewatch the explosion, you’ll see that the horse blows up a moment after the body, of its own volition — was the horse also filled with nitro? Are Westworld horses prone to combustion? This will haunt us for years to come.

Given the amount of emphasis placed on nitro in this episode, it makes sense to reopen the issue, mostly because it’s still not totally clear how nitro works. Still, the gruesome yet still kinda kick-ass nature of the explosion effects offered its usual thrills. The horse remains a mystery, but “Westworld” never lacks for those.

Also, shout-out to the scene in which human bodies are being used as planks for a train track — one of the most macabre images of the series to date, especially when the spike gets driven into that living person’s head. Chaos still reigns in the parks, and at times it’s quite hard to watch.

Best Quote

“You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.”
– Akecheta (Zahn McLarnon)

This line, uttered to Stubbs (also not dead! hooray for him!), is a very human, very emotional belief… one which almost seems to run entirely counter to the show’s ongoing engagement with the possibility of immortality, something which this episode in particular is very much engaged. What role the Ghost Nation plays in the battles waging inside Westworld is something that’s yet to be determined, but it seems like they’re not serving the same masters as everyone else. (Though who knows, exactly, how Ford’s plan will evolve.)

The Questions You’re Not Supposed to Ask

  • OK, this was an interesting episode, but 71 minutes? Really? Really?
  • We had known Juliet, William’s wife, eventually died by suicide at some point in their history, but the flashbacks here never confirm when it happened, and the timing seems like a key detail to uncover. Did Emily lose her mother at a young age or as an adult? The answer there will end up saying a lot about her, either way.
  • While watching the first few minutes of the episode, did anyone else have major flashbacks to Desmond in the hatch at the beginning of “Lost” Season 2? It was definitely hard to escape the comparison.
  • Also, is it on purpose that the memory core units look like adorable cupcakes? Probably not. But it’s an image that’s hard to erase.
  • What’s going on with Clementine, exactly? She drags Bernard to the cave where Elsie is; it seems like she has an agenda of some sort, despite her lobotomy, one perhaps programmed by Ford? The clues to an answer there might be buried in the margins, or perhaps she’ll take a more prominent role in future episodes.

Final Reveries

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Camera Operator Chris Haarhof and Lisa Joy on the set of “Westworld.”

John P. Johnson/HBO

“Westworld” has always found ways to play with our brains when it comes to questions of time and space. But the way in which Bernard’s attempts to remember events get depicted in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is next level mind-warping, especially the moment when Bernard realizes “I’m not really here.” Points to director Lisa Joy for crafting a sequence that was both confounding and ultimately all too clear, given the tragedy that ensued.

The length of “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is definitely an issue here, especially when you consider that barely half of the show’s series regulars make appearances. But it also does some valuable deep digging into backstory we didn’t even know we’d been craving; the repeated visits with Delos not only demonstrated the incredibly strong casting choice made by pairing Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris as the young and old versions of William, but added a whole new dimension of possibility to the narrative.

In case you need the reminder, the riddle invoked by the episode’s title is a classic from Greek mythology: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The answer is “man,” referring to how a person learns to crawl, then stand upright, then eventually ends their life while hobbling with a cane. It adds a skewed insight to the episode, given how we watch William age over the course of the episode, while Delos remains in suspended animation. Given the chaos in play now, where things go next is a scary concept… but the ride is too fun to pass up.

Grade: A-

“Westworld” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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