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Westworld Spoilers Club season 2, episode 4: The Riddle of the Sphinx

Westworld Spoilers Club season 2, episode 4: The Riddle of the Sphinx


A major revelation opens up a host of possibilities… and one possible character return?

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Photo by John P. Johnson / HBO

One of the more notable characters introduced during season 2 of Westworld is the founder of the mega-corporation that runs Westworld and its sister parks: James Delos (Peter Mullan). He first showed up in the second episode, “Reunion,” demonstrating a noted lack of interest in the long-term potential of robotic hosts — until a crafty William (Jimmi Simpson) convinced him otherwise.

As that same episode revealed, James Delos retired, giving William the opportunity to take over and become the ruthless Man in Black (Ed Harris) from later Westworld timelines. But there was a mini-mystery left unanswered, a lingering cough that indicated Delos was facing health problems and might not be long for this world. In spite of the wealth and success he had accumulated, and the technical acumen of his society, he seemed to be fatally ill.

But as last night’s episode, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” revealed, Delos, Inc. has an answer for that problem, too.

Photo: HBO

The big reveal?

The episode opens on a spinning record: “Play With Fire,” by The Rolling Stones. There are a number of ways to read that song title, but the opening moments of the episode simply follow James Delos going through the routine of an ordinary morning. He exercises on a stationary bike, has a morning cigarette, goes to the bathroom, pours his morning coffee. It’s all utterly banal — except for the slight tremor in his right hand, and the fact that his cough has vanished.

James Delos is dead, and William has been interviewing a succession of hosts

There’s also the matter of where he’s going about this routine. It’s a nicely decorated space with a minimalist aesthetic, but it appears to be a small studio apartment with no view of the outside — not the usual habitation of an extremely rich man. That’s because it’s actually a small medical facility. Soon enough, William shows up to chat, and it becomes clear that James Delos is being held under observation, awaiting some final sign-off before he can leave. William is there to conduct an interview — a baseline, he says, that will be used to gauge Delos’ mindset, mood, and sense of humor. “I own a biotechnology company, and I’m dying of a disease whose research I defunded 15 years ago,” Delos shoots back. “I think my sense of humor is fucking intact.”

William clarifies that the intent is to measure “fidelity” — whatever that means in this context. “So what’s the idea? That afterwards you and I have the exact same conversation?” Delos asks. “Seems a little far-fetched, doesn’t it, William?”

It’s confusing at first, but it’s not far-fetched at all. As the episode repeats variations of the same scene, with William showing up a little bit older each time, it becomes clear that Delos, Inc. isn’t trying to save the life of its founder. James Delos died, and William has been interviewing host clones that look like him, talk like him, have all his memories, and actually think they are him. Each, in their own time, eventually suffers a mental collapse. When older William (Ed Harris) — better known as The Man in Black — visits the James Delos host later in the episode, he reveals that while the researchers initially thought his mind was rejecting the new body, they now think it’s as if his “mind rejects reality… rejects itself.” Each and every time, it leaves them with no other option: scrap the entire thing, including the crippled host himself, and start anew.

Photo: HBO

What does it mean?

From a character perspective, the storyline between the ever-aging William and the series of James Delos clones offers significant insight into The Man in Black. In many ways, this season is serving as his origin story, and in “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” the audience gets a first-hand glimpse at the vast change in his character over the years. William is merciful to the early James Delos clones, reluctant to put them through any unwanted suffering. But by the time we catch up to The Man in Black in a “current” timeline, his cruelty is laid bare. He tells the Delos clone that his son Logan died of an overdose; that his daughter, William’s wife, killed herself; and that Delos, Inc. has created and destroyed countless James Delos clones over the decades. The final one, it turns out, is their 149th attempt — and even he is only able to survive for little more than a month before going mad. The Man in Black even tells the latest clone that he thinks they should stop the program to bring him back altogether, and that the world is actually a better place without James Delos.

The season is serving as The Man in Black’s origin story

Given that this entire storyline seems to be more about William’s transformation than the fate of James Delos, the episode provides another glimpse into his character. The Man in Black seems so disgusted, so filled with contempt for everything James Delos stands for, that it begins to feel that this 149th host clone isn’t the real target of his ire at all. Every criticism The Man in Black levies could also be used to describe William himself, and as he spits his venom, it seems like he’s actually talking more about the way he feels about himself than his former boss. And as the ultimate punishment, The Man in Black leaves the Delos clone in purgatory: stuck in that solitary observation room, awake and alive, so he can feel his mind fall apart one bit at a time.

Photo by John P. Johnson / HBO

It’s cruel even for The Man in Black, and later in the episode, it’s left to Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the very-much-alive-as-predicted Elsie (Shannon Woodward) to put Delos Clone #149 out of his misery. But even though The Man in Black showed contempt for Delos, something else in him appears to be thawing. Elsewhere in the episode — in what appears to be later in The Man in Black’s own personal timeline — he’s trapped in the town of Las Mudas with Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), while a host named Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) taunts and tortures other hosts for sport. Seeing Craddock threaten the life of Lawrence’s wife reminds The Man in Black of his own wife’s death. He retaliates, taking down Craddock’s men, and allowing Lawrence to take the final killshot on the Major to avenge his cruelty.

The Door may be putting him on a path toward redemption

Later, Dr. Ford appears yet again, this time speaking to The Man in Black through Lawrence’s daughter. “They might not remember, but I know who you are, William,” she says. “One good deed doesn’t change that.” The Man in Black dismisses the idea that what he did was a “good deed,” but in spite of his protestations, his actions speak for themselves. He wouldn’t have saved Lawrence’s wife earlier in the series, and whatever The Door is, it could be putting him on a possible path toward redemption.

The episode seems to underscore that idea by giving The Man in Black one big opportunity right in the episode’s final moments. As he, Lawrence, and their men ride across the plains, they come across a lone woman on a horse. It’s Grace, the guest who escaped the tiger attack in The Raj last week. But when she greets the men, it’s revealed that she isn’t just some random park guest. She’s The Man in Black’s estranged daughter.

Photo: HBO

Changing the game

Along with the character implications, the revelations about the Delos clone host program opens up the narrative of the series considerably. Originally, William saw Westworld as an opportunity to better understand customers and allow Delos, Inc. to market to them better. But now it’s clear that the company is exploring how to use host technology to create replicants of actual people — to offer up immortality as a product. This season has also revealed that the company has been quietly collecting DNA and other evidence about guests’ visits to the park. With the host clone concept, it’s not inconceivable that Delos could be interested in creating copies of some of its high-profile guests — an idea explored in the 1976 film Futureworld.

But there’s a much more immediate implication, and it should excite Anthony Hopkins fans. Bernard remembers that before Dr. Ford’s death, he had Bernard print a control unit for another clone host. Given that Ford has been making brief appearances, speaking to The Man in Black through hosts like El Lazo and Lawrence’s daughter, the dots become almost too easy to connect: Ford created a host clone of himself before setting off the “Journey Into Night” narrative, and now that host is somewhere in the park, overseeing everything while everybody thinks Ford is dead and gone.

Of course, that’s all just speculation, but if true, it gives the focus on timeframes a new sort of urgency. It was established earlier in the season that the storyline of Bernard scouring the parks with Delos security forces takes place 11 days after the robot uprising. The 149th James Delos host was only able to last 35 days before starting to “degrade.” If there is a Dr. Ford host clone out there, he may have an expiration date — and could be nearly halfway there.