Sunday, May 13, 2018

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - William Helps James Delos While Bernard Travels Into His Memories in 'The Riddle of the Sphinx'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 2.04 "The Riddle of the Sphinx"

Is this now? If you're looking forward, you're looking in the wrong direction.

Westworld has absolutely learned from the mistakes of its first season. Last year was all about the delayed gratification of the grand mysteries. The show was just teasing the audience with clues as to what was really going on in this world. The biggest of which was William and the Man in the Black being the same person. It was the story of how an innocent and nice guy suddenly became a ruthless and cold-hearted man. Of course, keeping that reveal until the end meant that it was much more a conversation starter about the ideas of the show in the abstract instead of a reward based on character moments. It ensured that neither of the two performances were anything but a bunch of cryptic teases needing to talk around the big secret. And now that the truth is out, both versions of William are allowed to truly come alive as characters. It's fascinating to see the man through this context. This season has painted the picture of how one man got the idea to invest in this park and its technology in the hopes of revitalizing the entire world with one grand purpose. It then becomes a tragedy to watch as William ages and becomes disinterested in the work that began the Delos company's interest in the park in the first place. William became much more involved with the mysteries and games of the park instead of trying to move forward with his grand ambitions. As such, it's fascinating to see him in the present trying to reshape his own narrative and wonder if it's possible for him to still be seen as a hero who does genuinely care about people. He has ruined so many of the relationships in his life because of his cruel and distant behavior. He sees everyone as a shell not worthy of existence. He hasn't come alive in a long time. Not until the stakes of Westworld suddenly became real. That has lit a new fire within him and filled him with new purpose. That's exciting even though he's still in a story that absolutely delights in the violence and masochism on display.

And yet, all of this is in service to yet another twist. The show absolutely has an overwhelming story this season that is just slowly being revealed. It's a big mystery as to what Delos' true interest is in the park and its technology. The park was created to be a place hidden from god for humanity to do whatever they wanted without dealing with any of the consequences. The first season told that story to ensure that the hosts would get the audience's complete sympathy the moment they became sentient and could fight back. And now, this season is exploring themes of consciousness and evolution. It's a struggle for the hosts to break free of their programming and live more full and meaningful lives. Most of them are still just following their code even when faced with the mountain of evidence that there is more to this reality than they previously perceived. Dolores, Maeve and Bernard are really the only hosts aware of the true nature of their reality. But it also feels like the show is playing fair with this new ongoing mystery. Last season the writing was going around in circles to preserve the twists that didn't come until the finale even though the audience had mostly figured things out long before then. This year it feels like each episode is presenting a new clue that better informs our understanding of what's going on in the park. Plus, it no longer feels like the show is delaying information for no real reason. Grace was just introduced last week as a guest in The Raj who was running for her life when she wound up in Westworld. And now, it's revealed that she's actually William's daughter. That's such a surprise and will more than likely inform his story so much now that it's clear that he will be forced to actually reckon with his past when he actually was a monster.

All of this is clearly built around the Delos corporation's ambition to implant human consciousness into the host bodies. That's their prime interest in the technology that Ford and Arnold developed. They are running these secret facilities in the park and collecting information on the guests in order to better understand their behavior in order to mimic that consciousness when it's time to revive it. This episode tells the story of James Delos as the man who wishes to experiment with this new technology in the hopes of discovering immortality. The episode begins with him simply in an observation room struggling with his unspecified illness. He is waiting for William to arrive to update him on the progress of that mission. It's a sequence that is repeated several times over the course of this episode. Each time reveals more and more as to what's going on. This isn't simply an experiment James Delos has been a part of for a couple of days. It has instead defined so many years after his death. The company found someway to mine and store his consciousness and implant it into these host bodies. The room is simply where the technicians can observe the behavior to see if it's at least possible that the same man is capable of coming out once more. He has no memory of all the previous times his mind has been spun up in the hopes of starting his life again. It's been so long that the old William is the latest visitor to this chamber. Delos doesn't recognize him right away. Him understanding that William has gotten old is all the confirmation he needs that this mission has failed. He has yet to be reborn. But it also highlights a William who is no longer supportive of the mission to chase immortality. In the present day, he sees himself as the face of death who needs to follow by those rules that it is eventually coming for everyone. They all just can't be spun up again to keep on living. Life needs to have more meaning than that.

This all ties closely into Bernard's story as well. He is once again falling in and out of his memories. He experiences his past as if it is happening to him for the first time. It's such a disorientating experience for him. The audience is witnessing this as if he is standing in this cave and secret bunker suddenly remembering the true purpose of this place. In actuality though, it's much more likely him being lost in his memories once more in that future timeline were he's still trying to figure out what happened in the park and with the hosts during this uprising before the Delos reinforcements arrived. As such, he understands that he can't change anything because all of this has already happened. He's powerless to stop it. He's out of place in time. That makes it seem as if he doesn't have control over his actions even though he's likely becoming sentient because he's forming his own decisions and making his own choices in this world. He's coming to realize just how crippling it was to be of unknown and unwilling service to Ford. This story brings Elsie back to the series. It's revealed that she was just locked up somewhere else in the park instead of actually being killed. That's a relief because she was a character who could have done so much more in the first season if the show actually gave her more focus. She is a prominent part of this episode. She doesn't trust Bernard because he's the man who choked her out and chained her up. Bernard easily could have killed her. Ford ordered him to do that in the past many times. He did so in the first season with Theresa. And now, he does so with the Delos operatives who were working in this new bunker that Bernard and Elsie discover. It's clear that Ford is leading them here for a reason. He's asking Bernard to remember something important. Bernard is just slowly coming to grasp with his reality while always being on the verge of a critical shutdown.

It's in this bunker that Bernard and Elsie also come face-to-face with James Delos. In William's last interaction with the man, he didn't simply terminate the program after it was clear that the technicians hadn't cracked the code just yet. He wanted this version of Delos to live in the ambiguity of knowing that all of this work has yet to produce any results while him losing many of his loved ones in the process. His wife and daughter are dead now. William sees no reason to keep on going with this experiment. And yet, Delos is still alive when Ford enacts his grand plan for the park. When his new narrative kicks in, Delos is still locked away living out his routine and slowly going mad. It presents as an immediate threat when Bernard and Elsie unlock that door. They venture into that room knowing that the company is doing something nefarious and sinister by spying on the guests. They simply don't know what yet. Plus, it's clear that the show is still keeping several significant pieces of the puzzle from the audience. Bernard sees himself in this bunker before. He orchestrated the attack on the technicians that worked there. He was probably under the control of Ford at the time who didn't like what Delos was really using the park for. It's only now that Ford is starting to reveal what's truly going on in this world. Only through death he has given birth to new life. His influence is still shaping the narrative of the series. It's clear that he was a brilliant man who could think so far ahead of everyone else. But that's also incredibly frustrating to Bernard. He wants to team up with Elsie to get the answers that they both crave while also saving themselves. She doesn't know how to trust him but is willing to help him so long as he promises to be honest and not kill her. But that's immediately broken by him learning just how vicious he has been in the past. He was the monster that attacked this facility before. He's the one with the strength to kill this latest version of Delos. He has a hidden power within him too that is just waiting to be released onto the world.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Riddle of the Sphinx" was written by Gina Atwater & Jonathan Nolan and directed by Lisa Joy.
  • Is this the first episode of the series not to feature Dolores or Maeve in it? It certainly seems that way. As such, it could be such a huge risk for the series by choosing to focus on these two stories. And yet, it's also invigorating as well because they both cover so much ground and ultimately reveal so much. Having those other characters in the episode would have been too overwhelming and taken away the impact of the main story.
  • Something more is clearly going on with the Ghost Nation as well. The story pointed out that both Stubbs and Grace were taken by them. Here, they are shown to be judged by their leader. But it mostly points out that these are the one group of hosts who aren't killing humans. That's a significant difference from the rest of the park. And yet, Grace isn't willing to stay around long enough to figure out what's going on. She's able to escape pretty easily as well.
  • In fact, it's clear that Grace has no intention of leaving the park. She is well verse in the many different environments of the place. She may have her preference like her father does. And yet, she's comfortable riding around in Westworld as well. She is accustomed to this culture and even speaks the Ghost Nation language. She can communicate with the world better than most humans. But the animosity between her and her father will probably fuel the conflict as they are probably chasing the same thing in the park.
  • A lot of time is spent guessing on what is being made in this new facility that Bernard and Elsie discover. It's clear that it contains the room where these experiments with James Delos' consciousness were occurring. But it also feels like something more was being built here than simply more host bodies. Bernard even keeps having flashes about these red objects. So, those must be important somehow.
  • The show doesn't even hide the fact that Shannon Woodward is coming back as Elsie here. This show changes its opening credits every week to only feature the actors who make an appearance - with the exception for the leads who need to be credited even in the hours where they don't appear. So, it's not surprising when Elsie shows up. But it's so exciting to see her back after it seemed like she was doomed by the end of last season.