Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A resonant Westworld finds meaning in the past

Horse, Ed Harris (r)
Horse, Ed Harris (r)
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)

Anyone looking for proof that the second season of Westworld is playing with a different set of rules than the first can find it in the introduction and reveal of the season’s first major new human character, Grace (Katja Herbers). She showed up in last week’s cold open, hanging out in Rajworld, having some intense sexy time with another guest before Ford’s new storyline broke the park. She shows up again in “The Riddle Of The Sphinx,” and by the end of the episode, we know who she is. I’m not sure if she’s been named yet in the series (I checked the cast list online), but the final scene has her running into William and calling him Dad. It’s a great closing beat for a terrific entry; it’s also a twist that we don’t have to wait a whole season to uncover. Instead of spending weeks teasing us with possibilities until the actual fact can’t help but disappoint, the writers lay it all out in two episodes—enough to intrigue, but not enough to grow stale.


That sense of immediacy elevates “Sphinx,” the rare extra-long entry that actually earns its running time. From the Lost-esque flashbacks that frame the piece to the emotional arc of its two running storylines, the episode uses its 71 minutes to build a sense of real weight and import. The show’s use of flashbacks this season is more traditional than in the past. Instead of elliptical interludes with no clear sense of temporality, our glimpses into the land of ago now center around specific characters in the present (here it’s Bernard and William). In practice, that means that a lot of this season feels more like a regular TV show than usual—and while that means losing some of the mystique that arguably made the first season so popular, it allows the audience to connect more directly to the main characters.

Take William. Season one’s twist kept the most interesting thing about him—his transition from idealistic good guy to cynical and embittered black hat—hidden until the very end. Even putting aside the fact that the internet managed to guess the secret with half a season or more left (which meant that anyone who made the mistake of being too clever or simply reading the wrong article would be stuck waiting for the show to catch up with the rest of the world), it was difficult to see either version of William, young or old, as anything more than a well-acted symbol. Both Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson did strong work with what they were given, and rewatching the first season at least gives you a chance to appreciate what’s coming without waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it’s still an experiment that’s more clever than it is actually useful. Hell, just letting us know from the start that they were playing the same man would’ve been fine. There’s inherent suspense in wondering when a decent person will break bad—just watch Better Call Saul.

With the reveal out of the way, season two is free to stop playing coy and start digging into Williams’s connection with the park’s history; what his plans were, and what made him into the man we see in the present, disinterested in anything but his pursuit of Ford’s last narrative. The glimpses we get of his past this week offer up a surprise: at least for a while, the Delos company was in the business of building new copies of old human beings. Over the course of a handful of scenes, we see someone who looks and acts an awful lot like Jim Delos. Something is clearly off, though. In the opening, William (initially played by Simpson, before switching to Harris for the final exchange) comes in, offers some high quality booze, and has a comfortable, if somewhat oblique chat with Jim, before handing him a few folded sheets of paper.

Over the course of the episode, we come to learn that Jim Delos did die, and that the man we keep seeing is the company’s attempt to build him a new body; to make him functionally immortal. The work isn’t going well. Plot-wise, this is useful information, giving us a glimpse of what made William so eager to invest in the park, and hinting at what the Delos company might be doing with all that secret intel it’s been gathering on the sly. But what makes it works so well in the moment is the way it plays on our emotions, telling a short story about a consciousness duplicated hundreds of times with its knowledge, each new copy slightly different than before—and each one doomed to failure when the mind can’t accept itself.

There’s pathos in that even if we don’t know Jim Delos very well (Peter Mullan is great, building a character in quick glimpses before charting his gradual disintegration), and it helps enrich our sense of William, underlining just how responsible he is for Delos becoming the company it’s become, even as his interest in leading that company gradually fell apart. All of this makes the scenes of present-day William deciding to engage more completely in Ford’s game and play the good guy all the more resonant. It’s the sort of ambiguous, nuanced storytelling that puzzle-box narratives struggle to generate—events that are connected, but in ways that don’t lend themselves to clear “a-ha!” discoveries. The idea that present-day William might not be completely dead inside after all, that there might be some part of him capable of caring about disposable machines (which, as far as I can tell, is how he sees everyone, humans included), makes him a much more interesting character than just a black hat sadist doomed to an inevitable comeuppance.


The episode’s other major storyline, which has Bernard finding Elsie chained to a rock in cave, is more straightforward, filling us in on what happened to her after last season’s attack before providing yet another glimpse of Delos’ behind-the-scenes machinations. Apart from the delightful news that Elsie is still alive (apparently Ford just had Bernard incapacitate her and keep her hidden and safe until the real shit went down), the broad strokes aren’t particularly surprising. We’ve seen hidden labs like this one before; we’ve seen Bernard seeing hidden labs like this. The fact that Bernard (still operating under Ford’s direction, presumably) had the unsettling skinless hosts murder all the lab techs is disturbing, but we already know Ford used him to commit considerable violence. The more we see, the clearer it is that Ford was not happy with the direction the Delos company went with his research.

What makes this work is watching Elsie struggle to adjust to a new relationship with Bernard, and seeing Bernard suffer from his swirling memories. Much as last week gained power from building off of Dolores’ relationship with her “father,” “Sphinx” uses established connections and histories to great effect, in a way it couldn’t in season one when it was busy making sure no one ever knew exactly what was going on. Instead of teasing out the secret of just what Jim Delos is doing in that room, we know everything we need to know by the end, so that when Elsie and Bernard discover what’s left of the last iteration—the one William didn’t burn because he thought it might be “useful”—we have a clear understanding of the horror of the moment. It’s almost ironic; in an episode named after one of history’s greatest puzzles, we find Westworld finally willing to stop playing games.


Stray observations

  • I’m not kidding about the Lost-esqueness of that opening scene. Very curious if it’s an intentional nod to the beginning of that show’s second season.
  • The episode’s first scene does a terrific job immediately letting us know something is unusual via a simple music cue: instead of a mournful cover of a pop song, we get a straight up recording of the Rolling Stones doing “Playing With Fire”—on LP, no less. (As mentioned in the review, it also gave me some serious Lost vibes, which I have to believe are intentional; the initial minutes play a hell of a lot like the opening of that earlier show’s own second season.)
  • Speaking of music, excellent use of Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand” here.
  • Last week I read some speculation that the Ghost Nation was a failsafe for the park designed to rescue guests in case of an emergency. At the very least, they aren’t killing the people they’re rounding up.
  • Ford had Bernard make a control module before things went haywire. I wonder where it ended up.
  • I watched it multiple times but I still couldn’t make out exactly when the faux Jim Delos was saying to Bernard at the end.
  • In the course of their journey, William and Laurence come across a group of Chinese rail-workers using people (not sure if the people are hosts or guests) for railway ties.
  • Grace briefly runs into Stubbs after being captured, and we learn that she has no interest in leaving the park. Later the natives take them to meet “the first of us,” which turns out to be Akecheta.
  • Logan is dead, by the way. At least, that’s what William tells the final Jim model. (Technically he just says that Logan “od’ed.”)
  • “Fuck it. I always trusted code more than people, anyway.” I am delighted that Elsie is not dead.