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4 winners and 3 losers from Westworld’s “The Riddle of the Sphinx”

Westworld plays with fire in an episode showing its best and worst selves.

Bernard hangs out with a drone.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“The Riddle of the Sphinx” offers the best and worst of Westworld in one convenient package. It includes compelling mysteries, horrifying thoughts on the future of sentient beings on earth, and some solid action beats — all within a 71-minute running time, at least 20 to 30 minutes of which are spent on things the show has not sufficiently convinced me I should care about.

By this point, you’ve either made your peace with Westworld being this way or you’ve just stopped watching. But try though the show might, it simply cannot get me invested in the Man in Black’s quest, or the lengthy philosophical rambles he engages in with various Hosts and others he comes across in the park.

So much of this season is centered on Ford’s latest “game,” which is maybe a Host uprising and maybe just another way to make the park more atmospheric and maybe both. And when the show turns its gaze to Bernard and William, the two characters with the most investment in whatever Ford was up to, as it does in this episode, the series starts being about what happens when these men try to chase a ghost.

Yet “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is so good in its other sequences that I almost don’t care about its weak points. In particular, the sequences centered on the mystery of James Delos are some of the best things the series has ever done, bolstered by an incredible guest performance.

So let’s take a look at the four winners and three losers of “The Riddle of the Sphinx.”

Loser: James Delos

Lisa Joy directs this episode of Westworld.

“The Riddle of the Spinx” opens with a man living in what amounts to a hole in the ground. And if you know your recent genre TV history, well, there’s a big, Lost-shaped silhouette cast over the whole sequence.

But director Lisa Joy (also co-creator and co-showrunner) is aware of the Lost homage inherent in the periodic flashbacks to James Delos’s time under what’s more or less house arrest, and so she tweaks our assumptions early on. When Delos spills that cream all over his little tray, you’re instantly aware this isn’t some neatly ordered hidey-hole like the Hatch on Lost. No, there’s something far more disturbing going on here.

Joy and episode writers Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan (the other co-creator and co-showrunner) space out the scenes featuring Delos throughout the episode, slowly building mystery and tension as to what’s “really” up with him as a steadily aging William drops in on a Delos who never seems to change, who keeps repeating the same lines of dialogue, who eventually spills the cream again and again. What viewers will likely put together very quickly is that he’s a Host, but he’s not a replica of the original James Delos, not precisely.

Instead, Delos is a Host, but one with the original James Delos’s human brain, a human brain that keeps rejecting its new Host body after certain periods of time. William eventually abandons Delos to his own deterioration, accepting that the man must die, and Bernard and Elsie (about whom more in a second) finish the job by immolating him.

Here, then, is another nightmarish reason for the existence of Westworld and the big money backing it: eternal life for those who can afford it. The implications of this idea — and the ever-more-massive class imbalances it opened up — dovetail beautifully with Dolores’s attempts to end the natural order of the planet, even if Dolores sits out this week as an active participant in the story.

Winner: actor Peter Mullan

James Delos, in times when he wasn’t disintegrating from the inside out.

I said above that the experimentation with Delos is “nightmarish,” and one big reason stems from who Delos is. In William’s telling of events, Delos is a very bad man who wants to live forever, which means William’s choice to trap him in a body that no longer syncs up with his mind (apparently shortly before the series began, since William’s wife — Delos’s daughter — has recently killed herself) is, from his point of view, a fitting punishment.

But it’s also a nightmare because of how actor Peter Mullan underlines every stutter step and missed gesture in Delos’s slow descent. This is a horror story, in multiple ways — both for what happens to James Delos and for what he was trying to do, the way he was trying to change the rules of nature so they no longer applied to those rich and powerful enough to sidestep them.

Mullen is electrifying here, with a part that could have felt gimmicky and instead feels like a very real, very human person trying to cope with a body that just doesn’t work like it should, in a way that feels sufficiently robotic. The actors who play the Hosts get to have the most fun on this show — and maybe Mullen gets to have the most fun of all with a rich, meaty part.

Of course, Delos was just the prototype human/Host hybrid. There’s apparently another somewhere, one whose creation Bernard supervised but whose identity he’s forgotten. The obvious answer here is that it’s Ford, and the prize at the end of the Man in Black’s search will be Ford himself. But I have my doubts, and we’ll talk more about this in a second.

Winner: Elsie!

Elsie lives! The Westworld worker played by Shannon Woodward has been ... imprisoned in a cave all this time. As a solution to a cliffhanger I had literally forgotten about — we saw Bernard attacking Elsie in a flashback in the first season’s eighth episode, and she disappeared in the first season’s sixth episode — it’s hilariously weak (though I assume there is More Going On Here). But I’m happy to have Elsie back and to remember that she exists, so I won’t complain too much.

What’s more, she gets a lot to do in this episode, both realizing that Bernard is a Host and helping him find the cortical fluid he needs to survive in the strange, secret lab where Delos lives in his tiny underground apartment. She shoots one of the faceless, pure white “drone” Hosts before it can attack them. She helps fill in those in the audience who haven’t figured it out that Bernard’s troubled personal history is his “backstory.” She sets James Delos on fire, thus completing his long, grueling death.

There are so few human characters worth giving a damn about on this show that it’s kind of fun to have the eminently capable Elsie back to handle herself, and it’s good to have an episode to cement her in the memory more firmly than previous ones did. Here’s hoping the series has more in store for her than it has for Stubbs, another character I keep forgetting when he’s not on screen.

Winner: the Rolling Stones

Westworld’s use of music can sometimes be overbearing, especially when it leans too heavily on old-timey piano covers of pop music standards. But Delos’s morning routine set to the Stones’ haunting “Play With Fire” foreshadowed his eventual fate, commented on his ruthless nature, and offered a mournful counterpart to the whole story. It’s probably the best use of music on the show yet.

Loser: Bernard’s general cognitive abilities

Jeffrey Wright is probably the best actor in Westworld’s cast, a fact he keeps proving by handling anything the show can throw at him. But the show’s choice to have him play “unstuck in time” in season two has so far not paid great dividends.

It’s fascinating to see this idea pop up in an episode that nods and winks toward Lost, because that show’s Desmond (introduced in its own “daily routine of a guy stuck in a hole” sequence) also eventually became unstuck in time, but the show was incredibly careful to explain how his time skipping worked and to what point in time he traveled. Even when he was leaping between past and present, even when it wasn’t clear how all the pieces would fit together, it was clear what was happening.

I guess the same is true for Bernard. He keeps flashing back to major events in his life, from whatever he did in that secret lab that led him to murder everybody else working there (including the drones) to the immediate aftermath of Dolores’s attack. But instead of suggesting pieces of a larger story, these seem to function as teases, as elements of a mystery that’s hard to solve because we don’t quite know what game the show is playing with us.

Now, to be clear, some people really like this sort of thing. Getting bits and pieces of a larger whole, without having any sense of what the full picture looks like, can be a good time for some viewers. But I’ve found Westworld’s second season to be much better simply because it’s so often playing fair with the audience.

The Bernard storyline feels like it’s hiding a bunch of cards from us solely to hide the cards from us. It’s preparing for twists, but in a way that so blatantly invites you to guess what the twists might be that its only real mode is speculation. Wright is great, but the storytelling flirts with being infuriating.

Loser: the Man in Black plot

What’s that Man in Black up to now????

It’s better than the Man in Black’s storyline, though! Because goodness, what is happening with this whole thing? I can tell you the broad strokes of what the “plot” is supposed to be, but I’m just not sure why any of it is supposed to matter, what the Man in Black is even doing here, or why I should care. I guess it’s a vaguely intriguing portrayal of a guy who’s a serious video game addict, but it’s all presented as though he’s getting closer and closer to true meaning. (This week, he’s waxing on about death, in a manner that I think is supposed to make us think about the death of all humanity, but it feels like so much obfuscation.)

This is an even greater example of what I mean by the show’s piecemeal approach to telling these sorts of stories. It’s more bearable here, because the Man in Black is at least as confused as we are as he tries to find the center of Ford’s maze. But at the same time, I’m not entirely sure why he’s so driven to do this, beyond the fact that he has nothing else left — and that’s with the character being played by two different actors in two different timelines. When I say that about 20 to 30 minutes of this week’s episode just made me roll my eyes at the show, all of them were contained in this story.

I have been sort of wondering if it will turn out that the Man in Black is the other custom-built Host-human hybrid who was constructed in that secret lab, but that, too, feels like it would be a little too obvious. Instead, I’m betting — completely improbably — on another character entirely.

Winner: Emily

The Man in Black’s mysterious daughter, Emily (the one who supposedly discovered her mother’s corpse, though this week’s episode suggests William/MIB did), is apparently revealed to us this week, as she rides up to her father at episode’s end and says, “Hi, Dad.” She turns out to be “Grace,” the woman portrayed by Katja Herbers that we met in Colonialism World last week, who escaped from a tiger only to become the prisoner of Ghost Nation. She finagles her way out of that predicament and rides up confidently to her dad, who gives us no indication that this isn’t his daughter. (Though leave it to this show to completely pull the rug out from under us.)

So hear me out here: What if Emily is the other Host-human hybrid? Probably she’s not, because that might end up being way too convoluted, but there’s something so coincidental and perfectly timed about the way she rides up to her father, and if he’s following Ford’s quest because he knows it will lead him to a daughter he thought he lost or something of the sort, it would instantly fill in a bunch of gaps in his story.

Again, this probably won’t happen. But I kind of love the idea that Ford used his final “game” to attempt to force a reconciliation between his patron and his patron’s estranged daughter — from beyond the grave, no less! Weirder things have happened on this show.