A record spins, a flywheel hums, and an hourglass trickles in James Delos’ (Peter Mullan) apartment, which is furnished with a plethora of reminders that time’s seemingly finite nature is ultimately cyclical. Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy makes her directorial debut with this week’s “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” and it’s a doozy, anchored by one recurring setpiece. We even get a tiny mastubatory link to The Shape of Water, which also used a morning jerk-off as a mid-routine bout with fantasy.
When William (Jimmi Simpson) interrupts the routine, both with his presence and with the introduction of intoxication to Delos’ highly-monitored life, it’s a shock—or is it? This is a host-esque Delos, whose immortality-seeking brain has been transplanted into a few different bodies and whose backstory is that he’s under observation for a neurological disease that seems to be affecting memory… which makes the collection of experiences and DNA profiles from Westworld seem even more sinister when you think of the biotechnical potential under the surface. It’s also the biggest power play possible for William, because making his CEO-in-law his lab rat is exactly the kind of devilish control anyone in charge of the park would exert.
These reveals—and they come in stages—are structured beautifully by Joy, with just enough hints rationed out to clue us in that something’s amiss but not enough to prove definitively one way or another. Its resurgence again and again at the act breaks is the episode’s form echoing its content in the same satisfying way. Just enough is cut out each time for familiarity but not repetition. Not to mention the acting: Mullen nails each and every delivery, a cognitive slide as impressive as it is moving, and then there’s Simpson and Ed Harris’ confidence, which slowly sees William drop the façade masking his animosity. The subtle hair and makeup details that clue Simpson’s aging into Harris are just grace notes complimenting a masterful tune.
But we also get a few familiar melodies this episode, especially with the return of Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) assistant, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward), who was last seen in the host’s memory… as he was strangling her. Now Elsie needs to be the programmer to his addled brain, which is tearing itself apart by simultaneously trying to obey Ford’s new game and trying to survive on its own accord. This means that his memory, when it’s working correctly, is manifesting as a set of unsorted files. That leads to some fun shots of Wright watching his past self navigate the incredible sets. He’s creating the future by watching the past, which is the same kind of collapse of time’s arrow we’ve seen earlier this season from Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood).
The pair go down into the secret lab (marked “12,” even though they’re in sector 22), where Elsie blasts one of those terrifying faceless hosts and discovers that, oh shit, this is where they were developing the mind-copying technology that was keeping Delos “alive” in the first place. After they put an end to the final (?) Delos, in a truly scary scene ripped from Event Horizon, Elsie decides to trust Bernard and his quest to save one other copied human mind. In true engineer fashion, by name-checking service to people, she puts all her faith in a machine. That’ll probably be fine.
Speaking of those attempting to forge their own destinies within highly structured environments, Katja Herbers continues to dominate her screentime as the nonplussed, park-hopping ass-kicker that’s also Westworld’s newest resident—even when she’s put in the same Ghost Nation prisoner camp as Ashley (Luke Hemsworth, perfect in his overconfidence). She escapes, while he’s simply let go after being told a proverb. Guys always seem to get off easiest in this world.
Speaking of men still deserving of comeuppance, The Man in Black gets captured by a familiar group after riding into Lawrence’s (Clifton Collins, Jr.) hometown. The two discuss William’s daughter, Emily, which is as surprising and potent a reminder to the audience as the performance of their captor, the escaped Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker, making the absolute most out of his supporting role). These stories—between Dolores’ faction, the Man in Black, and the other groups navigating the desert—are linked much more tangibly than before. Characters cross over and the distance between their trails only allows for drama to grow along the way.
The drama in these particular scenes—which could have simply been the straight acts of torture and action that they’ve been for a season and change—is packed with gorgeously matched visual meaning to William’s past. His memory of his wife’s bathtub suicide is paired with the pouring rain and a host who, like a teenager, is so detached from death as to think he’s mastered it. That’s thoughtful direction paired with skilled cinematography and editing to make the pairings feel light even when they end in an explosion—whether a chemical one or a narrative one, like when Herbers’ ass-kicking character is revealed to be Emily. How’s that for a physical reminder of time? The game is now one of mortality and the reckoning levied against those that would mess with it, in either direction. “Hi, Dad,” and goodbye to any doubts that Westworld’s second season wouldn’t surpass its first.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.