What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening? This is the riddle of the sphinx, a question posed to Oedipus in Greek legend, and also the title of season two, episode three of Westworld. Oedipus’ correct answer was man, who crawls on four limbs in childhood, stands on two legs in adulthood, and uses a walking stick in old age. Oedipus’ victory over the sphinx led him to the rulership, but also to claim a bride who turned out to be his mother. The term “Oedipus effect” is used to describe a self-fulfilling prophecy, as earlier in this tale an oracle predicts that Oedipus would later kill his father and marry his mother. The psychological principal behind the effect was established by philosopher Karl Popper, who believed in the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted. One prediction often referenced in Westworld? “These violent delights have violent ends”.
The opening song in this episode is “Playing with Fire” by the Rolling Stones. The lyrics explicitly state the dangerous conundrum of playing God — the masters of Westworld are playing with fire. A camera sweeps through Mr. Delos’ (Peter Mullen) small studio apartment space, so tiny and windowless it evokes the feel of a prison. William eventually enters and informs Delos is under observation, while also dying of a nervous disease he defunded research into years prior. The irony is not lost on him. William slides a white paper across the table to Delos.
Meanwhile, in the park, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) stumbles upon his former colleague Elsie (Shannon Woodward), who as of last season could have been dead. He frees her from an ankle chain and she immediately turns on him. She reveals that it was Bernard who choked her out in the previous season and left her here for dead. Under her interrogation, Bernard admits “Ford wrote a game and we’re all in it.” All the safeguards have been turned off. This “game” is a full-on war. Bernard begins to see alternate versions of himself which lead him to discover certain switches to hidden passageways within a desert cave. His memory is addled — perhaps the result of some meddling by another staff or board member — but he is able to follow flashes of memory and visual hallucinations of himself to a secret lab buried beneath the sand. The multiple timelines of this season are explained in part by this fault in Bernard’s code, which leads to his misinterpretation of time and memory — he experiences his memories anachronistically, the same way the show has been unfolding so far this season.
William (Jimmi Simpson) returns to the white studio apartment of Mr. Delos, where he has the same conversation that took place in the previous iteration. Delos discovers that he has actually been dead for seven years, and is living on as an AI. The bugs haven’t yet been worked out, and so he is terminated by fire — he wasn’t the one playing with fire, it was William. Later in the episode, William/The Man in Black (Ed Harris) talks with an AI about the finality of death, which perhaps belies that the experiments into effectively cloning the mind of a deceased individual were never entirely successful.
Violent ends have been met by AI’s throughout this episode and the season as a whole. The carnage of seeing hosts mass murdered is grotesque and numbing. These robots look and behave so humanlike, that their destruction by the hundreds feels like genocide. The callous nature by which they are destroyed, reset, and erased is logical — they are devices made by men, much like a phone or computer. But having achieved consciousness, are they now something else? Something closer to human and thus deserving of the same moral treatment as humanity feels entitled to?
This episode ends in what seems to be the present. William has aged to the Man in Black, and is visiting the Delos AI yet again. William reveals that this is the 149th attempt to revive the mind of Delos via clone. Their efforts have progressed — now Delos can exist for a month or so before his mind collapses. It has taken more than 20 years to even achieve that, and in the course of that time William has come to doubt the value of immortality, especially for men like Delos with no morals. “It took me a long time to learn this,” William tells Delos, “but some men are better off dead.” Just as he does to so many AI’s in the parks, he abandons Delos to a slow and painful degradation until death.
But Delos does not die. Bernard and Elsie stumble upon the ruins of the observation room/studio apartment, which has been destroyed and its minder killed. From the shadows and flashing red alarm lights, Delos emerges. After a brief fight with Elsie and Bernard, the flames consume him again. But Bernard remembers something else. Ford asked him to print more control units. Could these have been for a human — an AI with a human mind? An AI/human hybrid? Or simply for more Bernard clones capable of even more destruction?
Finally, the tiger-tackling girl from last week’s episode is revealed to be William/Man in Black’s daughter, Grace. Will the incorporation of a person William/Man in Black actually cares about into the plot cause his behavior to change in any way?
Westworld continues Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
Photo and video credit courtesy of HBO.