There are precisely two times that a TV show has completely blown my mind. One was, of course, when Ned Stark lost his head in the first season of Game of Thrones in 2011. (By the time of subsequent shocks, such as the Red Wedding, I’d read the novels.)
The other was the Season 2 opener of Lost, back in 2005. In what appeared to be a flashback, Desmond (played by the Scottish Peruvian actor Henry Ian Cusick) put a record on a turntable to play a 1960s hit (Mama Cass’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music”), rode an exercise bike, went to the kitchen sink and the bathroom, and indulged in other daily routines. But it wasn’t a flashback: It was the present, with Desmond in the midst of a years-long stint in the “hatch,” which the survivors of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 were in the process of blowing wide open. It was the single best moment of what was a pretty great show before it began going off the rails a season or two later.
So, of course when the fourth episode of this season of Westworld opened with Jim Delos (played by the Scottish actor Peter Mullan) living in an underground bunker, playing a 1960s hit (the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire”) on a turntable, riding an exercise bike, going to the kitchen sink and the bathroom, and indulging in other daily routines, I assumed it was an homage to that prior Lost opening.
Amazingly, it wasn’t.
The episode—the best of Season 2 so far, and one of Westworld’s best, period—was written by Gina Atwater and series co-creator Jonathan Nolan, but it was directed by co-creator Lisa Joy. She’s the one who inserted the most resonant echoes (the turntable, the bike), and she’d never even seen the Season 2 premiere of Lost. I reached Joy on the phone and we discussed the series of coincidences that led to these peculiar parallels. “This is the way that happy accidents make history rhyme sometimes,” she told me.
In the original script, Joy said, Jim mostly spent that first scene eating, flossing, brushing his teeth, and exercising on a treadmill. But when it came time to specifically design his quarters, “we started thinking, what if every angle, from the bathroom to the living room, was totally visible [from the outside]. So that’s where we got to the idea of the circular room. I really latched onto that idea not only because it would be the most voyeuristic for those watching him, but also because I was obsessed with the motif in this episode of loops, and the idea that humans are now on loops that the hosts had been on before.”
From there, Joy decided to visually emphasize circles and loops. “I thought, what if I do concentric circles all the way through?” she said. “I knew I needed some source for music, and it didn’t feel very visual just to have it be some computer playing something out of a speaker. I thought, CDs, eh. Tape players, too retro. So I loved the idea of a kind of modernized record player.”
Likewise, the replacement of the treadmill with an exercise bike: “We put the treadmill in there and it was humongous. It took up the entire room … And then at the last minute I was like, ‘Wait a second, let’s just do an exercise bike.’” More circles going around and around.
As for the ’60s music, Joy figured that the time frame was right for Jim’s character. She chose “Play With Fire” specifically for its fire motif. It’s no coincidence that Jim smokes and plays with his cigarette lighter, nor (as we discover later) that each new iteration of his host-body is incinerated when it starts to fail. “There’s the idea of water and flame as images for washing away the past or burning it clean,” Joy explained. She pointed to the tempestuous downpour in the Man in Black shootout: “It’s never done that before in the history of Westworld. We’d never done rain.”
The second time we see Jim, he’s dancing to Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand,” so I asked Joy why that song was chosen. “There is a reason, and it’s called Peter Mullan,” she said. “If you’re going to ask a wonderful actor to dance, the least you can do is ask him if there’s a song he likes to dance to”—and this, she said, was it. She further confessed: “The dailies of him dancing are some of my all-time favorite dailies ever.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after I talked to Joy that I recalled the song’s lyric about “the sphinx and Mona Lisa.” Was the episode title, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” a deliberate reference to this? Or was it, perhaps, just another happy accident of history rhyming?