Westworld and the Question of Immortality

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” the fourth episode of Season 2.

An image from the latest episode of 'Westworld'

Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.

David Sims: Westworld’s first season was largely focused on the abuse of artificial life, given that the park hosts’ purpose almost exclusively revolved around sex, violence, and suffering. The freedom Dolores and her ilk were fighting for was simple consciousness—a right to their own memories and self-awareness. In just the first four episodes, Westworld’s second season has exploded that basic quest into all kinds of fascinating directions, but “The Riddle of the Sphinx” was the first to really grapple with one of the most obvious questions in AI, which is: Isn’t artificial intelligence the key to immortality?

After all, the hosts of Westworld don’t really age; they degrade, or get damaged, but that’s easily fixed with a bit of 3-D printing. Their minds are stored on plastic eggs swimming in an artificial cortical soup in their heads, easily swapped out or updated whenever necessary. If we could somehow download our own brains into one of those bodies, wouldn’t our existence become theoretically eternal? Turns out, that’s one of the deeper, darker queries being explored within the bowels of the park. We’ve already learned that Westworld’s parent company, Delos, was up to all kinds of secret surveillance, collecting guests’ DNA and information on their blackmail-worthy behavior. But its experiment on James Delos (Peter Mullan) is a whole other brand of macabre.

James’s predicament was also, without a doubt, the most spellbinding part of an altogether great episode. In general, I’m enjoying Westworld’s ambition as it plumbs deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of the hosts, but James Delos’s gilded cage was a particularly fun wrinkle. Previous episodes have hinted at his suffering some terminal disease, and this one suggested that his sleek apartment was a sort of lab, a holding cell sealing him off from the world as doctors searched for a cure. His only visitor is William, first young, then middle-aged, then old enough to look like Ed Harris, but James is never allowed to leave, and nothing ever seems quite right.

That’s because William has trapped James in a lavish prison underneath the park, and James isn’t really James; he’s an artificial copy programmed with James’s memories. It’s an ongoing trial that hasn’t really borne fruit—as William eventually tells James, the copies never last more than a month before plateauing and developing severe cognitive issues. It’s an idea both fascinating and frightening, and it’s one that really makes William feel like a Dr. Frankenstein worthy of Ford’s rivalry, a man messing with concepts of life and death that he doesn’t fully understand.

Most of the William–James scenes in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” took place further in the past, but in Westworld’s grim present, there is a hint that William has realized the limits of his weird experiments. Old William’s face-off against Dolores’s discarded soldier battalion and his daring rescue of his old pal Lawrence had a hint of redemption to it—but just a hint. We’ve never seen Old William do anything altruistic before, but that’s because the park had lost all of its shine for him; now, with the stakes raised and the hosts behaving like real people, he may be realizing that Ford’s experiments in consciousness were the truly inventive part of his research.

Indeed, at the end, as Old William saw a woman on a horse approaching on the horizon, I think he was hoping it would be Dolores—that now, in her blooming state of awareness, she’d be a real match for him, as he’d always fantasized. Instead, it was our resourceful pal from last week’s skirmish in the British Raj, revealed to be William’s daughter, and perhaps the only person with as deep a knowledge of the park’s workings as him. It’s a twist I probably should have seen coming, but I was genuinely surprised.

The other major plotline this week? The return of Elsie (Shannon Woodward), the grumpy tech from Season 1, whom I’ve missed ever since she mysteriously disappeared at the hands of Bernard. Now she’s back, and aware of her boss’s own status as a host, and the two together scour the edges of the park to find William’s secret immortality lab, which has become a glowing red hell of a place, the nasty underside of Delos’s capitalistic playground. The twist Elsie doesn’t know is, Bernard and his gluey golems trashed the place themselves a while ago. Was that on Ford’s orders? Or for some other malicious reason? “The Riddle of the Sphinx” left me with more questions than answers—but questions I’ll be happy to mull over for weeks. Sophie, can Bernard be trusted at all anymore?

Sophie Gilbert: The only thing I know about Bernard is that Jeffrey Wright is killing it (as is Bernard, apparently). The shot toward the end of the episode of Bernard’s face after he stomped a Delos technician’s head into a metal grille was terrifying, as was the instant segue into present-Bernard (or past-Bernard? or future-Bernard?) mulling over his memories. Wright has long done impeccable double duty playing Bernard and Arnold; now he’s conveying all of Bernard’s murderous memories with unbelievable dexterity.

This was my favorite episode of Westworld to date, because it did so much and it did it all so stylishly. The opening scene was a discombobulating trip into a totally different world, complete with mid-century modern furniture, mysterious but symbolic props (a leather-bound book, a goldfish, an hourglass), and a high-tech turntable playing the actual Rolling Stones, not a robot-piano cover. (“Play With Fire” is a nice metaphor for what William’s doing in the bunker.) It was a thrill to try and figure out the puzzle of what was unfolding, and to have questions and answers in the same episode. You mentioned Dr. Frankenstein, David, and the scene where Elsie and Bernard discovered Jim, his face bloody and scarred, felt like the most obvious homage to Mary Shelley, and creature horror, yet.

Now, too, we have another piece of the bigger mystery of Season 2: Delos is working on making human life last forever. It’s pretty similar to the plot of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, in which every human on Earth has their consciousness downloaded into a cortical stack, which enables them to flip between different bodies ad infinitum (as long as they have the money to pay for it). William seems to have figured out the ethical implications of such a scheme. “I’m beginning to think this whole enterprise was a mistake,” he told Jim 149.0. “People aren’t meant to live forever.” But as Bernard told Elsie, Delos was working on a control unit for someone else, “another human.” Who? And what for?

Maybe it’s William, despite his doubts. Maybe it’s Ford, and the big surprise of the season will be a Ford-host hidden somewhere in the park. It is thrilling, and eerie, every time Ford’s voice comes from one of the hosts to taunt the Man in Black, particularly this week, when it was Lawrence’s daughter. Like you, David, I was on the fence about how much the Man in Black’s storyline this week was meant to be a redemptive one. We’ve seen him do such appalling things in Season 1 that I can’t imagine Westworld would try to reform him. And yet his reverie while Lawrence’s wife was being tortured by Major Craddock seemed to refer to memories of his wife’s death: There were images of running water, ice, and a bathtub with an arm falling out of it. In other words, it wasn’t selfishness that made him intervene, but empathy for what Lawrence’s family was enduring.

Let’s hope we’ll find out more with the reunion between William and his daughter. Last week, it seemed like she wasn’t interested in the hosts in the park at all. This week, she told Stubbs that she doesn’t care for people, either. So why is she here? What’s her endgame, since hunting Bengals appears to be just a fun diversion until the real adventure unfolds?

Another question for you, Spencer: How does the riddle of the sphinx, the title of this episode, relate to the plot? In Greek mythology, the sphinx (part human, part lion) guarded the city of Thebes by asking travelers what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening. When they couldn’t answer, she ate them. Is Jim the traveler and William the sphinx? Does the riddle allude to the inevitable aging and death of mankind, which Delos is trying to stave off? I’m flummoxed, so consider me sphinx-kibble for now.

Kornhaber: The answer to the sphinx’s question is a human being, but Westworld is now mulling what it would mean to redefine that term so that it might no longer fit with the sphinx’s criteria. Rather than walk on three legs in the evening, we each might implant ourselves in an eternally regenerating two-footed version—with the help of mysterious lab-made marbles and mass-produced eyeballs. Or does that mean we’d cease to be human at all?

It’s a thrill for the show to get around to pondering the philosophical conundrum and primal fantasy of immortality, which while evergreen—the ancients wanted not to die, too—is novel within the story. All season long, we’ve been told we’re to think big: “There’s an answer here to a question no one’s ever dreamed of asking,” William said a few weeks back. Now we get a glimpse of what that might mean, and it’s probably grander than simply making it so “some asshole can live forever,” as Elsie put it. Perhaps Delos has been collecting user data not to blackmail the rich, but to build clones of them—and then sell the park’s visitors their own god selves.

Here’s a riddle about riddles, though: How many questions does Elsie ask in this episode? Back when Westworld creator-sibling Christopher Nolan’s Inception came out, critics noted how Ellen Page’s character served, clunkily, as a mere audience surrogate, quizzing the other characters about what was going on in every scene. Westworld has all along relied way too much on this sort of storytelling, but it reached new tediousness with Elsie subjecting Bernard to an ongoing Q&A about his hostdom, his memory, the hidden lab, and the human-host replication project. I record her as starting at least six sentences with “What the hell … ?”

Another slave to exposition is Lawrence, though he has been serving less to interrogate the Man in Black than to be a receptacle for his ominous thematic blather and thinking-out-loud about Ford’s game. In this episode, at least, Elder William repaid his loyal listener by rescuing him and his kin from Major Craddock, whose tequila tortures pale in sadism only next to the method of railroad construction now practiced in the park. You’re right, Sophie, that this  imparts a sense that William may have a soul after all. But he insists he saved the day not out of altruism, but to play Ford’s game—and that distinction may well help explain why Ford’s pigtailed proxy told William he still doesn’t get it.

Because really, it’s not a game anymore. The hosts have real feelings, real desires, and real lives. Thus there was a real ethical imperative to save Lawrence’s family. It appears as though William’s being taught a long lesson about humanity—both the humanity of the hosts and the humanity of his own discarded family members. His wife killed herself, his father-in-law essentially experienced decades of torment at his hands, and his daughter, he said in this episode, may well want to shoot him. We’ll soon find out just how bad of a parent he is, now Grace and he have come face-to-face. We’ll also find out whether she’s rebelling against dad by tearing down his amoral kingdom—or if she’s actually taken after him in gamerdom and is one of the “multiple contenders” in Ford’s quest.

Here’s hoping these riddles are answered with a sense of urgency and fun. Unlike the two of you, I was not quite ravished by this episode’s slow reveal of the fate of James Delos. By the end of their first encounter, when William told his papa-in-law that he would try to duplicate their conversation and then handed him an astonishing piece of paper, it wasn’t hard to guess at the contours of James’s Groundhog Day–like fate (actually, his fate is more like that of a forgetful, entrapped goldfish, as the show all too bluntly telegraphed to us). At more than an hour in length, with multiple scenes of senseless violence and hamfisted world-building dialogue, this week’s episode felt like a prime example of the Westworld paradox: The show’s playing with fire, but can feel as inert as ice.