This post contains frank discussion of Westworld Season 2, Episode 4 “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” If youd rather not be spoiled on the turns of the plot and the larger references within, now is the time to leave.
Were not even halfway through the second season and this weeks episode of Westworld confirmed a huge, long-standing theory. Not only are we dealing with the notion of whether or not artificial intelligence can compare (or transcend) human intelligence, but Westworld is also diving into the question of whether humans can achieve some kind of digital immortality. In this specific case, that immortality would be achieved by uploading a humans “developed mind” into a host body—no coincidence the show has been using the word “Host” all along as a synonym for robot—and live forever. We see the return of Peter Mullens Jim Delos who has had his mind uploaded into a replica of his body and the episode checks in on him over the course of decades while his son-in-law William (first played by Jimmi Simpson and then Ed Harris) tries to work out the kinks in the technology.
The episode ends with some shocking and potentially juicy revelations about which humans mind we will see in a Hosts body by the end of the season (and you can read my thoughts on this question here), but first series co-creator and director of this episode, Lisa Joy, spoke with Vanity Fair about some of the cultural references in “Riddle of the Sphinx” and dropped a major hint about where this season may be heading. Before you get into that, you may want to listen to the latest installment of Vanity Fairs companion podcast, Still Watching: Westworld, where we take a deep dive into Episode 4 including an interview with guest star Jonathan Tucker who plays the late great Major Craddock.
As for Lisa Joy, though shes been working as a writer in television for nearly a decade now, Season 2, Episode 4 marks Joys first foray into the realm of directing. Its something shes long wanted to do because, as she points out, a lot of previous TV writing has been based in the visuals, rather than the dialogue. She cites one of Season 1s most striking sequences where Maeve (Thandie Newton) takes a silent tour of the Delos facility soaking in truths about her own nature without saying a word.
But in “Riddle of the Sphinx,” Joy had the opportunity to take complete creative control of the visuals of the episode and she broke down some references to other TV shows and movies that are—and surprisingly arent—on display here. Well roll briefly through a few of those that arent before we get to the film homage that could be the key to unlocking the rest of Season 2. Lets start with the biggest false alarm for prestige TV watchers:
Is Jim Deloss Bunker a Reference to Desmond in Lost? Fans of the mysterious sci-fi series that ran on ABC from 2004-2010 must surely have had their Lost sense tingling when the episode opened on Jim Delos (if you want to call him that) going through his morning routine. Whether its the record player, the exercise bike, the slow reveal on the face, or any other detail of Deloss morning routine, there appear to be so many callbacks to Desmond Humes memorable intro in Lost Season 2, Episode 1 “Man of Faith Man of Science.” But Joy confesses she missed the boat almost entirely on Lost. She was in law school when the series aired. And though someone on set alerted her to the fact that the record player and the bike might invoke Lost, they were chosen for entirely independent reasons.
Delos was scripted to be jogging on a treadmill and there was no record player in the script, but Joy and production designer Howard Cummings had gone to great pains to construct Jims visually stunning round room and Joy wanted to reflect that classic Westworld loop motif elsewhere as the camera makes a circular loop of the set. The parallels would be hard for Joy to ignore because the intentions of the sequences are so similar. How do you show a man going through a repetitive daily routine while trapped in a confined space? Both Desmond and “Jim Delos” were in their respective bunkers for years and the looping, circular, fishbowl imagery works beautifully for both.
Joy says the treadmill from the original script even made it onto the set at one point but Joy found it “clunky” and replaced it with the more elegant bike. “Its kind of funny how sometimes shows can rhyme in ways that are aesthetic that weren't necessarily intentional,” she says, “but by the way it”s wonderful to me that people found that and enjoyed it as an allusion.”
Was Jims Dance an Ex Machina Callback? The second time we visit Jim he has traded in his record of The Rolling Stones “Play with Fire” for “Do the Strand” by Roxy Music. Hes really getting down and viewers might be forgiven if they were reminded of another sequence involving a convincingly humanoid robot in an underground bunker grooving out: Ex Machina. Both the 2014 film and Westworld deal in similar themes of artificially intelligent women and the men who would love and/or control them but that, Joy says, is not the inspiration here.
Deloss round room is designed to be the optimal observation space. He doesnt have a moment of privacy. Not in the bathroom, not in his bedroom, nowhere. But he doesnt know that because the glass walls of his cage are fogged. Joy wanted to show Delos engaging in deeply private activity that he never would if he knew he was being observed. Once again, most of this wasnt in the script. Joy recalls thinking: “This is HBO so we can push the envelope a little bit right? I really wanted to think about if I was this character—the patriarch and head of this really powerful empire—and Im in this room and bored out of my mind. What are the things I would do, especially if I'm assuming no ones watching?”
Delos would likely never be seen dancing—certainly not in this unconstrained way. In that sense, this scene is very different from the Ex Machina sequence which is intended as a performative display. Delos is just dancing for himself. But Joy and her willing accomplice, actor Peter Mullen, didnt stop there.
“He was totally game,” Joy says when she suggested adding some private moments to Jims scripted routine. “He just threw himself into it. The dailies of him dancing are some of my favorite dailies in the world. He also added, Hey when Im also taking a piss what if I also gargle and spit? That was totally Peter. He just thought that would be an extra funny strange thing to do.”
Have We Gone Full Event Horizon? The last false alarm is the final Jim Delos reveal when Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) discover the last version of the man (should we call him that?) abandoned by William and driven completely mad by isolation, glitching technology, and a crisis of faith. Hes killed his minder, destroyed his cage, and has even started mutilating his own face. Horror fans might wonder if Joy was trying to invoke the reveal Sam Neills similarly insane, mutilated, and theology-obsessed character in 1997s Event Horizon. No such luck, Joy is not a fan of the horror genre at all: “I have never seen Event Horizon because I was too scared! I hear its the scariest movie in the world.” Still, all of Deloss talk of hell and the devil is very in keeping with the spirit of that film and if you want to have the fright of your life, its worth re-visiting.
Okay So What Is This Episode Referencing? Dont worry, weve saved the best for last. The time has come to talk about 1970s surrealist Russian films! Well, just the one. A month ago, before Season 2 premiered, Lisa Joy and her creative partner and husband Jonah Nolan conducted a Reddit AMA where they alerted fans to a few references to look out for this year including, oh yes, 1979s Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The film gets some direct visual allusions in this episode but thats likely not where the comparisons will end. Joy said that rather than reference classic horror in the final Jim Delos sequence, she sent her director of photography John Grillo a number of stills from Stalker. She was particularly interested in making the “disarray” of Deloss ruined cage “beautiful.” She says:
The beauty of of a dripping faucet and a rotting apple. I remember we sat there trying to let these apples fester so theyd have just the right level of decay. I felt like the mood of horror could be relayed in the suspense and the kind of lingering on details as they crept into this place. So for that I relied on the kind of eye that Tarkovsky used in his films to address the room and its approach.
Tarkovsky is famous for, among a number of other things, the slow, dream-like movements of his camera. In “Riddle of the Sphinx,” the camera glides through the wreckage taking in the smashed hourglass and shattered portrait of Jims granddaughter Emily. (Who, of course, is quite important.) The repeated spilled milk imagery of the episode (which becomes blood in Bernards vision of carnage) is also one youll find in Stalker.
But in addition to imagery, we should consider the actual plot and themes of Stalker and what bearing they might have on Season 4. Thats right, its speculation time. Stalker tells the story of three nameless men: a guide (the titular Stalker), a Writer (a man of art), and a Professor (a man of science) living in a post-apocalyptic Russia. The guide takes these two men inside a mysterious Zone in search of an even more mysterious Room where, rumor has it, your fondest wish will be granted. Because this is a nearly three-hour long film with a fairly simple there-and-back-again plot, the enduring allure of Stalker is in both the philosophy expressed by the various thinkers on this journey and the striking imagery which has prompted many film lovers to wonder if the movie is actually meant to be a dream. Stalker intentionally works to disorient the viewer by messing with time, perspective, and continuity. Sound familiar?
A monologue from the writer character mid-way through will also raise a few Westworld hairs on the back of your neck. He speaks of the legacy of his writing and a wish to live forever. (This is a theme thats specifically introduced a few times this Episode 4, most clearly when Zahn McClarnons Ghost Nation elder tells Stubbs “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.”) In his big monologue, Tarkovskys Writer also says classic Westworld-ian things like “theres no such things as facts—especially here” and “now the future and the present are one.”
But the Westworld Season 2 parallels may extend beyond Stalkers themes and imagery in order to echo the plot itself. For reference, Alex Garland (who coincidentally wrote and directed Ex Machina), has said that his latest film Annihilation was also heavily influenced by Stalker. In that dream-like film—based on Jeff VanderMeers book—a group of women with their own individual agendas traverse a dangerous zone in order to find an even more dangerous room inside a mysterious tower. The point in both Stalker and Annihilation isnt the room itself, of course, its the journey of self-discovery and the nature of each characters motivation.
Weve already established Westworld Season 2 seems to show several characters on a journey towards the same end point. Who knows exactly where Maeve will end up since her mission is pegged to her daughter. But William (Ed Harris), Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and a number of other Hosts (including Major Craddock, RIP) are chasing “Glory” or “the Valley Beyond” or “the Pearly Gates.” Dolores seems to think of that place as a weapon that might destroy humanity. I think she learned to think of it that way from Logan who, back at his fathers retirement party in Episode 2 told her: “That, darling, is the sound of fools fiddling while the whole fucking species starts to burn. They lit the match. So heres to you, assholes. May your forevers be blissfully short.”
William calls it his greatest mistake so I think its safe to say we saw that desitination in this episode. Its the underground lab where Bernard and Elsie found Jim Delos. That interlocking hexagon image we saw on Williams daughter Emilys (Katja Herbers) map in Episode 3 is similar enough to the infinity-esque symbol Delos Inc. uses to for its secret projects so I think its safe to say shes looking for that lab too. Youve seen that logo in almost every episode of Season 2 even if you didnt know what you were looking at.
Its Glory. Its digital immortality. Once again, Stalker is about a journey through a dangerous, dream-like Zone to a Room full of promises and the decisions the travelers make once they get there. Season 2 is about Dolores and Williams dangerous journey through the parks Zones to a Room full of promises and the choices they make once they find it. I think its the end goal of the game Robert Ford has called “The Door.” In this weeks episode, Lawrences daughter speaking with Fords voice tells William: “If youre looking forward youre looking in the wrong direction.” He has to look back at the sins of his past.
Another potential parallel for Stalker are the two motivations spurring William and Dolores on. In this episode we find his wife Juliets suicide prompted William to regret every dabbling with the idea of digital immortality. He tells Jim Delos as much. In Stalker, The Professor reveals a plan to destroy the Room once they find it with a nuclear device. William told Lawrence earlier this season that he plans to destroy Westworld in much the same manner. He also said a lot to underline his ideas on the importance of Death to give life meaning. “Deaths decisions are final. Its only the living that waver,” he tells Craddock (Jonathan Tucker). “Death is always true. You havent known a true thing in your life.” (For what its worth, in Stalker they never make it inside the Room at all and the Professor abandons his destructive plans.)
Dolores has also been meditating in the idea of mortality and what it means for her kind. The Hosts cant die. Not really. If the many resurrections of this season havent clued you into that fact, allow Doloress own words to remind you. “Here we are, a kind that will never know death,” she told Bernard in Episode 3. “And yet were fighting to live.”
In a show thats constantly grappling with what it means to be human, conscious, and real, Westworld seems to be headed towards a debate of whether a life without death is really a life at all. Its the impermanence of life that makes it worth living. William seems to have that worked out already, but its possible Ford has one last test in store for him on that front. And that may be exactly what Bernards little 3-D printed red ball is all about and whats waiting for William on the other side of the Door. For more on that go here.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Welcome Back to Westworld: New Photos from Season 2Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.