[Warning: The following will contain spoilers for Westworld season two, episode four.]
The best part of Westworld season two, episode four, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” drives the story forward while also operating like a self-contained horror movie with a strong beginning, middle and end. The use of repetition in the episode’s central story, where each cycle gives the viewer a bit more information, comes to a close when the show’s main story catches up with its own timeline.
It’s hard to explain in words, but it was one of the most effective, small-scale storytelling devices the show has ever used.
How the loop worked
The episode begins with James Delos going through a daily routine, only to be interrupted by young William, who is here to interview him to see if he’s ready to leave his apartment. We don’t know why Delos is being kept in isolation, nor do we know the nature of this interview the first time we see this loop. William seems forlorn about the whole procedure, and Delos seems skeptical that any conversation can operate as a “baseline interview.” Wouldn’t having the same conversation ruin the experiment?
William gives him a folded document. That’s the end of the scene. We’re given the impression that Delos has some kind of degenerative disease, which would explain the observation and the hand tremors. But we’re left with the mystery, as the show moves onto another plot point.
The second repetition shows us what’s on the document: It’s a copy of the conversation they’re currently having. That’s why it works as a baseline; they’ve had it before. It’s just that Delos has no recollection of it.
“I take it I didn’t recover?” Delos asks.
William now has tears in his eyes. “I’m afraid not,” he answers. Delos has been in isolation for seven years, and his condition only seems to be getting worse. This version of Delos has made it almost a full week. They terminate the experiment which means killing this version of the older man.
But Delos isn’t a fool, he died knowing that he was a copy of himself, and his mind was already slipping away.
The third version of the scene shifts to include Ed Harris as William, which means much more time has passed. Delos puts everything together much quicker this time, and the sense of sadness has been replaced by an almost sadistic glee as Delos is told his daughter is dead. William now believes that some men just need to die, or rather they need to stay dead. He leaves Delos secure in the knowledge that his mind will go again, and his life’s work is in ruins.
William decides not to terminate him, as letting him suffer with the knowledge of what he is, and how little he has left, is the sort of torture The Man in Black can get behind. Like most things in Westworld, we don’t know when all this happened, not exactly, although the degeneration of Bernard now has precedent. Using this technology for entertainment is thinking too small, why not use it to grant immortality to those that can afford it?
The horror in these scenes comes from our empathy with Delos, not William. What would it be like to be told that the day you thought you were having is part of a cycle you’ve repeated without knowledge for years? Or that you’re just a copy of someone else put in a body that’s cursed to fail? And Delos has to learn this fact about himself over and over, while William witnesses the pain in every loop. These scenes may be hard to watch if you’ve ever visited a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Delos doesn’t change through the years, but William does. That cruelty leads to the final scenes of the episode, where we find out exactly what happened to the final copy of Delos.
Westworld can often be a bit on the nose — having a character talk about the devil right before going up in flames isn’t exactly subtle — but this arc is the rare time the show has told a complete story within a single hour. And it does so while moving the entire plot forward! The fate of Delos gives us hints about how else the company may have wanted to use the technology of the park, or already has.
And it also brings home the point, by showing rather than telling, that it’s impossible to trust your own sense of what’s real or artificial. Everything is up for grabs in this world, even your own past.