A hallmark of great art is showing you something you never imagined needing to see until you actually see it. No one is claiming that Westworld is the second coming of the Sistine Chapel, but the HBO hit has flashes of greatness from time to time – and there’s a scene in this week’s episode (“The Riddle of the Sphinx”) that’s damn near canon-worthy. Who knew that watching a grizzled Scottish character actor playing a robotic replica of himself, boogieing down to the manic crooning of Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music’s glam-dance classic “Do the Strand,” was what our lives were collectively missing? You can keep your mazes and mysteries and violent delights woth violent ends. We’ll take Peter Mullan’s Jim Delos rocking out to an Eno-produced glitter-rock jam any ol’ time.
But hey, don’t worry. If dance numbers aren’t your thing, this hour still scratches that old Westworld itch. Perhaps to allow its puzzlebox twists, turns and time shifts more room to breathe, the show makes the sensible decision to keep the actual plot as straightforward as possible. Forget the fakeouts and doublebacks, and you can sum up the action in just a handful of sentences.
First, Bernard is reunited with Elsie, the behavioral technician who worked directly under him until the late Robert Ford programmed him to take her out for knowing too much. They use buried memories to locate the entrance to a hidden bunker – in the very cave where she was held prisoner, no less – and once inside, they discover a gaggle of slaughtered scientists and eerie white drone hosts. (It’s the result of a massacre that Bernard apparently orchestrated just prior to the robot revolution.) They also uncover the secret chamber where the company has worked to mesh the preserved mind of founder Jim Delos with a series of replica bodies –149, to be exact. Somehow still alive and kicking, the cyborg Delos goes berserk before they shut him down for good.
Elsewhere, the Man in Black travels to his sidekick Lawrence‘s hometown, where they’re greeted not by his welcoming family but by Major Craddock’s few surviving Confederados. The gunslinging Southerners hold the whole town hostage until the MiB tells them where a cache of weapons and nitroglycerine is hidden – at which point they begin torturing the townsfolk for shits and giggles. Eventually our antihero gets the drop on the bad guys, allowing his friend to deliver the explosive coup de grace by shooting the Major while he has a bellyful of nitro. As Lawrence says goodbye to his family, his daughter approaches the MiB; in the persona of Robert Ford himself, she warns him that he has to look to the past if he wants to discover the real game being played here. Ol’ William is then reunited with his own daughter, Grace – the woman who escaped the Raj park last week, and who successfully fled from Ghost Nation this time around. (A born survivor, apparently – like father, like daughter?)
And the flashback storyline is where we learn what Jim Delos was up to, using the park in part as a front to grant himself a form of android-human hybrid immortality. A series of repetitive conversations with his son-in-law William, the future Man in Black, take place, showing that the mesh of a “living” mind with a robotic body never quite took.
As always, this stuff is fun on a pulp-fiction level, at least in theory. It’s all buoyed this time around by some of the more enjoyable actor-to-actor team-ups the cast has to offer. The reunion between Bernard and Elsie, for example, pairs the soft voices and likeable faces of actors Jeffrey Wright and Shannon Woodward for the first time in a long while; because of the nature of the performers, those characters are people you actually want to see survive and succeed.
The same can be said, believe it or not, of Ed Harris and Clifton Collins Jr.. Sure, the power dynamic is lopsided in the extreme, and no one should trust the MiB as far as you can throw him. He even comes right out and says he and his running buddy aren’t really friends. But he says this to Major Craddock, in what sure seems like a ploy to throw him off his guard. By offering poor Lawrence the chance to kill his own tormenter, the sinister park owner establishes an actual bond, even if it’s forged in blood. Harris and Collins are so likably weatherbeaten and downtrodden that their relationship is … pleasant, somehow, even if the characters themselves are not.
Finally, the flashbacks are a stylish, entertainingly disorienting trip into the limbo where Jim Delos waits until science catches up with his dying wish to live forever. The round, richly appointed room where he “lives” evokes the end of 2001 crossed with a high-end furniture catalog; it’s the perfect place for an android billionaire to cut a rug to an art-rock banger. And if you don’t want to watch a mano a mano grizzle-off between Peter Mullan and Ed Harris, I don’t know what to tell you.
The thing is, it’s unclear if Westworld itself wants to watch it, at least in the wild and weird form it took this episode. Every time we cut away from that strange environment to see the Man in Black in the park, exchanging tough-guy clichés with Jonathan Tucker’s Major Craddock … well, they’re both fine actors, but you can’t make a real meal out of pure corn like “Death is an old amigo of mine.” Or this nugget of cheese curd: “You think you know death, but you don’t – you didn’t recognize him sitting across from you this whole time.”
The dialogue’s predictability is echoed by all of this episode’s ostensible shocks. Jim Delos is a robot, the woman from the Raj is the Man in Black’s kid, the secret room contained Delos’s fake apartment, et cetera and ad nauseum: Were you genuinely surprised by any of this? Certainly not as much as you were by that Roxy Music scene, even if that’s a different kind of surprise – an artistic one, rather than a mere plot twist or jump scare.
Before he says goodbye to Delos for the final time, the Man in Black tells him sciences is probably just a year or two away from solving his technological problems and reviving him for real. How close is Westworld to getting it right? That’s a mystery neither we nor the show has been able to solve.
Previously: Park Life