I first heard of ‘Westworld’ back in 2015 when news broke that background performers (extras) were asked to sign a startling consent form that described potential acts they would have to perform on set. It got the attention of SAG-AFTRA, who issued a member alert telling actors about their rights to withdraw from the production. That strange story, combined with the high-profile cast, made me curious to watch.
I didn’t end up seeing Westworld until I binge-watched Season 1 as part of an HBO free preview a few weeks ago. The powers that be will be glad to know that it worked, I signed up for HBO just to see how Season 2 might play out. Now that we are four episodes in, it’s clear that Westworld is something that’s best binge-watched, lest you have so much time between episodes to come up with intricate fan theories that you are disappointed at the end when none of them turn out to be true.
(Note — please don’t tell me Westworld resembles Lost. I’ve never seen Lost, although I’m currently a fan of Josh Holloway’s much smaller show Colony, which has led us through two full seasons without showing us the aliens.)
Which leads to the revelations in “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” Sunday night’s exploration of James Delos’ experiment with becoming a host. As anyone who might recall, or felt like Googling it, The Riddle of the Sphinx goes something like this: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night? The answer: a man, who crawls in childhood, walks upright during adulthood and depends on a cane in old age.
Of course, in Westworld, some figures don’t want to experience old age. Apparently, they don’t want to die at all, but experience a modified immortality by having their minds — or AI-enhanced versions of their minds, it isn’t clear — transplanted into the bodies of hosts built to resemble them.
In “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” we see James Delos’ son-in-law, William, visit Delos in the lab, where he’s essentially repeating the same loop of early morning exercise, Rolling Stones music, and coffee. Older William (Ed Harris) eventually comes to tell Delos that they have rebuilt him 149 times, presumably over several decades, but it just isn’t working, and maybe people just aren’t meant to live forever. He exits, but decides to end Delos’ life with a bit of misery by telling the technician not to terminate him, but to let him degrade, just to see how it goes.
Here’s what I eventually came to think about Westworld: the complex family dynamic of the Delos clan is probably far more compelling than any of the shenanigans going on inside the park itself or in its corporate boardrooms. My guess about what’s happening inside the park is probably similar to everyone else’s. The guests have been offered a kind of eternal life where they can live forever, but the technology (or legality) only lets them do it inside the park. The massive amounts of data they keep on the guests is probably consensual; rich people who don’t want to die contract with Delos to keep them going inside this fantasy world. All of these characters are probably hosts who were once human beings — Bernard is probably still Arnold, perhaps suffering the same degredation as Delos (note the shaky hands). Old William is probably remade William, decades or even centuries after his original death. When he encounters his daughter at the end of “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” she maybe wanted to say hello one last time. Maybe she hasn’t seen him in decades, either. Maybe she’s been rebuilt. Ford’s game is probably to give these permanent guests the chance at final escape, because perhaps in the original contract, there was no provision for everything to end. William — the guest who can have everything he wants — isn’t allowed to die unless he can solve Ford’s game.
But to me, none of that is as interesting as whatever is going on with the Delos family. Why was Logan an addict? Why did Julia end her life? Why do William and James have this strained relationship? What is the relationship between William and his own children? What exactly is William’s public image? In Season 1, another guest thanked him for his charitable work, only to be rebuffed. Who is he outside the park?
My guess is that Westworld will never answer those family questions, because it’s just not that kind of drama. Westworld purports to be about the intersection of technology and humanity, and that’s probably where it will stay, giving us unsatisfying answers to increasingly predictable questions. But I’ll still watch, if only to justify the cost of my HBO subscription.
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