The opening shot of ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’ is worth savouring. One long, circular tracking shot that takes in an apartment, with details that linger briefly, before moving out of view and something else takes their place.
Firstly, a record player sending out The Rolling Stones’ ‘Play with Fire’.
‘Well you’ve got your diamonds and you’ve got your pretty clothes
And the chauffeur drives your car
You let everybody know
But don’t play with me, ‘cause you’re playing with fire.’
Then an hourglass, recently turned. A goldfish in a bowl. A copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘The Sirens of Titan’, half-read. A figure in black on an exercise bike. Cigarettes. A wedding ring. And the music stops on James Delos.
The following montage shows him going through a routine: eyedrops, gargling while urinating, eating an apple, having his brain activity monitored, watching the goldfish, smoking, masturbating, and struggling to pour milk in his coffee. And as we discover in the following conversation he has with William, this is not James Delos, but a recreation of him. His identity, his memories and his cognition, have been uploaded to a host, in an effort to prolong his life. The real James Delos died, but this was his legacy. He was his own legacy.
But as we see, things aren’t working as well as they’d hope. For all his wealth, his pretty clothes and chauffeur-driven helicopter, Delos’s brain is stuck in a goldfish bowl. He’s observed, and unable to escape, and unable to stop time. Like the characters in Vonnegut’s novel, he’s destined to live out the same version of himself, unable to extend his life beyond what has been allocated. And as we discover later, this project never succeeds. William is unable to achieve what he and Delos worked for: immortality. Instead, each version of Delos is cremated, forever burned in his small, circular pit of Hell. Playing with fire.
The opening ‘previously on’ scenes point toward this being the real goal of Westworld. One very wealthy man’s efforts to keep what he had for himself, forever. Just how that factors into the ongoing observations and DNA storage of the guests to the park remains to be seen, as well as whether this is what Delos’ son Logan referred to as ushering in the end of the human race. But we do get some clarity out of this.
Delos (or the many versions of Delos) were located in a hidden lab in a remote sector of the park. Shortly before the host uprising, Ford sent Bernard there to retrieve a ‘brain’ of another real person that the company has in their possession, and destroy the lab techs and drone hosts that have been managing the secret lab. Clearly, Ford did not want this continuing once he was not around to continue, either. Bernard remembers this, after a fashion, once he and the returned Elsie breach the lab and discover the final iteration of Delos in his Hell-pit. Not for nothing is this lab located in a cave.
Furthermore, when contrasted with the journeys of Dolores and Maeve this season, it appears as if everybody is in a bid to preserve their life. What’s fascinating is that the key to life seems to be what Bernard pops in his pocket: a hybridisation of the hosts and the guests. Only done right. With Delos, it didn’t work. Time and time again, William refers to him hitting a cognitive plateau: a threshold of awareness where his real self becomes attuned to his recreated reality. Beyond this threshold is breakdown. Delos cannot go past it, and in the most recent ‘interview’ with William, is shown struggling in a manner that is emblematic at times of those with Parkinson’s or dementia.
The man died of a real disease, and in trying to cheat death and recreate himself, has created a new disease to die from.
But to do this hybridisation right, that would be the trick. And there’s been enough suggested this season to point toward this happening. The lines between hosts and guests are continually blurring, so that what differentiates one from the other becomes non-existent.
‘If you can’t tell, does it matter?’
And all of this suggests that the one real identity that Bernard pilfered is the one given to us in the first scene of the season: Arnold.
To delve into the realm of speculation, the events of this episode anticipate the direction of the season as a whole. Where William struggled and failed to get Delos’ cognition to accept his reality, Dolores will discover the method to successfully do this with Arnold. We know that the Bernard we are seeing in the most recent timeline with the Delos security team is not functioning fully, he seems uncertain of himself and his whereabouts. Furthermore, it appears he is increasingly led through the scenes in this timeline, rather than experiencing them as they occur. He is not part of security, and has no real need to be there (particularly given he was borderline fired at the end of last season), but many of the scenes look as if the other characters are verbalising events for Bernard’s benefit, while they pry him for clues to what he remembers. And then, in this episode, Bernard drifts briefly out of his interactions with Elsie to acknowledge that he is remembering these too, almost as if he is being walked through his steps in order to remember them, akin to Dolores retracing the maze in Season 1 to arrive at cognition.
Looking at the conversation with Dolores at the beginning of the season, it seemed at the time as a reversal. She is interviewing him, affecting her accent, allowing him to articulate his thoughts rather than the opposite. William interviews Delos in an attempt to provide a ‘friendly face’, someone the cognition recognises, in order to ease the step to self-awareness. But where William tries to do this in one sitting, and failed, I think it’s highly likely that Dolores will do likewise with a new Arnold, but allow him to come to this self-awareness on his own, and what we are witnessing in the recent timeline is that process.
This doesn’t necessarily tell us why Arnold/Bernard doesn’t go with Dolores to the valley beyond, unless it has to do with that self-awareness. Yet there is some poetry in this hybrid host-guest becoming Arnold as Ford’s real last act, allowing Arnold to once again be with his real children.
The storyline with the older William aiding Lawrence is played as a moment of potential redemption, a sign that this character is genuinely wanting to right his wrongs. By the end of the episode he is reunited with his daughter, Emily, the guest who escaped from the Raj park last week and made it across to Westworld, detouring briefly with the Ghost Nation. If his true path is not forward, but backward, are they suggesting he needs to return to the William who first came to the park? Maybe, but I don’t necessarily think this is a character who will end up with a happy ending. The rain in Las Mudas may have cleansed some sins, but he has a way to go yet.
In his efforts to cheat death, William has seen Logan die from an overdose, his wife Juliet commit suicide, his mother-in-law died from a stroke, and has seen not only James Delos original death from cancer, but 148 subsequent deaths. A true Frankenstein is William. No wonder he sees himself as the personification of Death.
It may be Delos in that ruined lab in the final moments of the episode, with Mick Jagger stuck on a loop (‘Don’t play with…don’t play with…don’t play with…’), but this is where humanity has brought the world of Westworld. One where death is cheap, and constant, but cannot be cheated.