The Meaning Behind the Riddle of the Sphinx on 'Westworld'
At this point during your long journey through Westworld, the future's most unruly theme park for the 1%, you may feel a bit worn down by the show's tendency to wrap puzzles in enigmas at the end of a maze accessible only through an encryption key stored in a robot brain. The fourth episode of what, until now, had been a somewhat plodding sophomore season finally picked up the pace and offered at least a few answers to questions hanging over the series, not least of which is "What the hell is Delos up to?" Immortality, as it turns out.
The Williams in the audience, the ones who think this game is for them, likely noticed that Episode 4's title contains a riddle itself: "The Riddle of the Sphinx." Understanding the origin of this riddle, its solution, and its implications hint at what the show has in store for the rest of the season and beyond. Put your puzzle cap on and gear up for some classical literature!
What is the riddle of the Sphinx?
The riddle figures prominently in Greek mythology, and while its exact origins are uncertain, it plays an especially important role in the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus the King. Sophocles never reveals the riddle itself, but the Ancient Greeks said that a Sphinx -- a creature with a head of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings -- guarded/terrorized the city of Thebes, allowing no traveler to pass without solving its riddle. According to a vast compendium of Ancient Greek myths compiled by the Greeks later in the ascendant period of their history, the riddle goes like this:
"What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"
Oedipus famously solved the problem by answering "man," who crawls at the beginning of life, walks during adulthood, and uses a cane in old age. With her puzzle solved, the Sphinx killed herself by throwing herself off a mountain (she really took her riddle seriously!), and Oedipus became king of Thebes, marrying the recently widowed queen, Jocasta.
If you know anything about Greek history or Freudian psychology, then you know that this is where shit starts to get weird. Oedipus' royal parents sent him away as an infant because of a prophecy that said he would murder his father and marry his mother, and Freud's Oedipus complex (an unconscious sexual attraction held by kids for a parent of the opposite sex -- though to be fair to Freud, he was probably on a lot of cocaine when he came up with this concept).
In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the riddle is ancient history, and Oedipus must figure out who killed the previous king, Laius, because the unsolved murder is causing a devastating plague that has struck Thebes. At this point, Oedipus starts to get a little cocky thanks to his past track record on cracking riddles -- he becomes so obsessed with finding the cause, and so confident in his ability to do so, that he has no idea what the implications of discovering it will be.
Several millennia-old spoiler: Oedipus himself unwittingly killed his father on the road before he met the Sphinx, and he married and fathered children with his mother. Horrified, Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus blinds himself. As typically happens in Greek tragedies, when things go bad, they go DISASTROUSLY bad.
What does this have to do with Westworld?
To begin with, everything. Oedipus had a reputation as a fair king who made life in Thebes better for his subjects, but his earthly skills were no match for his destiny. Oedipus' hubris (tragedy and hubris are like bread and wine for the Greeks) was twofold: Not only did he believe he could escape what the gods had preordained, but solving the riddle of the Sphinx had given him the confidence that he could rid Thebes of anything that ailed it. He ultimately achieved the latter, but at an enormous cost that reverberated for generations of Thebans and throughout Greek literature.
You could think of Delos as having a non-Freudian Oedipus complex. Not only do they believe they've developed technology that makes them smarter than the average peon, but they want to prove wrong the only prophecy that rules everyone born on earth, which is mortality -- starting with James Delos. No matter what kinds of wildly optimistic or crackpot techno-libertarian advancements appear in headlines or as the mission of the next hot startup, no one can cure death. It's not a riddle, just plain old fate, and when human hubris makes us forget fate, or try to conquer it, the result is usually chaos and disaster. Case in point: the degenerated James Delos #149. Not only did William fail to crack the cognitive plateau of his host-hybrid experiment, but his arrogance in leaving James #149 alive past his mental limits bred erratic, murderous, and masochistic host-human. The Rolling Stones song, "Play With Fire," that pops up on Delos' record player says it all!
Additionally, if we assume that the control unit Bernard printed out and pocketed were a new Ford, who seems to have independently attempted re-engineering the same kind of host-hybrid as James Delos, some people could be in store for a painful awakening. (Is he after Delos board members? Did Ford crack what William couldn't? Is the unit even Ford??)
That displaced chaos is what we're seeing in the parks this season, and whether the Man in Black will recognize the role his own hubris plays in this narrative will likely determine his future. Unfortunately for him, a defining feature of hubris is that those who suffer from it tend only to realize their errors when it's too late.