It has been a while since I did an in-depth scene analysis, and I felt the time was ripe. Since Westworld season two has been airing for the past few weeks, and every scene in it is loaded with meaning, symbolism and subtext, I thought I’d take some time to look at one of my favourite scenes. The series seems to top itself every week, but there was a scene last week that was just a great blend of fantastic action and masterful character development. Jonathon Nolan, who is the writer behind many of his brother Christopher’s best films, is, in my opinion, one of the best writers in the industry currently. Here he works with his wife Lisa Joy to create one of the best scenes, and indeed the best episode, of the whole series so far. From this point onward there will be spoilers, so be careful.
The Riddle of the Sphinx is the fourth episode of the second season of Westworld. It continues multiple story-lines which are all infinitely interesting, however, for the purpose of this analysis we are focusing on the story-line of William, the Man in Black. After spending all of last season searching for the centre of the maze, hoping to discover a hidden meaning behind the park and create real stakes for the game, he finally got his wish when Ford allowed the hosts to shoot and kill the human guests. So far in the second season, he has been tasked with a new quest from hosts programmed by Ford; find the door. In this week’s episode, after finding his favourite host Laurence once again, he takes him back to his home town, hoping to find new hosts to help him on his journey. However, they find the place overrun by confederados, led by the unhinged Craddock, who after being resurrected by controllers last week is convinced he is death’s chosen man. In the scene I want to explore, he has the town under his thrall, and is using a glass of nitro-glycerine to taunt Laurence’s wife. He boasts of his relationship to death to William, who appears to be beginning to pity the hosts. As he looks at the women balancing the nitro in the rain, he is reminded of his wife’s suicide, and a twinge of guilt causes him to turn on Craddock. In a pivotal moment, he tells the man, “You didn’t recognise him sitting across from you this whole time…” and with that, he guns down Craddock’s men and allows Laurence to finish Craddock, performing, for the first time in decades, a righteous act.
There is a lot to unpack in this scene, which is why I have included a clip above. The episode is a directorial debut from Lisa Joy, co-creator of Westworld. She proves to be a masterful director, with a firm grasp of visual symbolism and subtlety. Her choice to shoot the scene in the rain creates a strong mood; rain is often used in pivotal moments to reflect turmoil within characters. However, the rain is also a great parallel to William’s own past. We see shots of water from a bathtub, mixed with blood, making it clear that this moment is reminding William of his wife’s death, without a need to show the actual body. The many close ups of water highlight this and provide a great metaphor for what this means for William. As he exits the tavern and faces off against the confederados, the rain serves as a symbolic baptism hinting at the idea of washing away past sins and starting again. However, the brutal way in which he forces Craddock to drink his own glass of nitro shows us that his good acts are still tempered by violence. William still has a way to go. The shots are well chosen and beautifully framed. The tight close ups and mid shots of the Man in Black make this his personal moment of triumph, a decision which has changed his arch for the rest of the season.
The dialogue is crisp and chilling in this scene as well. Written by Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan, the script has no unnecessary words. William, after having been confronted with death in a real way that shook his understanding, doesn’t appreciate Craddock blabbering on about it. He knows that no host knows true death, and indeed has become desensitised to it himself over the years of coming to the park, to the point where he cannot process it when his wife succumbs to it. He chides Craddock, telling him that he hasn’t known a true thing in his life, but that death is true, final. He speaks of death with a reverence and an understanding that comes from his new experience of it. It is also very appropriate that he identifies himself as death, both because it shows his reliance on his tough persona, and because it shows the guilt he feels over his wife’s demise, partly because his daughter blames him for it.
So, the direction and scripting are both perfectly crafted, but what of the music? Ramin Djawadi, famous for Game of Thrones, provides the score for Westworld as well. This scene is him at his finest, lacing the scene with a mournful and somehow triumphant beat. The final moments also use the man in black’s personal leitmotif, an ominous and impressive tune which takes on a new meaning when William starts to finally stand up for the hosts. He becomes less of a villain and more of a dark protector, and the music reflects this. This musical change is mirrored in scenes with Dolores, who has begun to accept her role as the villain, which is reflected in a darker soundtrack whenever she is onscreen. It is interesting because it seems that Dolores and William are starting to switch roles as the series goes on. Djawadi does a smashing job in this scene and it illustrates and dictates the tone of it impeccably.
Finally, we come to the actors themselves. Jonathan Tucker, who plays Major Craddock, does a great job playing a robot that has gone wrong, finding out that he cannot die. He plays a man who is unhinged, madness playing beneath the calm eyes. But the star of the show is Ed Harris. This is his scene, and he plays the contemplation of his situation perfectly. His thoughtful stares as he tries to come to terms with his wife’s death once again, and his delivery of his tough guy dialogue really sell the scene. He is a master of looking cool, in each of his action scenes his physicality and commitment really emphasis how long he has been playing this game. He is my favourite character for a very good reason. He is complex and cool at the same time.
So, looking back over the scene, there is a lot to enjoy. The music, direction and dialogue are finely crafted to achieve a very meaningful and action filled scene. The actors give top performances, especially Ed Harris, and they are given perfect lines. The scene of course is part of a great episode on the whole, but it stands out to me as an almost transcendent moment, that will become a highlight for the entire series. I recommend Westworld for anyone, and I recommend this scene above all.