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Westworld - Trace Decay - Review: “More questions than answers”

At one point during “Trace Decay”, Man in Black tells Teddy that he only remembers the things Ford wants him to remember, and that it’s probably better that way. “I know everything I need to,” Teddy asserts. “My vision's clear.”

It serves a sort of ironic meta-commentary on the state of Westworld by the end of the hour, in that while Teddy believes he knows no more or less than is required, that isn’t the case for us as viewers. That’s odd, since much of this episode was devoted to filling in some of the blanks in the timeline, confirming what Maeve’s flashes of Man in Black mean, explaining what happened to Elsie, etc. Indeed, in telling us more about the past and present of the story, we seem to know less and less about the way Westworld is structured.

Certainly, “Trace Decay” appeared to confirm that there are multiple timelines. That much was clear. But what isn’t clear is how they come together, how Westworld ultimately turns simultaneously occurring narratives into an overall, larger story.

The blending of the different moments were reminiscent of LOST’s “The Constant” - an episode which I just so happened to have rewatched on Sunday afternoon - in that actions in one time were bleeding into another time when a particular character switched back to the other one. (For example, Desmond bending down to pick up the coins in 1996 and searching the floor for something on the ship in 2004.) Here, Maeve experiences attempting to slice Man in Black’s throat in his narrative, but as she does so, realises that she’s actually cutting into the new Clementine. Dolores goes to collect water for a gravely injured ex-Confederate, only to spot a woman floating in the river that looks an awful lot like her and for William and the dead bodies behind her to have disappeared; later, in town, she happens upon residents dancing and Maeve’s daughter, only to see another version of herself with a gun to her head, before being snapped out of it by William when he realises she’s got the gun to her own head. Following everything is incredibly complicated, particularly when considering the logistics of how it all works.

Dolores has served as something of an entry character at times during the series’ run, and here, she questions what’s happening: “Is this… now?” It’s a question that we cannot help but wonder, one that even as we look at the show from the outside, we cannot answer. And that is what is so frustrating about this reveal: in truth, it’s hardly a reveal, more a confirmation of a concept with no attempt to divulge further information on the nature of it. Splitting up the twist from the deeper explanation, in theory, is a solid way to give viewers something but still leave things hanging. This is not one of those occasions and, as a result, Westworld didn’t leave me contemplating how smart it was or may be for playing around with time. It left me confused and discouraged, like the show was toying with us. Although next week’s hour will likely clarify all that is going on, failing to do so here feels like a taunt of sorts.

Still, the whole thing is fascinating.

Amidst being caught between two timelines, Maeve continued her plan to escape the facility by altering her core code and forming herself an army. The elephant in the room is, of course, that she can now instruct other hosts to do something by simply telling them that they’ve done it. Giving her administrative privileges is a mistake of monstrous proportions on Felix’s part, but entirely understandable: there’s probably a case that at least some of his motivation is a connection with Maeve, but it’s mostly a curiosity to learn more about these robots, and she’s a far more interesting and complex body than the bird he experimented with. We’re at the point not where she and Bernard aren’t too dissimilar. Both are hosts aware of their true nature, both have administrative privileges, both have shown an ability to kill a human (more on that at the bottom of the review); their key difference is, obviously, their motivations and their ability to be controlled.

At this point, Maeve is far, far beyond the point of being controlled. The madam version of her, at least. Bringing her in for diagnostic is a huge mistake on the part of Stubbs, unbeknownst to him, and seeing how she behaves while under the microscope will be intriguing.

This was a big hour for Man in Black, revealing more about his backstory and how he came to be the man he is, and explaining Maeve’s flashes. The idea that he caused his wife’s suicide from the “sheer terror” he caused her isn’t a surprising revelation in terms of what we know of him - he doesn’t exactly come across as the family man he initially calls himself. But learning that he created his own narrative, involving the killing of Maeve and her daughter, to test whether he would feel anything is dark. Guests tend to have no problem killing hosts, but the hosts we’ve seen murdered so far have been ‘bad guys’, hosts who would have caused harm to a guest (in theory) or another host. William departed furthest from this a few weeks ago when their non-killing mission went sideways, and he was left feeling a semblance of regret. This, however, is a completely different animal. This is a man actively seeking out an innocent woman and her young daughter for the purposes of sport.

As Man in Black considers, this place reveals one’s true self. "I wanted to see if I had it in me to do something truly evil,” he says. “To see what I was truly made of."

There’s a belief that some of the strongest villains are those who believe themselves to be the hero of the story, that what they are doing is the best course of action. It’s hard to comprehend Man in Black thinking of himself in this way, but at this point, he’s essentially in a category of his own. He certainly isn’t a hero, but calling him a villain still seems a stretch, despite his admittance to Ford that he stepped up as the park was “missing a real villain”. While his tactics are almost always questionable, I’m still left rooting for him to uncover the deeper meaning he’s been searching for.

Perhaps, then, we should look at Ford as the villain. Man in Black calls himself a god, but that title falls to the park’s creator. He controls everyone and everything in it, meticulously aware of all the happenings of his domain. As he quotes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Bernard, he expresses his apathy over Theresa’s death - and indeed the death of anyone who may stand in his way (*). Is he, therefore, any better than Man in Black? His villainy is present only within the park, executed with the intention of being so for hosts and the park in general; Ford’s evildoing involves real people with real consequences. Ironic, really, that while Man in Black seeks to give actions in the park real weight, Ford simply doesn’t care about the risk.

(*) When Bernard asks about Hale, Ford says that they should be able to keep her and the board at bay. While another death would be more than suspicious, I wouldn’t put it past him, should push come to shove.

“Trace Decay” also revealed that Theresa isn’t the first person killed by Bernard at his maker’s behest, as he has a very brief memory flash of strangling Elsie before having his memory wiped. It’s good that the show tied up that loose end, but it did so cleverly as to make a mark on her former boss: if he only just remembers this before being wiped, how many other people have died by Bernard’s hand?

His discussion with Ford about the pain he feels is all the more impactful with that question mark looming over his history. Bernard’s guilt is very human, and Ford’s suggestion that he should be proud of his emotions is true. Yes, the anguish is painful. Yes, feeling regretful is horrifying. But what’s important is that he can feel those things, that this artificial intelligence isn’t completely callous in his actions. Though Ford was emphatic in reminding one of his technicians a few weeks ago that the hosts aren’t real, this is very real, very human, and the encouragement that it’s a good thing is a nice touch.

Finally, to address the act of killing. Just prior to Bernard’s flash of Elsie, Maeve takes a scalpel and slices Sylvester’s carotid artery. Felix saves him with a cool piece of tech, but it enlightens us on the larger picture: Maeve, along with Bernard, can kill humans. Given that both of Bernard’s murders (that we know of) have taken place within the park, it means that killing isn’t just on the table in the facility and that any of the active - or inactive - hosts could be capable of this. So the important question becomes whether this is something all hosts can do, or just ones with self-awareness and/or administrative privileges.

We know that bullets fired by a host won’t harm guests - not permanently, at least (“You can’t even leave a lasting mark,” Man in Black says). But between the bashing of Theresa’s head, the slitting of Sylvester’s carotid, and the strangling of Elsie, the past two episodes have shown that non-gun murders are entirely possible. Remember, back when Logan and William were pulling off the heist for Lawrence, the army member was being pretty successful in strangling Logan until being shot. Without William’s interference, would the host have ever stopped? I doubt it.

What makes this frustrating as an episode is that there is so much great stuff happening here, with plenty to satiate viewers and so many avenues being explored that are so compelling. But the apparent desire to continue to tease the specifics of a reveal did little to assist the episode. “Trace Decay” was less than the sum of its parts, and that’s a real disappointment.

Other thoughts:
Teddy remembered Man in Black’s ill treatment of Dolores from the series’ opening sequence, and decided to interrogate him. Unfortunately, the woman they saved on the quest to find Wyatt was actually working for him, and now Teddy may be dead again, with Man in Black in captivity.

A new Clementine appeared, played by Banshee’s Lili Simmons, only to die before the episode was out.

Logan happened upon William and Dolores, which, in his words, leaves the pair “f--ked”.

Lee Sizemore was back at his job, teaching a cannibal host his character. Creepy. Hale intervened and gave him another, more important task involving a host, choosing the specimen formerly known as Peter Abernathy as the test subject.

The Man in Black is hatless, repeat, hatless!

Some terrific covers this week, including “House of the Rising Sun” (as Maeve encounters the new Clementine for the first time) and “Back to Black” (as Maeve uses her administrative privileges for the first time). There was another great piece as Hector came to town once again, though I didn’t recognise it if it was a cover.

What did everyone think of “Trace Decay?”

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