Westworld, “Trace Decay”: Well, I Got One Foot on the Platform

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***Spoiler Warning:  Spoilers for Westworld through Episode 8 follow. Spoilers***

In the late 1950s, memory exercises comprising the Brown-Peterson task were separately conducted by psychologists Lloyd and Margaret Peterson and John Brown. The experimentation was intended to test memory capacity and  indicated that even when the brain forgets, usually because a memory is not used or recalled for a period of time, there is some chemical or physical change — a remnant — left behind.  As time goes by that trace decay, that … forgetting begins, but as we’ve seen in Westworld, some underlying retention may occur.

What’s clear watching “Trace Decay” is that it’s near impossible to tell which memory is which; multiple timelines from different Hosts’ perspectives both contain and may themselves be remnants of pasts, part of their narrative or a current reality. With each passing hour, discerning reality, what is happening when, is as confounding to viewers as it is to Dolores; “When are we, is this now? … Is this real, am I going mad? … It’s like I’m trapped in a dream or a memory from a life long ago”.

Bernard and Ford, pseudo son and father … monster and creator; soon a servant will turn on his master. While Ford boasts and blusters of their accomplishments — “This guilt you feel, the anguish the horror the pain it’s remarkable, a thing of beauty” — foolishly quoting Frankenstein‘s Captain Robert Walton, sharing his mad scientist hubris: “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire …” Even when during their later conversation (see notes) Ford admits there is no real difference between Host and human existence, he fails to truly comprehend his own words, continuing in his foolish belief that he somehow holds all the power in his dangerous game.

Bernard’s emotions run the entire gamut of every one afforded to him, and in a flash of anger, hearken of the coming danger:  “I will not help you, I will raze this place to hell”. Ford reminds Bernard (us) he’s dealt with such anger before, and again hints at what happened to his erased-from-the-record partner; “Arnold felt the way you do, he couldn’t stop me either”. As he brags of the ability to create and control life (“… as exquisite as all this emotion is, even more sublime is the ability to turn it off”), we’re privy to things Ford may not know. Stubbs is suddenly suspicious of Bernard, Charlotte Hale is charting a new path, and all around the park, any semblance of human control is dissipating. Maeve can now begin (literally) commanding her own army, Teddy can overpower, strike and harm the Man in Black.

Regardless of safety measures and doubly locked bodies (explosive Host spines), what is done at Westworld can be undone, adjustments made, sleep awakened, thresholds crossed. Playing on Felix’s confused and conflicting emotions — “She’s awake, alive … You said you wouldn’t hurt anyone” — Maeve is fully ready to write her own story, an author alongside Ford, and the newly recruited Sizemore, employing Hale’s more-dangerous-than-she-realizes, hand-picked, would-be escape artist. Of course, she chooses Peter Abernathy, who’ll most certainly use his open door (“on a train out of the park”) in ways Hale and Sizemore never intended. These violent delights have violent ends, and life finds a way.

William and Dolores’ search for “home”, the place Dolores believes Arnold (“Come find me”) wants to meet her, leads to uncharted shores where a dying young man confesses and confirms new recruit, Logan sent the ambushed group to kill them. Dolores’ flashing, changing, decayed memories provide unreliable clues to when they are. William remains her faithful — “Whoever Arnold is, he’s not here right now. I am” — if somehow changed companion. Led to a place in an uncertain past, near the familiar cross-topped tower, where dancing memories are set in the (at some point, abandoned or destroyed) same place Ford “dug up” and created his new narrative,

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every part of the story we’re told is suspect. Until Nolan properly reMementos events (“Every story needs a beginning”), we’re left Leonard-like, flailing in screen-captured photographic moments and misplaced clues.

With Maeve and Teddy each exceeding previously prescribed memory limits and rewriting their — and others’ — futures, the “person” we call the Man in Black may prove no wiser than the overconfident Dr. Ford, likewise envisioning himself a “god” (Teddy:  “You speak like you own this world”; MiB:  “Not just this one”) in this world and the next. New (old) Angela relates to Teddy she’d overheard Wyatt’s men reminding, “This world doesn’t belong to the old settlers or the new”; Teddy responds:  “They belong to something that had yet to come; they didn’t belong to him“. Is the Man in Black Arnold (in Host form), believing he’s trying to find a “deeper level”, but unknowingly on a journey to reveal “who he really is”? That story he told Teddy, the one of his wife taking “the wrong pills” and dying dovetails nicely with my theory that Dolores was created in a human’s image, and was possibly Arnold’s wife. “Thirty years of marriage vanished” speaks to the 30 years the Man in Black has been coming to the park, of the unknown incident, and of Arnold’s “accidental” death (by Ford’s proxied hand?). To prove his dead wife wrong — she’d said all his good deeds were “stacked up, it was just an elegant wall he built to hide what was inside from everyone and from himself” — the Man in Black came back to Westworld … “because that’s what this place does, right? Reveals your true self”.  Though the Man in Black believes himself to be human, his own memories (he says his wife died in the last year) could prove unreliable; at the end of his journey to the center of the maze, the Man in Black may find he’s a very different person from the one he believes himself to be. Like Bernard, so certain he — his wife and experiences were “real” — like other Hosts and like us, for now, the Man in Black still travels through a world of confusing “memory” traces, where nothing is certain and what any of us believes to be true, may turn out just another story told. “Because that what’s this place does … reveals your true self.

Deep thoughts:

Another check in the theory column, and again referring back to when Theresa and Sizemore spoke about different groups’ motives; are board members and investors seeking immortality? The ability to upload their minds, their consciousness into Hosts seems a likely end goal, and with the Man in Black, Arnold may have achieved that.

A new week, another great round of music: The Animals, The House of the Rising Son, Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, Tchaikovsky,  Schwanensee, Op. 20, Act I: No. 2. ValseAnd we can’t heap enough praise on Ramin Djawadi for his beautiful scoring; the music over Maeve remembering her daughter was heartbreaking.

Ford’s take on the freedom of memory he believes the Hosts (anyone) should want is diametrically different from the actual physical and mental freedom they do (anyone would) want. To Bernard:  “When you are finished, I will give you the one thing you want most right now, the freedom that you desire … I will erase …” To Maeve:  “You need not suffer, I’ll take it from you”.

Maeve:   “No, no, please; this pain, it’s all I have left of her. Please”.

Week after week, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright are killing us with their brilliant performances. Send all the Emmys.

It looks like poor Elsie is gone, another victim of Ford’s machinations via Bernard’s hardly willing hand. Though Ford denied ever making him hurt someone before, Bernard has a flash. The possibility exists that he merely choked out Elsie and didn’t actually kill her, but it seems remote.

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The entirety of Ford and Bernard’s conversation sums up Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s entire Westworld exploration, the one we “in real life” must simultaneously contemplate:

Ford:  “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard, you know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.”

Bernard:  “Lifelike, but not alive. Pain only exists in the mind, it’s always imagined. So what’s the difference between my pain and yours, between you and me?”

Ford:  “This is the very question that consumed Arnold, filled him with guilt, and eventually drove him mad. The answer always seemed obvious to me. There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts; no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world and yet, we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next.”

I continue to wonder if Bernard — who Ford noted is in the unique position of being a programmer who knows how the machines work, and a machine who knows its own true nature — is able to create Hosts in that area under the (not so) secret house. And if so, has he created duplicate Bernards? Doloreses? He’s got all the plans right there.

Ford has underestimated a lot of people, human and Hosts; now Charlotte Hale is among them. She confirmed her knowledge of Theresa’s data smuggling, and will continue that work by setting Peter Abernathy free. Another episode, another Hamlet quote:  “Brevity is the soul of wit” was uttered by a spy, Polonius, a character who himself was rather wordy. Hmm…

Maeve got in her version of that Aesop viper with Felix after she slices Sylvester’s neck wide open:  “Oh darling, you of all people know exactly how duplicitous I am. Just wait until I”m up top practicing my other new talents.” And, how satisfying was it exactly, to see her commanding Sweetwater hosts? Right now, we may be rooting for the Hosts to be set free, to take charge of their own lives, maybe even to have their revenge. In the end, though, there will either be innumerable dead humans to sweep up, or the entire world (inside and out) could go up in flames. In Westworld, I have a feeling there will be no true winners left standing.

Like most of my fellow viewers, as son as Dolores stepped away from that young soldier, my first thought was:  He’s dead. When she returned from getting water, the boy had only moments, likely the blood drained from the slice of William’s nasty knife to the underside of his neck.

Sizemore’s cannibal Host was duly amusing (especially since his author has mainly served as comic relief):  “The greatest shame in life is to perish without purpose, which is why I always consume my victims fresh”. Sizemore:  “Moist. Consume my victims moist.”

The umbrella girl mystery appears to be solved; as the Man in Black noted, “… Ford never likes to waste a pretty face”, and Angela must be one of the original Hosts.

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The dancing Host looks like Armistice; and both resemble Ford’s Host mother.

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What is so special about that little girl, Lawrence’s daughter? Like a guide through the game, she knew about the maze and was finally convinced to give the Man in Black a clue to finding it, though she told him the maze “is not for you”. When she saw Dolores, she greeted her by name, and asked if Dolores found what she is looking for. Possibly she has more helpful information to pass on, if only Dolores would ask.

What’s up with Logan telling Dolores and William, “Man are you two fucked”? Is he merely playing out the narrative, or is Logan truly angry with William?

How suspicious did Bernard’s behavior make Stubbs? Surely Stubbs is going hunting for Elsie; does he now suspect Bernard is a Host?

The Man in Black has/had a daughter named Emily.

Did Ford’s “old trick from an old friend” (presumably Arnold) have side effects? Is that why in the (seemingly a flashback, because it’s seemingly a past narrative) final Maeve scene, Ford takes away her pain, but Maeve still stops herself from shutdown and instead stabs herself in the neck. Exactly how long has Maeve been “awake” (remember all the hidden drawings)? We believe we’re seeing that in flashback, but …

NuAngela may also be (she is an Arnold original, after all). But her line —  “You’ve been gone a long while, Theodore. It’s time to come back into the fold. Wyatt will need you soon” — only leads to more questions. Ford created Wyatt, and Angela appears to be speaking about the narrative, but even the Man in Black realizes she may not be.

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been writing about the entertainment industry for ​over seven years, and is the ​Editor-in-Chief at Oohlo, where she muses over television, movies, and pop culture. Previous Senior News Editor at Pajiba, and published at BUST.

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  • I need the yarn wall now more than ever. My timeline for WW has basically been as follows: oh ya i totally know what’s going on, wait maybe not, no no i got it, haha no, ok wait yes, and finally HAHA WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING HERE??