Westworld Recap: S1E8 “Trace Decay”


The line between robots and humans becomes more blurred than ever in this week’s episode of Westworld, as power dynamics shift.

During his 1985 State of the Union address, Ronald Reagan urged Congress to challenge conventional political wisdom, saying, “There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress, except those we ourselves erect.”

The hosts of Westworld might beg to differ. Although most of them don’t realize it, very real (if not exactly solid) constraints exist around their minds, erected by other people. In “Contrapasso”, Ford told Dolores that her “mind is a walled garden. Even death cannot touch the flowers there.” He didn’t mention that the wall has a gate, and he has the key.

Of course, Reagan’s quote doesn’t apply to the hosts anyway, since they aren’t technically human.

What’s the difference? That question has been running throughout Westworld, as it does through virtually every story involving robots or artificial intelligence, but “Trace Decay” brings it to the forefront. By now, all of the major host characters – Dolores, Bernard, Maeve, and Teddy – have acquired a semblance of consciousness, and they’re beginning to interrogate their own natures.

Usually, these stories settle on the conclusion that the essence of humanity lies in our capacity for abstract thought and complex emotion, which allows us to transcend the Darwinian existence that other creatures lead. You don’t have to be religious to believe in the soul, some intangible component of an individual that makes him or her unique. The alternative – that we are nothing but biological tissue and firing neurons – is too dull and depressing to accept, at least for most people.

Anthony Hopkins in Westworld season 1, image courtesy of HBO

Ford, however, finds the notion freeing. If humans can be defined, broken down into parts and analyzed like machines, then they can be controlled. At the beginning of the episode, he explains to Bernard that the hosts’ psychology was initially limited to “primary colors”, vague emotions such as love and hate, but he “wanted all the shades in between.” When human engineers proved inadequate, Ford built Bernard, and with the android’s help, he succeeded in reproducing the full spectrum of human feeling, down to the tiniest nuance. “Together,” he says, “you and I captured that elusive thing: the heart.”

Yet, Bernard – or, rather, Jeffrey Wright’s performance – tells a different story. Struggling to process Theresa’s murder, which he committed on Ford’s command, the programmer first lashes out at his creator, asserting that he won’t help cover up the crime. Ford promptly switches off his emotions, restoring him to his normal, docile self, but vestiges of anger linger in Wright’s eyes, mingled with grief (the subtlety some actors are capable of never ceases to amaze). Just because Ford stopped Bernard from showing his emotions, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stopped experiencing them.

After disposing of any physical evidence that could connect him and Ford to Theresa’s death and having the memories of his and Theresa’s love affair erased, Bernard leaves the corpse at Python Pass, the ravine that the stray wandered into five episodes ago. Ashley’s team finds the body, and medical examiners classify the cause of death as a fall. Naturally, Ford links the “accident” to the data smuggling, framing Theresa as saboteur. Charlotte, who knows Delos authorized the theft, doesn’t appear to buy it, and even Ashley points out that he has never seen Theresa as disloyal or careless. One positive comes out of the meeting: Bernard gets his job back.

The forced amnesia doesn’t entirely ease Bernard’s distress. Prompted by Ford, he ponders what it means to be alive, asking if his feelings (specifically, the trauma from his son’s death) are real. “Pain only exists in the mind,” he observes. “It’s always imagined. So, what’s the difference between my pain and yours, between you and me?”

For a moment, Ford seems to be caught off guard, but he quickly recovers. In short, he contends that there is no difference. Like the hosts, humans follow routines, obey orders, and construct narratives about themselves. We even have our own version of programming, some combination of genetics and social learning. “We can’t define consciousness because consciousness doesn’t exist,” he says.

Thandie Newton in Westworld season 1, image courtesy of HBO

Maeve’s storyline this week refutes Ford’s thesis. She continues to tinker with her programming, this time telling Felix and Sylvester remove the explosive embedded in her spine as a failsafe and grant her administrative privileges. When Sylvester tries to persuade Felix to surreptitiously wipe out all her data, she slits his throat with a scalpel, violating the core directive that forbids hosts from harming humans (it seems rather unlikely that Sylvester is a secret host). Later, she tests her new abilities by giving orders to other hosts in the Mariposa and conducting a shootout like an orchestra, which results in a tech team retrieving her.

You could argue that this is just more programming; Maeve is certainly aware of her identity as constructed, malleable. Pestered by persistent flashbacks to her pioneer days, she asks Felix what happened to her “daughter” before deciding that it is irrelevant. “Every relationship I remember,” she realizes, “it’s all a story created by you to keep me here.” Yet, she’s still making choices, ones that wouldn’t have even occurred to her before. What could this change be called other than consciousness – free will?

In other news, Teddy has finally started getting flashbacks. As he listens to one of the Man in Black’s speeches about Westworld being rigged, the word “loser” triggers a fleeting vision of the Man in Black attacking him and Dolores at Abernathy Ranch. Unlike Dolores and Maeve, he immediately recognizes it as a memory, rather than dismissing it as a dream or hallucination. But the incident doesn’t jolt him out of complacency. He remains committed to finding and saving Dolores at all costs.

So, he knocks out the Man in Black, ties him to a rock, and starts questioning him, believing he knows where Dolores is. Looking on is a woman who they found in the carnage of a massacre by Wyatt. After taking a couple of punches, the Man in Black agrees to tell Teddy about his life. In addition to being a distinguished businessman and philanthropist, which we already knew, he’s a family man, with a “beautiful” wife and two daughters.

Except last year, his wife “took the wrong pills” and fell asleep, dying in what he thought was an accident but his daughter insisted was a suicide. Apparently, his family had been living in fear of him because, even though they never saw what he did at Westworld, they somehow knew, seeing his good deeds as a ruse, an “inelegant wall I built to hide what’s inside from everyone, and from myself.”

Thandie Newton in Westworld season 1, screenshot courtesy of HBO

The Man in Black’s present visit to the park, then, is a quest to prove his wife wrong, to find out once and for all what his true nature is. He attacked Maeve and her daughter to see how it would affect him, but it turned out that he felt nothing. Until, not yet dead, Maeve stumbled outside the cabin, her daughter in her arms, and fell onto the ground. “She was alive – truly alive, if only for a moment,” he reminisces, declining to elaborate on what exactly he means by “alive”. That was when he saw the maze, an enormous symbol carved in the dirt with Maeve and her daughter lying at the center.

With nothing left for him in the real world, he’s devoted his life to unlocking the maze, fulfilling Arnold’s purpose, which somehow involves the hosts being able to kill guests. It is for him what Dolores is for Teddy: a way of finding meaning in an otherwise rootless existence, of “giving our choices consequence, even if it kills us.” In other words, freedom alone – the ability to choose – isn’t enough; it has to have an end.

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Stray observations:

  • This week’s episode featured a couple of anachronistic songs: “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. We also hear the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake during Hector’s raid on Sweetwater, and Debussy’s “Reverie” returns during Maeve’s flashback to her post-Man in Black reboot.
  • Logan’s back! Personally, I’m excited, though your mileage may vary. Next week looks rough for Dolores and William.
  • Still no Elsie, but hopefully, Ashley follows up on his suspicions after his awkward conversation with Bernard.
  • Charlotte chooses Peter Abernathy as the host for Lee Sizemore to store Westworld’s data. Trusting Sizemore with such an important task seems like a bad idea, but Charlotte must know what she’s doing.
  • Wyatt’s men wear costumes that resemble the Minotaur – a Greek myth that incorporates a maze.