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Westworld season 1, episode 8: "Trace Decay" makes it clear a battle is imminent

It’s a messy episode, but what’s clear is all hell is about to break loose.

Thandie Newton as Maeve in Westworld looks out on the street.
Thandie Newton is the star of Westworld’s eighth episode.
John P. Johnson / HBO
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The player piano in the Sweetwater tavern, a central location in Westworld, has always been a bit of a mystery. It plays cleverly anachronistic music that wouldn’t be available on a player piano in the Old West: rock and pop from the 1960s onward. And while the metaphor is obvious (a robotic device only able to play whatever “code” it’s fed), at times it’s seemed as if the piano is another trigger for Host behavior, like some of the code words Ford and the others use to control their creations.

Or, as it turns out, a trigger that some of the Hosts have used to control the Hosts.

One of the two player piano songs we hear in “Trace Decay,” the eighth episode of Westworld’s first season, is The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” which mostly sounds like a version of the life story the Man in Black will tell Teddy later in the episode. The other song is the title track to the 2006 Amy Winehouse album “Back to Black,” which has lyrics worth noticing:

Hurts, I love too much
It's not enough your love goes and my love grows
And life is like a pie and I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside…

…We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times
You go back to her, and I go back to black

This is a song for Maeve (Thandie Newton) — who harbors hurt, who’s obviously died at least a hundred times, and who always fades to black (only to come back). In “Trace Decay,” all the Hosts seem to be fading to black over and over. Several get their memories erased, and, mostly importantly, Ford (Anthony Hopkins) now considers this a feature of Hosts that humans might envy.

Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford in Westworld.
Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford in Westworld.
John P. Johnson / HBO

For Ford, the Hosts aren’t robots that are meant to be servants to humans. They are upgrades to humans. This is clear from the first scene of “Trace Decay,” when Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) — who, in the last scene of episode seven, bashes Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) into the wall a couple of times at Ford’s command — is ordered to come back online by Ford.

This is a reversal of the usual roles; most Westworld episodes to this point have begun with Bernard bringing Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) online. And the difference is striking. Bernard’s emotional distress resembles any human’s distress at having killed a person they loved, and he is angry at Ford for having commanded him to do it, something he apparently couldn’t have resisted.

Ford sits by, looking on in pleasure: “The anguish, the horror, the pain, it’s remarkable,” he says. “A thing of beauty.”

Westworld is playing with the line between Host and human

That Bernard is a Host has been a fan theory since the earliest episodes of Westworld, and it was borne out in the show’s seventh episode. But he’s not the same sort of Host as (at least some of) the others. For one, when we see Ford with Bernard, Bernard is fully clothed; that’s a deviation from all of the in-world Hosts who, whenever they are brought to the control center for analysis, are completely naked. It casts a lot of doubt about what we can count on as signifiers for Hosts versus humans.

Also, while most in-world Hosts are not self-aware yet, Bernard has the ability to control Hosts with vocal commands — not tablets, as most of the rest of the technicians seem to need. (At this point, I have no idea who is a Host and who isn’t one. Probably best to assume most everyone is?) This is a bit of a mind-bender, because it presumes that Ford not only has given Bernard the ability to control other Hosts, but also chosen given Bernard the knowledge that Bernard is, himself, a Host.

Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe in Westworld.
Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe in Westworld.
John P. Johnson / HBO

Most importantly, though, Bernard’s ranges of emotion are deeper than those of other Hosts — and, per Ford, that’s an accomplishment. “You should be proud of these emotions you’re feeling,” Ford tells Bernard. He created Bernard to help him create Hosts with a wider array of emotions and to “capture that elusive thing: heart,” as Ford puts it. More granulated ranges of emotions have been the distinguishing feature of Hosts since the beginning of the show (some of the oldest ones don’t have much range at all), but Bernard is on a whole new level. He can’t even ditch his emotions entirely.

This is interesting, because to this point, Westworld has seemed to imply that the line between Host and human lies in two main areas: memory and self-determination. Ford’s injection of “reveries” into Host code has messed with the first of these a little. But even so, there’s the presumption that Hosts only remember what Ford wants them to remember, as the Man in Black tells Teddy.

It seems like the Man in Black’s info is a little outdated by now, though. Memories are beginning to confuse and drive the Hosts — Dolores declares that she can’t even distinguish between memories and reality anymore. (So does this mean she’s at last questioning the nature of her reality?)

But memories aren’t all that interesting divorced from emotions, and that’s the whole point here. The title of “Trace Decay” refers to a psychological theory about human memories — that they fade over time, become fuzzy around the edges. But Ford, either through negligence or intent, has elected to make the Hosts’ memories crystal clear, so that, like Dolores, they have trouble telling the difference between reality and memory. (Rather a handy device for a TV show that benefits from messing with viewers’ perception of which timeline we’re in, something Dolores gets at explicitly when she cries out to William in anguish, “When are we?”)

“Trace Decay” also pulls out a bigger idea that has been hinted at in earlier episodes, which is that it’s sort of a gift to have perfect memory recall tied to the ability to completely erase memory on command. This link is an improvement the Hosts have over humans, whose memories become messy and tricky. Several times, Ford offers his ability to erase the Hosts’ memories as a gift to Hosts who are pleading to keep them, arguing that (as Dolores has previously) their pain is all they have left of their loved ones.

It’s an interesting question, one that has been explored by a lot of science fiction movies: If you knew then what you knew now, would you fall in love or make that decision? Movies like Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and Arrival ask this question because it preoccupies all humans facing the end of something that once was good, whether it’s relationship or catastrophe.

People make all kinds of decisions because they fear the regret they’ll feel if they don’t. What will you feel on your deathbed? In Westworld, Ford seems to be fighting that fear by creating a whole race of creatures whose regrets can be wiped out with the touch of a tablet. But is that an improvement, or is it a mind-control dystopia à la Brave New World?

“Trace Decay” gives rise to a new opponent to Ford

“Trace Decay” is full of big reveals — the backstory of the Man in Black, the fact that Maeve’s daughter was killed by him, more hints of Dolores’s history with the steeple, a few hints about Wyatt, and the intimation that the late Theresa may also have been a Host (the control team can find no explanations of her “that fit her character”). There’s also a new, mysterious villain with very subtext-becomes-text-style devil horns, and whatever his deal is still is shadowy.

But “Trace Decay” is the sort of episode that does mostly expositional yeoman’s work, and thus is sort of a mess, with none of its plots or reveals particularly well-connected. There’s one shining exception, though: Maeve’s storyline, which is still pretty fascinating.

For a long time, people (including myself) have figured the dualistic nature of the clearly impending apocalyptic battle for Westworld would be between any number of people: Theresa and Ford, maybe, or Ford and the Man in Black, or Ford and some incarnation of Arnold.

But it’s Maeve who’s emerged as his most promising opponent, for one big reason: In this episode, she gains the ability to not just be self-aware, but to narrate. She controls Hosts with her words — like Bernard, but in a bigger way: She doesn’t issue imperatives, but tells the story, and they follow her narrative. Ford commands from a point of authority; Maeve writes from within. She gains, in other words, an ability that almost nobody in the park has.

This is a pretty fascinating construct, and one to which I hope the Westworld writers do justice. Ford speaks early in the episode about “the dominion I shall acquire,” the sort of thing that a Satan would say, to be sure. But Maeve is actually doing it.

Tessa Thompson as Charlotte Hale in Westworld.
Tessa Thompson as Charlotte Hale in Westworld.
John P. Johnson / HBO

In Biblical terms, not only has Maeve tasted the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — which will let her see the world for what it is — but she seems to have tapped the Tree of Life, and is capable, as a Host, of living forever. The “hundred times” she’s died are nothing to her, as she’s said in the past. What’s one more death?

Now that Maeve can narrate events and make them happen, Jedi mind trick-style, she has leapfrogged over Bernard, who is still Ford’s lackey. But while she experiences emotion, it’s not clear yet if her emotional capabilities are as developed as Bernard’s. Does she feel guilt? There’s no evidence of that yet. She can feel sadness and loss, but otherwise, her ruling emotions are revenge and curiosity.

So in the ongoing argument over who is Satan and who is God in Westworld, I’d like to propose a double history: Once, God was Arnold, a man who felt as if what they were doing to the Hosts wasn’t right, and supposedly killed himself over the guilt. Satan was Ford. (I don’t at all buy that Ford, or one of his Hosts like Bernard — who clearly hasn’t only killed Theresa but, it seems, Elsie — didn’t kill Arnold and spread the story about his suicide.)

But now, Satan’s been ruling his kingdom. (There’s a hint of an impending proxy villain for Satan near the end, in the form of the Host who once played Dolores’s father, but for now that’s just one scene.) And yet an upstart is here to challenge his place: Maeve. She doesn’t just control Hosts, she rewrites the narrative, something Hosts haven’t been able to do before.

Maeve has stepped outside Ford’s narrative completely, it seems. She gained dominion over Westworld through her own power of will — and she is amassing an army to challenge its god. (Not totally unlike an inverse version of the events of Revelation 12:7-9, in which Satan and his army challenge the angels.) And what happens if Maeve narrates to a Host a story that results in Ford’s demise?

Then again, is it possible that Ford planned this? Has he known all along? Is this his ultimate game, his epic writing of his ending? And what is he after, to make himself into a Host and thus get rid of his memories, or something more sinister, more apocalyptic?

I guess we’ll see.

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