Westworld Review: Trace Decay
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, yet we live in loops as tight and closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next. - Robert Ford
It feels like there's so much that needs to be unpacked and dissected from Sunday night's episode, and indeed we will get into some of it here in just a moment, but I do have to step back and say that Sunday's episode may have been the weakest of the season. That's not a huge surprise, if only because it followed up the biggest revelation and best cliffhanger the series has brought to its audience thus far. It's the comedown after the chaos, but this time around, there were so many things being said and done that didn't amount to much, or were left mysterious and incomplete. It was intentional, because keeping the audience guessing is a large part of the planning, but it was another loose episode where we were all just floating through the sky, hoping to grasp on to something solid and ground ourselves.
For the first time, I was left underwhelmed and needlessly inundated with feelings of wasted investment. This was a big puzzle, executed without any new pieces or even the possibility of a solution. There were some great stories, especially the Man in Black yarn near the end of the hour, but this was the forgettable episode, outside of a few moments. Next week comes the penultimate installment, which will leave us with the biggest piece of drama, and probably the saddest moment. It almost always does, and with Michelle MacLaren directing, known for perfectly capturing misery and high drama, the odds are good that something enormous and gut wrenching is on the way.
Bernard and Ford's scenes together were still very good, as it's always entertaining to listen to Anthony Hopkins talk as if he's an omnipotent force who holds all the cards. Jeffrey Wright had to play a host torn between his programming and the emotions he's built up for such a long time. He was phenomenal, which isn't an aberration relative to his usual acting performance. Along with Thandie, he's been the best, because of the range required of late.
Keep in mind that unlike many of the other hosts, or virtually all of them, this character hasn't been dying in Westworld as a part of one of the narratives. He's been living as a plant, doing Ford's work when necessary, but also developing a life. He's not Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. He's Bernard Lowe living outside of a loop, but still on the end of a marionette's string. He believes he lost his son, he believes in a past marriage, and he believes in a lasting connection.
None of it is true.
As Ford says, "Best not to dwell on these troubling memories; you might lose yourself in them." Easy for him to say. He didn't just find out his entire psyche is a megalomaniac's psyche. Ford does tell Bernard that the host was the author of many of his own emotions, which stands to reason considering his position as head of behavior for the company.
But, he's still doing the bidding of Ford, who is willing to go to monstrous lengths to maintain his power over everyone in the park, as well as everyone who keeps it running. We see a glimpse of Bernard with what appeared to be Elsie, as Lowe sees a vision of choking her out, which would mean he's the one that grabbed her when she was attempting to discover the origins of the smuggling scheme. Ford answered his question about his past, saying Bernard had never hurt anyone before, and then we immediately saw that cutaway shot, so it's likely the liar is again lying. Bernard's response when he's asked where Elsie is pretty much tells us what went down as well. He knows he had something to do with it.
With Theresa gone, and with her death being revealed immediately (the theory of a replacement was incorrect), Charlotte Hale tries to talk Lee into becoming her source of stolen data and intelligence. The question remains as to what the motivations are past the obvious goal of exterminating Ford's influence and authority. We know the lucrative nature of the park, and of Delos Destinations, but the specifics are lacking. She comes across both cold and sinister, and as she stares through Ford after he reasserts his position, forces Bernard's rehire, and almost looks at Hale in a transparent "Yeah, I killed that nuisance" manner, you can see this is all about information that translates to money, which diffuses to strength.
On the subject of strength, Maeve is officially a dangerous broad, and Thandie Newton is absolutely on fire as an actress. During these last few episodes, she's been asked to play so many different emotions, but when it's time to be Betty Bad Ass, she's off the charts. She is now a storyteller, not just a host. She's tinkering and testing her own manufactured scenes, including telling the sheriff Hector is an upstanding citizen, allowing him to snag the safe from the saloon. Watching her walk through the town like it's a video game, whispering plot elements, and watching the ensuing mayhem was a real joy. Also, we usually get the best player piano moments when she's involved. Last night, it was Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, and even though composer Ramin Djawadi has tried to downplay the lyrical importance of the selected songs, this one, like several before it, is AWFULLY interesting.
You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked
I'll go back to black
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black
The song is literally about a temporary relationship and a connection felt by both, where eventually the other goes back to real life, while the brokenhearted party stays behind, destined to repeat the process and remember the past for eternity. She wants normalcy, but it doesn't exist for her, as she's trapped. The key word to describe this phenomenon happens to be...
Maeve also sliced Sylvester's throat, then ordered Felix to cauterize the wound to keep him alive, because he might be needed. That was brutal, and we see her do it to someone in the streets back in the town as well. She's still seeing visions of the hideous acts of the Man in Black, a story we do get a little information on during his long monologue to Teddy on the outskirts of Westworld. She's fully self-aware, she's also paranoid and expecting betrayal, and I can't help but think someone just needs to shoot her and kill her.
Felix needs to shoot her in the back of the head and leave nothing behind. Whatever he thinks she is, she even admits to a duplicitous nature, and any useful idiot can see this doesn't end well for the humans. It's unbelievable negligence, and while we're supposed to care about her side, I find myself wondering how she hasn't been cut into two thousand pieces yet. She's only becoming more formidable as the days pass, and if I'm Felix, I'm wondering when I go from "useful" to "useless" amidst the army she wants to build, what happens to me? She's not supposed to be a villain yet, but I already see the end of Ex Machina in my head as I'm watching all of this transpire.
Or, more appropriately, I'm seeing a nastier version of Yul Brynner from a 1973 film written by Michael Crichton. Perhaps you've heard of it. It's called "Westworld."
It does seem apparent now that Dolores and Teddy are in separate timelines, perhaps decades apart, and that William is starting to show the signs of someone that could end up being the Man in Black down the line. Recall how often he has visited the park, and how much he knows about it, although the profession and some of the details aren't exactly simpatico. Ford has created Wyatt as the supervillain of his new narrative, and if you watch, Wyatt is a part of nearly every host's story. They're all filtering down into this vast river where one guy is the horned source of evil. Wyatt is almost a fairy tale antagonist, one passed down through generations, again something that might play into alternate eras.
Dolores is envisioning herself dead and drowned in the river, recognizing her homestead, and questioning whether William is even real. If you look at the landscape and even some of how the scenes are shot, you can almost make out the difference in time. It makes complete sense that the two timelines exist, because without it, all of what's occurring is taking place in separate vacuums. If there's one thing we can count on from Westworld, it's that in the end, almost all of this is going to come together.
Lost was great at compartmentalizing the many threads of its larger story, and even if you didn't like how that tale concluded, the connections between all the passengers on Oceanic 815 and those they encountered on the island was a stroke of genius. It's an idea that's been attempted since, but not as successfully. Fringe, another Abrams production, which features members of the Lost writing team, who would then go on to Person of Interest, which of course is a Jonathan Nolan creation, did a nice job with it as well. Person of Interest also did it effectively.
Jonathan Nolan is one of the Westworld showrunners. He knows how to do this "everything ties together" construct better than just about anybody.
That said, I wasn't particularly impressed with the Dolores and William portion of Trace Decay, but was blown away by the words coming from the Man in Black's mouth. Rather than describe them, this is the passage that I went back to and re-watched several times afterward.
You want to know who I am, who I really am? I'm a God, a titan of industry, a philanthropist, family man, married to a beautiful woman, father to a beautiful daughter. I'm the good guy, Teddy. Then last year, my wife took the wrong pills, fell asleep in the bath. Tragic accident. Thirty years of marriage vanished. How do you say it? Like a deep and distant dream.
His daughter pulls away from his attempt to console her at the funeral, saying her mother lived in complete terror every day of her life. She knew the real man behind the facade, and feared him, even though he says he never once laid a hand on her. The man he is in Westworld isn't who he was outside of it, but he originally came to the park to discover his true self. To prove his daughter wrong, he came to Westworld. And then he tells the story of shooting Maeve and her daughter.
I wanted to see if I had it in me to do something truly evil, to see what I was really made of. I killed her and her daughter, just to see what I felt. Then, just when I thought it was done, the woman refused to die.
He saw a brief moment where this host was, in his words, "truly alive," and at that second, he recognized the maze. And finally, he tells Teddy that Ford protects the guests from the hosts. He can't be harmed, even on the boundaries. But, Arnold also has a game, which he believes to be deeper and more pure. Without saying it, we know why he's there. He's in Westworld to find the part of the story where there are real consequences to his actions. He wants to even the playing field, because once you can't convince yourself of the legitimacy of what's happening in front of you, it ceases to be fun anymore.
Plus, he may have a death wish. He doesn't see himself as a God. He wants to think he's a good man, but the park has shown him otherwise. Arnold's game has to be one in which everyone, guest or host, is an angel and a devil, with the power to save or destroy life. And, in that game, he's the God. That's why he had to be shuffled out of Ford's deck.
Westworld gave us a view of Maeve just after the death of her daughter, while she was still alive, but severely wounded. Only Arnold's words, though spoken by another, shut her down. She begs for her pain to stay, because it's all she has left of her daughter. Ford wipes her memory, without even considering the plea. The past and present Maeve is one of the show's biggest strengths, not just because Thandie has been so good, but because it's never failed to be fascinating and engaging. Even though I'm torn on whether to cheer her vengeance or condemn the human stupidity, she's the most captivating part of the show by a wide margin.
Wyatt is the next step in the maze, not just for the Man in Black, but for everyone with a purpose inside the park. He's the creation that holds the key this man looks for, holds Dolores' freedom, and increasingly, has a dog in the fight with just about everybody. He's the big boss at the end of Warcraft, the greatest evil, and the one to be conquered. The only man above him is Robert Ford, who created him to give the customers and the hosts a new finish line. And, with everyone's attention on Wyatt, imagine what Ford could be conjuring on another side of Westworld.
Never dismiss the distraction formula in television, film, books, or any story. Your eyes are focused in one direction, but the real action is somewhere far away. Eventually, you figure it out, but not before the story has been able to keep you occupied long enough to make that trick matter in the grander scheme. Even in politics, sometimes a small, but juicy scandal comes out, while a major breach is taking place halfway across the world. It continues to find its way into fiction because it works, and because we all understand and have used distraction in some part of our lives. Westworld is no doubt playing Three Card Monty with us, but hopefully the people behind the trick don't run away while our back is turned.
Trace Decay would have been better without Dolores and William's portion, saving that for next week with more time to explore and explain it. It is nice to see Logan re-emerge as a complete jerk, with back-up, and ready to destroy his "friend" and the female traveling with him. Here, all of the scenes felt out of place, and the hour was much more about Maeve and the Man in Black, plus Ford's maneuvering in a company that seems hell bent on eliminating his presence. However, the most important words that have ever emanated from the Dolores Abernathy character do emerge during the episode, as she asks William, "WHEN are we."
Indeed you poor girl. Indeed.
Hale ends up selecting Dolores' father as the host to be brought back and used for information. Boy is that going to backfire. It shows the disconnect between the suits and the grunts, and even further between the big picture people and those beneath them that actually understand the machinations of the world. It's a mistake made from negligence and a lack of knowledge, a conceit we've seen throughout this series on the human side. Fittingly, we're told that the hosts have perfect recall, which isn't hazy and incomplete the way human memories work. These creations remember everything flawlessly, and thus the brain wipe is so much more necessary. Unfortunately, it seems the process is also imperfect, and the overlap probabilities are on the rise.
I like Westworld most when it makes me think. I can always draw deep philosophical meaning from the series, because the swaths of dialogue are there to be found and deciphered. It's the struggle between fantasy and reality, and the revelations of purpose and motivation, of character or deceit that draws me in. Even this week, where I found myself mentally wandering and unaffected during a few sequences, we still had Ford and Bernard, as well as Maeve and the Man in Black. That alone is still more than worth my time.
And, I predict this coming week's episode will be the best we've seen, and will leave Twitter jaws on the floor across the world. Not just because it's episode nine of a ten episode season, but also because of Michelle MacLaren. Her direction is among the best in all of television, and she usually handles the most difficult or emotional of material with skill and soul. It's okay for us to be a little less than enthused with Trace Decay, because on Sunday, look the hell out.