‘Westworld’ Frustrates With The Confusing ‘Trace Decay’

A review of tonight’s Westworld coming up just as soon as I go back to playing dumb…

“Lifelike, but not alive?” -Bernard

After a promising hour last week that confirmed one of the more popular theories about the show — and, as a result, suggested a far more engaging character arc to replace the mystery — “Trace Decay” was among the season’s more frustrating installments, getting too caught up in temporal loops and dreams and memory fragments at the expense of thoroughly exploring how the characters are feeling about their present (or past) circumstances. There are moments, even in this one, when the show can feel like a powerful meditation on consciousness and memory and grief, and others when it just feels like a puzzle to be solved, and one where the degree of difficulty on that puzzle keeps being raised so that it requires more and more mental energy to focus on when Dolores is, whether Maeve stabs the new Clementine as part of her plan or because she’s caught in her memory of attacking the Man in Black, etc.

There are, to be sure, answers offered along with more obfuscation. Ford strongly implies that he was responsible for Arnold’s death when his partner came to oppose him. The Man explains some of his backstory to Teddy, for instance, including why he wound up attacking Maeve and her daughter out on the prairie, and why he seems to be taking such a nihilistic approach to the game this time out, and this in turn explains how Maeve went from frontierswoman to madam.

And through the stories of Bernard and Maeve, the hour does a nice job hitting the series’ core questions about memory and identity, as he seems grateful for the chance to forget all that he’s done to (and with) Theresa, while in the aftermath of her daughter’s murder, Maeve wants desperately to hold onto the pain, because it’s all she has left of her.

But Bernard’s existential crisis seemed to be set aside (for now, anyway) far too quickly in favor of having him get busy with Ford’s cover-up and the other counter-moves against Charlotte Hale. That Stubbs knew about the affair with Theresa, and that Elsie’s status is still weighing on the security chief’s mind, suggests there will be time in the future for Bernard to discover once again what he is(*) and what he’s done, in the same way that Maeve still has memories of her daughter even after Ford seemingly erased them in the immediate aftermath. But the revelation of Bernard’s true nature, and the thematic implications of it, was one of the most exciting developments of a season that’s spent far too much time teasing and going in circles, so for it to get downplayed — and for the genie to be potentially put back in the bottle for a while — in favor of more dreams, loops, and other things that are starting to feel like they require more mental effort than the dramatic payoff will be worth, was annoying.

(*) It’s not even entirely clear if he still knows he’s a host, or if Ford wiped that along with the Theresa memories.

Ford at least acknowledges to Bernard that there may be no appreciable difference between the guests and hosts at this point, other than his ability to control the latter group. But as we see with Maeve’s ongoing attempt to bust out of this hi-tech prison, even that’s a power that can be granted to a host if she’s persuasive enough with a staffer as impressionable or naive as Felix. Like Ford, she’s becoming more than a little drunk with power, whether cutting Sylvester’s throat just to demonstrate that she can (but letting Felix save him for future use) or manipulating the behavior of people in and around Hector’s usual massacre of Sweetwater. The Maeve of a year ago wants desperately to cling to the pain if it means having some piece of her daughter with her, whereas the Maeve in the present shrugs off the possibility of tracking down the host who played her daughter, because she would be one more obstacle towards getting out, which is all she cares about now.

Maeve’s story has been the most satisfying for most of the season in part because it’s been among Westworld‘s most straightforward. We still don’t know exactly how she gained sentience — though the fact that she mentions Arnold’s name offers a rather large clue — and we won’t know until next week whether New Clementine’s murder was a glitch or a way to get to where she wants to be at headquarters, but it’s a story where the show has seemingly dealt the bulk of its cards straight-up, the better for us to appreciate Thandie Newton’s performance and the thrills and fun of seeing one of the puppets learn to cut her strings.

HBO renewed Westworld last week. Obviously, what’s coming over the last two episodes of this season could force me to radically revise my opinion, but as it stands now, I hope that in year two, Nolan, Joy, and company spend less time trying to keep us guessing about what’s happening and more on dealing with the implications of what we know for sure to be happening.

Some other thoughts:

  • A nice touch at the start of the episode to have Ford order Bernard to bring himself back online, just as we’ve witnessed Bernard do the same with Dolores on numerous occasions.
  • “A disappointing end to her story,” Ford says of Theresa’s alleged slip-and-fall demise, though he could just as easily be speaking for all the Borgen fans who expected a lot more from Sidse Babett Knudsen’s first major American TV role.
  • Also, if Elsie was, in fact, choked to death by Bernard — as appeared to be the case in the flash of memory he had right before Ford wiped him clean — then Shannon Woodward got slightly more to do than Knudsen (some wry one-liners, at least, and more a sense of humanity than anyone else working for Delos), but still not nearly enough.
  • The new Clementine is played by a member of the larger HBO/Cinemax family: Banshee alum Lili Simmons.
  • When William declined to save Logan in Pariah, I wondered if the park had safeguards in place to prevent guests from being killed by hosts using things other than guns. We don’t know exactly how he came to be a member of the Confederados, but it may be that the hosts are programmed to be more susceptible to being talked out of killing the guests if the moment requires it.
  • The Man in Black is trying to make his way to the center of a maze, so of course he and Teddy have to fight a man dressed as a minotaur on their way there.
  • I wonder if Charlotte’s attempt to smuggle a host full of Ford’s secrets out of the park will in some way wind up helping Maeve in her own escape attempt.
  • As I suspected when I wrote last week’s review, no screeners for the rest of the season. I stayed up tonight to write this one; we’ll play it by ear for the final two weeks.


The strongest piece of evidence this week pointing to William and the Man in Black being one and the same is that the Man recognizes Angela — the blonde host who appears to be one of Wyatt’s victims, but instead turns out to be one of his followers — from a long-ago visit, and says he thought they retired her. Angela (played by Talulah Riley) was the same woman who welcomed William to the park and helped get him outfitted back in “Chestnut.”

Dolores helpfully articulates our confusion by pulling out of her nightmare to first ask William where they are, and follow it with, “Then when are we. Is this… now?” At the moment, they’re standing by the buried spire of the church, which we’ve seen fully exposed to daylight in flashbacks, and which was buried when Ford gave Bernard a tour of the part of the park he intended to excavate for his new narrative. That it’s still buried when Dolores and William stand there could mean… well, at this point it could mean anything, because Dolores’ dreams or memories (including what seems to be a glimpse of another Maeve) make it difficult to nail down an exact answer to Dolores’ question. I’m sure you could Zapruder every frame of her Sweetwater vision to find evidence confirming or disproving the theory, but at this point, the show will tell us when it tells us.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com