‘Westworld’ Frustrates With The Confusing ‘Trace Decay’

Senior Television Writer
11.20.16 44 Comments

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.

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