Westworld Revels in Agony in “Trace Decay”

(Episode 1.08)

TV Features Westworld
Westworld Revels in Agony in “Trace Decay”

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

This entire season of Westworld, as thrilling as I’ve found it, has never felt completely novel. Perhaps that’s because just about every project spearheaded by a Nolan brother has the same pulp-philosophical feel, the same fascination with the human psyche, even many of the same filming and narrative techniques. Seriously, they must have signed some sort of pact that every one of their projects would feature an old person monologuing over some sweeping, mysteriously moving montage.

As Maeve and Bernard and Dolores and Teddy experienced completely lucid flashbacks to their past lives in “Trace Decay,” I was struck by my own, human, relatively hazy flashback to Memento, the last Nolan brothers work to deal explicitly with memory. Guy Pearce’s Leonard, in retrospect, could easily have been the template for Westworld’s hosts: defined by an inability to piece together his own true narrative, doomed to experience emotions with no understanding of why, manipulated by malevolent people with malevolent ends. Can you imagine Leonard’s rage if his retrograde amnesia were not only to disappear, but if he were able to access perfect, first-person point-of-view experiences of his horrifying actions in that film? (Actually, such a condition exists.)

The human characters of Westworld have never been the reason to watch this show. Especially after “Trace Decay,” it feels like they’re running in defined, archetypal tracks: of course William’s going to turn; of course Charlotte Hale and Ford are locked in a high-stakes battle of wits and one is going to make a crucial mistake. Even the Man in Black (William in the present?!), one of the early episodes’ hooks—if only because of Ed Harris’ menacing performance—has settled into the well-traveled “old guy with nothing to lose” trope. Even though the humans’ motives are still, for the most part, mysteries that we’ll witness unravel over the final two installments of the season, they don’t feel quite original. It’s hard to care so much about their stories on more than a superficial level.

New life, on the other hand, has been considered a miracle for millennia of human history, and here, in the realm of its slowly awakening hosts, Westworld has repeatedly nailed its execution. Last night’s episode gave us four separate points on the path toward real existence—which it’s now more or less clear lies at the center of the maze—but each of Bernard, Dolores, Teddy and Maeve seem to be hurtling toward the same conclusion: pain. Real, searing, gut-shredding pain, the type of which Ford will not allow Bernard to feel, perhaps because he knows that this is the answer and doesn’t want his most loyal servant developing an independent mind.

Of our four (known) star hosts, Maeve had the night’s most compelling story, helped by the fact that we’ve reached an inflection point in the believability of Felix and Sylvester’s actions. The time to put up resistance would have been before she asked them to turn her intelligence all the way up and her loyalty all the way down; now it’s perfectly believable that they’ve become her lackeys.

Maeve’s awakening, to this point, had been one that appeared to be completely under her control, at least ever since she broke while watching a computer screen formulate her words. In Westworld, it seems that Ford and Arnold were able to master artificial reasoning before artificial emotion, and thus Maeve’s ability to scheme and keep herself composed as she plans her escape has never really come as a surprise. Not even when she slashed Sylvester’s neck did anything feel out of the ordinary.

But her reliving of the Man in Black’s brutal actions in her past life triggered something new: a total loss of rational function, a revelry in what Spring Awakening once called “the bitch of living.” When Maeve killed the new Clementine, it was for absolutely no good reason—nothing she could ever explain to another person, anyway—and yet she became as alive as she has ever been. Because life in the shadow of death is pain, and in Westworld’s philosophical bible, only after we abandon control of our highest level of thought and succumb fully to the torrent of emotions that flows from death do we approximate human being.

Watching Maeve walk away from the threatening crowd in the aftermath of her actions, at a total loss for words, felt like watching a newborn baby utter its first cries, only far less gross and far more riveting. It felt like the revenge that Memento’s Leonard would seize if he could regain the full human experience of remembered, internalized pain. And following this latest step in her awakening, I truly have no idea what Maeve is going to do next. The blankness of her slate thrills me.

It’s hard to wait for Dolores to finally make sense of her own flashbacks, which she has only just begun to do. Now that we kinda sorta know that she and William are thirty years behind everyone else on the show (at least, that theory got much stronger last night), it’s reasonable to think that the “incident” referred to by the present-day characters will involve her traveling the same road as Maeve. Now that we’ve seen what real pain can do to the hosts, Dolores’ awakening becomes the most anticipated moment of the final two episodes. Closely following it will be Bernard’s own path toward consciousness—his memory of choking out Elsie probably wasn’t wiped, and if that remained, we have to think that the memory of killing his only true love hasn’t dissipated.

The myriad fan theories and interlocking mysteries have helped Westworld build up a large, increasingly rabid following. But the lasting wonder of the show lies in its miracle of birth, in artificial adults learning the lessons that most of us learn as toddlers: life can hurt, badly, and it always ends. Now what are they going to do about it?

Zach Blumenfeld procrastinated on his law school homework to write this. Follow him on Twitter.

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