Posted on Monday, November 21st, 2016 by Jacob Hall
After the major events of “Trompe L’Oeil,” Westworld shifted into a slower gear with “Trace Decay,” an hour concerned with picking up the pieces after last week’s shattering events and setting the stage for the final two episodes of the show’s first season. As always, each new episode of the series brings up questions of both the literal and rhetorical variety, so let’s dive in and poke around and talk about what we just saw.
What Is Trace Decay?
In psychology, the “trace decay” theory suggests that new memories are created through a chemical reaction in the brain and that this new mixture of neurochemicals begins to undo itself within 30 seconds unless that new memory is “rehearsed.” Although unproven (and apparently borderline impossible to actually prove), the theory attempts to explain how our short-term memories operate and why some moments are forever burned into our psyches while others fade away within minutes. Unless nurtured, unless an event is returned to time and time again, the chemical reaction stirred by the creation of the new memory will undo itself.
For human beings, this theory explains is why we can recall traumatizing events from childhood while we struggled to remember what he had for breakfast. For the robotic Hosts living in and around Westworld, trace decay is something that would not come naturally to their electronic minds, which have been built to simulate the human experience while being far more powerful than an organic brain. Memories are only forgotten because they are programmed to be forgotten. Traumatic experiences occur on a daily basis, only to be wiped with a few taps on the touchscreen.
Bernard, wracked with guilt over the murder of Theresa Cullen, is given a rare gift from his creator, Dr. Robert Ford – the chance to forget transgressions that should be branded upon his brain for the rest of his existence. A long-term memory, one that he should have to live with, has been intentionally faded. It doesn’t look like anything to him.
However, other Westworld Hosts have started revealing new signs that they are closer to human than expected. Take Maeve, Dolores, and now Teddy, each of whom keeps experiencing real memories for the first time since they were built. Something in their code, probably a key line or two hidden away by the mysterious Arnold, has allowed certain memories, the worst memories, to linger on, hiding out deep in their minds. Even when not rehearsed, when not revisited for years at a time, these memories exist with perfect clarity. Just like us, they will not, even if we attempt to force them, forget the trespasses against them.
What Else Has Bernard Done?
“Trace Decay” immediately finds itself on clean-up duty following the horrific events of last week’s episode, with Bernard Lowe battling an overwhelming sense of grief as he realizes what he’s done. While Dr. Ford gave the order, an order that Bernard was programmed to follow, the blood is literally on his hands and his colleague/god is not giving him much comfort. Jeffrey Wright’s naked misery is a punch to gut after watching seven episodes of Bernard being nothing short of unflappable, but it’s Anthony Hopkins who provides the scene with a chilling aura of horror. He may be the “real” person in the room, but he shrugs off the death of Theresa as a necessary evil and takes time to pat himself on the back for just how realistic Bernard’s emotional outburst appears. Dr. Ford cannot and will not offer Bernard any semblance of comfort. Would you bat a tool on the back for doing its job? By breaking into tears and torment, Bernard is just a machine doing what he was built to do. And oh boy, is he doing it well.
This scene is filled with tiny nuggets of revelation. Dr. Ford admits that he built Bernard because he needed an employee who could actually achieve his vision and he didn’t trust any of the actual flesh-and-blood programmers to get the job done. He explains the true dividing line between Arnold and himself, that his late partner was driven mad when he tried to reckon with the idea that creating artificial beings that could conjure human emotions meant that they were creating actual life and not an imitation of it. Dr. Ford’s conclusion about the whole thing provides some unsettling definition for a character who has always played his cards close the vest – a Host’s emotions and human emotions are the same thing, because both of them only exist in the mind and not in reality. But while the Hosts cannot turn off rage and guilt and sadness without outside assistance, without tinkering by a god, Dr. Ford has managed to rise above such petty concepts. If you’re going to rule a dominion of your own creation, you can’t get bogged down by feelings. God, more than his creations, has to be a fine-tuned engine that never stops working.
Of course, Dr. Ford makes Bernard a deal. If he destroys all of the evidence of the murder and stages it as an accident, this memory will be erased, along with every memory of his personal relationship with Theresa. There are shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here, with years of good times falling victim to a few horrible moments that make those fond memories so painful to maintain. Bernard gets the job done and only Ashley Stubbs, the head of park security, recognizes that something is up.
The question now is whether or nor this is the first time Bernard has gotten his hands dirty on behalf of his creator. Dr. Ford insists that this is the only time he’s asked him to do such a thing, but if there’s one thing Westworld has taught us after eight hours, it’s that you should never trust the words coming out of his mouth. He says what he needs to say, rising above the lies to see the bigger picture that he’s painting. But look to Maeve, Dolores, and Teddy. The Hosts are starting to remember, whether they want to or not. Bernard’s bad memories, whatever he’s done in the past, surely won’t remain buried for much longer.