'Westworld' Spoiler Review: 10 Questions From ''Trace Decay''

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.

Can We Dwell on the Music For a Moment?

Ramin Djawadi's music for Westworld has always been good, with his eerie opening titles setting the perfect mood and his piano-driven covers of modern pop and rock songs providing amusing (and often important) commentary on a given scene. However, his work in "Trace Decay" goes above and beyond the call of duty. In addition to two more saloon piano covers ("House of the Rising Sun" and "Back to Black," the latter of which is used quite cheekily), Djawadi introduces a new theme: a synth track that creeps into key scenes, atmospheric and icy and giving certain dramatic scenes an electronic heartbeat. Djawadi's score is a computer emulating life, instruments that exist and ones and zeroes doing the work of human hands and fingers. This music acts like the Hosts themselves – an "imitation" of something can fully transform into whatever it's imitating if you push it too far.

westworld episode 8 Charlotte Hale

How Long Until Lee Sizemore Bites the Dust?

Last week proved that Westworld isn't above killing off members of its human cast, so "Trace Decay" quietly asks a very important question: how long does head writer Lee Sizemore have to live now that Charlotte Hale has pulled him into her web? After all, he's not as mild-mannered or as intelligent as his late boss... but he could be just dim enough, just underestimated enough, to escape the gaze of a genius like Robert Ford.

As Sizemore, Simon Quarterman has always been a source of comic relief (with some humor bits landing better than others) and that continues here, with him pacing around his office, dictating lines of dialogue to a new cannibalistic villain who is casually dining on a severed human leg. Naturally, he cannot see through his own bluster and it takes a visit from Tessa Thompson's Charlotte Hale to help him see the truth. He's not working on a key villain for Dr. Ford's new narrative. He's being kept busy in his own little corner while his boss does all of the real work. And Charlotte, now fresh out of inside operatives following the "accidental" death of Theresa, convinces him to take on an extra duty. He will do what the late operations leader failed to do – he will smuggle data out of the park. Since the plan to use a stray Host equipped with the necessary components to communicate with a satellite failed so miserably, Charlotte has a more direct approach. Sizemore will download Westworld's stolen code to the mind of a Host, convincingly write that Host to be an actual human, and help it leave the park with all the data the Delos board so desperately wants.

This means a return to cold storage and, more importantly, a return to Peter Abernathy, the Host who once played Dolores' father before he became the first victim of Dr. Ford's "reveries" update. Much like how you don't reveal a gun in the first act unless you plan for it to go off later in the story, you don't put a vengeful robot in cold storage in episode one unless you plan for him to return at a later date. Sizemore is, in so many words, totally fucked: if committing corporate espionage for a boss who doesn't care about his personal safety doesn't get him killed, then awakening and tinkering with a Host who was remembering his past programming as a murderous psychopath the last time we saw him will get the job done.

westworld episode 8 william dolores

What Did Dolores Find in the Center of the Maze?

Hey! Dolores and William made it to the center of the Maze! Finally! So many secrets to uncover!

Or not. The discovery of the center of the Maze, the area characters have been seeking for eight episodes now, raised more questions without providing too many answers. This is the Westworld way.

But those questions are certainly intriguing. While Dolores didn't stumble across hard evidence of anything at all, she did encounter a slew of telling hallucinations. If her flashes of memory are to be trusted (and Westworld has made it clear that the Hosts have perfect memories when they're not being tampered with), the center of the Maze used to be home to small town. And within this small town, Hosts go about their business while park technicians look on, guiding them back into proper positions and helping them rehearse the illusion of life. And while she may not know anything about it, Dolores knows that this small town is "home."

Although "Trace Decay" stays mum on exactly what's going on here, this certainly looks like some kind of Host testing ground, a place where the first Hosts were field tested and perfected for their final use. Dolores, being the oldest Host in the park, may have been "raised" here before it was dismantled, leaving behind only a single church steeple...the same church steeple that somehow plays a role in Dr. Ford's new narrative. Whatever this steeple means, whatever the Maze represents, they both seem to represent the earliest days of the park, where the original Hosts learned to simulate humanity.

Naturally, the only person more frustrated than Westworld viewers by the lack of concrete answers in this sequence is Dolores herself, who cannot understand why the voice in her bicameral mind (courtesy of Arnold?) has led her all the way out here, only to toss her into more hallucinations/flashbacks/flashforwards. These glimpses of something are surely/hopefully going to pay off in the next few episodes. After all, Jimmi Simpson himself has promised no "bullshit cliffhangers" this season.

What Makes Maeve So Special?

In the most shattering moment of "Trace Decay," we learn the heartbreaking origin story of Maeve. In a previous narrative, one where she took on the role of a frontier mother, a man broke into her home, stabbed her in the gut, and gunned down her young daughter before her very eyes. That intruder was the Man in Black, but we'll get to that angle shortly. Right now, it's not important who did it. What's vital is that it happened at all.

Because this trauma, this act of horror, burnt itself into Maeve's psyche. Her simulation of grief overpowered her programming, seemingly proving Dr. Ford's observation about human emotions right: if all emotions exist only within the mind, then Maeve's sorrow over the death of her child can't be called a simulation or a recreation. It's the real thing. While Bernard and Ford can assuage her by deleting the memory and moving her to a new storyline where she gets to play the madam of a brothel, the memory lingers on. Maybe this is the final proof that the Hosts are closer to human than anyone ever wanted or intended. Somehow, the worst moment of Maeve's existence cut through her programming and imprinted itself on her mind, with her artificial mind, her superior brain, refusing to let it decay. Maeve's brain rehearsed that memory, wallowing in such pain that the only solution was a hard reboot. But you can't reboot a scar. You can only hope that it fades.

The question now is whether Maeve is special in some way, a Host with a flaw (or an upgrade) allowing her to achieve this level of humanity while others are stranded in their loops. Or (and this is what I'm subscribing to) if every Host is capable of breaking free of their programming and that Maeve reached that point by experience pain so powerful that the act of simulating a realistic response truly, literally, woke her up.

westworld episode 8 photo Maeve Millay

What Are the Limits of Maeve's New Abilities?

Thanks to tinkering by Felix and Sylvester, Maeve has practically become a superhero. Or rather, a god. Like Dr. Robert Ford, she can now command the Hosts around her, manipulating situations until everyone involved does her bidding. She's not quite as powerful as Dr. Ford, who can freeze everything to the horizon with the right wave of his hand, but she can rewrite the narratives around her, telling other Hosts what they want to do or how they see the world and watching as they do her bidding. The results can be hilarious (Maeve assists Rodrigo Santoro's Hector Escaton with his heist by telling the sheriff that he only sees upstanding citizens when he looks at the outlaws), but they're also deeply troubling. Maeve was the most dangerous being in Westworld before she leveled up and reached God Mode.

And like every other narrative thread in "Trace Decay," Maeve's storyline ultimately reaches a cliffhanger. Her erratic activity is noted by park security, who capture her after the Hosts themselves fail to take her down (offering additional evidence that Westworld is self-policing, up to a point). While she may be a master manipulator on the park grounds and a master manipulator amongst men she can blackmail, Maeve is about to face her greatest challenge yet. Then again, she may very well find a sympathetic ear in Bernard Lowe, another Host who has watched his world crumble around him...

Where Are the Cameras?

Look, I'm perfectly okay accepting that Felix and Sylvester could sneak Maeve into Behavior and reprogram her between shifts. I've even grown increasingly accepting of the fact that the sway Maeve holds over her reluctant human allies is hazy at best. But since this episode features Bernard Lowe meticulously erasing himself from security camera footage to cover his tracks, I can't help but wonder...where the hell are all of the security cameras at Westworld and why haven't they caught this trio red-handed yet? Either park security has really fallen down on the job or the show was just hoping to power through the necessary story beats and hope we didn't notice.

Look, I'm just saying that episode nine better feature a quick shot of Felix deleting security footage or I'm going to continue picking this nit until someone tells me to shut up.

What Kind of Narrative Is Being Built Around Wyatt?

Dr. Ford has been working on his new narrative for most of the season now, but the storyline has remained shrouded in mystery and its lead villain, the vile Wyatt, has yet to show his face. What we do know can be described in just a few quick sentences: Wyatt is a former Union soldier who went mad, gathered a gang of psychopaths, and plans to claim the land in the name of an unknown cause. His followers dress like they walked out of a horror movie and they absorb bullets like they're a GoldenEye N64 henchman on 007 mode. The narrative's secret purpose is to protect the Maze, with Wyatt himself becoming the ultimate Westworld villain, a final boss, if we're going to use video game terms.

As we learned elsewhere in "Trace Decay," Dr. Ford is the only one who really knows what this new narrative is about, with Sizemore reduced to working on the fringes. It may be telling that Wyatt and his men don't really gel with the rest of Westworld. While so much of the park strives for something vaguely realistic, this new storyline feels borderline fantastical, with bad guys who act like sponges to punishment and secret motivations that feel downright apocalyptic in their intent. I'm reminded of the Undead Nightmare DLC that came to the great western video game Red Dead Redemption, which populated the game's otherwise realistic western world with zombies and monsters. In that case, the goal was to create a fresh and funny experience for those who had exhausted the core game. But for Westworld, Ford has built a logic-defying, rule-breaking set of characters who seem to exist only to stop the high-tier players from breaking the game.

The Man in Black is the alpha gamer in search of that perfect route, exploiting every glitch on his path to ultimately glory. Ford is the video game developer patching the game after release to make sure he can't get where he's going.

westworld episode 8 teddy and the man in black

Who Is the Man in Black?

I was once a member of a Dungeons & Dragons group where the Dungeon Master, the guy in charge of running the game and creating storylines, had one simple rule: no one could play an evil character. When it came time to design our heroes and choose our alignments, he would only allow us to mark ourselves as good or neutral. Running a group with evil characters, he explained, wasn't fun and it was often depressing. Free to do whatever they want within a fake world created on the table, "evil" players would run roughshod over the game. They wouldn't cooperate with the other players, they'd murder non-playable characters for fun, and they'd generally ensure that everyone else at the table had a miserable time. And that was before you took into account the sensitivity of the other players, some of whom would be genuinely disturbed or upset by the random acts of depravity that an "evil" player would find amusing. To play evil is to engage in your worst possible influences, to go as low as you can within a faux world because you have the social restraints to hold back in the real one.

I thought about this Dungeon Master when the Man in Black told Teddy about his personal history, about his work as a philanthropist and a titan of industry, about how he's a respected man with a family outside of the park. I thought about this Dungeon Master when the Man in Black spoke about his wife and daughter living in quiet fear of him because they knew, deep down, what kind of man he truly was, the man he "role-played" during his frequent visits to Westworld. And then I thought about Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, a novel about a man who pretends to be a vile Nazi propagandist while acting as an operative for the Allied forces. Specifically, I thought about this quote: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be."

The Man in Black, a good guy in the real world, a husband, a father, a man who would never take a real life, comes to Westworld so he can pretend to be a monster. He executed Maeve's daughter just to see what would happen. He torments Dolores and Teddy often enough that he has decades of memories revolving around their suffering. But he's not inhuman. There is genuine concern in his eyes when he talks of his wife's suicide and his daughter's condemnation. Westworld is his escape, his vacation, but it's also the place where he can be the person he wants to be. And he chooses to be evil. In a world of infinite possibilities, where the only limit is the imagination, this good guy has chosen to be a bad guy.

We'll learn his name soon enough. We may even learn that he's the older version of William, as many viewers have predicted. But this revelation is even more important. He's the kind of guy who insists on playing evil at the RPG game because being noble, because saving the world, isn't as enticing as burning it all down.