Sunday, November 20, 2016

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Bernard Has Questions for Ford While Maeve Tests Her New Powers in 'Trace Decay'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 1.08 "Trace Decay"

Bernard struggles with a mandate. Maeve looks to change her script. Teddy is jarred by dark memories.

Westworld has certainly embraced a slow burn style to its mystery elements this season. It has enjoyed teasing things out without providing a whole lot of definitive answers. Last week's episode provided a huge shocker in confirming that Bernard is actually a host. A host who can kill a human just because Ford tells him to. That was a powerful and necessary reveal for the show to do in order to keep up the suspense and tension. And yet, "Trace Decay" falls back into a familiar pattern of teasing information out but using stalling techniques so the full truth is delayed until the end of the season. It has become a frustrating part of this first season. The audience has to actively be watching and analyzing every single frame of every single episode. That gets exhausting after awhile and sets up expectations for the inevitable reveal that can't possibly be reached. The show could surprise all of us with a final twist that no one saw coming. But after so many delays, the season has to make the journey worth it as well. We have to accept that answers won't come until the finale. Only then will it be known if any of the fan theories are proven to be true. But that ultimately leaves an episode like "Trace Decay" to serve as an escalation of story while providing very few understandable details.

Again, the reveal with Bernard last week was a huge and effective shocker. It's even more powerful to watch this week as Ford allows Bernard to remember all of it. He knows that he is a host and that he killed Theresa. Ford watches to see how Bernard reacts to such information. He does it out of curiosity to see what kind of emotions Bernard experiences. Bernard has always been a keen observer of human emotion and reaction. But now, the tables have been turned. He's the host being order to wake up and be analyzed for scientific research. Ford is the one asking questions and evaluating the state of the host's programming. Bernard has a number of questions for Ford while Ford wants Bernard to cover up all evidence of what truly happened to Theresa. Ford won this battle and is now covering it up. It's a very effective story because Ford promises Bernard to wipe all details of Theresa's death and his relationship with her from his memory. It's literally the only thing that Ford can do for Bernard. He muses that it's the only thing that separates humans and hosts. He has control over Bernard who willingly does all of this for Ford because he wants to forget. It's a simple solution. Sure, it could be frustrating because it's the show essentially resetting everything. Bernard goes back to his simple loop as the head of behavioral at the park having completely forgotten about Theresa. He more than likely forgets that he is a host as well. So, it's unclear how that information will play out in a satisfying character arc over the final two episodes of the season. And yet, it still leads to a powerful moment here where Bernard is conscious to the truth and wants answers from Ford, who is still less than forthcoming with him.

Elsewhere, Maeve's story has been the highlight of the season so far because of how straightforward it has been. In a show that is all about the mystery and the teasing and withholding of information, the story that plays things straight is simplistic but very effective. Yes, there is clearly some manipulation going on in this story as well throughout this hour. Her memories of her past life in which she had a daughter are becoming more prominent. Is that a way to cripple her as she's planning her big escape from the park? Or is it simply a way to show how vast and connected this world and the characters really are? The episode explains that that really is the Man in Black who kills Maeve and her daughter in this previous life. Plus, it showcases that Maeve has acted up and in contradiction to her code before. She was alive and visibly upset about the loss of her daughter. Those memories and that trauma forced the programmers to change her story in the park. But again, are these memories popping up because Maeve has a new awareness of her surroundings? Or are they just her motivation to rise up against her human captors? She gets another system upgrade from Felix which makes her capable of killing humans. She cuts Sylvester in the throat and has Felix fix the injury just to prove that she can. She also has quite the power trip when she returns to the park and is able to control the rest of the hosts in the saloon. It's a fun sequence. This is power and she's just getting started with her new abilities. But then, she cuts new Clementine's throat. It feels like a reaction to the memory she's having of the Man in Black. It's an action that alerts the programmers to her malfunction. It's just unclear if that's a part of her plan to escape. Stubbs and his team are hunting her down to bring her in for analysis. That will reveal some shocking information. It's just difficult to know if we should take things as they are presented or if we are being misled in this story as well?

Teddy is remembering things from his past too. He has led the Man in Black on this journey to find Wyatt. He's done so because he believes Wyatt has Dolores. It's a simple motivation. The Man in Black knows how to manipulate Teddy to his side of things. It's still important that Teddy is experiencing memories of his past interactions with the Man in Black. He sees flashes of the Man in Black abusing Dolores. It's information the audience already has about both of these characters. The Man in Black sees Teddy as the host designed to lose in this game. That has been his opinion since the very first episode of the series. It hasn't changed despite being on this journey together now. There's no explanation for why Teddy gets these memories right now either. Is it a part of the deeper game that the Man in Black is trying to unlock? It's more important that it allows the Man in Black to explain his backstory and motivation to the audience. He talks about the wife and daughter he had in the outside world. That he is a man of great power and influence. He had this happy and normal existence for thirty years. But he was also quietly abusive because his true self was constantly being contained out there. That may have played a role in his wife's death. And now, he's searching for meaning in a place that can be more easily understood. He's back in the park searching for the maze just to feel something again. He killed Maeve and her daughter just to see how he'd feel afterwards. He felt empty but saw something come alive when Maeve fought back and tried to save her daughter. It was all futile but it was enough to show the Man in Black that something more is going on in this world.

That's the same feeling that Dolores has right now as well. She's being called to a place on the edges of the map. She hears Arnold telling her to return home. She finds the place and the cryptic teases start going into overdrive. This is the story that will benefit the most from answers. Much like Maeve, Dolores feels haunted by these violent flashes of memory of a life previously lived. She sees a life in this quaint town. One of peace as the programmers teach the hosts how to dance and one of immense violence as Dolores turns the gun on herself. None of it especially means anything. Dolores has been on a journey for answers. She's been looking for home. She finds it but it only amplifies the mystery even more. Afterwards, she is frantic to William not sure if any of this is real or not. She's asking him when in time they are. That's a powerful question to ask. The show hasn't been afraid to show the park at different stages of its existence. But the show could also be playing a long con with this story. Ford has mentioned that the hosts have experienced problems like this many times over the course of the park's history. The hosts can lash out and go on journeys of self-discovery. They can rise up against their code. It's completely unexplainable but gives the programmers something exciting and strange to look forward to. But again, this story is ultimately hit with another stalling technique with the return of Logan. He shows up just to put William and Dolores' lives in danger once more. It's played as a severe threat but it ultimately doesn't mean a whole lot. It's just an empty threat that gives the show a way to delay providing any definitive answers until the finale.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Trace Decay" was written by Charles Yu & Lisa Joy and directed by Stephen Williams.
  • Bernard asks Ford if he has ever killed someone for him before. Ford says no but Bernard than gets a blink-and-you-miss-it memory flash of killing Elsie. If that's true, that's such an anti-climatic way to write that character and Shannon Woodward off the show.
  • Because of Ford, Bernard is able to go back to his regular life working as a programmer trying to understand the human consciousness and the minds of the hosts. He has no memory of his love for Theresa. But it's clear that Stubbs knew the truth as well and may start viewing Bernard more suspiciously.
  • Charlotte is thwarted by Ford yet again. He is able to craft a story explaining Theresa's death while also showing that he's aware of the trick they tried to pull on him. So, she has to come up with a new way to get the information out of the park. She enlists Sizemore's help in order to get a host to carry it out for her.
  • The Man in Black is surprised to see that Angela is still a host in the park. She's the woman who appears as a survivor of Wyatt's gang only to then be revealed as a part of it. But more importantly, she was the host who greeted William before he entered the park. So did Ford reprogram her recently? Or is something else happening here?
  • Is Felix in love with Maeve or simply naive? He's compassionate and doesn't want to kill her like Sylvester suggests they do. He sees her as human because he has gotten to know her. And yet, it's so dangerous to give a host this kind of power. It could have grave consequences for him as well.
  • In Dolores' memories, she sees this town as it actually is. But when she wakes up and is with William, the town is almost completely covered and only the church steeple is above ground. Ford is said to be digging up an old town for his new narrative. If so, does that give credit to the theory that William and Dolores' story is happening in the past?