Decoding Westworld’s Most Confusing Episode Yet – Vanity Fair
This post contains frank discussion of Westworld Season 1, Episode 8, “Trace Decay,” as well as speculation as to what’s to come over the course of the next two episodes. If you’re not all caught up, now is that time to scurry back to your little loop.
Before we get into the meat of the analysis of the baffling “Trace Decay,” I want to lay out some theories I’ve been chewing over all season. I don’t want to waste too much time going back over them in excruciating detail in this article so here’s a brief recap. I believe that, unbeknownst to some, this season of Westworld has been exploring multiple time periods in the history of the park. This very popular theory is laid out here.
I also believe that William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are actually the same character and we’re watching them traverse the park 30 years apart in time. You can read all about that here and here.
And, finally, I believe that Bernard is not only a host, as revealed in Episode 7, but also a clone of Arnold. In other words, both characters are played by the same actor, Jeffrey Wright, and sometimes when we think we’re watching Bernard, we’re actually watching Arnold. You can read about that here.
You don’t have to agree with me on all of those points, but I wanted to make sure we’re operating with the same information. Got it? Good. Now on to the episode, which may have finally revealed the identity of Wyatt as well as made several popular fan theories very hard to deny.
Understanding Dolores’s Glitches: There are two female robots in Westworld currently grappling with their senses of reality, and their stories are being presented in starkly different ways. Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) plot in Westworld isn’t without its complications but it has unfurled over the course of eight episodes in a way that makes her journey somewhat easy to track. About a year ago, Maeve was playing a simple homesteader with a daughter. Then, as we learned in this episode, along came the Man in Black with something to prove. After he blew up her world, Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard reprogrammed Maeve and plunked her into the Mariposa. Since the hair, wardrobe, and setting of her two loops—the Mariposa and the homestead—are so different, it’s easy to tell when Maeve is flashing back and forth in time. Easy for us anyway. Maeve, on the other hand, is having some issues with it because, as Felix tells her: “You recall memories perfectly. You relive them.” So, from her perspective, one second she’s slashing the Man in Black’s throat on the homestead, the next she watches in horror (but not that much regret) as the New Clementine suffers the consequences in the streets of Sweetwater. Maeve’s neck thing is just a little bit of history repeating.
The same back-and-forth-in-time thing is happening with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)—only, from an audience perspective, it’s harder to track because her multiple loops (or memories) are nearly identical. If you’ve known what to look for all season, you may have seen Dolores glitching in and out of time. But in this episode we see it most plainly when she’s by the riverbank with William.
Dolores walks down the riverside, canteen in hand, and William on the shore behind her. She sees a dead version of herself in the water, looks around, and William is gone. Eventually, he returns. Here, Dolores—who, in the present time line, is all alone retracing the route she took 30 years ago with William—flashes to different moments in her own life. But since Dolores is wearing the same clothing and is in the exact same place she was 30 years in the past, it’s not as obvious as when Maeve does it. It just looks like she’s having a mental breakdown. “It’s like I’m trapped in a dream,” Dolores says to William. “Or a memory from a life long ago.”
Angela Is a Time-Period Anchor
What’s happening with Dolores is confusing, and not just for her. But there’s another female host who can help firm up the time line for us: Talulah Riley’s Angela. Thirty-five years ago, when the park first opened, Angela was a resident of the Town with the White Church, which seems to have served as the Westworld home base. We see her both in Ford’s initial Episode 3 flashback about the park’s creation and, again, in this week’s episode when Dolores flashed back to her time there. Maeve, Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), Lawrence’s daughter (Izabella Alvarez), and Angela all lived in this town with Dolores as they all took their first shaky steps towards becoming hosts. By the time William entered the park five years later, Angela had been promoted to Hospitality. Thirty years after that, in the present, the Man in Black mentions that he thought Ford would have retired her by now. He recognizes her from her old gig in Hospitality. So, to recap, Angela has had at least three roles: townsperson, Hospitality (and Westworld spokesperson), and, now, a spy for Wyatt . And those, then, are your three time periods. When she walked into the Town with the White Church in this episode, Dolores glitched through all three.
The Truth Behind Teddy’s Backstory: Ever since the character of Wyatt was invented as the cartoonish, monstrous villain of Teddy’s newly created backstory in Episode 3, something seemed off about him. This week we may have found out why. When Dolores visited the Town with the White Church she had a bloody flashback to a massacre that happened there. If it looked familiar, here’s why.
I’d say the real massacre that happened in this town back when the park opened was the inspiration for Ford’s “Escalante/Wyatt” backstory. Teddy’s even there in Dolores’s memory. Blink and you might have missed him striding through the dust with a rifle in his hand mowing down townspeople.
As Ford describes it, the Wyatt incident took place in a “time of war.” I’d say that war was the one raging between Arnold and Ford over what the true purpose of the park was. (Maeve describes her programming as “two minds arguing with each other.” Bicameral, sure, but also Ford vs. Arnold.)
As Teddy describes it, Wyatt “claimed he could hear the voice of God.” Does that sound like a host grappling with the bicameral mind? In other words, isn’t that exactly what Dolores has been going through? In Episode 3, Teddy also says Wyatt went “missing while out on maneuvers” and “came back with some pretty strange ideas.” When he made that speech, the camera then cut immediately to Dolores walking through Sweetwater.
Is Dolores the Real Wyatt?
Could it be that Dolores went missing from her loop—perhaps to chat with Arnold, learn all about the maze—and came back with some strange ideas and the voice of god in her head? If we believe the theory that Bernard is a host modeled on Arnold and the scenes of Dolores one-on-one with “Bernard” actually took place with Arnold 35 years ago when the park opened, then we’ve seen Arnold tell Dolores about the maze.
That remote diagnostics facility where he’s chatting with her could easily be under the White Church Dolores keeps flashing back to. “This is what Arnold wants,” Dolores tells William of returning to the buried, burned-out remains of the building. “Arnold would meet me there. He’d help us.” In other words, if Dolores went on a killing spree with a revolver 35 years ago at Arnold’s insistence, and if Teddy was there too with his rifle . . . then, well, that would make Dolores the real Wyatt, wouldn’t it? And that makes a lot of sense to me because Wyatt always seemed like an odd part of this narrative. He strikes me as a lot of Sizemore-esque smoke and mirrors to keep everyone distracted while Ford sends the real adversary after the Man in Black.
That adversary? Dolores, of course. The magic word. As Charlotte tells Sizemore, Ford has “dug up some old town.” Perhaps we’ll see that buried, burned-out old church restored to all its white-painted glory once again and a showdown between Dolores, Teddy, and the Man in Black before this story ends.
What Westworld Has to Say About Love: Because if we believe the Man in Black is William (and, come on, we do), then Dolores is the perfect adversary for this lovesick little puppy. This episode, in particular, focused in on the question of what “love” means to hosts, humans, and Westworld as a whole. “You and I captured that elusive thing: love,” Ford claims when boasting to Bernard of their A.I. achievements. But Ford’s version of love is a perverse one. He believes you can shut it on and off—as he does to Maeve when she’s grieving for her daughter or Bernard when he’s in anguish over Theresa. Ford considers an “off” switch for grief and love a mercy because, from his perspective, uncontrollable emotions are a terrible inconvenience.
Over and over this season we’ve heard a similar phrase repeated: “This pain, it’s all I have left of him/them/her.” Bernard says it of his son Charlie. Dolores says it of her dead parents. And, in this episode, begging to hold on to her sorrow, Maeve says it of her dead daughter. “You need not suffer, Maeve, I’ll take it from you,” Ford gently tells her while missing the point entirely. Without the pain—without death—there is no life. There is no love. Love is especially meaningless when those closest to you—a co-worker, a father— can be so easily re-cast.
(Nice to see Charlotte and Sizemore break Abernathy out of cold storage, though.)
What Love Has to Do with the Maze: So this is the game—Arnold’s game with the real stakes—that the Man in Black is looking to unlock. He wants grief that won’t be easily erased—that’s what he saw in Maeve when he murdered her daughter and that’s what he hopes to awaken in Dolores if he “solves” the Maze. Because if William and Dolores’s story ends the way it must, with Dolores either dead (face down in that river) or, worse, wiped of all memory of and feelings for William, then the future black-hat-wearing version of the white-hat-wearing William would be very cynical, indeed. “You’re here to be the loser,” he keeps telling Teddy. “The house always wins . . . the game is rigged.” But is he actually telling these bitter little messages to himself? Sounds like something Logan would say, doesn’t it? Will we eventually hear Logan say them to William in Episode 9 or 10? Perhaps the reason the Man in Black reminds so many viewers of Logan is because William styled his Westworld persona on his brother-in-law: a bitter, detached person who won’t be hurt again.
The Truth Behind the Man in Black’s Backstory
The story the Man in Black tells Teddy of marrying a woman, ahem, 30 years ago and eventually driving her to suicide thanks to his emotional unavailability works perfectly with what we know about William who, remember, is engaged to Logan’s sister Juliet. If William leaves his heart and belief in love buried in the dust of Westworld, his life outside the park would be a very cold one. The description the Man in Black’s daughter gives of his “good works” acting as a wall is a potentially devastating future for William.
This emotionality—or lack thereof—that drives William/M.i.B. is also likely what caused a wedge between Arnold and Ford. Arnold, grappling with his own personal tragedy, sought to discover what makes grief, love, and loss really matter. He likely thought it would be cruel to deprive his creations of consequences by re-setting their loops/erasing their experiences whereas Ford relished the idea of playing God. “This is the very question that consumed Arnold and drove him mad,” Ford tells Bernard. But he also tells Bernard, “You’re not the first man to threaten me. Arnold came to feel the way you do, he couldn’t stop me either.” It seems likely, to me, that Ford murdered Arnold and created a robot “simulacrum” of his old partner. One with emotions Ford could easily switch on and off. In other words, Bernard.
A Photographic Memory: One of my most cherished theories these days is that we’ll revisit that Episode 3 photo of Ford and “Arnold,” only in the empty space to the right of the frame, we’ll eventually see Jeffrey Wright as Arnold. In this week’s episode we literally saw Bernard erase himself from a photo. I can only hope that means my wish for the Arnold portrait will come true.
Is Elsie Really Dead?: If we believe Ford is somehow responsible for the death of Arnold, we also have to come to terms with the idea that Bernard may have killed Elsie at Ford’s behest. It certainly looks that way. But if I’ve learned anything from years of watching TV, it’s that you shouldn’t count someone as dead until you see the body hit the floor. Elsie could still be unconscious somewhere. The good news for her is that Bernard’s emotionless reaction to Theresa’s death put Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) on high alert and his next mission may be to track down Elsie’s whereabouts. He may find her dead, alive, or turned into a host. After all, Ford has to be building someone in that basement and it’s not Theresa.
The Culture Club: In addition to all the twists and turns of the episode, there was also the usual amount of cultural ephemera sprinkled throughout. We have Ford quoting the original “mad genius with a God complex”: Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire,” he says effortlessly quoting Mary Shelley while brushing aside Theresa’s murder.
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays during the latest version of Hector’s heist—one where Maeve is cleverly choreographing the whole thing. We’ve now seen the heist with music from the Rolling Stones, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet playing over the same (or similar) footage. In a show that likes to go meta about the nature of storytelling, it’s a clever commentary on the effect a score can have on any given scene.
In Maeve’s final scene in the bar the piano is playing Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which has the fitting lyrics: “I’ve died a hundred times.” Meanwhile, down in the basement, Charlotte reminds Sizemore that “brevity is the soul of wit.” That’s a line the long-winded Polonius says, lacking all self-awareness, just before he explains to King Claudius that his step-son/nephew, Hamlet, is mad. So even standing near Abernathy inspires people to start quoting Shakespeare.
And, lastly, as Maeve discusses her ability to get out of the park in one piece, she mentions an explosive in her spine that will trigger should she set foot off the property. As many people have pointed out, this recalls the Jurassic Park narrative device called “the Lysine Contingency” that was meant to keep the dinosaurs down on the park. But Maeve, clever girl that she is, seems to have found a loophole. Artificial life, uh, finds a way.
One more thing for those who don’t mind taking a peek at the official footage HBO has released of Westworld. There’s another juicy clue below the spoiler warning.
Here are some more angles of Teddy in “Escalante” a.k.a. the Town with the White Church. Looks like our man Flood used to be a sheriff. (The sheriff?)
We’ll find out.