Analysis

Westworld recap: Timelines, death, and the maze

On the lessons and revelations of "Trace Decay"

Would it be better to know that a loved one died for a reason? Or would it be less painful to know that there was no reason at all? Do we want to believe that the universe makes meaning out of our pain, and that death comes because someone says so, and wanted it so? Or would it be easier to know that meaning is just the name we give to chaos, disorder, and fragmentation? That nothing means anything, and that the world — as Hector Escaton once observed — "is just as doomed as ever"?

Last night's episode of Westworld, "Trace Decay," began with a torrent of new and helpful information about how the hosts work. But alongside these new pieces of the puzzle, we also got new confirmation that there's a deeper level to this game. "Trace Decay" is about grief, about meaning, and about the stories we tell about death to make it seem like death means something. It's about our insistence to find meaning where it might not exist, and to distinguish between things that are made, and have meaning, and the world that makes them, which doesn't. But it's also the episode that suggests there's no difference at all, that the difference — between meaning and chaos, man and machine — only exists in our mind, a fictional story we tell ourselves to make ourselves good.

But what if there is no meaning? What if death is just… death?

First, the big reveals: In the opening sequence, Ford explains to Bernard that the exquisite blend of emotions he's feeling — his grief for Theresa, his guilt for having killed her, and his rage at Ford for having made him do it in the last scene of the previous episode — is a cocktail that Bernard mixed up himself. Ford explains that human engineers lacked the subtlety and nuance to fully program the hosts, to give them the full flush of human emotion, so he needed a host to do the work. "And so, I built you." Artist and artwork at once, only a host could bring a host truly to life; only Bernard could build Bernard.

In the next scene, the hapless Sylvester and Felix — who continue to assist Maeve in reprogramming herself — explain that Maeve keeps having flashbacks because hosts have a different kind of memory than humans. "When we remember things, the details are hazy, imperfect," Felix says; "But you recall memories perfectly. You relive them." The name of the episode, "Trace Decay," simply means the degradation of memory, and it's what separates humans and hosts. The curse of imperfect recall also allows humans to orient themselves in time: Past and present are easy to distinguish because one is fragmented, fuzzy, and full of holes.

When we catch up with Dolores, she is caught in the middle of this confusion: Past and present feel the same to her, and so do dream and reality. Which is which? There has long been a fan theory that Dolores' story is split between two time periods, that we are seeing scenes from her memories of 30 years ago alongside the present-tense story of the show; thus, it's the past when we see Dolores with William and Logan and it's the present when we see Bernard, Ford, Maeve, and the Man in Black (indeed, there is strong speculation that the Man in Black is William, three decades later). "Trace Decay" gives timeline theorists new material to work with; indeed, it now seems clear that Dolores is remembering an even earlier moment: When she and William discover a town where the river meets the mountains, it seems to be a site we saw earlier from when Ford was recalling testing and training the hosts even before the park had opened. But as soon as the show seems to confirm that Dolores is suffering from the same temporal confusion as Maeve — that past and present are layered indistinguishably over the top of each other — it throws a spanner in the works. William (from the past) appears to Dolores in what looks like the present: "Where are we? When are we?" she demands; "Is this... now? I can't tell anymore!"

In the show's next reveal, we finally start to get backstory on the Man in Black. When prompted at gunpoint by an increasingly belligerent Teddy, he explains that he's as wealthy as a god, a "titan of industry," a philanthropist, and a family man. He had everything. But this is not backstory; "backstory" as Ford explained to Bernard in the early part of the episode, is the narrative of pain that makes a host lifelike, the story they use to imitate real humanity. And like Bernard, the Man in Black has a painful backstory: His wife took the wrong pills and died in the bathtub, he explains. But what took 30 years of peace of mind from him was that, at the funeral, the Man in Black's daughter told him that her death was no accident, no mere chance. She killed herself, because she hated him.

If the Man in Black is William, 30 years later, then his wife is Logan's sister, the woman he told Dolores he was planning to marry. It fits, just as it fits that the Man in Black would see the host who greeted William when he first got off the train — in the past, theoretically — and recognize her, remarking that he had assumed she had been retired. Of course, as with so much of the evidence for the two timelines theory, it only fits, and doesn't actually prove anything. But on a television show like Westworld, where every detail is carefully placed and designed — where teams of writers and producers and production supervisors and editors painstakingly work to make sure every blade of grass is in the right place — nothing is ever just an accident. Everything adds up. It's the inverse of the "Chekhov's gun" principle, where anything memorable or noticeable placed in front of the audience must be necessary and irreplaceable; it means that anything you notice is there for a reason. If it fits, it means something.

And yet... what if it was just an accident? What if the Man in Black's daughter's story is the lie? It fits the facts, and could be true, but it's only in Westworld that everything happens for a reason; in reality, people sometimes take the wrong pill and die for no reason at all. Maybe she was unhappy, and maybe she really did hate her husband. But a meaningful death and the backstory it gives, to build character… what if those are just the stories we tell ourselves, to convince ourselves that we are real?

It may be that that's what the Man in Black is after: to convince himself that he is real by entering the illusion. To create meaning by creating chaos. After the death of his wife, as the Man in Black explains, he went into the park, and tried something new. He tried to discover just how evil he could be: Instead of playing one of Ford's stories, he went wandering and came across a homesteader, Maeve. He killed her, and her daughter, for no reason except that there was no reason. It was the most senseless and evil act he could think of. And yet this, it turns out, is precisely what gave Maeve life.

In the final shot of the episode, we see Wyatt's men closing in, dressed as Minotaurs. They protect the maze that, in some fashion, Arnold built. But is Arnold a Daedelus figure, a master maker and artificer, the great creator of stories and labyrinths of meaning? Or is the real maker death, and chaos, and accidents? When Maeve and her daughter were murdered by the Man in Black, Bernard observes that her cognition has fragmented, that her brain is not responding. And in his hand, we see an image of her "fragmented cognition," an image of her brain as it convulses and cracks.

It's the maze.

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