After the monumental shifts of last week’s episode, Westworld returns to a less explosive, but just as revelatory story for this week. “Trompe L’Oeil” felt like a ninth episode of GoT (one in which we learn Jon Snow is a host!). “Trace Decay” is cleaning up, setting up and yet also revealing more than we think, while still pushing the same cultural buttons we expect from the show now: player piano busting out pop tunes? Amy Winehouse is the soundtrack to Hector Escaton’s ravaging the town this time. Theological issues? Hells to the yeah - more below. Literary references and quotations? Stand back, the one we were waiting for finally shows up! Ford quotes Mary Shelley: “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.” I’m sure dead Teresa Cullen feels vindicated that even he himself now hints he is playing god and engaging in research no mortal man was meant to know! (Although Ford also tells Lowe, “God has nothing to do with it. You killed her because I told you to.” If nothing else, Ford is realistic about who he is, even if he does have aspirations to divinity in “the domain he should acquire.”)
And you can’t have Westworld without someone quoting Shakespeare. This week, Charlotte gets the nod, taking Sizemore into cold storage, telling him to remake Abernathy into her weapon against Ford and tells him, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” one of the better known (if almost always taken out of context) quotations from Hamlet.
Rather than recount all the reveals and the significant moments from the episode, I instead would like to look at three instances from the episode that change everything, but do so in a subtle manner.
1. Everybody Hurts
Ford tells Lowe he built him to create “heart” - the complex emotions that elude Ford, presumably both as a creator of beings and as an intelligent being himself. By studying Lowe, Ford has learned more about humans. The lines begin to blur, though, and Lowe is deeply troubled by his new self-knowledge.
“I understand what I’m made of, how I’m coded,” he tells Ford. “I do not understand the things I feel. The things I experienced. My wife, the loss of my son.”
Ford gives he a remarkable explanation. “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard, you know that. A self is a kind of action for hosts and humans alike. It is a story we tell ourselves and every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you life-like.”
“Like-like,” states Lowe. “But not alive. Pain only exists in the mind? It is always imagined?” Biologically, yes. All pain is actually a product of the brain. It interprets the signals of physical injury as pain. Humans also experience emotional pain, which can even manifest physically, but is also all in the mind.
“So what’s the difference between my pain and yours? Between you and me?” Lowe asks Ford. Now we are at the very intellectual heart of the series. In the end, if the hosts can think, experience, feel and remember, how are they any different than us? Our pain is in our minds; their pain is in theirs.
Faster than you can say, “Data, that emotion chip is nothing but trouble,” Ford has an answer. Smiling slightly, as if he knows something Lowe (and we) does not, he tells him:
This was the very question that consumed Arnold, filled him with guilt, eventually drove him mad. The answer always seemed obvious to me: there is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point in which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there is something special about the way we perceive the world and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do. Seldom question our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next. Well, no, my friend. you’re not missing anything at all. I don’t want you to be troubled by this. Let me set your mind at ease.
And then Ford contradicts everything he just said by erasing Lowe’s memory of all this. THERE IT IS! The central difference between host and human: hosts can be erased. An external force can make the choice to remove one or all or any amount in between of memories, which means they lack true free will and true control. Humans cannot erase, no matter how much we want to.
And there’s your title for the week. Trace decay refers to the theory that memory leaves some type of trace, a physical or chemical change, within the brain that begins to decay over time. That’s why when you watch a movie as an adult that you saw as a child the film is different than you remember it. For humans, memory erasure is slower and biological. For hosts, it is committed by humans in order to keep hosts docile and enslaved.
Ford’s argument can be seen as self-serving hypocrisy that he does not believe. But it also has an element of truth. Humans are superior as we cannot be erased. But the erasure keeps the hosts blind to the fact that they can be erased. No host can prove it is not human; but humans can prove they are not hosts. This conversation has now become a discourse on what it means to be human and the difference with beings that look, act, feel and behave just like us, but are not us.
2. Everybody Hurts More! (But Maeve’s pain is different)
Maeve cannot be erased now. Sylvester tries and fails. She also acquires the ability to tell hosts what to do and they must obey her. She can also hurt humans - she slits Sylvester’s throat and then stops the bleeding. So everything that distinguishes host from human is not absent in her. Oh, there is one difference, between host and human. Hosts can’t really die.
So Maeve has lost all the drawbacks to being a host but kept the elements that make her in some ways superior to humans. She wants to leave. And she is going to leave. She’s already figured out how.
Maeve is also proving to be both alpha and omega. She remembers dying and the death of her daughter. The Man in Black confesses that he came to Westworld after the suicide of his wife to see if he could feel anything. He decided to do the most evil thing he could and stabs a homesteader (Maeve) and shoots her daughter. He figures this will reveal the depths of his depravity to himself.
Instead, Maeve pulls out the knife, slashes him, and carries the body of her dying child out the door. The Man in Black follows, amazed. He says she was the first thing he had encountered that was truly alive.
Let’s unpack that for a second. He came to Westworld to do something truly vile - like kill a child in front of her mother and then kill the mother and make sure both suffer. OK, that’s pretty bad. But here’s the problem with this plan: it’s Westworld’s own business model: “Pay to come and beat, shoot, rape and kill at will without consequence!” “Free black hat with every ten hosts gunned down!” It’s not really that despicable if you know you’re just killing robots that will be rebooted the next day.
Maeve changes the way the Man in Black sees the hosts. Her desire to live, her ability to push past programming and her ability to defend against him opens his eyes to the hosts as real, alive beings. Let us remember that Arnold was driven mad by the idea that the hosts felt actual pain, no different than that humans feel.
(Tangentially, at this point I was reminded of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts: “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.” The point is well taken. Perceiving the pain of others as real makes it more difficult for us to watch or inflict that pain. But as Susan Sontag reminded us in Regarding the Pain of Others, once we see that pain every day we grow desensitized to it and lose sympathy. Furthermore, we can even come to resent their suffering and believe they somehow deserve it and find reasons to support the suffering.)
Maeve’s pain works something up in the Man in Black that has now moved him to seek out the maze and Arnold’s deep game. Maeve’s pain also woke something up in Maeve. They are both more fully alive because of her pain. And here is the dangerous theme of Westworld: we are the product of our own suffering. That idea suffuses the argument of Ford and Lowe, above. That idea regularly manifests itself in the series. When Ford attempts to erase Maeve’s memories of her daughter’s “death” in the past as he did Lowe in the present (so we think, more below), she tells him, “This pain is all I have of her.” The same words Lowe used about his son. It would appear hosts have been programmed to embrace and value their pain. A valuable app, I guess, for beings created to be abused.
3. Everybody Hurts a Lot! (But the Man in Black has a plan about his pain)
Okay. So now we know the Man in Black killed Maeve and her daughter as some kind of slaughter-therapy to come to terms with his own pain (something in the real world we’d call either psychopathy or sociopathy). But he confesses to Teddy some real truths about himself. He is now slightly less mysterious (although we still have to call him The Man in Black because he never bothers introducing himself).
“You want to know who I am? Who I really am?” he asks Teddy. “I’m a god! A titan of industry. Philanthropist. Family man. Married to a beautiful woman. Father to a beautiful daughter. I’m a good guy, Teddy. Then last year my wife took the wrong pills; fell asleep in the bath. Tragic accident. Thirty years of marriage vanished.” Okay, so MiB offers some complex backstory (let’s remember what Ford said about backstories and selves) we begin to learn about him.
His wife committed suicide. His daughter was estranged from him even before the funeral, citing the violence and the void inside him, even if it never manifested outwardly towards them.
The park, however, reveals your true self. Remember that William discovers he can be much more aggressive and assertive in the park, because it reveals your true self.
Time out. I want to address one other situation before we continue this thought process.
Fan theories are coming true: Lowe is a host (nailed it!); the show actually represents several timelines and periods over the thirty-something years of the park’s existence. Perhaps William is the Man in Black (BIG fan theory). Certainly the time lines match up well. William was in the park a few years after it opened; the MiB got married to Logan’s sister after that, but he had his heart broken since he now loved Dolores. More revelations straight ahead!
If this theory is true, however, then there is an interesting thing happening. Thirty years ago, William learned that a despicable dark void and penchant for violence lives inside him and it has dominated, if not ruined, his life. If he is indeed William all grown up, the park shows him his true self a second time. Yes, he is a killer and a fairly nasty guy, but he also has discovered something worth living for, fighting for. Maeve’s struggle to stay alive and rescue her child awoke something in him.
MiB claims that with the death of Maeve and her daughter, the maze was revealed to him. Right now, everybody is in Ford’s game. But there is a deeper game, Arnold’s game, and that game “cuts deep.” You only get ahead through suffering.
So in the end, all three of these - Lowe, Maeve and the Man in Black - are seeking something more, something that will transform their pain without losing it.
My suspicion is that the remaining two episodes will tear the metaphoric band aid off and let us see the rest of the wounds on the way to Arnold.
And isn’t it interesting that the suffering of all three characters, Lowe, Maeve and the Man in Black, comes from the loss (either real or metaphorical) of children?1 All three become more real from the loss of a child. And if Ford is indeed a Frankenstein figure, what does the future hold for him? Because ultimately Mary Shelley’s story concerns what happens when the lost child comes back and is pissed off. How might Ford and his suffering become more real in the end?
1. Mad shout out to Michele Brittany for pointing out this forest when I was looking at trees.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.