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Westworld: "Trace Decay" Review

Full spoilers for Westworld continue below.


Plenty of unanswered questions remain after Westworld’s third-to-last episode of Season 1, “Trace Decay,” but at least one key theory is confirmed: there are multiple timelines. As the HBO series further teases out the mystery of the maze and of who Arnold is, Dolores’s complicated storyline actually offered the most insight into what’s to come.

The two biggest early theories of Westworld were that Bernard was a host and that there are parallel timelines unfolding through Season 1. While some of the finer details of those theories remained unconfirmed (or denied) — Is Bernard a Host version of Arnold? Is William the same person as the Man in Black? — the broad strokes of both theories have been confirmed in the most recent two episodes.

Dolores is spiraling, and something has caused her to be unlocked so she can see across multiple timelines. As she walks through Westworld, she sees events playing out in the past and, seemingly, the present. She comes across “home,” the original town of Westworld and a place we’ve seen before. Dolores sees it in the past, like she has before in other flashbacks, and we learn that she seemingly is responsible for the shootout she keeps remembering. She and William also see it in the “present,” as a town covered in sand — the same town covered in sand that Ford was looking over back in episode 2, but he’s since had dug up. Considering we know the town is dug up, how can she actually see it in the primary timeline here?

She is fully starting to question her reality, and we should too. William claims that he is real as she starts to disbelieve even his existence, but the timing of Ford’s comment to Bernard in a different story is important here. As he’s erasing Bernard’s memory of killing Theresa and Elsie (yup, that finally got confirmed, or at least was strongly implied) Ford warns, “you might lose yourself in them as some of your fellow Hosts have every now and then” — and then the show immediately cuts to Dolores’s story.

The implication is that the comment is alluding to Dolores’s subsequent viewing of the past, but what if it’s actually saying that she’s been lost in her memories this whole time? What if William really is in the past, and she’s actually traveling along this journey solo, only imagining William with her? There are several scenes where she is walking and we should seemingly be able to see him in the shot, but he isn’t there. There’s also the fact Talulah Riley’s welcoming Host character from episode 2 can be seen in two other storylines here: the past at the town, and with the Man in Black and Teddy. When the Man in Black sees her, he makes a point to say he imagined she’d been retired long ago; if she was the first Host he’d met in the park (aka if he was William), of course he’d remember her face. So the question is, can we really trust anything in what we’ve seen of Dolores’s narrative so far?

“Trace Decay” was another great episode for Westworld, but it ultimately didn’t fulfill any of these big questions with fully satisfying answers like last week’s Bernard reveal, instead simply teasing out the questions with hints of answers. That happened in the Man in Black’s storyline, as we finally found out who he is in the real world and what drew him back to Westworld — though not his name, of course. He’s clearly the primary shareholder in Westworld and the other parks, calls himself a “philanthropist,” a family man and a father; “the good guy.” But when his wife killed herself the previous year, he came back to Westworld because the only thing he had left was finding what was at the end of the maze.

But his connection to Maeve is the most interesting part of his whole story — that, and the fact that he’d been married to his wife for 30 years, when the last major event that happened in the park was 30 years prior. We learn a lot more about Maeve than we do about the Man in Black through his backstory. Her repeated flashback to him murdering her and her daughter was his way of testing just how pure evil he could go, but for her it was the moment that she first became truly “human,” as MiB called her. Not only did she attack him, but when she was presented to Ford and Bernard she begged to keep her memory, and even then killed herself after.

But was that real? What is real, and what isn’t? Did Maeve really die on a dirt field that the maze was carved into? What can we trust, and what can’t we? How much of Arnold’s game is playing out on the viewer as well?

Interestingly, it seems as though Ford’s idea for the reveries came from this encounter with Maeve, and from Arnold. He uses the Claude Debussy song “Reverie” to subdue Maeve, and says it’s an “old trick from an old friend.” It’s essentially playing music to calm her down, but it’s not much of a stretch to assume this is what inspired his trick with the code that came later. The whole idea of trace decay theory stretches throughout the episode, with the Host’s recalling the traces of previous storylines.

Meanwhile, Maeve continued her quest for freedom, and goodness but she was an absolute badass doing it. She’s building her army (though I’m surprised she didn’t turn Hector Escaton when she had the chance), and can not only hurt humans but also can freakin’ rewrite story from within the park. That was one of the coolest sequences Westworld has ever pulled off, and even as Maeve becomes more chilling and bloodthirsty a character, it’s hard not to root for her.

Even with her capture, I’m not concerned; as she said earlier in the episode, we know how duplicitous she is. Also, what a fantastic use of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” for the piano music as Maeve re-entered the park. As the song says, Maeve’s died “a hundred times.”

Some more big set up happening in this episode for the final two episodes of the season. As Ford toys with Bernard, it’s clear that our beloved Bernie is oh so ready for the strings to be cut — and who better to do it than Maeve with her new abilities? Westworld keeps laying more hints that Bernard is at least modeled after Arnold, with Ford making comments like “Arnold came to feel the way you do” and Bernard keeps asking the same key question about the difference between the humanity in Hosts and real humans that Arnold did.

Stubbs is also clearly picking up that Bernard is a host — or at least that there’s something off about him — which gives him something more interesting to do this season. Meanwhile, Arnold’s dormant code is coming out in many of the Hosts, including Teddy who reconciled two of his timelines. And Wyatt is supposedly Westworld’s new “end-all villain,” which makes it fitting that it seems the Man in Black will meet him in the upcoming episode. Once Wyatt is defeated, can we finally get to the center of the maze?

The Verdict

While Westworld didn’t offer any true resolutions to some of its biggest questions, it teased them out in an interesting way and offered a lot more context to major characters like Maeve and the Man in Black. With the multiple timelines theory now confirmed, the bigger question is what storylines are playing out when — and why? It’s a bit unsatisfying for the show to not offer any more concrete answers, but then again, there are still two episodes to go until the end of Season 1. Much of the fun of Westworld is just coming along for the ride.

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