‘Westworld’ Season 1 Episode 8 Recap: The House Always Wins
The Man in Black has an origin! It explains nothing and rules out nothing! Ah, Westworld. You are very entertaining even when you are kind of frustrating.
So, the Man in Black (Ed Harris). On his quest to find Wyatt and the mysterious “Maze” hidden inside the Western theme park, perennial loser robot Teddy Flood (James Marsden) finally has enough and knocks the Man out cold. After he ties him up, the Man reveals his backstory. Here’s who he says he is:
I’m a god. Titan of industry. Philanthropist. Family man. Married to a beautiful woman. Father to a beautiful daughter. I’m the good guy, Teddy. Then, last year my wife took the wrong pills. Fell asleep in the bath. Tragic accident. 30 years of marriage vanished; how do you say it? Like a deep and distant dream. Then at the funeral, I tried to console my daughter. She pushed me away. Told me that my wife’s death was no accident. That she killed herself because of me. Then they said that every day with me had been sheer terror.
After that, the Man came to Westworld, and lost himself there, and decided to do something truly evil, just to know what it felt like. That act, it turns out, is the terrible memory that haunts the host named Maeve (Thandie Newton), where the Man in Black murders her and her daughter. Maeve’s reaction to this sadistic act — to fight back when hosts shouldn’t be able to hurt the guests, to be “truly human,” as the Man in Black puts it — was what had her reassigned to Sweetwater’s house of prostitution, where she currently runs the ship as madam.
That tenure may soon come to an end, though, as Maeve’s becoming more human by the moment; or maybe more than human. With a couple of hapless Westworld techs under her thumb, she continues to manipulate her way into fully remembering her past, and to understanding the nature of her world, and she continues her attempts to make an escape from Westworld. By all accounts, that should be impossible, but with her intelligence artificially boosted, Maeve doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the challenge.
I actually found the Man in Black’s “origin,” his connection to Maeve, and her history of memories, or at least resisting her core programming, more confusing than enlightening, which was sort of my general reaction to tonight’s Westworld, titled “Trace Decay.” The title refers to a theory of memory and psychology: “Trace decay theory states that forgetting occurs as a result of the automatic decay or fading of the memory trace ... This theory suggests short term memory can only hold information for between 15 and 30 seconds unless it is rehearsed. After this time the information / trace decays and fades away.”
This concept is referred to obliquely in this episode, when Maeve’s tech sidekick Felix Lutz (Leonardo Nam) explains that while humans experience memories imperfectly, hosts and their robotic minds maintain total recall of past events. So experiencing memories, like Maeve’s of her daughter’s murder, can feel like a terrifying out-of-body experience.
That also explains(ish) some of wayward host Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) ongoing confusion about time in her journey to find the Maze with her human partner William (Jimmi Simpson). When they reach the place Dolores calls “home,” an abandoned town deep in unsettled Westworld territory, there’s a digital effect in the midst of a pan and suddenly the town is full of hosts and Dolores is back in her blue dress that she wore in the first few episodes of the season. It appears to be the early days of Westworld, the ones described by the park’s creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in an earlier conversation with his right-hand man Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), in explaining how the place came to be, and how Ford’s mysterious partner, Arnold, lost his life as part of his quest to give the hosts true consciousness. The end of Dolores’ flashback or dream sees her witnessing a massacre, one perpetrated by ... Dolores herself.
“When are we? Is this now?” Dolores cries as William snaps her out of her daze. Westworld viewers could definitely relate to the uncertainty. With all the theories swirling around the show’s timeline, the details seem hazier than ever. If these scenes with William are a flashback, when are these flashbacks taking place? Even earlier, it would seem. (Still, if you subscribe to the theory that William eventually turns into the Man in Black, you got another potential confirmation/clue this week: When the Man in Black recognized the blonde host who first welcomed William to Westworld way back in Episode 2, who is now playing the role of one of the evil Wyatt Family’s victims.
The Man in Black did a lot of talking in this episode, without saying very much. Even with all the explanation, he still could be William. Or he could be Logan (Ben Barnes), William’s ruthless buddy. Or he could be neither. The story he tells Teddy could be the truth, or it could be a lie. Either way, it certainly connects to the speech Ford gives Bernard, as part of his “counseling” of his partner, now that Bernard realizes (albeit temporarily) that he is another of the park’s robots. “The self is a kind of fiction,” Ford says, “for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves. And every story needs a beginning. Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.”
So does the Man in Black’s. And Dolores’, and Maeve’s, and Teddy’s. Except some of their suffering is real. Or maybe not, since both the hosts and the guests are all fictional characters on the television show Westworld.
Ford does offer a few answers to the questions left hanging by last week’s episode, when Bernard murdered park executive Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen). I suspected Ford may just replace her with a host version of herself he could control; instead he uses Bernard to cover up the crime and make it appear to be an accident. Before he erases Bernard’s mind, he also tells Bernard that his memories of his wife and child are artificial; that’s the exchange that prompts his speech about the self. Of course, he also tells Bernard he’s never used him to kill before, but Bernard has a brief flash of a memory before his hard drive gets wiped, so this is another potential lie.
During Ford and Bernard’s conversation, the latter asks the former what makes them different. Why is Bernard’s pain fake and Ford’s pain real, if all pain is an invention of the mind? Ford tells him:
“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. No inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s 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 questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.”
The Man in Black’s backstory offers an example of someone breaking from their loop (a good guy, in his own words, abandons morality after the loss of his family). And Maeve’s quest to escape Westworld presents another. Of course, one of these characters is a flesh-and-blood human and one is a robot. But Westworld implies humanity is a very fluid concept.
EPISODE RATING: 7/10
-Here’s a question I found myself wondering this episode. If Dolores’ story with William is a flashback, where is Dolores in the present?
-Further robot mind tinkering gives Maeve the power to control other hosts with voice commands, the same way the park’s officers, and particularly Ford, do. When Ford controls robots with a word, it’s chilling. When Maeve does it, at least initially, it’s thrilling. It is interesting how the same act evokes different emotional responses depending on who performs it.
-This episode was the first time I noticed the name of the Sweetwater tobacconist: Sonski & Sons. For some reason, that name made me laugh out loud.