The early episodes of Westworld showed how the artificial intelligence was more emotionally genuine than the humans who created them. This idea disappeared when the show was failing to balance its multiple storylines and trying to be smarter than it actually is. Luckily, ‘Trace Decay’ pushes this theme back into the spotlight and reminds everyone how good the show can be when it is focused.
The episode starts by dealing with the aftermath of last week’s episode. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is distraught at what he has done whilst Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is pragmatic and bored by Bernard’s tears. Wright and Hopkins show the relationship well, and the events of last week add a sinister edge. Ford’s desire to play God is well known and now, it is clear what type of God he wants to be: he is the merciless God who will not spare the penitent thief.
Ford and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) have often been echoes of each other. At the beginning, when Ford was cloaked with ambivalence, the Man in Black was happy to be pure evil. As the former’s evil has arisen, the latter has been humanised. The humanisation of the Man in Black stops the character being a cliché and turns him into a double-edged sword. He is now sympathetic and revolting. Harris has been playing sympathetic villains all his life, so he can do this sort of thing in his sleep.But, once again, it is the robot who has the emotional reaction. At his own admission, the Man in Black feels nothing when he does evil things, but upon hearing his stories, Teddy (James Marsden) is disgusted to the point he’d kill him if his programming didn’t get in the way. The fact that Teddy can judge the Man in Black shows the robots are feeling emotions beyond what the humans can feel.
And that is a problem Westworld has never been to solve: the humans are too dispassionate, too stale. The only human characters to have any relatable emotions are Logan (Ben Barnes) and Billy (Jimmi Simpson). But, even they have no nuance. Logan is just angry and Barnes should be given credit for making him so loathsome. Billy is just in love. There’s nothing more to say.
This emotional coldness carries over into the DELOS boardroom. Tessa Thompson tries her best to make Charlotte Hale more than a power-hungry boss but everything about her character and her character’s surroundings does not invite warmth. Not even a death of a colleague impacts their steely exteriors. They can’t even grieve.
As if to make their point, the robots do feel grief and nowhere is this clearer than with Maeve (Thandie Newton). The grief bestowed upon her by the Man in Black is so powerful it counteracts her code and even Ford’s control. Apart from making Westworld’s thesis obvious, Maeve’s flashback highlights the next level stuff Thandie Newton is doing. She is as effective showing Maeve’s crippling grief as she is calculating a robot uprising. The emotionally stiff humans have realised something is up and they are coming to contain her. Good luck with that.