Westworld – Episode Eight: Trace Decay

 “The series has picked itself back up and is powering on”. We continue with our reviews of HBO’s ‘Westworld’.


A recommended watch, this week; a couple of loose ends are tied up; some questions are answered; the season is building up to a climax.  If the tedium of episodes 3-5 put you off, the series has picked itself back up and is powering on. It’s worth catching up with.



One of my greatest bugbears with science fiction is how often it gets the depiction of life on a planet wrong; put simply, there’s never enough of it.  If we can learn one thing from life on Earth it’s just how much of it there is – life is everywhere. Forget the blatantly obvious, for a second (although the life of plants is just as interesting in its own way as that of animals), and think of just how much life there is that you don’t notice.  I’m not talking about elephants and whales, but even within those creatures there’s life.  True, some of it is parasitic in nature, but even within those parasites there are smaller forms of life.  There’s not a minimal amount of life on Earth – the planet’s teeming with it.  Which makes it even more mysterious as to why we haven’t found life on another planet yet (unless we have, and it’s simply so alien we don’t recognise it as such.  But that’s another discussion for another time).

Hell, some of the life on Earth is so alien it may as well come from another planet (one of the more obvious examples is that of the jellyfish).  And it’s only now that we’re starting to take seriously the concept of consciousness in those creatures.  Ancient Greeks may have concluded that animals had souls and were just as worthy of respect as humans (those Greeks following Pythagoras, anyway; Aristotle had a somewhat more primitive outlook) but it’s only very recently are we coming to similar conclusions, scientifically anyway.  Most pet owners could tell you that their animals had personalities, and science is finally starting to catch up as it examines consciousness as it relates to the animal kingdom.  After removing unhelpful anthropomorphisms from the equation, it would indeed seem that animals have emotions (even fruit flies have been observed to experience what could be fear).

‘Westworld’ has toyed slightly with the philosophical questions inherent in its basic premise, no more so than this week: are the Hosts ‘alive’ in any meaningful way?  Anthony Hopkins answered that this week with the delightfully throwaway answer that yes, the Hosts are indeed alive.  He didn’t even feel the need to enter a long discussion with Jeffrey Wright about it – he just came out and said it.  The Hosts are alive.  Of course, that raises a whole host of other questions (chiefly, what sort of sadist does that make Hopkins for continuing to use the Hosts in his narrative), none of them asked.  Much of the philosophical soul-searching the series has raised has been left unexplored (perhaps deliberately and provocatively – there’s enough material for a university course in this series, particularly in relation to the issues raised and then left hanging for the viewer to make up their own mind) and that would seem to be entirely deliberate.

It’s rare for a TV series to credit the viewers with this much intelligence, and it’s perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the series, particularly how un-didactic it’s been in its handling of these issues.  Of course, what Hopkins doesn’t know (and that the viewers do) is that the Hosts can recall what’s been happening to them, even if it is in the form of jumbled and incomprehensible flashes of memory.  It’s not just the Hosts in the park, either – Jeffrey Wright remembers killing the technician a fortnight ago, and it’s hinted at very strongly that he doesn’t believe a word Hopkins is telling him.  He lacks the righteous anger and indignation that Thandie Newton’s been showing, but that’s very much in keeping with his character.

Newton, though, has been a revelation this last couple of weeks.  She’s giving a performance that at least deserves an Emmy acknowledgement, which is no small feat when much of the time she’s simply sitting around naked with no dialogue.

The rest of the cast aren’t slouches, either; I’ve mentioned frequently how well Hopkins is being directed here (this is one of the most restrained performances I’ve ever seen him give, and it’s all the more welcome for it) and he’s starting to seem increasingly menacing.  Surprisingly, Ed Harris is becoming less menacing as the series progresses – he was overcome quite easily this week, and although he’s almost completed his quest to discover the next level of the park, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the maze is not a motif of the game, but something Arnold left behind for the Hosts, something which they would find when they were ready.  That things are starting to build to a head is very much evident – plot strands are being drawn together, loose ends are being tied up, the key characters are almost in the places they need to be for the grand finale.  I have no idea if the series is going to have an ending, or if the story is intended to cover more than one season, but it’s obvious that we’re building up to something, and I’m intrigued by what it’s going to be.

 ‘Westworld’ airs on Sunday nights in the US on HBO, and on Tuesdays in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

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