Maeve was once at the center of the Maze, and we finally know at least part of what it stands for: the point in which a person or being finds its purpose, a reason to live and be human. In “Trace Decay,” we learn that purpose was her daughter, and the thing that finally rendered her something more than just an animatronic host created by a team of eggheads in a basement was watching her daughter be ruthlessly murdered by the Man in Black.
Westworld’s existential core has thus far been its motivation, too—the yearning to discover who we are and what is the point has not only driven its bereft and emotionally bankrupt human characters but it’s made its hosts sentient, driven into consciousness through their memories of pain. Increasingly, we see how the pain that wakes them up was inflicted upon them by humans who are spiritually dead from it, a cynical bit of emotional transference that underscores the philosophy of Westworld, the park: live by your sorrow, die by your sorrow. But what are we without the memory of that sorrow? It chisels our personalities, refines our intentions. When Ford wipes the memory of Theresa entirely from Bernard’s mind, it is both the cruelest and kindest thing he can do for someone/thing who just murdered the woman he loved, but ultimately it reasserts Ford’s control over his wards. He’s perhaps not the evilest person in the park, but he’s definitely up there.
The “trace decay theory” of memory and forgetting, after which this episode was named, is the concept that memory eventually fades as the chemical notion of it within the brain disappears—that, in time, we will forget everything. But the hosts are experiencing the opposite—memories of what happened and what was done to them return in quick flashes. “The self is a kind of fiction,” Ford coldly tells Bernard while justifying Theresa’s death. Tell that to Teddy and Dolores and Maeve, who are attaining a stronger sense of themselves the more they remember. And within that, there is power; Teddy’s memory of the Man in Black dragging Dolores by the neck leads Teddy to conk him over the head and interrogate him.
It’s then that we learn the Man in Black, an entrepreneur and philanthropist and “good man” in the real world except for the fact that he was a “terrorizing” father and husband, killed Maeve’s daughter in order to see if he could feel a thing. He couldn’t, but Maeve could. “This pain is all I have left of her,” Maeve screams in the basement as Ford tries to Eternal Sunshine her daughter from her, but the trauma is too great to be permanent. It recalls the Man in Black’s comments from an earlier episode, that the hosts are most humanlike when they’re hurting, and the Man in Black is about to be in a world of hurt. What started as a sci-fi romp in the Wild West has become top five most depressing shows on television.
Arnold’s motivation, besides mass revolt and perhaps a global host takeover, is still unclear, but Dolores’s flashback to murdering the townspeople and then blowing out her own brains gives us an inkling. Were I more of a conspiracist I’d say Dolores is Arnold, because we still don’t know if Arnold was a man, but my theories have been wrong before. (I suppose they won’t be recreating host Theresa for looks.) She may be scripted with his own memories, though, so they will never fade away. What’s clearer, though, is that Maeve has seemingly gained nearly as much power as Ford—the ability to manipulate hosts with a mere word—and is building an army. “Time to write my own fucking story,” Maeve tells Felix, her system bumped up to godmode. Her agency, newfound and urgent, is thrilling.