How Memory Works on 'Westworld' -- and What It Means for Your Timeline Theory

anthony hopkins on hbo westworld

Warning: this post contains spoilers through Westworld's eighth episode, "Trace Decay." Head to our hub Westworld World for more recaps, theories, interviews, and deep dives.

How the heck was last night's Westworld supposed to top Bernard's batshit betrayal? If you were expecting another crazy twist this week, you were probably disappointed, but the episode did manage to pull off an impressive juggling act, inching all the major character plots along and setting up the potential for a chaotic robot uprising in the weeks to come.

What's more, "Trace Decay" -- a nod to the psychological theory that says our memories fade over time if we don't rehearse them and convert them into long-term memories -- focused on hosts' memories, touching on a couple major fan theories along the way. Below, a look at the main characters' recollections from this episode, what they tell us about the way hosts store information, and why hosts' memories are so important to figuring out how Westworld works as a show.

jeffrey wright on hbo westworld

Bernard and Teddy

Coming off last week's twist, Bernard struggled to swallow the fact that he killed Theresa. Ford's response was to wipe Bernard's memory and alleviate his emotional suffering. (Sound familiar? That's what's supposed to happen to all the hosts in the park.) It seems like Westworld's creative director has done this multiple times to Bernard; however, his head isn't completely empty: he still remembers assaulting Elsie at the abandoned theater.

Teddy's brain is also closely monitored by Ford. As the Man in Black told James Marsden's character, "You only remember the shit Ford lets you remember." That's not completely true, as the Man in Black's talk of "losing" the park's game triggers Dolores' beau to recall their traumatic confrontation from Episode 1. These scenes with Bernard and Teddy are significant because they show that even though Ford can wipe a host's memory, those memories aren't necessarily out of reach -- something Joy elaborated on when discussing reveries earlier this season. 

"There are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them -- or aren't supposed to have access to them," Joy toldEntertainment Weekly. "The reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as -- because I'm not a coder, Jonah [Nolan] is more into that world -- for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious tics. The hosts don't consciously know where they're drawn from, but they're just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little ... fraught." Does this mean a trace of Bernard's memories with Theresa will resurface?

thandie newton on hbo westworld


Maeve is a clearer example of this phenomenon leading to trouble. With her new batch of souped-up attributes and ever-increasing sense of self-awareness, the Sweetwater madam recalled her former loop -- as a homesteader living with her daughter -- with astonishing accuracy. "One moment I'm with a little girl, in a different life," she told her tech frenemies Felix and Sylvester. "I can see her, feel her hair in my hands, her breath on my face. Next, I'm back in Sweetwater."

Maeve can't tell which event feels more real. Fortunately, Felix explained why: humans can recall the past with hazy details; hosts can relive their past experiences to the point of hallucination. For example, when Maeve remembers the Man in Black ambushing her in the past, she pulls a knife on him. But since she's reliving the memory in the present, she actually knifes Clementine's replacement, killing an innocent bot outside her saloon.

ed harris on hbo westworld

The Man in Black

As a nice contrast, we can look at Ed Harris's character to see how humans deal with memory on the show -- and how the show represents it. First, when the Man in Black and Teddy stumbled upon Talulah Riley's welcome-bot in her new role, he did that awkward thing where you see someone at a party, forget their name, and say, "Oh, it's you. I figured they retired you." (Expect your friends who believe in multiple timeframes to cite this scene as the biggest hint to date that William's in the past and the Man in Black's in the future.)

Then, the Man in Black finally spilled a huge chunk of his backstory, revealing his motivations for killing Maeve and her daughter as well as the fact that his real-world wife hated him so much she committed suicide. "In all my years coming here, I'd never seen anything like it," he said of the moment he shot Maeve's daughter. "[Maeve] was alive, truly alive -- if only for a moment. And that was when the maze revealed itself to me."

What's intriguing about his recollections is how casual they are. The Man in Black recounts the general story of what happened to Maeve, but none of the details -- the audience gets them visually courtesy of Maeve because the scene toggles between their perspectives. For the Man in Black, the memory is just a matter-of-fact past experience that doesn't cloud his judgment or unravel his sense of reality.

evan rachel wood and jimmi simpson on hbo westworld


Maeve's immersive flashback is likely what's happening with Dolores, just on a more elaborate level. As Ford explained when he wiped Bernard's memory: "Best not to dwell on these troubling memories, otherwise you might be drawn back into them. You might lose yourself in them, as some of your fellow hosts have, every now and then."

The scene that immediately followed this line showed Dolores and William discovering her old home. Through Dolores's eyes, we witnessed a series of flashbacks that took Dolores back to the early days of the park, where she ran into Lawrence's daughter, killed civilians, and put a gun to her head. William pulled the gun away before Dolores could fire, but it was clear she was doing the same thing Maeve had done with New Clem and her knife.  

"Where are we?" Dolores asks, visibly shaken. And then, in a moment that probably had everybody at home yell "SERIOUSLY?!" at their TV screens, she added, "When are we? Is this now? Am I goin' mad? Are you real? I can't tell anymore. It's like I'm trapped in a dream or a memory from a life long ago." How literal are these lines meant to be interpreted? Is Dolores referring only to the flashback William saved her from, or is she referring to the entire William subplot?

Dolores' scenes didn't quite provide the concrete confirmation fans might have wanted, as far as William, the Man in Black, and multiple timeframes are concerned. (Kurt Vonnegut would be pissed, you guys.) But this episode did seem to say that memories are a lot like gateway drugs for the hosts: if Dolores, or Maeve, or any of their cohort latches onto one, they risk falling into a wormhole, one completely unmoored from reality and time, one with the power to illude both them and you.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.