This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 5
The sales pitch of Westworld, and thus by extension all of the parks in the Delos network, is that it provides a “new world” where you can be whatever you want. This is of course a lie. You cannot be whoever you want to be as a tourist. You’re playing a part, a role dictated just as much by your awkward unfamiliarity as your fantasies. Even the narratives you play in are concocted by men potentially as weasely and frustrated as yourself. Not even the world. Amusingly, in a future where everyone is apparently plugged into VR, the uber-rich and elite travel to recreations of the most rugged parts of our past. They are spending fortunes to live in eras and locations that the rich of those settings tried to avoid. It’s a lie based on a truth they’d rather not know.
But that doesn’t mean Westworld’s sales pitch is a total fabrication. It is a new world for some to break from social pressures. Very strict social pressures. Some folks like Maeve, and now apparently the newly introduced doppelganger droid, Akane, are entirely rewriting the rules of who they are, and they are doing it without any coding cheats. It is that ability that makes tonight’s “Akane No Mai” another slam dunk in a season that has really needed this turnaround offered by these past few weeks—even if it is taking us to some dark places we might otherwise not wish to visit. Of course when it comes to Shogun World, everyone wants to be there.
Indeed, Shogun World has been teased since the season 1 finale and it does not disappoint. Both narratively and intertextually, it’s a return to the dynamics of the first year, back when viewers and guests alike were seduced and surprised by the little intricacies of Robert Ford’s dream. Simply learning how the game is played is half the fun, as per even the hosts themselves in some episodes. And tonight we got to learn how things are played in Shogun World, except with the added novelty that the “guests” are now mostly hosts too, and the world they’re being introduced to is clearly not new. In fact, it’s a direct rip-off of the land well already know so well.
Hence why this episode was really Lee Sizemore’s time to shine. In previous hours, Sizemore’s been a plucky comic relief to Maeve, slowly being browbeaten by his creation about how hackish his creativity really is. But tonight he learns that he is an outright fraud. It is Lee who informs us that Shogun World was apparently created for the express purpose of giving a gorier and more bloodthirsty alternative to Westworld. Presumably there is no family friendly zone in this park considering we’re introduced to the countryside here via decapitated heads. Guest and host alike have fallen to the same plague that has bedeviled Westworld, save those in this park are meeting a grislier end than that of a simple six-shooter.
But it is also Lee’s shameless hacky quality that gives real unexpected dimension to Shogun World for the hosts we care about. Because Lee has literally ripped off narratives, top to bottom, from the Sweetwater corner of the park. Instead of prostitutes in Maeve’s bordello, it’s geishas in Akane’s house of entertainment. Rather than a desperado in a black hat named Hector, the outlaw who comes to town to rain hell is none other than a Ronin Samurai warrior called Musashi. Even Clementine has a bit of double (or is it triple at this point?) in the visage of Sakura, the young geisha who becomes the heart of much of the conflict. And in the immediacy, the giddiest fun found in tonight’s episode is just the clear repetition of park storytellers repeating themselves.
Upon realizing that they’ve been cloned, right down to Armistice recognizing the facial tattoo on her double who uses them as a human shield, the artifice of this being a strange land is irrevocably shattered. Lee defends himself by uttering, “You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” but it doesn’t wash. I mean, I can account for deadlines and editors leading to some work being less inspired than others, but this pure self-plagiarism. And the shoddiness of Lee’s work is what allows the hosts to immediately come to understand the “rules” and game-like nature of Shogun World, even if, technically speaking, propriety and formalities are a bigger deal in Shogun World than Westworld.
Armistice is smitten with her reflection, while Hector amusingly doesn’t like what he sees; yet it is Maeve who recognizes that a mirror can also be a doorway. Akane, like Maeve, has a very limited role she is supposed to play as the local madam. But like Maeve, she is carving out a bigger part for herself.
So after the early high of the episode reaches its crescendo, complete with an amusing Japanese instrumental cover of “Paint It Black,” we’re left with some curious questions to ask in what is in essence a standalone episode on the Maeve side of things. Just like many of the best hours of season 1, the events that play out for the rest of Shogun World are like their own miniature movie in which Maeve’s desire to help Akane and Sakura reaches a final and fittingly tragic conclusion.
Beyond the symmetry of characters meeting their doubles—leading us to wonder if there is a Japanese version of Dolores out there somewhere, biding her time for a robo-revolution in a tea garden—there is also a nightmarish wistfulness to it all. Maeve can see herself in Akane and Sakura’s relationship, which causes Maeve to even more fully understand the similarities with which she chases a daughter from another life she only half remembers. Like her daughter, Sakura is not really the flesh and blood offspring of Akane. In fact, Akane is simply going off-script to play her already prescribed role to the bone. Lee is flabbergasted when Akane kills the nearby Shogun’s emissary, who has come to collect Sakura “for a dance” (and probably something more awful than just that).
But Akane’s ability to go off-script is no different than Maeve; it actually speaks to these two’s sense perspective and understanding they truly can be whoever they want. And who they want to be is mothers. That shared sense of maternity, and a desire to keep their daughters safe, is why Maeve and Akane bond… not because Lee is a lazy-ass writer.
It is also that shared connection which gives tonight’s story—a real narrative with its own beginning, middle, and ending that was not setup in the Ford or Lee Sizemore workshop—the true breath of life. And this being Shogun World, it also means a tour of all the things we as tourists would love to see at this park, derivative though it might be. Hence when Akane defends Sakura to the death, and Ronin Warrior Musashi proves as devoted to her as Hector is to Maeve. Plus, it’s why there are ninjas. Why wouldn’t there be ninjas? Ninja vs. Samurai is a classic fantasy of Eastern and especially Western fantasy (see The Last Samurai for more). And that doesn’t disappoint here.
A battle with silent assassins also gives way to Samurai invasion, as Musashi is forced to watch his old Shogun Guard roll into town and take Sakura hostage. This is of course all fan service, so the best I can say is that it does a phenomenal job of servicing what I want to see out of Shogun World. Watching geishas, Ronins, and ninjas onscreen at the same time is better than any Avengers movie for me; the iconography of John Ford is giving way to Akira Kurosawa!
It also, however, raises some intriguing questions about Maeve. As we see in the middle of the episode and again at the end of the hour, she has a seemingly supernatural power over other robots. Save for apparently if they’re malfunctioning due to a loss of cortical fluid, Maeve has the mental ability to cause one host to run his eye straight onto the end of a dagger; and to make an entire army of Samurai turn on each other, rather than behead her. This ability is amazing because in some respects Maeve seems to be filling the shoes left vacant by Robert Ford: She has a godlike power over her fellow hosts. This could be in part due to the tinkering she had Felix do to her systems in season 1, and yet I think there is something more to it.
Unlike Dolores, who we’ll get to in a moment, Maeve seems to really be evolving in her understanding of life. Despite what Dolores eventually says about the herd, Maeve doesn’t view other hosts as tools. She sees another mother in Akane, and a lover in Hector even if he is less aware or as sophisticated as herself. She isn’t looking to rule, even though she now has the power to rule over all. While Maeve keeps her pet humans’ company. Dolores likewise has human compatriots… who she uses to manipulate the other hosts around her, turning lovers into willful slaves. In her own way, Dolores is little different from Robert Ford in how she treats her new species of “gods.” Conversely, Maeve, despite her threats, seems to enjoy the company of Lee Sizemore to a degree—although if he crosses her with that radio he stole in the middle of the episode, that can easily change—and she definitely likes Felix.
Where Dolores sees black and white, Maeve notices gray. In their own bizarre ways, one is the militant and the other pragmatic humanist. I could draw crass examples of that throughout history and civil rights, but a more palpable pop culture one is Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto of the X-Men. One sees only war, and the other intuitively senses a way out that doesn’t require slaughter. And if that comparison seems silly, keep in mind Jonathan Nolan co-wrote two of the best superhero movies ever made (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), and then gave Maeve some Charles Xavier-like powers over other hosts. I suspect this is a conscious choice.
No matter what, it leads to a dynamic third act in which Maeve and company attempt to masquerade themselves as a Chinese envoy before a Shogun who is so disconnected from reality (and his own narrative) that he’s commanded his men to mutilate themselves in an effort to stop Maeve’s seeming witchcraft. The whole sequence of the final 20 minutes or so of Westworld’s first foray into Shogun World plays like an operatic passion play. Part Gangs of New York and part Ran, an aged and demented feudal ruler forces one geisha to dance for him… after killing the surrogate child for whom Akane was dancing to save.
Rinko Kikuchi gives a genuinely graceful and heartbreaking performance throughout the episode. In only an hour, her character is drawn in delicate and intimate lines by the writers, and subtly willed into existence by a minimalist turn from Kikuchi. In spite of being entirely subtitled in this short amount of time, I suspect Kikuchi has ensured Akane will be an audience favorite with her ability to channel rage through beauty, and intimate fluid control is merely a ticking time bomb of wrath. We all knew what she was going to do with her hair pin as she got closer to the shogun, but the justified savagery of her near-removal of his head is Shogun World finally living up to Lee’s hype of being a bloodier, more gruesome alternative to Westworld. And it is like a perfect crimson ribbon on our cinematic sojourn into the Far East.
However, it was not the only element of the hour. There is of course Dolores and Teddy. Poor, poor Teddy.
Personally, I am beginning to suspect one of the reasons Dolores’ machinations were dragging in the third episode is because the writers were treading water until her full heel turn at the midpoint of the season. Because it is only after she reprograms the love of her life that viewers are given full permission to turn against the main protagonist of the series. It is a bold twist on the part of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, given that Dolores’ journey to self-discovery was the heart of the first season that made it so compelling. But if the Shogun World scenes tonight were a semi-return to that journey into self-discovery and the dawn of possibilities, it is still full-fledged night in Sweetwater. And the future looks determinedly bleak.
This is underscored by Teddy and Dolores’ homecoming to Sweetwater being muted and deflating. Maeve’s place of business is miserably free of Maeve, but Clementine runs into her clone, continuing the theme of doubles that plays throughout the night. Yet, intriguingly, Dolores doesn’t treat Clementine 2.0 as an equal in need of guidance and salvation, in the same way that Maeve connects on a soulful level with Akane. Instead they leave Not-My-Clementine to walk around her little Sisyphean loop in the brothel and go on their merry way.
Dolores’ plan apparently involves retrofitting the train used to carry guests into Sweetwater for alternative purposes. The most obvious idea is to use it to trek all the way back to the Mesa in which guests are welcomed to the Westworld park. However, the way she asks them to strip it down and remove its pieces, in order to make it go faster, suggests to me that Dolores plans to take it somewhere else altogether. Somewhere that Teddy will not be allowed to follow, such as he is.
There was an air of doomed finality to Teddy and Dolores riding to roughly the same spot they’d always visit during their loop over the years. In a bit of God’s country, the two used to make plans for a future that would never come. A consummation of a romance that was to be left unfulfilled. And yet, now that they’ve broken the loop, Dolores seems uninterested in Teddy’s latest pleas of the two of them setting off to find a little spot “in all that splendor” to make a home. He’s like the college guy who wants to settle down while she wants to stay politically active and move to D.C. They’re on different paths. And this takes on ominous implications when Dolores gives Teddy yet one last test.
Even though her memory of an infection affecting the cattle is not real, she uses it as gospel to test Teddy’s resolve. Whereas her father killed the weak steers and burned their bodies to scare off flies, Teddy hears this story and his first reaction is to find a way to shelter and spare the weak. Dolores’ damning praise is that “you’re a kind man,” but by insinuation, that doesn’t mean “good.” It means weak. Before the end of the episode makes it explicit, Dolores is already planning to turn Teddy into the weak bonfire that’ll scare off insects.
Dolores and Teddy then share a night together, finally consummating the unrequited romance that was only ever meant to be background: a peaceful detail for guests to shatter. And yet, surprisingly, it is real for Dolores. She shows genuine affection. Like her relationship with her father, the feelings are true.
It is what makes what she does to Teddy afterward particularly cruel. Recognizing that decades of romantic feelings have built toward this night, she marks it by apparently transforming Teddy’s psychology to such an extreme extent that the cutter she’s keeping as a prisoner isn’t even sure if Teddy’s physiology will hold together. Presumably the Teddy we’ve followed for this entire series is essentially gone. And unless he achieves a level of self-awareness as great as Maeve’s, I suspect he is gone for good.
Dolores clearly thinks that is the case. She verbally compares Teddy to the weak steers her papa had to put down. And so she is putting Teddy down, because in her view, “You’re not going to make it.” That is a hell of a thing for Dolores to say to Teddy, the man who has died probably a thousand times (if not more) for her. Unlike Maeve seeing a kindred spirit to support in Akane, Dolores sees a weakness she can shred. Like Robert Ford (or, uh, Magneto) she’s become what she hates. She is no different than Ford who uses hosts as tools, machines he can rebuild in his own image.
She and Ford might believe the synthetic species is the future, but they still view that population as subservient to their whims and wills. Teddy is both a true love and an appliance for to flip on and off. Her God Complex is complete, because no one else is allowed to stand by her side at the top of the hill.
It’s an intriguing twist that has been a longtime coming after five episodes of Dolores’ bloodlust. It also changes the dynamics for the rest of the season. I imagine if we’re allowed to judge Dolores’ actions more harshly, we’re also allowed to see her make more interesting moves than just pulling the trigger on the latest red-shirted guest. Perhaps it is she who wiped all those hosts’ minds in the present-most timeline?
After all, it’s easy to forget that the episode began with Karl Strand and company being baffled how about one-third of the bodies recovered from the sea have been cleanly erased of all data. They even appear to be “virginal.” How this is achieved is currently a mystery even to Strand’s top engineer. But I am further convinced that Bernard discovered something so terrible, he was willing to wipe all of the hosts’ systems, including his own. One of them is seemingly Teddy, so maybe Bernard was stopping Dolores from obtaining the “weapon?”
It’s food for thought in a very thoughtful, but also viscerally fun hour of Westworld. The second season is halfway over, and we’ve finally cleared the ridge and can see the sprawl of the remaining trail. I suspect it will be more gruesome and intense than we can even suspect at the moment, especially if Maeve can recruit enough Ronin warriors to her cause. She and Dolores appear headed on a collision course, and the potential of that clash—and Bernard’s role in it—makes the rest of season 2 appear as unstoppable as a fully powered and stripped down locomotive.