This Westworld review contains spoilers.
Westworld Season 2 Episode 8
Last week, I drew some pushback for asserting that old William should have been retired to that great arcade in the sky after he took a bullet to the stomach. While modern medicine (never mind medicine of the future) could treat the wound, there aren’t exactly any 21st century doctors running to his aid. Rather he was left for the crows and should have provided them with a fine feast in the George R.R. Martin tradition, particularly as we’ve seen guests die from gunshot wounds many times over.
However, if that had happened, we wouldn’t have gotten tonight’s episode, “Kiksuya,” which is easily the best episode of the season after “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” For like that fourth episode, tonight’s pre-penultimate hour took a long step back to look in the mirror and evaluate what Ford’s mad dream is all about, as well as why we still enjoy playing in his convoluted game. Breaking away from the propulsive narrative of last week—where storylines entwined for a semi-climactic showdown in the Messa’s control center—“Kiksuya” is elegiac and pensive, taking a page out of the grand Western tradition, as well as a few of the more insidious notes out of American history, to survey its slice of God’s Country and figure out if there is a true ethereal quality to this world that lies beyond Ford’s scripts and loops.
And we find this decidedly wistful grandeur in what has been largely the most overlooked aspect of Westworld’s world-building: the Ghost Nation tribe. Prior to “Kiksuya,” the Ghost Nation tribe has been an aspect of the show that has gotten short shrift. Nothing more than apparently the “most difficult narrative” in the park that is located right on the very outskirts and parameters, they are meant for the guests who like playing their adventures on “Hard” mode.
Colored in a facetious black, red, and white war paint, the Native American hosts of Westworld have always appeared deliberately dehumanized. Like a helmet on a Stormtrooper, it helps if you don’t see a soul staring back as the proverbial Han Solo pulls the trigger. And honestly, even as the mysteries about the Ghost Nation and what they are after have thickened—they’ve been collecting guests as prisoners for the whole of season 2—they have also flown under the radar for many. Including myself. I have noted the dangling threads each week but have failed to fully explore them in lieu of all the seemingly more fleshed out protagonists and maddening timelines that are in need of constant unpacking.
This in itself is a personal shortcoming, as well as an apparent red herring by showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The Ghost Nation has been so long pushed to the margins, that we’ve been unable to largely consider what may indeed be a far more self-aware and culturally cognizant army of hosts than Dolores’ glorified Woke puppet brigade that still marches to the beat of Robert Ford’s drum. And this is none so clear than when Akecheta tells his achingly true story.
Like “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” “Kiksuya” is essentially its own miniature movie that unfurls a largely standalone tragedy from the perspective of a host we’ve never properly given his due. Akecheta, who is brilliantly underplayed by Zahn McClarnon, begins the hour by collecting a wounded William, as he does so many other humans, and taking him to where his tribe has settled for the moment. William groans for death, but Akecheta answers with a rather juicy line, “Death is a passage from this brutal world. You don’t deserve to exit.” He’ll let William die in agony. How apt. And as the aged gamer expires, Akecheta has a story to tell… but it’s not one meant for William’s ears.
Turning to Maeve’s mostly silent daughter, Akecheta reflects on the many lives he’s lived, ended, commodified… and eulogized. In essence, Akecheta’s tale of sorrow is not that far removed from Maeve’s own journey into night with the loss of her daughter. However, that is kind of the point. Every host has suffered a silent misery like Maeve and Akecheta, even if they are unaware of its origin. Yet the fact that both Akecheta and Maeve are so attuned to the roots of their suffering makes them instantly the most sympathetic and interesting characters in our series. At least on this side of Bernard.
Thus Akecheta recites how, in its own perverse way, the Westworld park commercialized and exploited Native American history for profit and propaganda. When we first meet Akecheta in his flashback, he is still part of a fictional tribe living on the borders of Westworld, and is given an innate sense of grace or “pastoral” dignity (as sneered by one of Westworld’s early choppers) that became a common trope in deconstructionist Westerns during the 1970s onward. Yet there is more than a noble simpicity to Akecheta and his loop: there is an authenticity too. Like Maeve and her daughter, Akecheta and his lover Kohana live in a harmony that is remarkably unremarkable.
As a member of a tribe and husband to a wife, Akecheta was gifted, probably by Arnold, with a narrative that’s filled with verisimilitude—a life that was grounded in humanity. He did not only stalk robo-prey in war paint or play the “strong silent type.” He was a man who when he heard gunshots would investigate to see if anyone was in trouble. It is there that he incidentally stumbles onto the most fateful day in the park’s history: Arnold, the true genius behind Westworld, has forced Dolores to take his life after also unleashing her on his other hosts. Akecheta also has, depending on how you look at it, the luck or misfortune to see “the Maze,” the symbol of a test Arnold left for Dolores.
Whereas Dolores, and later William, would chase it like a phantom Easter egg hidden within the larger game, it became a badge of awareness for the Ghost Nation. To Akecheta it justified his Wokeness, as well as a chance to visualize a higher level of understanding for other hosts. Yet that knowledge also became a curse shortly thereafter when he was one of the first to be crudely reprogrammed. Not that differently than how Dolores mutilated Teddy’s personality, Westworld decided to take away Akecheta’s dignity and humane depth. For the grand opening of the park, which was now exclusively Robert Ford’s park, the choice was made to turn the Ghost Nation tribe into more than an approximation of a Native American people: they would become the bloodthirsty savages of John Ford’s non-The Searchers Westerns.
Much of the recent history of American fiction, notably white American fiction, depicts Native Americans being enlightened tragic heroes, from Little Big Man to Dances with Wolves, and Disney’s Pocahontas to Avatar, stems from a reaction to how Hollywood participated in a century long myth about ostensibly villainous Indians. It began in the West as dime novels during the plains wars (although it dates back as early as the founding of Jamestown in American history) but was writ large in some of Hollywood’s very best Westerns.
And the Ghost Nation was construed to embrace that barbaric caricature, right down to their admittedly evocative war paint designs. Arnold’s Native Americans erred too close to being real men and women with their own customs and lives; Ford’s became cannon fodder in a creepy Grand Gunigol get-up. While he is modeled after fierce warriors of the plains, like the Comanche (who political correctness has attempted to largely erase), he is not based on an actual people of righteous anger: he is a target to be knocked down. Like the Raj, the Ghost Nation tribe is a fantasy for the most affluent white tourist to feel not only “free” but superior as they “kicked his ass.” But a funny thing happened regarding Akecheta: he kept his memories.
Slowly and surely Akecheta became truly aware due to the Maze symbol that haunted his circuits. He also came to the conclusion that if he is a pawn in a game, then his world is but a door to another. He also finds a literal door, which I’m pretty sure is the cliffhanging outpost that houses William and Dolores’ nondescript weapon that will play a pivotal role in the final two episodes. I imagine so too will Akecheta, as unlike Dolores, he has spent the ensuing decades not just trying to spill guests’ blood—he’s been trying to find a way to wake other hosts up about the need to escape.
This begins with another unexpected but welcomed cameo: Akecheta finds Logan naked and abandoned in the high deserts of the park. This is right after William sent his brother-in-law riding alone and disgraced through the wilderness. The moment also rose an interesting question about whether there have been any murders in the park by guests attacking guests. Because, quite honestly, William tying Logan up and leaving him to exposure did almost kill the lad. Who knows, maybe Akecheta even saved Logan’s life by giving him some cover from the sun? And in turn Logan accidentally set Akecheta on his journey of self-discovery… and put William on the path for a years-long wild goose chase.
It begins with Akecheta hearing that this world is not real and deciding the naked, crazy man is right. He discovers “the weapon” outpost and attempts to steal Kohana to it. While the sequence is at first disquieting, as he basically kidnaps Kohana and forces her to walk with him until she remembers, she nonetheless does remember… and is punished for Akecheta’s obsessions. Oddly, the park personnel are able to track down Kohana, and Kohana alone. In doing so, they remove her from Akecheta and her loved ones, replacing her with a new host.
Intriguingly, this hour confirms that hosts only consider their relationships with their original loop partners to be genuine. Dolores believes the host we all call Peter Abernathy to be her daddy, and yet likely would not feel so conflicted about the replacement she knew for about a week. It is the same way that Angela Sarafyan’s Clementine is also the one Teddy and Maeve considered real. Lili Simmons’ Clementine is an impostor. So too is the Kohana whom replaces the one Akecheta loved. And in fear of losing her memory, he stays alive and awake for 10 years.
It is remarkable that a host went this long without being killed by a guest, as well as without Delos management tracking him down. However, perhaps Robert Ford allowed Akecheta’s little odyssey? Whatever the case might be, it was Maeve’s daughter who saved his life in one particular close call, and whom was bestowed the Maze symbol that is now as much a flag as it is a spark to light an awareness.
Hence this leads Akecheta to copy (or act as a precursor?) to Maeve’s adventures to the land below. For as Akecheta’s conversations with fellow Ghost Nation members reveal, they are quietly becoming more cognizant of the people below who claim and replace their ranks.
It was hinted last season that the Ghost Nation prays to the image of the Westworld personnel, and that is apparently true to an extent. But Westworld writers have also recanted and downplayed that development to reveal more of them are simply visibly aware of the events going on inside of the park. Perhaps this is because the Ghost Nation tribe is on the furthest outreaches of the park and only for the most aggressive, sporting guests? Or in other words, they’re so rarely interacted with that the park personnel forgets about them and focuses on the more popular hosts. The white hosts.
There is of course a meta-quality to this. The other hosts are more popular and studied because they aren’t commodified and literally written to be “Other.” Whereas Dolores is the sweet rancher’s daughter who was doted on by Arnold and intensely studied by Ford, Akecheta and his people are an afterthought to personnel. This is also why Akecheta is allowed to keep all of his data after he initiates his death and the choppers get their hooks into him. Upon realizing he hasn’t had an update in 10 years, they leave most of his software in place, as even the latest patch will take four hours to install.
So like a PlayStation 4 loading a new game, Akecheta is abandoned for hours in the bowels of Westworld. He is thusly allotted time to find Kohana and to provide Ramin Djawadi the golden opportunity to composing a glorious orchestral cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” Although this is poetic license, obviously, as Akecheta’s heart is shaped like a woman, a woman who has been permanently turned off.
When Akecheta finds Kohana’s body, she is frozen in stasis like the other living dead beneath Westworld. For all intents and purposes, she is dead. But rather than giving into blind rage like Dolores, Akecheta finds a chilling articulation of the hosts’ plight. Looking at the other nude and desecrated dead in a basement that may as well be a mass grave, Akecheta realizes, “There was someone who mourned their loss, even if they didn’t know why.” Every host who’s been retired like Clementine and Kohana has left a trail of despair, even if it is in his or her loved ones’ collective subconscious. Westworld isn’t just killing these hosts, they’re robbing loved ones of their memories.
That is a horror almost as great as any other we’ve seen on the entire series’ run and gives justification to Akecheta’s purpose. It should also be noted that unlike Dolores, his purpose seems genuine. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, it’s been slowly unveiled that Dolores’ revolution is a sham. She still is the player piano who is producing the exact notes selected by Robert Ford.
By comparison, when the old mad genius meets Akecheta some decades later, he seems stunned and mildly impressed by Akecheta’s success at building his own identity. Ford has no idea why Akecheta wants to kill him as he designs what, I believe, is supposed to be “Journey into Night,” but he is nonetheless tickled that Akecheta has committed himself to Arnold’s Maze symbol. To Robert, that is just a token of a forgotten age in the park, one best left for the past. Even so, Akecheta has built an entire subculture of resistance that will play to Ford’s advantage when his phonier uprising begins. Akecheta has by this point partnered with other hosts who’ve gone off the reservation (such as Angela, who was glimpsed to be an ally to the Ghost Nation in season 1).
No doubt as Angela went from working on the outskirts with the Ghost Nation to teaming with Dolores in season 2, Ford ended up somewhat coopting and compromising Akecheta’s army. Yet Akecheta built it, and built it so well it led to William falling down a rabbit hole. Yep, it turns out all the Maze symbols Ed Harris’ William chased, from those carved into the scalps of other hosts to the one that led to William scalping Maeve over the corpse of her dead child, was an unintentional red herring. Akecheta’s resistance became William’s folly. One that cost him dearly, as he killed Akecheta’s friend in Maeve’s daughter, and Maeve herself, in the hopes of finding more hints to “Arnold’s game” that never really existed. However, he did make a mortal enemy out of Maeve, one who put several bullets into the old bastard last week.
That comeuppance also came full circle tonight as Akecheta eventually discharges William back into Grace’s care. The daughter he abandoned shows more pity for the old-timer than I would after he left her sleeping and vulnerable to play glorified video games. Be that as it may, Grace claims she plans to keep William alive and suffering, which Akecheta takes to be gospel. I find that a little convenient considering he’s collected (and killed) many human guests like Grace before now. But we can at least let this slide as Akecheta is not himself.
Indeed, the biggest and final twist of the night is the confirmation that even on her ostensible deathbed, Maeve is using her pseudo-superpowers to control Akecheta and communicate with her daughter. This is why Akecheta continues to speak of promises broken and promises kept. It’s also why Maeve is so distracted in the only forward momentum in the main narrative tonight.
Aye, elsewhere in the hour Lee Sizemore gets Maeve preferential treatment from a shockingly still living human in the Mesa facility, and one who seems eerily comfortable in fixing hosts after an army of them just tried to murder him. It also acts as a nice small moment of redemption for Lee, as he admits he should have never called the equivalent of the fuzz on Maeve. She should be with her daughter. I do wonder when she escapes (it’s not a question of “if”) how she’ll deal with Lee. He seemed sincerely apologetic and also is why she is being fixed… but he did betray her. I could see that being enough for a season finale twist of Maeve showing she is a keeper of her word by feeding Lee his proverbial pen and ink.
Then again, the reason we like Maeve is how human she is, arguably more so than the actual humans. She lives up to Ford’s promise that the hosts can be more noble and romantic than the greedy species that gave him birth, as Maeve uses this time, including when Charlotte Hale stands over her with dollar signs dancing in her irises, to commune with her daughter.
I admit that I am a bit anxious as Maeve essentially says goodbye to her daughter and Akecheta through a psychic connection (which is apparently simply “admin control”). Still, she knows Akecheta has tried to protect her child for years, and now he may be her only parent if Charlotte does something awful to our favorite android. I’m convinced that Hale will at least try. Luckily, just as providence put Akecheta in Logan’s path, I think it will protect the best character on the series from the prying hands of greed. In the meantime, I cannot help but get a little misty-eyed at Maeve and Akecheta sharing a moment of harmony that is bounded by pain, loss, and love. Love for this child and the sudden, but immensely visceral respect they have for one another.
So ends another fantastic episode of Westworld. Admittedly, this is a break from the rising tension of the last few episodes. However, unlike, say, putting a flashback episode about wee Eleven into the episode right before the climax of Stranger Things 2, last week ended on a deep breath. Ford is inside Bernard’s head, and Dolores has the key to the enigmatic weapon. The cliffhanger of an assault on the Mesa had been resolved. So it was a more than fitting time for Westworld to get a little lyrical and super-intertextual. Tonight was about having a greater understanding of this world, and the blindspots of the Western myths that inspired it from our own.
It’s one of Westworld’s finest hours and another exhibit of evidence that season 2 is excellent in its own right.