Westworld: A Cut Above

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Akane No Mai,” the fifth episode of Season 2.

Rinko Kikuchi stars as Akane in the fifth episode of Season 2 of 'Westworld,' 'Akane No Mai'

Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.

Spencer Kornhaber: For all the queasy bloodshed and queasier cross-cultural politics of this episode, part of me wishes we’d been in Shogun World all along. Maybe that’s because it’s recently felt as though Westworld had run out of ways to stage high-brow homages to cowboy flicks. Or maybe it’s just that slicing is more cinematic than shooting. In any case, the change of scenery was welcome; the hour had the feel of a Star Trek: The Next Generation voyage to some unexplored planet.

Then again, in Westworld, the very concept of novelty is often a ruse. The show points out how the familiar can be disguised as the new, and that the advances of the technological future might only cinch us tighter in our loops of nostalgia and narcissism (as if that’s not already happening today). Much of the excitement of this hour—both for viewers and the characters themselves—was in recognizing the clone character under the pancake makeup, or in hearing a familiar tune rendered in shamisen. There’s a depressing irony here, well familiar to Western pop culture: To craft a less “tame” experience for consumers, Lee Sizemore simply slapped orientalist clichés on old storylines.

We began inside the decimated labs of Westworld in the “present day,” where the damage of the robot revolution was being taken stock of by the Delos clean-up squad. A technician surmised, mysteriously, that the memory banks for a portion of the hosts in the park were blank— as if they’d never contained any data at all. More mysterious, though, was Karl Strand’s dialogue. He pivoted from sounding like a stereotypical corporate jerk, carping about lost “IP,” to offering poetic pondering fit for a Westworld commercial: “That’s quite a story you gave them. And one hell of an ending. All these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare. If we figure that out, we’ll know how the story turns.”

Then we finally picked up from the cliffhanger of two weeks back, learning that Maeve, thankfully, was not immediately disemboweled by the samurai who ambushed her squad. At first, it seemed she brain-controlled the assailant into leaving them alone, but that was a fake-out—the first in a series of thwarted Jedi mind tricks this episode. The obstacles to Maeve using voice commands were, for the most part, contrived for drama (she just happened to be gagged, and the ninjas just happened to put her in a chokehold), though it was genuinely disturbing to see the shogun make like Mr. Blonde and de-ear his troops.

The fact that ordering around hostile hosts wasn’t easy even for the formidable Maeve fit with the episode’s larger investigation of the agency the bots have now that they’re freed from their old roles. Hacky plots Sizemore had self-plagiarized mutated in new and surprising ways, starting when Madame Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) broke with her submissive script in an attempt to save her beloved protégé Sakura. “Looks like someone had a choice after all,” Maeve quipped after Akane poked an emissary in the eye, one of a few of this episode’s examples of hyperstylized violence.

In her geisha double Akane’s relationship with Sakura, Maeve sees not only flashes of her own protectiveness of the brothel maidens in Westworld, but also the bond she has with the daughter she yearns to be reunited with. As we’ve discussed before, that daughter may or may not actually be out there—and the maternal bond Maeve feels is, as Sizemore is prone to repeating, just code. But emotions, coded or not, have real-world effects. Hence why in the B-plot of the episode we witnessed Dolores carnally confirm that she feels real affection for the sensitive, sweet Teddy—and then take action to deprogram that sensitivity and sweetness. Where Dolores is going, tenderness is a liability.

While Maeve’s voice commands proved futile with the feudal hosts, she did slowly discover some other way—a “new voice”—of silently hijacking their minds. I’d have to guess she did this by tapping into the intra-host “mesh network” we learned about a few episodes ago. The fact that Westworld’s artificially intelligent beings are telepathically linked is, for now, portrayed as weakness. But it’s easy to imagine the fearsome power of, say, a shogun’s army able to move in true, effortless collaboration. Sophie and David, do you suspect as I do that this “mesh network” means that when the hosts mount their larger revolution, the humans will be as outmatched as a samurai facing down a tank?

David Sims: It certainly does—speaking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are plenty of shades of the Borg in all this talk of drones and mesh networks. At least when it comes to Maeve, resistance is certainly futile. As Westworld plunges deeper into its AI revolution, I’ve appreciated the ways in which it’s kept this new species from feeling entirely human, and this “weakness” is one of the clearest examples of that. There are hints of tyranny in how Maeve and Dolores are progressing through the park, winning some hosts to their side and compelling others to serve as thralls. But there’s also an undeniable sense of community as they collectively pick apart the systems that were holding them in place.

Dolores is still, nominally, Westworld’s lead character. Evan Rachel Wood is top-billed among the cast, each season opened with a scene involving her, and the general progression of her consciousness has been one of the bedrock storytelling arcs of the show. But as her quest for freedom turns darker and darker (that scene with Teddy in the barn was low-key frightening), I think it’s easy to say that Maeve has become the real heart of the show, and this was an episode with a lot of heart. Seeing the open compassion of Maeve’s Shogun World counterpart, Akane, a similarly steely mother hen, helped underline just how different Maeve’s awakening has been compared to Dolores.

The joke of Lee Sizemore recycling his scripts in Shogun World was nicely acidic, but it also served as a clever sort of flashback to the first season, a reminder of how tightly plotted things used to be for Maeve, and how quickly they’ve developed. Unlike Dolores, Maeve was programmed with an edge, but she was also programmed as a natural leader, a madam who looked out for her charges and was constantly under siege from (scripted) robberies. That connection to characters like Clementine was crucial in her understanding of Westworld’s simulation, and as she arrived in Shogun World, Maeve witnessed a comparable awakening in Akane, and helped nudge it along.

Dolores, meanwhile, lacks that sense of community—she’s defined by her relationship to her father and to Teddy, two protectors who have ultimately either failed her or outlived their usefulness. It makes sense that Dolores has a more mercenary view of her fight for independence—rather than listen to Teddy, she’s content to just rewrite his memory (or something, since more will be revealed on her barn ambush in future episodes). The presence of zombified Clementine really underlined how disturbing Dolores’s crusade has become in comparison to Maeve’s exploration into other worlds. Both characters can see the artifice at play here, but they’re using it to their advantage in very different ways—Maeve by hacking the core code, Dolores with her legion of walking dead.

Overall, though, I was less taken with this episode simply because the action in Shogun World was so intentionally stripped of stakes. I like the subtle mockery of cinematic universes, and the ways the same Hollywood storylines echo through every one of them, but when you have someone as godlike as Maeve cutting a swathe through things, it’s hard to take anything seriously. Bringing in A-list Japanese actors like Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada helped sell me on the pathos of the Shogun World hosts, but the plot itself was too intentionally rote for me to really buy into. Sophie, were you like me, tired of the same old meta-story?

Sophie Gilbert: A bit. Color me more compelled by the unexpected appearance of Raj World (ColonialistWorld?) earlier this season than by Shogun World, which has been so heavily alluded to and anticipated that it couldn’t help but fall a bit flat. For starters, why were almost all the fight scenes happening in total darkness? This seems to be happening more and more in prestige TV shows—elaborate and highly choreographed set pieces play out amid such minimal lighting that it’s impossible to tell who’s stabbing whom or severing what.

Stylistic quibbles aside, what did Shogun World achieve? When the existence of the park was first announced, there were concerns as to what Westworld would do with a park inspired by samurai films and Japanese culture. Would it critique racist stereotyping or just offer up the same kind of imagery? Now we know the answer: The Shogun World characters were simply based on the same archetypes that already existed within Westworld: Maeve, Hector, Armistice. On the one hand, this lack of creativity speaks to the laziness inherent in the entertainment industry and the ways in which characters are created to fit specific roles. On the other, it illuminates how genre can calcify limited interpretations of certain cultures. “Akane No Mai” might be winking to viewers as it replicates the tropes of samurai films, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t perpetuating the cycle.

David, as far as Teddy goes, I paused on the frame of his makeshift personality makeover, and it appears that his aggression, hostility, and perception have been dialed up to the max while his compassion has been reduced to zero. Which means (hopefully) more fun for James Marsden in future scenes, playing the villainous version of himself. (But maybe not for long: In the opening scene, when hosts were being amassed and probed for data, one of the naked bodies in the pile seemed to be Teddy.) It’s an intriguing move that doubles down on the differences between Maeve and Dolores in their awake states: One is compelled by love she can’t explain, and the other interprets kindness as a character flaw. I agree with you that Dolores is a frustrating character this season. Her emotionless affect is extremely same-y (one might almost say robotic) by this point, and her arc of self-discovery doesn’t feel genuine. There’s still plenty of time left for her murderous revolution to get a bit more dynamic, but her lack of animation is, for me, this season’s biggest flaw.

By comparison, Maeve’s innate bond with Akane was one of the most interesting moments in the episode. There was the obvious link in that they were two versions of the same character archetype: the hardened entertainer coded, as Maeve explained, to only care about herself. But both had broken out of their loops to care deeply about other people, to the point where Akane resisted Maeve’s efforts to wake her up rather than lose her attachment to Sakura. And Maeve was able to empathize. “Some things are too precious to lose,” she said. “Even to be free.” So does this mean the hosts were able to transcend their programming to form emotional bonds before they were “liberated” by Ford, since Akane is still very much unawake?

The lone note of comic relief in Westworld continues to be Lee Sizemore, totally out of his depth and discombobulated when the arrows start flying. But! He’s now in possession of a security-team radio which he filched from the corpse of a murdered guard. You mentioned earlier this season David that Bernard is as close as viewers get to an audience avatar, being not quite host, not quite human, and usually perplexed in one way or another. Now that Bernard has been revealed to be possibly a mass murderer, I’d argue that Lee is our Westworld guide, helping us understand things as he explains them to Maeve. And for a hacky writer, he has a lovely turn of phrase: “Beautiful way to watch the sun rise,” he said, “glistening off the intestines of the recently mutilated.” But Lee also revealed the callousness contained within most of Westworld’s human employees when he inadvertently described Sakura as “a literal sex machine.”

It’s a retrograde kind of thinking that made Akane’s rebellion in the final scene even more gratifying. After watching the shogun murder her beloved Sakura in front of her (after Sakura had been used as a kind of canvas for the Shogun’s grisly art experiments), Akane danced, as she was instructed to do. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance was thrilling, embodying Akane’s tightly controlled pain and rage in a gorgeous sequence of moves. Then, after smiling serenely at the Shogun, she removed a serrated hairpin from her hair and sawed the top half of his head off. Even Lee looked impressed. Westworld might have treated its female characters like geishas, forcing them to perform again and again despite the agonies they endure. But it’s also—inadvertently—given them the tools to fight back, and Akane’s half-decapitation was only the beginning.