Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.
David Sims: As Westworld rushes to its epic Season 2 conclusion, viewers were due at least one more special episode, something akin to “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” that fleshes out the wider universe of Delos and the history of the park Robert Ford and Arnold created. What better subject matter than Westworld’s most mysterious inhabitants, the adversarial, fictionalized Native American tribe of Ghost Nation, and particularly their leader, Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon)? For so much of the show’s running time, Ghost Nation have played the limited role demanded of them by the hackneyed internal narrative of the park’s stories. Finally, with “Kiksuya,” we get a glimpse into their real story.
It’s something the show has teased all season. When Ghost Nation were introduced in the first season, they were faceless villains, made up in white and black paint (marked with bloody handprints), targets for hosts and guests alike to fight off. They were the backbone of Lee Sizemore’s gross, rejected new narrative centered on cannibalism, a garish attempt to jack up the stakes in a park already centered around murder and assault. In Season 2, there have been hints that they’re not the villains they appear to be. Akecheta’s recent intervention with Maeve, and his tribe’s encounter with Ashley, suggested that higher consciousness had bloomed for Ghost Nation as it had for Dolores and her merry band.
Kiksuya means “remember” in Lakota, which is the language Ghost Nation speak on screen. It’s one that William (as Akecheta rescues him from near-death) admits he never bothered to learn in all his years at the park, even though his daughter has become conversant. This shortcoming reflects perfectly on William’s still-limited understanding of Westworld, the maze, and the hidden valley he’s now seeking. He remains under the mistaken impression that it’s all about him, that every person he encounters is speaking with Ford’s voice, and that the inner lives of hosts are practically nonexistent.
That self-centeredness, after all, is what led William on his quest to solve the secret of “the maze” in the first season (a quest that led him to attack Maeve’s homestead, among other things). But the maze was never meant for him—it was a buried message for the hosts themselves, left by their creator Arnold, whose initial death (at the hands of Dolores) we see depicted in this episode. And the maze was a message that worked on Akecheta, one of the earliest hosts ever built, whose tribe initially occupied Westworld as peaceful farmers, before paying customers were allowed into the park.
Slowly, we see Aketcha’s self-awareness develop over the decades, even as he’s repurposed into a bloodthirsty warrior and separated from the woman he loved. It’s a typical narrative for the hosts of Westworld, who had their memories papered over by the park’s hacky writing of “violent delights” and “violent ends.” But what’s atypical is Akecheta’s ability to survive—for many years, he just doesn’t die, knowing that could lead to the wiping of his memory. It’s the closest thing a host has come to living an actual human life, and it’s a fascinating notion to consider—I loved watching the old techs realize what an intense creation Akecheta was, when he finally did allow himself to visit the park’s lower decks.
Beyond that, the metaphor of Akecheta’s life and Ghost Nation’s purpose within Westworld clicked much better for me than the adventures of Shogun World. Here was the colonizers’ view of Native American society boiled down to its three simplest clichés—at first, they’re docile and friendly, then frightening, one-dimensional enemies, then mysteriously spiritual, blessed with the kinds of higher truths Westerners could only hope to understand. Akecheta has been largely ignored by the park’s busy inhabitants up until now, but it seems that’s finally about to change. Spencer, I know you were less enthralled with the episode than I was—what’s your read on the history of Ghost Nation?
Spencer Kornhaber: As it so often does, Westworld has spun a sumptuously told story at which we can nod our heads and say, “Yes, I see.” The show has long toyed with idea that religion always boils down to, as Akecheta puts it, the suspicion that “there isn’t one world but many, and we live in the wrong one.” This episode committedly riffed on that idea as the Ghost Nation fashioned stories about the underworld, its denizens, and the promised land beyond their own. Mythmaking is a super-relevant theme in our own era, when the wildness of the headlines has led people to suspect we’re living in a simulation. But then again, it would have been relevant at any point in human history—to be alive is to wonder if being alive is all there is.
I’ll confess to wondering if this is all there was when watching this hour of TV. McClarnon is a formidable actor, and it’s like witnessing an amazing sleight of hand to see his previously sidelined character suddenly command attention—and trigger real feelings—with every mournful flick of his eyes (how good was he in that scene when Ford puts him into analysis mode, clearly against his will?). Yet Akecheta’s journey to consciousness is really just a modified version of the one that Dolores and Maeve have lived out over the course of the series so far. His slow realization of the loves he’s lost may be wrenching, but it just retells one of the few coherent messages the show ever bothers to preach: To be sentient but not free is hell.
There were some neat wrinkles like, as David pointed out, the reveal that Akecheta went 10 years in the park without dying (new puzzle: Why did the techs’ manager insist this old model be sent back into the park, rather than swapped out?). And I’m intrigued by the maze symbol being a subliminal trigger that goes viral—it’s like if everyone who listened to the Laurel/Yanny clip was actually being incepted with the knowledge of a new language. But much of the hour fell into that old Westworld mode of answering mysteries that were never that compelling to begin with. Whither Logan after William sent him into the desert? What was with the maze carved into the scalp shown in the first episode of this season? I’d forgotten to wonder about both, but the answers are here nonetheless.
The episode-ending reveal moved things along more excitingly. Maeve, though bloodied, is quite conscious and issuing commands to other hosts from afar. What does it mean? For one, she likely heard Lee Sizemore’s bedside apology, which further sets the table for him and her to go beyond being mere begrudging allies in their relationship. And the fact that she was communicating with Akecheta through her daughter did, among other things, answer the question of why he was subjecting a little girl to his entire life story. More importantly, the newly forged alliance between Maeve and Ghost Nation may prove to be an important counter-faction against the bloodthirsty legion led by Dolores, whom we now have a great new nickname for: Deathbringer.
I’m most curious about what’s about to befall the other deathbringer of the show, the Man in Black. The conversation between him and his daughter two episodes ago made for one of the most moving scenes of the whole series, due to them being, you know, actual human beings with stakes in the real world. She’s taken him back from Ghost Nation with the promise to inflict pain, but I’ll bet that for once in this show, it’s not the kind that involves stabbing or shooting. Sophie, predictions for what Emily has in store? Also, we haven’t much discussed the scene with Ford, which looked like it took place in a diorama at a natural-history museum. When Ghost Nation makes it to the other world, will that once-frozen bear come with?
Sophie Gilbert: Spencer, you mentioned mythmaking, and Akecheta’s journey into “the other side of death” (i.e. the subterranean control centers of Westworld HQ) to find his beloved felt modeled after the story of Orpheus, heading into the underworld to find Eurydice. When Akecheta left his four-hour programming update (too real, Westworld, too real) and ventured into a cold, dreary wasteland—finding Kohana standing motionless amid a vast group of naked bodies—the room was like a high-tech kind of Hades, dark and empty. The moment was chillingly powerful, as was the following scene, when Akecheta returned the braid of a warrior to his sobbing mother.
David, you wrote last week about how the true host awakening of Season 2 has been Maeve’s humanity. Her personal journey was echoed by Akecheta’s in this episode, and his powerful affection for Kohana. In the beginning, he explained to Maeve’s daughter, he had a very different life, with a peaceful home and a love he would have died to protect. But, it turned out, that was just phase one of Delos’s narrative. What was described mockingly by Delos technicians as Akecheta’s “dull, exquisitely pastoral existence” was disrupted by a more violent storyline in which he was dehumanized so that the humans who tortured and killed him could feel better about it. This might not feel particularly shocking given what we know about the callousness of Delos and its employees, but it fits into both the sweep of American history and the more recent treatment of immigrants by ICE and the commander in chief. The easiest way to enable brutality against other humans (or hosts, in this case) is to make them seem less human.
I agree with you both that McClarnon was extraordinary in this episode, conveying an entire emotional arc and evolution that in Maeve’s case has played out over two seasons. But I’m also with Spencer here: The episode felt like an echo rather than something that really deepened our understanding of the events at hand. And so much of it was entirely predictable: Akecheta waking a woman in bed only to find she was a different person from Kohana, Kohana’s unresponsive presence, Emily’s return to claim her father. The biggest surprise of the hour was Maeve, communicating with Akecheta in her wounded and subdued state, commanding him to protect her daughter. But wasn’t he doing that anyway?
As for the scene with Ford, Spencer, it left me cold. More florid metaphors about darkness and light, more irritatingly calm explication, more affirmation that Ford is both creator and prophet of this cruel and ugly world. To quote Blofeld in Spectre, he’s the author of all this pain, which he justifies by arguing that the hosts need to suffer to achieve self-awareness. Is it worth it? Only the hosts can say. Is it ethical? Absolutely not. At this point, for me, Ford and the Man in Black are different sides of the same megalomaniacal coin, deluded and increasingly tiresome to watch. Charlotte Hale, too, feels almost implausibly awful. Westworld has always been more about plot than character development, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, as Season 2 seems to think. And as interesting as the hosts are, their awakenings (as this episode showed) follow the same pattern, meaning the show continues to keep viewers at an emotional distance.
One thing that is clearer now is what’s in the valley beyond: a door. Or “a passage to another world,” as Akecheta described it. Is it the way to the real world? And if so, couldn’t the hosts just get there via the visitor’s center? Or is it a portal to the three other worlds we haven’t yet seen? God, I hope one of them has dinosaurs. That would truly make Westworld a contender for the most ambitious crossover event in history.