For four episodes now, I’ve gone on about both the strengths and faults of Westworld’s left-brain storytelling methodology, and at the start of this episode, we get the entire modus operandi spelled out for us: “Well, it’s quite a story you gave them. And one hell of an ending. How do all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare? If we figure that out? We’ll know how the story turns.”
I want to point out two particular phrases — “figure out” and “know” — because they show exactly how Westworld sometimes approaches storytelling like it’s an answer to a math question. A logical thing to merely present and encourage the audience to answer. Although it certainly drives our curiosity, I keep stamping my foot about how it rarely drives our dramatic engagement. We need to experience a story the way a character does. Surrendering to the suspense and fear of a given moment requires clarity, which requires knowing the stakes, knowing what a character wants, knowing what’s real, and knowing what you can lose because of it. When you pull it off, it can make our hair stand on end. So far, Westworld has operated with a kind of push-pull between the two instincts, so I can’t help but wonder: What if an episode were to embrace a clear dramatic tack and tell a contained, straightforward story?
The answer is “Akane No Mai,” the best episode yet of the entire series.
After the cliff-hanger in episode three, we are suddenly thrown right into the deep end of Shogun World, the violent park that was designed for those who found Westworld “too tame.” Maeve, Hector, & Co. have been captured by a violent ronin and I’ll admit, I literally clapped the second I saw Hiroyuki Sanada pop onscreen. He’s one of the best actors in the world, capable of bringing the most effortless intensity and menace with a single unbothered glare. No wonder Hector feels jealous. But of course, the comparison between the two raises the larger clash of something that feels all too familiar: Musashi and Hector are literally mirror counterparts.
Hector’s old saloon heist is literally copied here in a new thrilling robbery of the geisha house — even scored to a new variant cover of “Paint It Black,” this time with traditional Japanese instruments. When Maeve and Hector realize the note-for-note similarities, they stare at our writer Lee in disbelief, who hilariously cops, “We may have cribbed a little bit from Westworld. You try writing 300 stories in three weeks!” It’s just another bit of perfect meta-commentary not just about laziness and deadlines, but the broad nature of archetypes and tropes. Still, what I love most about this episode is how it explores all the specific things that make people human underneath those bland archetypes that others see. Lee keeps insisting everyone is hard-wired to make certain ordained choices, but the hosts’ memory, history, and love keep breaking those choices all down. And creating something new.
In essence, the episode becomes all about the power of empathy-building. The characters may be “archetypal mirrors” of one another, with Hector and Musashi, Maeve and Akane (Rinko Kikuchi!), and Armistice and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (who we hilariously cut away to playing a literal game of mirror), but it’s these similarities that bring them together. That’s what empathy is born from, having the same experience and being able to understand in a way that goes beyond mere sympathy. Nowhere is the empathy stronger than between Maeve and Akane, who takes on a maternal relationship to the young dancer Sakura. Rather than give her surrogate daughter up to the Shogunate, she refuses, stabbing his messenger in the eye (what an edit!) and inviting hellfire down upon them all. This all gets told elegantly in, like, 27 minutes of screen time, by the way. As an audience member, coming into this new situation — a situation that joyously allows us to understand all these new relationships, as well as their immediate danger — I have to say: I have never adored these characters more.
Not so coincidentally, back in Westworld, we finally get the most straightforward dramatic story between Dolores and Teddy, one that finally sheds a little light on the growing unspoken rift between them. They return to their lovely little home of Sweetwater, but Dolores tells him they were “alive before this place ever existed.” But these are the only deeper memories that Teddy ever had. With loving hope, Teddy talks to Dolores on the prairie: Why can’t they just stop right now? Make a little home for themselves? Have what they always wanted? For once, I believe Dolores when she seems to want that too. Later, the two share a tender night, the culmination of all they ever wanted between their old selves. It’s genuinely emotional stuff, wholly built off the desires they’ve kept at bay for so long. It reaches down into the heart of Dolores’s core … which just makes the moment that follows all the more gutting. This wasn’t their culmination, but a sweet good-bye to their old selves. Dolores tells him, “Where we’re about to go, there’s no place for a man like you.” And then, she reprograms Teddy’s personality for good. Oof.
Back in Shogun World, Maeve basically discovers she has Jedi mind powers. (Yup!) I’m sure they’ll be some vague science-y explanation later, but the scene as it exists now is pretty freaking awesome. Maeve inspires terror and the enemy fears she is a witch, but their rescue mission goes south and they’re put before the broken Shogunate, a mad king who is leaking cortical fluid. He’s even made all his soldiers burn their ears off, for fear of hearing the witch’s voice. (That’s some 13 Assassins shit right there.) But, of course, it all goes tragically wrong. The Shogunate kills Sakura out of sadistic glee, and then makes Akane dance for him. It crescendos into an epically violent stand-off, and with such genuine grief and love for these characters, we experience the fireworks in earnest.
What’s even more telling about this episode is how it offers new cerebral questions that power the story’s curiosity: Why were 30 percent of the hosts wiped? Who did it? Why? What kind of person will New Teddy become? What happened to Hector and Armistice? I love how all these questions came up organically within the drama of a single, evolving, character-based plot for once. Nestled between other stories and episodes, we got introduced to a new, beautiful aside that shows off the true power of contained storytelling. Other Westworld episodes may have put my jaw on the floor, but this is the first to make me shout and get teary-eyed in equal measure, effectively proving that we can have it all.
This is everything Westworld can be.
• The structure of making every episode a “two-hander” of sorts between two groups of people is incredibly smart. Instead of soap-opera ensemble dynamics, it forces the show to do more episodic storytelling.
• Seeing Shogun World made me think about the logistics of building the island and what went into making all that variant topography.
• Holy heck, what a violent episode! It does, however, support my theory that super-bloody sword violence always feels less tortuous and gritty than gun violence. Is it because of the clean slices and elegant action? Our horrible association with gun violence? Or maybe both?
• Poor Clementine, staring at her replacement in the saloon, while she’s stuck in her programming loop even though everyone’s gone. All just heartbreaking.
• Despite everything, Lee still doesn’t seeing the host as people worth any empathy. He just fears them.
• “I’m from Hong Kong, asshole.” I love how the show finds ways to highlight modern casual racism while also doing a really delicate dance with the overall narrative. Of course, Shogun World isn’t really “Japan.” It’s just how someone like Lee envisions the tropes and history of a culture in order to make them attractive to white tourists. This is exactly why the Shogunate uses ninjas and all the characters speak in poeticisms. The real story lies in the breakdown of all these bad tropes and images, in a meta-narrative that shows off the best of what Westworld has to offer.