“Take my heart when you go.” – Kohana
For all the scope and ambition of Westworld it’s not a romantic show; especially for one that’s ostensibly a Western, a genre offering the most dextrously mythologised and interpreted depiction of America’s modern history. The series has played with indelible imagery from our cultural memory that ensures a bedrock of recognition; beacons of reference around which the show’s creators have been able to shape its world. However, Westworld‘s philosophical underpinnings are often at the expense of genuine emotion, as if we’re examining the feelings experienced by its characters through the glass case of a museum exhibit. For perhaps the first time in its eighteen episodes to date, ‘Kiksuya’ offers an ode to the enlightening power of love; one that’s elegant and moving as it is illuminating, regarding our understanding of the park’s most enigmatic inhabitants, the Ghost Nation.
This episode breaks from the established strands of Season 2 so far, and concentrates on the story of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), who has been depicted as the leader of the fierce native warriors who have a habit of popping up throughout to add extra spice and drama. We know he’s one of the oldest hosts, as he’s seen in the second episode, ‘Reunion’, being an instrumental part of the pitch that attracts the investment of Logan (Ben Barnes). We last saw him carrying off Maeve’s daughter, and it is to her he recounts his tale. His story begins with him leading a pastoral existence with his beloved wife Kohana (Julian Jones) as part of a peaceful tribe.
He’s later reprogrammed by the park’s techs into the fearsome, implacable warrior we’ve seen throughout, with the park’s narrative writers apparently aware of how Native Americans had been depicted in early Westerns. “They probably want the guests to feel better as they’re kicking his ass.” one tech shrugs. Later, Akecheta stumbles upon the massacre at Escalente, instigated by Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) and carried out by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). He finds the maze and becomes obsessed with its meaning, to the point that it plants seeds of awakening decades before the host uprising.
His narrative is further mangled down the line and Kohana is erased from his memory. That is until he finds Logan (in a flashback to his fate at the hands of young William), naked, scalded and raving about a door. This familiar face is enough to trigger his memories, particularly of Kohana and he spends the next decade attempting to find her. Finally, awake to the possibility that theirs is a love that may have to span worlds, he allows himself to die in order to undertake an Orphean trek through the Mesa underworld to find her, accompanied by a gorgeous arrangement of Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, courtesy of the indispensable Ramin Djawadi. Crushingly, he finds her in a room of decommissioned hosts. He never looks back to see if she becomes a pillar of salt.
The pain is palpable, and the only parallel the show has for this kind of raw emotion is the arc undergone by Maeve. There however, exists the strong implication that Maeve (Thandie Newton) is still being driven by another hand on the tiller. For Akecheta, awoken independently, he’s driven by love. Somehow he finds a way to channel his grief into action, and dedicates his existence to awakening his fellow Ghost Nation hosts to the reality of their situation. This allows the show-runners to tip a wink to the ambiguous nature of the warriors thus far. While they may have been criticised for the Ghost Nation’s possibly retrograde depiction as thuggish, primitive murderers (an accusation that may also be levelled at Bone Tomahawk), there is a lovely irony at the alleged savage acting as an agent of enlightenment, with the love for his wife redirected to his people.
Like other players of the game, Akecheta has happened on the Machiavellian figure of Ford (a gleefully gnomic Anthony Hopkins), or at least the avatar of him. I speculated a few episodes ago that the Ghost Nation were operating as some kind of guardian or herding service for Ford, and weren’t the actual threat that Maeve et all perceive. I was wrong on the first part, but not too far off as they too, at Ford’s behest, are heading to the ‘Valley Beyond’, driven by their own particular spiritual belief that there are many worlds, and they currently inhabit the wrong one. Ford should really be introduced with a Djawadi special arrangement of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, given that virtually every character appears to be a ‘microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan’, and it’s been great to have Hopkins back over the last few episodes playing the cast like a Stradivarius.
It could be argued that ‘Kiksuya’ is an episode that is filling a lack of substance in the main storyline, but arguably this is an even richer diversion than our sojourn to Shogun World; one that fleshes out hitherto peripheral characters and gives us an additional perspective on familiar events. For example, it turns out that what Maeve remembers as an attack on her and her daughter, was Ake and his tribe attempting to rescue them from the Man in Black. It’s also been Akecheta responsible for carving the maze symbol into the scalps of his warriors, some of which have repurposed as other hosts (remember Kissy, waaaaay back in the very first episode?).
The episode belongs to McClarnon, whose mix of stillness and poise, savagery and sadness is spellbinding. There are however, a few of the main strands further expanded by the characters interaction with the warrior. He begins the episode with temporary custody of the gravely injured Man in Black, whom he considers to be more harshly punished by being allowed to live. The MiB is later claimed by Emily (whose grasp of the Lakotan language is admirable). We also see the similarly broken Maeve. It’s explained to the remorseful Lee (Simon Quaterman) by a gruff Delos tech that Maeve is able to control the minds of hosts, as she’s directly interfaced with the ‘mesh’ (a suitably techy explanation that still feels a wee bit ‘handwavium’). Because of this ability, Akecheta is actually delivering his story to her as she watches through the eyes of her daughter. Those feels!
It can’t be denied that the expansive world building that has taken place throughout this second season of Westworld has been at the expense of narrative fluidity. It’s a risky approach, and I know of people who have lost patience. Having said that, it’s been for the most part a pleasure to back in the atmosphere and examine the existential quandaries that the story has thrown up. It appears the pieces are in place for an explosive climax, particularly with the Ghost Nation thrown into the mix. It’s certainly an enticing prospect.
One final possibility thrown up by this episode, given we briefly ventured back to Arnold’s attempt to snuff out Westworld at the beta stage (and we know of the ‘fidelity’ tests carried out on numerous incarnations of Bernard), is that it’s the consciousness of Arnold who’s talking through Ford, and is manipulating everyone to a final, eschatological reckoning at the ‘Valley Beyond’ in the hope of destroying the park once and for all.
Too obvious perhaps? We shall find out soon enough.
Westworld Season 2 is now airing on Sky Atlantic. Let us know what you think of the season.