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Westworld pauses its other action for a mostly thrilling trip to Shogun World

“Akane No Mai” foregrounds Thandie Newton’s Maeve in a clever, highly enjoyable episode. Which still has some problems.

Westworld
Rinko Kikuchi joins the cast as Akane.
HBO

Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and internet culture reporter Aja Romano get together to discuss the latest episode of HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld. This week, they’re discussing the second season’s fifth episode, “Akane No Mai.” Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!

Todd VanDerWerff: For the most part, I really love “Akane No Mai,” which is probably my favorite Westworld episode of the season and definitely is if we’re only counting the first two-thirds. (I feel like the air sorta leaks out of it after that, for reasons we’ll talk about shortly.)

There are so many clever ideas to enjoy here. When Maeve and company travel to Shogun World, they discover many of the stories are just very barely disguised copies of Westworld tales! Rinko Kikuchi (one of my favorite actors) is Maeve’s Shogun World counterpart! It’s more difficult for Maeve to take control of Hosts in Shogun World, even when she speaks the local language, for reasons that only slowly become clear! (I think this is a metaphor for how certain power structures will sometimes take advantage of revolutionary moments to further entrench themselves, but it’s vague enough to mean just about anything, in true Westworld fashion.)

And yet I can’t escape these little ideas that keep tickling the back of my brain. It’s clear that the folks involved in Westworld know that they’re playing around with stereotypes and storytelling devices that tend to paint with too broad a brush. They’re doing this because, in the world of Westworld, the rich and comfortable clientele of the parks wants such a stereotypical experience, to feel like they’re living a bad parody of a samurai movie.

But at a certain point — and here’s where some of my problems with the episode’s last third came in — doesn’t it feel like acknowledging those stereotypes doesn’t go far enough? Doesn’t that, in some ways, make “Akane No Mai” a lackluster samurai film itself? Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t enough to kill my love for the episode, but the more it seemed like writer Dan Dietz and director Craig Zobel were aware of the tropes they were playing around with, the better the episode was.

That’s why it was disappointing that the last third of the episode just ended up being a straightforward trope fest, at least until Maeve used her “new voice” to save herself and Akane (Kikuchi’s character) from death. And, look, I’m always happy to have more Maeve, and I’m glad Kikuchi’s going to be sticking around. But this whole “new voice” business felt a little cheap to me. Part of the fun of this episode was the various Shogun World Hosts finding ways to subvert Maeve’s power, then Maeve having to adapt to overcome their maneuvering. Just giving her a new power that lets her control things mentally is a little bit of a cheat.

I have other problems with the episode, especially with the Dolores subplot, which isn’t bad but definitely feels grafted on to an episode that’s about other things. But you’re new to the Westworld beat, Aja, and I’d love to hear how you’re feeling about the show in general and this episode in particular.

The title “Akane No Mai” has a clever double meaning in Japanese

Westworld
Is the Dolores stuff in this episode thoughtful or torturous?
HBO

Aja Romano: I am so new, and what an episode to drop into! Like everyone else, I stuck with an oft-frustrating first season despite ongoing structural upheavals and sideswipes that felt more like gimmicks than coherent plot development. I’ve been happy that so far, Westworld’s second season has felt much more stable, narratively speaking, with its twists feeling far more well-earned and contemplative than they did in the first round. It helps that we’ve moved away from the initial structure of Westworld as a video game capable of being “won” by power players, which means we’ve gotten to play around more with social engineering and its effect on the individual agency of everyone in the park.

I find this aspect of the show far more compelling than its meandering ideas about sentience and consciousness; the moment the show really came, er, alive for me was the moment in season one when Maeve took over her own personality settings. So I’m all for watching the characters find ways to level up and defeat their own programming, even as the narrative is constantly resetting them and/or us, whether it’s through pesky time loops or by reminding the hosts, as tonight’s episode did, that their stories are all being written for them by external creators.

“Akane no Mai” is one of the first times I’ve felt like the show had both its ironies and its parallelism well in hand. In the episode’s final moments, the Dolores subplot went from feeling incredibly anvil-icious and tedious to neatly setting up the scene that followed, where Maeve finally “finds her voice.” The similarities between Dolores and Maeve each effectively hacking/assaulting other hosts by changing their code without their consent made me second-guess my assumptions about who I was rooting for and why.

Todd has commented previously about the way Westworld understands that violence is always both cathartic and tragic, depending on your viewpoint. By juxtaposing Dolores and Maeve as they each hijacked other hosts for vastly different ends, the show seemed to argue that personal freedom inherently comes at the cost of someone else’s subjugation. And given how utterly committed the show has been to its colonialism, its stereotypes, and its cheaply exotic tropes — the vengeful geisha, really? The titular dance was the most anticlimactic moment of the ep — I needed that reminder to convince me that the show is actually self-conscious about what it’s doing here.

It helps that the episode title, “Akane no Mai,” seems to be operating on multiple levels. Akane is both the color red and Akane’s name; depending on the kanji used, “mai” can mean “dance” (舞), making the title “Akane’s Dance,” or “Red Dance.” Alternately, “mai” could mean “lost child” (迷子), or it can mean “my own” (マイ), making the title something like “Akane’s own.” In this context, “my own” might be referring to Sakura, in the role of her daughter; but I prefer to believe, given this episode’s themes of predetermination versus personal power, that it’s referring to her own sense of agency: Akane’s choice, perhaps. Of course, all this ambiguity is part of the Westworld obstacle course.

One thing I did like about this episode’s culture clash was the revelation that all the hosts have the ability, somewhere inside them, to learn the other languages of the hosts from different parts of the park. Is it just me, or was that a tiny easter egg that makes Todd’s theory about host-hybrid Emily/Grace more believable? Seems to me that’s a hell of a lot more plausible than her claim that she magically learned the language of the park’s Native Americans because she was the only white person who bothered to pay attention. What say you, Todd, predictor of twists?

Is Westworld more fun to theorize about than to watch? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

Westworld
Welcome to Shogun World.
HBO

Todd: That is an excellent catch. I had a feeling the “Emily can suddenly speak the same language as the Ghost Nation” bit was a setup for something, and I’ll add it to my small but growing stack of evidence for this twist, alongside, “Notice how she fired on that one guy, but he never actually fired on her and proved she was human?” I also love your thoughts on the episode’s title, which is at least a pretty excellent double entendre in Japanese.

Where we part ways, I’m afraid, is in this episode’s use of Dolores. She was my favorite character in season one, a maze disguised as a human being disguised as a Host, but season two has, as you said, made everything she’s doing thudding and obvious. I like the juxtaposition of her subversion of Teddy with Maeve’s more general subversion of all Hosts in her immediate vicinity, but to really give a shit, I’d have to care about Dolores and Teddy’s relationship beyond feeling like it’s a vaguely dutiful attempt to give James Marsden something to do.

That’s so much of whatever the show is trying to do with Dolores this season — she’s clearly marking time until the show can advance some of its big mysteries, and that’s led to the sort of speechifying that Caroline complained about a couple of weeks ago. The same proceeded this week, with her discussion of sick cattle and her attempts to tell Teddy that he was never coming back to his humble little burg, before sleeping with him and filling his head with new programming.

All of this is more or less functional, but that’s all it is. There’s little of the deep feeling we got from Dolores’s struggles toward consciousness in season one, or even, like, Teddy’s blank-slate morality. I will sometimes get in trouble with bigger fans of the show than I when I say in these pieces that I just don’t care about one storyline or another, and I’ll get emails and tweets filled with elaborate theorizing. And that’s fine, if that’s the way you prefer to watch the show! But I sometimes feel like that’s the only way to watch Westworld, that it’s more fun if you’re trying to outguess it than if you’re letting it tell you a story. And that gives me pause, at least a little bit.

But if you don’t invest in the show on that level, it too often consists of characters who are just sort of doing things to do them, whose motivations will later be made clear. That can be fun, to be sure, but I much prefer the Maeve side of this episode, because of how crystal clear all of the storytelling is. It allows me to sit back and just have a good time, where I might otherwise be trying to figure out how everything fits together.

But theorizing is fun, too! What do you think this season is building toward? It’s half over, and I feel like I have only the vaguest sense of where anything is heading.

Aja: So, a thought I’ve been musing over, as I slog through all Dolores’s monologues, is that all the speechifying is actually her computer’s way of doing some heavy-duty background processing. Maybe it’s a way of rapidly cycling through advanced AI states of consciousness, which is why with each episode she seems to have descended to new depths of depraved rationalism. The speeches are taking her further away from empathy, not closer.

We know that when Bernard and Delos get closest to confronting the innate humanity within their identities, they start to malfunction and grow incoherent; meanwhile, the more eloquent Dolores becomes, the more she proceeds toward totally dehumanizing everyone around her and ultimately herself. Perhaps this aspect of her programming will ultimately tie into the season’s themes about language, and about having mastery over the park’s codes and code?

This little theory is of course born out of frustration with all the pointless time-biding around her plot, and reflects the larger questions I have about where this story is going and where it’s taken us. The main observation I have is that so far, despite utter chaos and anarchy, no one seems to be able to leave the park at this point, which brings me back to the possibility of social engineering. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that all of the characters’ missions, humans and hosts, are still being further directed by powers unknown.

But while I like the drama this possibility yields, I worry we’re already stuck in a bit of a cyclical malaise. Like you said, that’s fine if you’re True Detective-ing the hell out of every detail on Reddit; but surely being treated to a kind of ongoing theme and variations is less fun for a casual viewer (even if they do come with infinite stylistic covers of “Paint It Black”).

That said, there are some things I’m finding myself more invested in, despite how repetitive it all feels. Thandie Newton makes every new power-up seem galvanizing, and I’m definitely content watching Elsie (Elsie!!) and Bernard stagger around the park bickering and uncovering new plot twists about humanoids. How many more Epcot villages are there in this place? What the hell is up with Abernathy? Will Teddy’s hat finally turn black? Bring it on, Westworld, I’m ready.