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“Kiksuya” is Westworld season 2’s best episode so far

A lyrical, emotional journey through the history of one character knits together some of the show’s most persistent mysteries.

Zahn McClarnon is revelatory as Akecheta in this episode.

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 eighth episode, “Kiksuya.” Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!

Todd VanDerWerff: “Kiksuya” could have — and probably should have — gone so, so wrong.

For as much as I admire Westworld’s attempts to depict a kind of uber-struggle for respect, autonomy, and self-definition that represents every oppressed person in the history of humanity, by using the hosts to stand in for all of them (and often explicitly coding them as such), there have been plenty of times when the show has tossed these balls in the air and then had no idea what to do with them, just barely catching them on the way down instead of starting to nimbly juggle.

When you mix that with the idea of an episode about the Native American “Ghost Nation” hosts, performed almost entirely in Lakota, there are so many places where the whole enterprise could absolutely shatter into tiny pieces. That’s before I even start in on some of the episode’s creative decisions, like the fact that it’s basically an episode-long flashback ostensibly delivered as an expository monologue to a young child (who is actually an ancient host, but you know what I mean).

Yet when you consider that Westworld’s primary storytelling mode is, “Here is what’s happening and why,” it’s not surprising that an episode that is mostly exposition works as well as this one does. I wouldn’t call “Kiksuya” perfect, but it does fill in some gaps in the Westworld timeline, occasionally too conveniently — see also that encounter with Logan out in the wilds of Westworld. It also offers a couple of terrific scenes, including a nighttime meeting between Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and Ford (Anthony Hopkins) that takes place amid a gruesome tableau of Ghost Nation hosts frozen in place and has more of the horror and eeriness of the “creation meeting the creator” feeling the show strives for than almost any other scene of its ilk. I even liked the sense that Ghost Nation had adapted the circumstances of what happen to hosts after they die into its mythology.

All told, it’s a little languid and could have lost 10 minutes without too much trouble. (There are a lot of gigantic landscape shots, which eventually grew repetitive.) But “Kiksuya” has the visceral emotion that the series often lacks, and McClarnon is a terrific leading man. This is probably my favorite episode of the season so far, which I would not have expected going in. What did you think?

How Zahn McClarnon holds together an episode that could have fallen apart

Lots and lots of wide shots...

Aja Romano: I definitely agree. McClarnon is a superb actor, and this episode could have fallen flat in multiple moments, but I felt like it was all held together by his dawning realizations and the tremor of understanding in his eyes.

The moment in the scene where he meets Ford, when Ford orders him to analyze and he realizes that he can’t fight his own programming, is as close to pure horror as Westworld has ever gotten for me, and the writers (Carly Wray and Dan Dietz) get there mainly by reliance on character and emotion. That’s a strong choice and shows just how much they had to work with in McClarnon, because the narrative of this episode otherwise gives us more of Westworld’s tendency to drag out explanations and plot reveals. But ultimately, even when I noticed the lagging pace and the redundancy of the exposition, I just didn’t care because I was enjoying the characterization and the emotional impact of the story so much.

I think where this story loses a little bit of momentum is in how it ultimately connects with its two contemporary tentpoles — Emily’s love/hate relationship with her father, and whatever the hell is going on with Maeve. Akecheta’s encounter with Emily felt anticlimactic and cryptic, and it didn’t tell me anything new about either character. (She’s definitely a hybrid, though!)

I feel like the reveal that he was attempting all along to protect Maeve’s daughter, not steal her, is too easy, sidestepping some of the the complicated implications of how season one habitually framed his actions as threatening. And it implies that Maeve may have somehow had racial biases programmed into her reactions to him, which is a huge thing to hint at but gloss over.

Of course, his framing of the narrative could well be false, especially given what we see of Maeve at the end of the episode. I’m not entirely sure what to make of their exchange, mainly because I’m not sure what he got from it. She gained a new ally, and he gained the chance to explain himself. But it didn’t seem to move the plot forward at all. What did I miss?

Despite everything, “Kiksuya” is a little too schematic in places

Take my heart with you when you go.

Todd: I guess the implication here is that Maeve and Akecheta now form an axis of power devoted to escaping the park before “the deathbringer” (Dolores) destroys everybody. As story development goes, this isn’t bad, but it relies too heavily on us thinking Maeve might really perish, a victim of Delos’s disinterest in preserving anything but her rogue code, and I just don’t think for a second that Westworld is going to unceremoniously kill off its second lead.

One of the things that frustrates me about “Kiksuya” is the way much of it seems to exist solely to prove to skeptics that much of the story was planned out from the beginning. That made for some gorgeous images — Maeve confronting the maze in the dust chief among them — but the way that Westworld can feel a little schematic, like assembling a piece of furniture where it’s not quite clear how everything fits together until the end, is heavily tied to this sort of planning. I haven’t quite been able to escape the idea that the show thinks its core audience is everybody who reads the Westworld subreddit. And, honestly, maybe it is.

Still, I have to agree that the episode came as close to being a horror tale as Westworld ever has, rivaling even some of the darker moments for Dolores in season one. Akecheta’s journey to the underworld in search of his disappeared love was weird and gorgeous and mythic, one of the few times this season that the mashup of very old stories and very new technology has hit its true potential to reveal the messy underside of both aspects of the show. When he came across her frozen, empty body, standing amid so many other decommissioned hosts, boy, McClarnon makes every single second of that revelation play. It’s horror and myth and tragedy all at once, hitting the sorts of heights I wish the show was able to attain more often.

There’s been a lot of speculation that Ghost Nation would tie a lot of this season’s mysteries together once its backstory was revealed, and I guess “Kiksuya” sort of does this. Now that we know the maze is something Akecheta and those he “woke up” are deliberately spreading and that he’s come to think of his “tribe” as encompassing all awakened hosts around the park, certain aspects of the series make more sense. And I love that he’s the one who first came up with the idea of a “door,” when he saw a massive construction project and realized he lived in the wrong world. I just wish the maze felt to me like something more than a cool image, that it felt like an actual symbol for something deeper than a riddle.

But that’s all quibbles. The idea that the world is wrong has always been a potent one on this show, and season two has drifted from it just a tiny bit. I’m glad it had such centrality here, and even if I’m not sure why Maeve and Akecheta are teaming up, I’m glad they are. Somebody has to stop the Deathbringer. We’ve only got two episodes left, Aja, so where do you think all of this is headed? And is there any way to redeem my onetime favorite Dolores?

Aja: I think if we keep thinking about the mythology of Westworld, we end up where we started, enmeshed in cyclical pathways, probably with a giant inferno in the bargain, given how much fiery foreshadowing we’ve been treated to this season. Given where we seem to be headed — a giant cast reunion in the Valley Beyond — my speculation is that the question of Dolores’s redemption might be answered through the maze itself.

At this point, the only thing that could really redirect her course is to be faced with a direct threat that requires her to join forces, with the other hosts or the humans or both. And we know that at the center of every proper Grecian labyrinth is a proper Grecian minotaur. It seems to me that the best method to bar the way out of Westworld, introduce an escalated conflict for season three, and give Dolores a chance to redeem herself is to unveil the bull at the center of the maze in the final act — whether it’s Ford 2.0 or something new.

Of course, this could also be a feeble attempt on my part to play Westworld’s game of catering to its subreddit. I hope not, because the lovely thing about an episode like this one is that its emphasis on character development reminds us that the emotional and socially conscious core of Westworld is much more rewarding than the endless gamification of its story about gamification.

Season two has been steadily leading us toward an intersectional awareness of systems of oppression, in which we see characters like Akecheta — and Lee, whose abrupt, tearful apology to Maeve I didn’t wholly buy but which seemed in keeping with the episode’s theme — becoming aware that their problems aren’t solely their own.

That intersectionality is almost certainly going to end up manifesting physically in the final episode. Whether Dolores gets on board or not, it seems fitting if, ultimately, we learn that the only way out for the characters we’ve met along the way is to wage an even bigger power struggle against a monster yet unseen.