HBO’s science fiction drama Westworld isn’t just known for its talented cast and its philosophical musings about the nature of reality. It’s also become famous for its reveals, from mind-bending bombshells that link two characters to simple pieces of backstory that bring new insight to a storyline. Watching Westworld is like peeling an onion, one layer at a time.
That’s why for the show’s second season, I’ll be diving into one particular spoilery revelation from each episode, to figure out what it means, how we got here, and where things might go in the episodes to come. Some weeks, it might be a huge plot twist. In other weeks, it might be something subtle. Either way, we’re going to spoil the hell out of it.
Welcome to the Westworld Spoilers Club.
Last week, Westworld took a bit of a detour, focusing largely on Delos, Inc.’s secret initiative to use host technology to clone human beings, starting with company founder James Delos (Peter Mullan). The episode delved into the ramifications of the operation, and the massive character shift that William (Jimmi Simpson) underwent in the decades after he took control of the company. But changing the story’s focus for a bit meant leaving other characters on the back burner, including Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), who were both last seen confronting a group of warriors from Shogun World.
The season’s fifth episode, “Akane No Mai,” makes up for that by spending the bulk of its running time inside that new Delos park. The show has been teasing Shogun World since the first season’s finale, and the new destination delivers on the promise of a Kurosawa film-inspired theme park heavy on swordplay and gory violence. But it also becomes an opportunity for the show to poke some fun at the story architects of Delos, Inc. — and even parody some of Westworld’s own tropes.
And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the episode that gives Maeve full-fledged superpowers.
The big reveal?
“Akane No Mai” dives into Shogun World moments after episode three’s cliffhanger ending, with Maeve, Lee, and the other members of their party under attack. They’re quickly captured, and Lee informs the group (and the audience) that Shogun World was created for guests who find the violence of Westworld too tame. The group is eventually marched into a town and paraded down a main street that bears more than a passing resemblance to Sweetwater.
The tattooed bandit Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) notices it first. “This all feels a little too familiar,” she says. Soon, the similarities become unmissable. This town isn’t just evocative of Sweetwater; it actually is Sweetwater, just transposed from the Old West and into Japan’s Edo period. Soon enough, a robbery plot breaks out around the Westworld refugees, and it’s an exact copy of the Mariposa safe heist portrayed in the show’s first season — right down to the shot selection, use of slow motion, and choice of cover song playing (The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”). Only instead of leading the heist, this time Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice are watching it all go down, as it’s carried out by a ronin (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a female assassin who are presumably their Shogun World doppelgängers.
Lee Sizemore is almost immediately called out for what Maeve terms “plagiarism” — there’s even a geisha named Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) who serves as Maeve’s counterpart — but eventually, the Westworld and Shogun World hosts realize they should be allies. It’s good that they do, because soon thereafter, they wind up at odds with the local Shogun, who wants to buy one of Akane’s dancers, a woman named Sakura (Kiki Sukezane). The geisha refuses, and in retaliation, the Shogun sends a pack of ninjas to attack the group.
At first, Maeve uses her ability to issue verbal commands to other hosts to help turn the tide. But another warrior begins strangling her, preventing her from speaking. That’s when Maeve discovers she has a new ability. She simply looks at her attacker, and he suddenly decides to kill himself right before her eyes.
The ninjas whisk Sakura away to the Shogun’s camp, and Maeve and Lee hatch a plan to rescue her. True to Shogun World’s bloody tendencies, things go horribly awry. Sakura is killed by the Shogun, who is, in turn, brutally murdered by Akane, and then both Maeve and the geisha are lined up for execution. The Shogun’s men have all had their ears removed as a precaution against Maeve’s abilities, so escape isn’t looking likely. But Maeve then focuses and appears to issue a series of commands to the Shogun World hosts simply by thinking it.
The samurai turn their swords on one another, cutting each other down in a spray of blood and carnage. It’s as if Maeve has suddenly become Neo from The Matrix, able to control those around her with nothing more than her mind. As another army of warriors descends on the camp, a stunned Lee asks what they should do next.
“I told you, I found a new voice,” Maeve says, picking up a sword. “Now we use it.”
What does it mean?
There are two distinct things happening in Shogun World in “Akane No Mai,” the first of which is the episode’s strong sense of meta-commentary. Westworld has always been a show about storytelling, amongst other things, and here showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are able to inject some cynical observations about the entertainment industry and Hollywood in general.
Shogun World is a sequel, essentially, put together on a schedule for a predetermined, gore-hungry audience, and clearly, no one at Delos put much work into the place’s narrative design. As the hosts themselves point out, it’s a copy that recycles the core story beats, archetypes, and character dynamics that already worked in Westworld. During the first season, Lee Sizemore often bragged about his sophisticated storytelling, but in Shogun World, his pompous pontifications are laid bare. “Yes, fine, I may have cribbed a little bit from Westworld,” he confesses. “You try writing 300 stories in three weeks!” Lee may fancy himself an artist, but in truth, he’s just a cog in an entertainment machine. And when it comes to the immersive adventures of Delos parks, apparently audiences are no more discerning than they are with the average Hollywood blockbuster. They’re happy to see the same story told over and over again.
But the discovery has an impact on the show’s characters as well. It gives Maeve and the other hosts a fresh firsthand insight into how they’ve been manipulated over the decades. It’s one thing to be told that your wants and desires are solely the results of programming. It’s another to see that played out in real time by another host in the same role. And over the course of the episode, Maeve and Akane realize they both share common maternal instincts, which does something else: it lets them form a bond that transcends their respective origins, paving the way for future team-ups that could spread to The Raj and other Delos destinations.
Changing the game
The impact of Delos, Inc.’s narrative shortcuts will echo through the story slowly, over time. The other big revelation of the episode — that Maeve is basically turning into a superhero — is likely to have a much more immediate impact. Being able to force hosts to do what she wants simply by thinking of it makes her something of a god: a host with absolute control over all her kind. Conflict is brewing on all sides in the show, between the hosts and Delos, between Bernard and Westworld staff, and between Dolores and almost everyone else. In that kind of environment, every tactical advantage is essential, and whether it’s rallying people to her cause, or simply instigating a bloodbath, Maeve’s ability to control fellow hosts gives her unmatched power.
But there’s a dark side to that power, too, and it speaks to a theme that’s been quietly percolating throughout all of this year’s episodes. In the original season, the hosts were fighting for agency — for the freedom to be awake and self-aware and to make their own decisions. Achieving that was the entire reason behind the robot uprising, but now that it’s happened, some of the show’s most intriguing characters are acting in markedly ignoble ways.
Dolores seems bent on revenge, no matter the cost, and is eager to kill fellow hosts if it helps her achieve her ends. Maeve’s motivations have been much purer; she just wants to find her daughter. But when she forces fellow hosts to slaughter one another, she’s arguably no better than Logan Delos, or any of the other humans who have treated hosts like disposable objects. She’s acting in self-defense, but she’s consciously choosing violence instead of paralysis or forced cooperation. By manipulating other hosts, she’s robbing them of the agency she’s so intent on claiming for herself. It’s certainly no thematic coincidence that Dolores does something similar in “Akane No Mai,” reprogramming Teddy (James Marsden) against his will because she thinks he should be more aggressive.
There are no easy answers in Westworld, and the price of true agency is the capacity for evil. The hosts that audiences have become invested in now have the freedom to become whoever they want to be — and right now, they seem to want to become villains.