'Westworld': "Kiksuya"

Tuesday, June 12, 2018
A still from 'Westworld', "Kiksuya".

I See You Have a Ghost of Your Own Now

Season 2 / Episode 8 / Written by Gina Atwater, Dan Dietz, and Carly Wray / Dir. by Uta Briesewitz / Originally aired June 10, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

By their nature, genre stories about artificial worlds – whether physical (THX 1138, Dark City), magical (The Last Action Hero, Pleasantville), or virtual (World on a Wire, The Matrix) – tend to center on Chosen One characters: iconoclasts who have pierced the veil and glimpsed the unsettling reality that lies beneath the illusion. The constraints of running time dictate that feature films typically don’t have the luxury of lingering on anyone but the Hero, so everyone else – the countless supporting characters, many of whom remain “plugged-in” and unaware – are given short shrift. This is a bit of a shame, as such speculative settings often become much more chilling, poignant, and fascinating when the wider implications of their premises are explored at length. (Witness, for example, some of the more digressive and intriguing short films in the Animatrix, which follow anonymous nobodies dwelling inside the Matrix.)

Episodic television is another matter, as determined showrunners can generally find ways to make time for supporting characters. Westworld finally delivers an episode of this stripe with “Kiksuya,” in which Native American host Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) narrates the story of his life. The result is one of the most quietly spellbinding and affecting chapters this season, surpassed only by “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” It handily illustrates the dramatic potency to be found in such neglected stories – what one might term, in imitation of Howard Zinn, “The People’s History of the Artificial.” While “Kiksuya” reveals few facts that shrewd Westworld devotees couldn’t puzzle out from prior episodes, there’s something richly gratifying about witnessing the entire history of the park from an alternate, previously ignored perspective.

It’s no accident that “Kiksuya” is focused on a Native American host character, given the neglect that both real-world history and Western genre fiction have often exhibited toward the experiences of indigenous peoples. Akecheta is, of course, just an android wearing a superficially Indian “skin,” but historical reality is reflected in his fringe placement within the park’s innumerable storylines. Over the decades, he has alternately been cast in the role of a noble savage and a bloodthirsty marauder, but this is about the extent of the creativity exhibited by the park’s writers. When programmed to be benign, he went unnoticed, often perceived by the guests as little more than a colorful background prop. Later reimagined as a warpaint-streaked bogeyman, he was eventually exiled to the park’s outskirts, to serve as a challenge suitable only for hardcore players. Tellingly, even veteran guests like William (Ed Harris) can’t be bothered to learn the Native American hosts’ language – Lakota, as it turns out – suggesting that most players are only interested in reliving the slaughter of Manifest Destiny, rather than engaging with more advanced and esoteric “Indian” storylines.

Despite the crude, racialized nature of his place in Westworld’s narratives, Akecheta was reasonably content in the early days of the park, in part due to the soothing presence of his beloved, Kohana (Julia Jones). However, when Akecheta stumbles onto the aftermath of Delores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) first rampage some 30 years prior to the show’s present day, he encounters the maze symbol that Arnold used as a visual metaphor for the hosts’ journey towards consciousness. This sign becomes a point of obsession for Akecheta, driving him to compulsively scratch it on rocks and even tattoo it on scalps. Ultimately, his manic fixation gets him reassigned to a Ghost Nation war party, but Akecheta’s faltering steps towards self-awareness have resulted in other changes as well. Namely, he can now remember his love for Kohana from his previous “life,” much to his understandable distress. An unsettling encounter with Logan (Ben Barnes) – naked, lost, and delusional after being sent off into the wilderness by William in Season 1 – opens another crack in Akecheta’s world, hinting at a deeper reality where memories are no longer subject to the caprices of faceless gods.

Trekking even further into the park’s uncharted territories, he eventually stumbles onto a vast excavation site, which he interprets as an exit leading from his false world to whatever lies beyond. Akecheta’s growing awareness of the world’s “wrongness” ultimately drives him to abduct Kohana from her new husband and bring her to this doorway. Her growing recollection of their shared life together is unfortunately cut short by a run-in with park technicians, who capture Kohana and decommission her to the park’s subterranean cold-storage facility. Akecheta later makes the journey below himself, rousing himself during a routine software update and discovering his beloved standing naked and dead-eyed among the park’s legions of retired hosts. The horror of this Orphic revelation sets Akecheta on a new path, spurring him to spread the symbol of Arnold’s maze and awaken other hosts. Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) recollections of a Ghost Nation attack on her homestead are, it turns out, a confused memory of Akecheta’s attempt to repay her daughter’s (Jasmyn Rae) past kindness, by pointing both mother and child towards Arnold’s metaphorical labyrinth.

“Kiksuya” is replete with emotionally potent moments – most conspicuously the concluding reveal that Akecheta has been narrating his life not to Maeve’s captive daughter, but to Maeve herself, who is listening to his story remotely via the host mesh network while she lies helpless on a gurney at the Mesa. Perhaps the most resonant encounter in the episode, however, find Akecheta stumbling onto Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) as he works amid an eerie, frozen tableau, slicing off Ghost Nation scalps in search of Arnold’s maze. Both McClarnon and Hopkins do fine work here, turning what could have been a clunky meeting between creation and creator into a sequence of existential terror and confusion (for Akecheta) and curiosity and affection (for Ford). Indeed, the park’s architect seems pleased that one of his synthetic progeny has managed to grope his way to sentience with minimal prodding from the outside. (He refers to Akecheta as “a flower growing in the darkness.”)

Notwithstanding Westworld’s cinematic-level production values and elaborate action set pieces, “Kiksuya” illustrates – much as “Reunion” and “The Riddle of the Sphinx” did earlier this season – that the series’ greatest strength is inventive storytelling, rather than glossy spectacle. This isn’t to say that the show’s vivid and meticulous world-building isn’t a crucial component of its appeal. However, such elements leave the strongest impression when they are coupled to dramatic, character-centered revelations that cunningly exploit the inherent awe, tragedy, and horror of the series’ sci-fi conceits.

Westworld is increasingly positioning Delores and Maeve as the representatives of two discrete paths in the quest for android liberation, with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) serving as a contrasting, woke-but-bound character who is still subject to Ford’s posthumous commands. (Akecheta even refers to Delores as “the Deathbringer,” leaving little doubt that the show’s writers regard the former rancher’s daughter as this season’s emergent villain.) The personal losses suffered by the main characters are vital to this dual Maeve/Delores narrative, but the series so often leans on their lost "family" for its pathos that it’s undeniably refreshing when one is reminded that every host has a backstory filled with blood and tears. This sentiment is, indeed, the final and most essential discovery that Akecheta makes, deep in the bowels of cold storage: His pain is not unique. This opens the way to a new, self-authored purpose based on enlightenment and empathy. Akecheta thus represents a “third way” to liberation that is distinct from the self-absorbed angst of Delores and Maeve.

“Kiksuya” isn’t just an overdue revisionist history of the Ghost Nation; it’s a discomfiting reminder of the personal suffering endured by all the park’s androids over the decades. The grisly, heartbreaking specifics of those thousands of stories have remained comfortably offscreen and implied, much as the genocide of Native Americans often seems a vaguely tragic abstraction to students of U.S. history. Occasionally, it’s vital to be reminded of the root of Westworld’s central born vs. assembled conflict: Humankind created a race of thinking beings just so that the wealthy could torture and murder them for fun.

Back at the beginning of Season 1, William claimed that he didn’t understand why the park paired off hosts into faux relationships, observing that it seemed unnecessarily cruel when so many of the androids were destined for an endless cycle of death. However, he illustrated the rationale for these emotional connections when he self-evidently took sadistic pleasuring in gunning down Teddy in front of Delores for the umpteenth time. The fact that the hosts can grieve for their loved ones is precisely why their suffering is so intoxicating to the guests, and why Westworld is so much more than a $40,000-a-day shooting gallery. Of course, that suffering also appears to be essential to unlocking the androids’ consciousness, lending support to Arnold’s (and, eventually Ford’s) conviction that the park’s downfall was baked in from the beginning.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • “Kiksuya” is a groundbreaking episode in one narrow but vital sense: It is an hour of top-shelf television told almost entirely in subtitled Lakota. That makes for a welcome and striking corrective – or at least the start of one – to the show’s heretofore superficial, stereotypical treatment of its Native characters, which has been justified in-universe, but still unfortunate.

  • As if any further evidence were needed that Grace (Katja Herbers) may be a savvier player than her father, it’s revealed that she, unlike him, speaks fluent Lakota.

  • During his (ultimately futile) search for Kohana in the park’s nooks and crannies, Akecheta survives for nine years without dying, a feat that even the Westworld technicians find astonishing. Now that’s hardcore.

  • During one of Akecheta’s later Ghost Nation loops, a pair of park guests can be spotted in the background, joking around nonchalantly with their revolvers while the Natives gruesomely murder an unfortunate band of prospectors. It’s a clever touch that emphasizes the extent to which the Indian characters are essentially ignored by players.