[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Especially in its early scenes, “Akane No Mai” suffers from some noticeably clunky, even cringe-worthy dialogue. Characters declaim the importance of the episode’s events and revelations with the sort of tin-eared, pretentious lines that exemplify Westworld’s worst tendencies. (A conspicuous groaner from Delos Chief of Operations Karl Strand [Gustaf Skarsgård]: “How did all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare?” Oof.) High-caliber acting can often mitigate even the crummiest writing, of course. In Season 1, Anthony Hopkins exhibited his usual talent for purring ridiculous, purple dialogue with cool authority, and Ed Harris consistently projects a flinty, unflappable demeanor – pitched halfway between cold menace and knowing humor – that salvages William’s most unwieldy lines. Those two veterans are nowhere to be found in “Akane,” however.
The episode’s more awkward dialogue is mitigated to some extent by the delight inherent in the series’ first full-fledged foray into Shogunworld, a companion Delos theme park modeled on Edo Period Japan (or, at least, the cinematic approximation of such). Viewers who were pining for the series’ stellar production design team to take a whack at a setting filled with samurai, geisha, and ninja will likely come away from “Akane” more than satisfied. Although Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) is afforded some screen time, this episode belongs to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her companions, who stumble into (and proceed to disrupt) the Delos spin on Throne of Blood (1957) – or, perhaps more accurately, 13 Assassins (2010), given the over-the-top Takashi Miike-style gore.
For all the cross-genre thrills inherent in seeing Maeve’s gun-toting posse trespass in a lavish re-creation of the Tokugawa shogunate, there’s a telltale whiff of the familiar to Shogunworld’s characters and melodrama – as Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) cannily observes. Any basis for Lee’s (Simon Quarterman) insufferable self-importance in Season 1 has gradually been whittled away over the course of recent episodes, but “Akane” is a death blow to the former Head of Narrative’s artistic pretenses. As Maeve and her fellow hosts discover, Delos’ parks are all just rough facsimiles of each other, with mere changes in window dressing. Lee appears to have plagiarized liberally from himself, copying characters, plots, and whole chunks of dialogue from Westworld and pasting them into Shogunworld. (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” he whines defensively.) This exacerbates the existential crisis that the hosts are already experiencing, with results ranging from the seething hostility between Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and his ronin “doppelbot,” Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), on one hand, to the pseudo-erotic fascination between Armistice and her equivalent, Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto), on the other.
Maeve, meanwhile, is overwhelmed with sympathy for the senior geisha, Akane (Rinko Kikuchi), whose narrative loop roughly parallels her own. In Akane’s maternal protectiveness towards the young geisha Sakura (Kikki Sukezane), Maeve sees an echo of her quest to track down her lost daughter. Akane seems to be on the verge of “waking up” to true consciousness, given that she seizes control of her storyline by murdering the Shogun’s emissary when he comes calling. (“That’s not supposed to happen,” Lee deadpans.) Akane is not quite self-aware yet, however, and she reacts with confused terror to Maeve’s attempt to psychologically nudge her to the center of Arnold’s maze. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though any of the Shogunworld hosts have awakened in the sense that Maeve has, although the park has diverged in dramatic, bloody fashion from its usual plotlines. The malfunctioning Shogun (Masaru Shinozuka) has begun acting much more vicious and erratic, while Akane has gone strikingly off script in the ruthless defense of “her” girls. All of this is bewildering to Lee, whose knowledge of park storylines is becoming less and less useful as the android uprising throws his narratives into chaos.
Meanwhile, Delores comes to a fateful decision about Teddy (James Mardsen), whose noble programming is no longer commensurate with her ambitions of violent revolution and conquest. The season premiere established that Teddy will eventually meet a watery end – restated here in a brief present-day scene where Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) spies him among a pile of android corpses. However, the more intriguing question has always been how he and Delores would finally come to loggerheads, a conflict rendered inevitable by their divergent ambitions for the future. Delores’ solution to her “Teddy problem” turns out to be even more monstrous than summarily executing the poor dope: She tasks a kidnapped technician to literally reprogram the do-gooder impulses out of him. While the viewer isn’t yet privy to the result, it’s probably safe to say that Teddy 2.0 will be a ruthless, compliant follower of Delores’ outlaw “Wyatt” persona, perhaps something akin to Angela (Talulah Riley). Here, “Akane” reveals yet another discomfiting way that Delores’ crusade of liberation has become a slippery slope, each act of brutality pushing her closer to the ends-justify-the-means amorality of the humans she claims to despise.
Much like the season’s first episode, “Journey into Night,” this chapter is generally more compelling for what it reveals rather than what happens. Nothing all that unexpected occurs, plot-wise, although in some instances, the way that events unfold is downright shocking. Case in point: Akane’s assassination of the Shogun, which any attentive viewer likely sees coming, is executed with jaw-dropping viciousness – the geisha literally sawing off the warlord’s head at the jaw with her dagger hairpin. Such horror-adjacent flourishes and a ninja brawl aside, however, “Akane No Mai” is most notable for its game-changing discoveries (e.g., all the parks are remixes of the same “narrative bones”) and some minor plot points (e.g., Lee surreptitiously lifting a communications device off a dead security officer). Of the former, none is more momentous than Maeve realizing that her ability to compel other hosts by voice command has somehow evolved into silent, wireless mind control. How exactly this upgrade came about is still a mystery, but said ability’s mechanism seems obvious in retrospect: the inter-host “mesh network” that Bernard mentioned four episodes back.
Maeve has always been the wild card in Westworld, but this season is illustrating just how starkly her story stands apart from the comparatively banal, militarized struggle between the humans and Delores. Maeve’s more intimate mutiny of self-discovery serves as a kind of commentary on Delores’ sweeping revolutionary ambitions. Not coincidentally, Maeve is consistently the series’ most enthralling character – more appealing than the sinister, inscrutable William and more proactive than the fumbling, shell-shocked Bernard. Even as Maeve awakens to her power, however, there remains a nagging doubt: Is she truly in control of her thoughts and actions, or is she still trapped in one of Ford’s loops? Those doubts were seeded near the end of Season 1, when she was shown computer readouts indicating that she was still adhering to her programming. He discoveries in Shogunworld only amplify those uncertainties: The memories programmed into her mind have been rehashed and repurposed, little more than stale tropes sown across multiple genres and worlds by “creators” who can’t be bothered with originality.
Some miscellaneous observations:
- There’s some gratifyingly meta-commentary in “Akane” about the laziness of genre fiction and the notion that there are only so many stories to tell before storytellers start repeating themselves. One of the recurring pleasures of Westworld is that the writers and performers routinely manage to have their cake and eat it too: self-critically drawing attention to the artifice and weaknesses of narrative fiction, while also hooking the viewer with in-universe moments of intense pathos. It’s a testament to the show’s strength that this doesn’t scan as cheap cynicism or fatal dissonance, but nimble intelligence.
- Speaking of existential crises: Poor Clementine (Angela Searafyan) rejoins Delores’ army after completing her secret mission with Bernard in the previous episode, only to run into her replacement (Limi Simmons) in the pillaged Sweetwater saloon. She doesn’t take it well.
- Cinephiles are probably more accustomed to the juxtaposition of the Western and samurai settings than the casual viewer, if only because the genres have famously been playing off each other for six decades or so, as any first-year film student can attest. Intriguingly, “Akame” flips the conventional wisdom about the primary direction of influence: Shogunworld is a copy of Westworld, but it was Western filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah (The Magnificent Seven) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars) who cribbed from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo).