Sunday, May 26, 2024

Westworld Finds a New Voice in Shogun World

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Coming in strong here to say that this was by far and large my favorite episode of Westworld this season (which is high praise after the incredibly well directed Lisa Joy episode last week). “Akane No Mai” is the long awaited introduction to Shogun World and it delivers. From the strong Kurosawa influences to the array of new characters that I’ve already fallen in love with, stepping into Shogun World gave the show a much needed new fire under its feet. It felt new and fresh in a way that reminded me of my excitement watching the first season.

The show opens with a disconnected scene in the present of Karl Strand and the Delos security force taking back the control center to try and figure out what is going on. They start piling hosts up that have been recovered from the mysterious sea that seemed to appear out of nowhere and we learn that these hosts appear to have been wiped completely. They are ‘virgin’ as the tech puts it, appearing to have never been programmed at all. It’s an eerie sentiment, especially as we see Teddy among these hosts, now knowing what happens to him at the end of the episode. There’s been a few theories poking around, but I’m definitely gravitating towards the concept of these hosts being a trojan horse planted by Dolores, waiting to be awoken and wiped to protect her plan’s secrecy.

Dolores Embraces the Dark

We find Dolores and co back in Sweet Water as per two weeks ago. Sweet Water is completely run down, bodies everywhere. It doesn’t look the picturesque introduction to the fantasy world park it once promised to be. Dolores sends her people to fix the train that remains stuck in Sweet Water, insisting she needs it up and running for something.

Dolores and Teddy walk into the Mariposa and new Clementine seems to still be stuck on her loop. In a haunting moment, original Clementine comes up to her as she delivers her lines to Dolores and Teddy, mouthing the words with her, a broken shell trying to remember. We see this theme of the hosts confronting their narratives from a mirror image a lot this episode, but Celementine’s is just heartbroken, as she is clearly impacted by it but still unable to fully connect and free herself because of the lobotomy. Dolores ushers her away, telling Teddy that this is what these narratives have done to them.

Dolores and Teddy take a trip down memory lane this episode, her clearly trying to figure out what she wants to do about him and what her feelings mean. Her decision at the end of the episode is cruel, but there is conflict and sadness in her throughout, giving it the much needed nuance that was sorely missing from the deadpanned monologue-ing the first few episodes.

The loving look of “I’m going to have to reprogram you”

While she looks over the fields she has stood in so many times with Teddy to confess their love, she brings up a story of when her father’s cows were infected with blue tongue from the flies. The disease was spreading. She asks Teddy what he would do to stop it and he suggests sheltering the weak and separating the infected to care for them. Dolores tells him her father slaughtered them. And thus, Teddy fails her test.

When they head back to Sweet Water, Angela rides up and tells them that she found Dolores’ father, he’s in the mesa. Before they head out, Dolores and Teddy spend the night together in what is a really beautifully intimately shot sex scene. It’s emotional and passionate, but tender. And doesn’t overtly sexualize it or play it for titillation either. I think there’s also a great deal of significance that this level of connection on such an earnest level was between two hosts.

However, all of that is soured when after they wake up, Dolores has her techie captive reprogram Teddy and up his aggression. She sees his decency and says he wouldn’t make it through this war. It’s so hard and such a cruel moment, especially after bearing all to each other, for her to completely violate him in this way. You can tell it’s because she can’t bear to let him go but genuinely believes he can’t make it as is.

It’s definitely a dark hole Dolores is heading down, and when she feels okay reprogramming someone she claims to love against his will, how different is she really than her oppressors? I think that it’s a really interesting counterpoint between her and Maeve, and watching her navigate her want for freedom and newfound sentience. It’ll be interesting to see her have to face her Machiavellian leadership approach down the line and watch her question her choices. Teddy’s reluctance to follow her and our belief that Teddy is doing the right thing makes me feel assured that the showrunners will tackle Dolores’ storyline with the complexity it deserves. Lisa Joy also teased a lot of big things coming for Teddy’s own arc on the show and I’d be interested to see where that ends up. How much of Teddy will be left in him? How much will he remember?

Welcome to Shogun World

Maeve and her cohorts are immediately captured upon entering Shogun world by Musashi, a ronin fighter. She attempts to talk them out of it with her programmed commands, but it doesn’t work and Sizemore says it’s because it’s the wrong language. Sizemore is quite the exposition dump here but the way Quarterman plays it and his directing it at Maeve really works. It never felt like too much. He tells Maeve that she, and all the other hosts, have the ability to speak Japanese. For her, as a Madame of the Mariposa, it’s within reach, for the others it’s buried beneath their code.

They arrive, bound, to the village where we suddenly start to feel a sense of déjà vu. Armistice points it out first, but it turns out the village directly mirrors Sweet Water. However, that’s not the only thing Sizemore recycled. Armistice, Maeve, and Hector all have Shogun World counterparts and we see an alternate version of the saloon heist we’ve all come to know and love play out. It’s such an exciting moment and really nice in furthering the theme of pre-written narratives and self-identity. Although these characters are essentially written with the same bones, they are still them. What holds these mirrored strings together is something greater. Plus there is something so great about seeing Armistice and her counterpart, Hanaryo, utterly captivated with each other. It reminds me of that Broad City episode where Ilana starts dating Alia Shawkat and it’s really weird but their completely infatuated with each other.

As the saloon heist narrative comes to a close, Maeve saves one of the men from assaulting Sakura, one of the dancers at the Shogun Mariposa. When an emissary comes, demanding the Geisha (Maeve’s counterpart) Akane turn over Sakura to the Shogun, he wants her to be his own personal dancer, Akane kills him, clearly feeling protective over Sakura as Maeve often was with Clementine.

Akane hires Musashi to help them escape and Maeve volunteers her team to join them, insisting they can hold their own in a fight. At night, before they are due to head out, the Shogun sends ninjas to attack the group and take Sakura. Everything is hectic and everyone is fighting, the ninja ensuring Maeve’s mouth stays closed to prevent her from giving the verbal commands. When in a moment of peril, unable to speak, Maeve thinks the command instead and the ninja kills himself.

They make it out of the attack, but the men took Sakura. Maeve has Hector, Musashi, and Armistice stay back to distract the army as she, the others, and Akane go to rescue Sakura. When presented in front of the Shogun, he sees through their lies and Maeve realizes her commands might be deaf on the men, their ears cut off, still not quite sure how she was able to command that ninja silently. The Shogun recalls Akane’s own dance from the past, saying she was once the greatest, and tells her that she can have Sakura if she dances for him. She agrees.

When getting ready, Akane discovers the Shogun has mutilated Sakura’s back, carving in a cherry blossom. Akane is horrified and comforts Sakura, giving her the “you can be whoever you want to be” speech that we heard Maeve give so often in Westworld. Maeve talks to Akane after, commenting on their similarities and essentially tries to “wake” her up. Akane refuses though, not wanting to see beyond, and Maeve relents, knowing the hurt that comes with it. It’s Akane’s choice and she respects that. It’s a major difference between Maeve and Dolores, who seems to ultimately be making the choice for others.

Akane and Sakura start the dance but before they can truly begin, the Shogun kills Sakura. Afterwards, he makes Akane dance. It’s such a tense and beautifully built up moment, as Akane gives an emotional performance before horrifically killing the Shogun. His men move to execute her and drag Maeve forward too, their swords raised. Maeve tells Akane she is a true mother before commanding the men and all those surrounding them to turn on one another, as we get an epic slow-mo of Maeve walking through all the brutality.

I’m loving all these new characters so much. Please let them be regulars.

I adored everything in Shogun world and even the visual tone, temperature, and depth of scene felt derived from Kurosawa. It was beautiful. I really hope we see a lot more of Akane, Musashi, and Hanaryo (I doubt Armistice will want to leave her behind) and we get to spend more time in Shogun World. This episode was the much needed revitalization of my excitement and I’m looking forward to catching back up with these characters as we head towards the back half of the season.


Images courtesy of HBO

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