With “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” Westworld has already proven that creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan can really nail disparate storytelling when they put their mind to it. Now, with “Kiksuya”, they’ve shown they can tell single-focus narratives even better. A Lakota word for “to remember, recall, recollect, or call to mind” serves as the title of Westworld’s best episode so far this season, and one that threads the tricky needle of being both a self-contained episode of TV and one that adds depth to the show’s mythos and plot as a whole. The episode finally focuses on the Ghost Nation and those adjacent to it, after making Westworld’s single “indigenous” tribe (which is already a weird designation within its zoo-like framework) one of its first boogeymen.
The series answers one of its bigger cliffhangers—which wasn’t “Will William (Ed Harris) die?” but “Who will save William?”—with a mysteriously intentioned rescue that kicks off the connection of those who brush against the story of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon, in the season’s breakout performance, which I’ll get to in a second). This includes Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her daughter, along with William and his daughter, Emily (Katja Herbers), who seems to be the only non-Ghost Nation member who actually speaks Lakota.
That’s because this is the first time the Ghost Nation is given real significance, rather than being reduced to a prop (those maze scalp markings) or treated as a dangerous inhuman force to be dealt with, like a tornado or brushfire. It’s especially apparent remembering the season premiere, which scalped a member of the tribe simply for the image. To address this treatment and continue pushing the lines of Westworld’s winking inequality, the episode focuses on Akecheta’s journey to sentience.
McClarnon is phenomenal, selling the ups and downs of the story (told almost entirely in Lakota) with his soft voice, sad eyes, and wry, thin grin unveiled from layers of face paint. He’s romantic, fierce, curious—all shifting tactics to fulfill a singular motive. Focusing on his derailed love story with Kohana (Julia Jones, also great), along with the story of his community, gives a more significant reading on the agency of the second-class citizens of the second-class sub-race of humankind that are Westworld hosts.
Seeing the first season’s maze sparked agency within Akecheta during beta, just as Ford (Anthony Hopkins) ripped it away to make him more in line with racist beliefs: animalistic and brutal. He is literally the myth of the savage made real with technology, just as a white narrative made them “real” for decades of American history and governmental policy. Westworld often makes me question the setting’s “of course this is what a fake Old West world built by rich future people would be like” racial politics, because asking “or is it just easier for a television show in 2018 to introduce and build examples of extreme stereotypes?” gets into complicated areas of historical accuracy and erased narratives of discrimination. All I know for sure is that Westworld is better when they don’t linger too long on how Westworld should be (whatever that means).
The tight story and moving shot selection makes its romance/coming-of-self-awareness story better, too. It’s a bit unfair to the season’s other directors that Uta Briesewitz gets to direct one so squarely focused after a handful of loose and preachy hoparounds, but the ex-cinematographer does marvels with her luck.
The only digression of the episode is to Maeve. The incapacitated Maeve is becoming the subject of the Dr. Frankenstein-ish Lee (Simon Quarterman), alternatingly in awestruck fear of his monster and sympathetically in love with her. That’s messed up but in a fun way, because Lee began as a bedwetting wannabe dramatist (lazy, drunk, self-involved—sorry for the drag, other writers), seemingly incapable of change. But now? He’s humanity’s wild card. That’s great. The downside is that now Delos (including Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Hale) knows about Maeve’s crazy superpowered swarm intelligence, though she uses it in order to get some closure with the tribe and her daughter—for the time being.
So, back to Akecheta. Giving background history on someone besides Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) journey from happy host to unsatisfied and awakened android is a fascinating narrative device that deepens the significance of how both have handled their circumstances, while giving Akecheta the needed respect for a truly tragic arc. When Akecheta finds a naked, raving Logan (Ben Barnes) from the end of the latter’s first season storyline, which cracks through the former’s programming and inspires new insight into his escape from his role, it’s a wakeup call pointing towards salvation. He gains not only sentience but memory and history, a needed context that helps his identity feel steady, so that he can also feel betrayed by its reprogramming.
We find that the ghosts in this nation are the ghosts of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story: tragic specters holding onto fragments of long-forgotten pasts. They’re ex-lovers, ex-sons—all rewritten and refit into the gaslit tribe that’s been coping with an everlasting, vague pain arising from love so fleeting that it could’ve been a dream. Akecheta’s realization of this truth begins an endless hunt through time and countless lifetimes in search of a perfect Nirvana that will let him rest. This particular Nirvana just happens to be his relationship with Kohana. She’ll have to remember him one of these times.
We learn that Akecheta has been doing this for a decade without an update, meaning he stayed alive since alpha. Not only is he a badass, he’s giving new meaning to being the first inhabitant of the land. And just around the time that this mundane, painful, exhausting connection to the reincarnative moral instruction of Buddhism becomes apparent, BANG, there’s a piano cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” OK, Westworld and Ramin Djawadi, I’ll give you that one.
When Westworld does straight chronology, especially with Briesewitz’s tight hand at the helm, it can be touching, Twilight Zone-esque fiction. It’s just too bad that we must often suffer through a few episodes of philosophical grandstanding before getting to a story able to deliver the best of both worlds: a satisfying character arc and a narrative flavored with the dashes of cultural and sociological questioning that makes good sci-fi worth doing. We get the story of Akecheta and the larger story of the park’s grand effect (creation through suffering and evolution), all neatly created as a guide to the new narrative’s end. It’s what Westworld does best when Westworld isn’t in its own ass: gorgeous, elegant science fiction told through people that, moments ago, weren’t people to us at all. I guess what I’m saying is, Westworld, give me a romance over a shootout every day of the week.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.