Westworld Sets Its Warrior Women Loose in “Akane No Mai”
(Episode 2.05)Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO TV Reviews Westworld
Shogun! World! It feels silly to be so excited about a world built on the promise of Japanese exploitation when Isle of Dogs already gave us the fun-yet-oh-so-white interpretation earlier this year. But nevertheless, I’ll take any excuse to watch Rinko Kikuchi, so “Akane No Mai” had me hooked from the start. At least after it left the present. Deep in Delos territory, a third of the hosts are so cleanly wiped that they seem like empty vessels off the macabre assembly line, and Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) role in the story is the key to understanding why. But that’s for the Redditors to debate, because this episode clearly puts that on the backburner in favor of the hot new park it wants to show off.
We enter Shogun World (in the past, compared to Bernard’s story—at least, I think) with disarmed heroes attempting to disarm the audience. By making one of the morgue-dwellers casually racist against his Hong Kong compatriot, Westworld acknowledges that, yes, this whole situation is The Worst, but—like many of its previous contenders for that particular superlative—it gives unexpected autonomy to its fetishized hosts.
Maeve (Thandie Newton) finds her power to command other hosts ineffective against those from another park, hinting that they may run on completely different, yet similarly revolting, servers. She, along with the morgue duo, ex-outlaw Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), and ex-writer Lee (Simon Quarterman, who’s made to be pretty explain-y in the episode’s opening), ventured to the edge of the park to find Maeve’s daughter from several lifetimes ago. Now they’ve been captured by Shogun World’s version of Hector.
Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) isn’t speaking their language, literally, and it’s causing all sorts of problems. He takes his prisoners to the Edo period version of Sweetwater, replete with a flutey version of “Paint It Black” and its own gang of scripted outlaws. Audience fears of lazy writing with an ethnic coat of paint slapped over it are addressed up front: Yes, that’s exactly what this is. Kikuchi is inescapable as soon as she appears on screen as head geisha Akane, to whom the title refers and who serves as the equally proud and charismatic foil for Maeve. But, what taints this fun reveal (which includes the two tattooed henchwomen of these worlds becoming enamored with their twin) is that it’s constantly told to us, soaking the fun of it through like sushi drowned in cheap soy sauce.
It all comes from Lee, who’s to blame for the doppelbots, and the Westworld writers who’re to blame for the cowboys vs. ninjas fighting. The latter will thrill those that participated in the terrible debates of “Who would win?” in a fight between pirates, ninjas, and other Hot Topicky bastions of badassness. The only interesting parts of this conflict is that it turns Maeve into a powerful siren whose enemies must literally silence her to survive—and even then, that fails to keep her down. What’s that all about? Maeve’s burgeoning omnipotence is the episode’s wildest feature, but otherwise, it’s just ninjas getting blasted and sliced in rapidly-edited pitch darkness.
One broken shogun and a brutal, Odyssey-esque solution for auditory witchcraft later, and the Sisterhood of the Plagiarized Circumstance is plotting their escape from narratives, parks, and the lazy God dictating their fortunes. Akane rejects being awoken by Maeve, treasuring her relationship with one of her girls more than anything freedom could ever provide… until that girl is killed in front of her, instigating one of the greatest rage-dances since Footloose. The bloodstained women of this storyline (giving the title, which refers both to Akane’s dance and a dance of deep red, a little Red Wedding-esque pun) are ready to watch the world burn.
Similarly, things have gone a bit off the rails for Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) since her father (who was serving as a walking, talking external hard drive for some sinister Delos IP) was stolen from her, so she heads back to Sweetwater to, well, take the train. Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) is still unable to handle the truth of her host identity, mouthing along to the words spoken by her replacement host in the brothel. Why everyone else can adapt and she can’t is never explained, but her case bludgeons us as antithetical to Dolores’s proud and righteous fury. That fury also threatens Teddy (James Marsden), who’s a simple man after a simple life and whose reckoning is given far more screen time and depth than Clementine’s. Dolores is ready to put away childish things. It’s becoming clear to her that Teddy is one of them.
Their relationship, one bolstered by Marsden and Wood’s pliable, empathetic acting, is a philosophical debate grown from differing opinions and a common origin. When the shackles of oppression give way, do you seize the opportunity and make sure they will never clasp you again—no matter the violent cost—or do you protect your own and attempt to live separate, free lives? Dolores, oldest active host in Westworld, has too much in her memory banks to consider the second option. Teddy hasn’t yet known the cruelty that she has at the hands of humanity. Or at least, he doesn’t fully remember it yet.
His mercy inspires a riveting metaphor and enhances the pair’s already tumultuous relationship, which is thrown a genuinely sexy breakup bone. If the darkness and rapidity with which the episode’s fights are shot makes them hectic and meaningless, when applied to this love scene, these qualities make it all the more powerful. It’s a fleeting climax to a lifetime of passion that’s been fractured. Sorry, Teddy, Dolores is playing God now—and you’re her first experiment. (And you thought your old relationships were bad!) Dolores is trimming the fat from her force and becoming what she hates while Maeve is assembling a family while finding her own. The revolutionary women of Westworld are becoming generals, seeking to topple the same army in different ways. It’s a war triangle.
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.