Westworld: Season 2 – Episode 5 ‘Akane No Mai’ REVIEW
We journey into Westworld's sister park Shogunworld, which is so different yet so familiar.
When you have a story about stories – which is what, to some extent or another, Westworld has been since day one – it will always run the risk of getting a bit too meta, of having winks to the audience degenerate into frantic wide-eyed gurning to sell each and every punchline. One obvious dead giveaway is when the script seems to be echoing verbatim exactly what members of the writer’s room think of all this – and when you’ve got a character actually asking ‘how did all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare?’, well, it feels on the nose in much the way a straight left does.
Presiding over this oh-so-coy cold open of people wondering ‘but how? How did this all happen? And who could possibly be responsible?’ is good old Bernard, looking particularly stoic and stony-faced as his robo-brethren are cracked open all around him. And we know he’s responsible for all those hosts they found belly-up in the water, not to mention at least one massacre in the backstage areas, so the question that remains is why. Of course, with Delos now hunting down hosts like dogs, and cutting them apart in a vain attempt to figure out just what’s going on, he has a pretty major incentive to keep himself firmly out of the firing line.
(Elsie, of course, knows he’s a robot – having had to refill his robot-juice, among other things – and is nowhere to be seen in the flash-forwards, so I don’t particularly fancy her chances over the next few weeks.)
Back in the actual timeline, as opposed to the aftermath, we rejoin Maeve and the gang. They’ve been taken captive by samurai after drawing too close to the borders of Shogunworld, which means Japanese dialogue and subtitles, but that’s ok, because apparently all the hosts have a subconscious fluency, which I’m sure isn’t just purely for convenience. Seeing as the place is taking its cues from the pop-culture version of the Edo period, and as everyone’s a robot, they might as well have just had them all be badly dubbed, which would look ridiculous but make about as much sense.
While we saw Rajworld had an artificial sea between it and Westworld, to keep things understandably compartmentalised, Shogunworld has a direct land link – and on the face of it that seems like a strange decision, since that opens up the possibility of guests wandering into a different park. First of all, they’d be dressed all wrong – but it’s not just the aesthetic which would be at risk, since per Sizemore, Shogunworld has the difficulty ratcheted up for those who find Westworld too tame. Exactly how this manifested itself when the park was running as designed remains a mystery, assuming they weren’t just letting the guests be chopped up.
The existence of Shogunworld as hard-mode raises wider questions, though. The first season never actually gave a price tag for entry to Westworld, but made it clear – as did the sheer work and bordering-on-magic technology that goes into maintaining the place – that it was ludicrously expensive. That is to say, it’s a minority of a minority who can make it into Westworld, so these additional parks have a tiny potential market. As we saw, Rajworld had a clientèle of fully two real people. Plus, remember the Man in Black? The guy who’s combing the park looking for some kind of hidden secret? Then why on earth is he looking in the tutorial level?
An alternative explanation, though, is that Sizemore is only selling Shogunworld up as hard-mode to underscore the seriousness of the situation, and as a reflex from the days when he was pitching the concept. Because, when the outlaw samurai who captured them rolls into town and robs the brothel, and his associate with the facial tattoo starts shooting anyone who looks like they’ll resist, all to the strains of ‘Paint It Black’, even the characters quickly work out what’s going on here – it’s Hector’s plotline, only happening in feudal Japan. Sizemore plays off reusing this plotline as a necessary measure to meet a deadline, but really, this makes more sense than Shogunworld being hard-more – if you don’t like the Wild West, try this park, it’s got all the same fun but done with samurai and ninjas and shit.
(The logistics of having several god-knows-how-big parks all next to each other, however, are still best not thought about.)
Despite Japanese Hector’s plotline playing out largely as it should, by all accounts the denizens of Shogunworld have broken their programming and gone off the rails too. This leads to Sizemore exclaiming things like ‘no, the shogun shouldn’t be sending in the ninjas! And he definitely shouldn’t be invading the town!’ – to which the natural reaction is, oh no, heaven forfend these cool things happen. And they are cool things, providing some juicy fight scenes in an episode whose b-plot is heavy on talkie scenes.
While in a lot of ways Japanese Maeve takes the lead here, showing off her own fiercely maternal character when the local shogun kidnaps Japanese Clementine, it’s normal Maeve who saves the day – when the ninjas attack, she uses the voice commands to make them turn on each other, then when one of them covers her mouth still somehow overrides their programming. Then, come the climax, she does it again. And yes, juicy fight scenes, but at this point Maeve has literally become magic. She’s fighting off the hostile hosts with – in the words of Tenacious D, which should give a clue as to just how contrived this is – mind-bullets.
Meanwhile, Dolores and her gang have returned to Sweetwater. Having displayed an appalling lack of sentimentality toward literally every living being she’s encountered so far this series, now she gets all misty-eyed over the glory days of her and Teddy going through pre-scripted encounters – Teddy, on his part, buries the lead of them being robots by bringing up the old fallback of them going off together, finding a plot of land, and heck, maybe even raising some kids (which, if they did any of that, they’d presumably have to pay Delos rent). To give Dolores her due, the way she whipsaws from one extreme to another is at least consistent – as we see when she bangs Teddy, then moments later has him reprogrammed into an evil bastard.
Game of Thrones thought it would be a good idea to crow about all its strong female characters at about the time the continent they were running descended into outright chaos, and Westworld’s pulled off a similar fumble. Dolores and Maeve are fine leads, and would be even better if they had attributes other than bull-headedly pursuing vague, distant goals at the expense of everyone and everything around them (which, yes, is full-on Greek tragedy, but you can’t have them both doing the exact same arc – or at least, you shouldn’t). And just as Game of Thrones still couldn’t resist the temptation to have all their strong, woke, riot-grrl leads defer to a man whenever possible, at some point Bernard’s going to come along and sort them all out – which might be a relief, to be honest.