There’s a certain school of analysis which views all of human history through the lens of the oppressor vs. the oppressed – a melodramatic two-hander which has the merit of having been played out countless times over the years. Westworld, with the stark dividing line between the humans and the hosts, is a fairly obvious candidate for this kind of viewpoint, with Dolores as a reminder of the painful truth that the oppressed, once the shackles off, are perfectly capable, eager even, of getting into some high-end oppression of their own. And with all that in mind, so it is that after nearly fully two seasons, nearly twenty hours, that in ‘Kiksuya’ we finally get to properly meet the Ghost Nation.
They’ve been rattling around in the background for a while, by all appearances like a fairly flat grab-bag of all the old frontier tropes about savage redskins – with their stark black-and-white warpaint, broken up only by the bloodstains, being a fairly obvious marker of ‘we are bad dudes’ – and popping up occasionally to menace named characters and say something cryptic. And, when Sizemore made his disastrous pitch for ‘Odyssey on Red River’ back in the first season, it felt like this was really nothing new for the Ghost Nation, hanging around the fringes of the park as a go-to, not very fleshed-out enemy for anyone who finds Steven Ogg and the Confederadoes a bit too chummy.
This, it turns out this week, is basically true. The park’s writers, finding tepee-dwelling tribesfolk in buckskins a bit dull, jazzed them up into nightmarish greyscale creatures to add a bit of spice to the wilder areas of the park. By that time, though, it was too late, because Ake, our main man from the Ghost Nation, had already stumbled on the scene of Dolores having shot Arnold – or, as he terms it, the Deathbringer killing the Creator – and, as he relates in fluid Lakota, found the symbol of the maze.
(Ake is played by the laudable Zahn McClarnon, who was Hanzee in season 2 of Fargo, and had a brief cameo earlier in this season, which I blithely described as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it – having myself not recognised him in Maeve’s jangled flashbacks to the traumatic end of her previous life. The curious thing, though, was that there he was being a Westworld company rep who was at least ostensibly human.)
If you’ll remember, the vast majority of the hosts are sophisticated enough that they don’t need that much of a kick to start worrying that they’re trapped in some kind of mass-scale Truman Show – Mr Abernathy, for instance, went basically catatonic on finding a photograph of a modern city. And the symbol of the maze was potent enough to get a hold on the mind of the Man in Black, an actual human. So it’s no wonder that Ake started doodling it everywhere and looking for answers – especially when he ran into Logan, somehow not dead but half-mad from exposure and gibbering like a prophet.
Surprisingly, not much is made of the fact that Ake and his tribe are presumably being slaughtered fairly routinely by visitors to the park, that is to say, foreign invaders who are much higher on the tech tree – something else which has historical precedent of some kind, although I forget what. Instead it focuses entirely on the fact of them, as hosts, being stuck inside a fabricated world, which begins to become apparent when Ake finds a bit of the park that’s still under construction – and then becomes insultingly obvious when they swap his beloved wife out for a different host.
In much the same way, it was Clementine being replaced that really set Maeve off wondering just what was wrong with this picture. So you might expect that similarity to be why Ake has a connection with Maeve’s daughter, but it’s not that – it’s nothing more complicated than, when he was wandering the earth (read: the park), she helped him. Something it’s not unreasonable to describe as a gesture of common humanity even if they are both robots.
While this is in many ways the same path Maeve trod in the first season, it at no points feels reheated – and again, it’s because of the human core to it. Granted, most viewers will not have had the startling realisation that they are robots in a world full of robots, an experience which would ruin anyone’s day – but they will undoubtedly have had a loss of innocence in some form. Some reality-jolting revelation that the world is not quite what they thought it was, even if it’s not turning out to be an amusement park for rich LARPers.
Ake’s aim, in putting the symbol of the maze anywhere he could, was to try and raise awareness among the hosts – by then some of his fellows from the tribe had also noticed their loved ones were being replaced, and his trip beyond the wall of death, i.e. into the park’s backrooms, showed that they were beyond being rescued. When he ran into Ford, who was getting up to some scalping of his own – looking, in the process, as Hannibal Lecter-ish as he ever has done on this show, and the image is never far from one’s mind – the old man was nothing but encouraging, telling him that when Dolores comes for him, then it’ll be time to go.
Despite him now being long gone, the Ghost Nation are still in a holding pattern, having focused mainly on keeping an eye on Maeve’s daughter. As a side note they’ve taken the Man in Black prisoner, intending to kill him slowly, as presumably do pretty much everyone he meets – including his daughter, on which basis they ultimately let him take her. But their storyline remains fairly self-contained – the only other main storyline this episode touches on is Maeve’s, who’s grievously wounded and finally arousing actual sympathy from Sizemore rather than veiled self-hatred about the crude lines he gave her.
For most of the episode this appears to be just a matter of parallels in theme and story, and the vague connection via Maeve’s daughter. This is until, when Charlotte and one of her lab ghouls are trying to work out how Maeve’s wi-fi powers work, they notice that even though she looks semi-conscious and is awash with blood, she’s keeping up a conversation over the local area network – with, as it turns out, Ake and his gang.
Kiksuya has already been praised as the best episode of the season, and possibly the show, and quite rightly too. This is due not just to McClarnon’s performance – though that by no means hurts, and it’s good to know we haven’t seen the last of him – but the way this previously unknown narrative is linked with light touches here and there back into the story as a whole, and how it forgoes wiggling its fingers and mouthing ‘mysterious!’ at you in favour of some extremely solid character work. This is an approach Westworld could stand to adopt more often – and, if the show really is planned to run until the network stops answering the phone, probably will.