In last night’s episode of Westworld, which marked the halfway point of Season Two, Dolores Abernathy wanted to get a train up and running, commanding her robotic minions to “Fix what’s broke, [and] strip her for speed.” As the episode gamely puffed on its meanderingly bumpy track until grinding to a stop at yet another cliff-hanger, I rather wished the show-runners would take such sentiments to heart.
Westworld’s second season is increasingly ponderous, bloated, and aimless. Later, as we explore the newly introduced “Shogun World,” Lee, the human writer of many of the park narratives, defends a case of glaring self-plagiarism—he claims that it’s difficult to come up with large amounts of original, complex, compelling stories in a short period of time. Lee has a point, and his point is indeed so compelling that it began to make me wonder if maybe Westworld is going to suffer for all its vaulting ambition. Time, and more so, the second leg of the season will tell, but “Akane No Mai,” feels directionless and filled with unnecessary, shiny tidbits that look pretty in all their obscurity, but ultimately only weigh it down. It’s more or less a filler episode, one with undeniably fun moments (who doesn’t love a good ninja fight with psychic powers introduced halfway through, to boot?), but at the end of the day it didn’t particularly develop any characters or plotlines in a meaningful way, instead simply hammering home things we have been told since Episode One of the second season.
With “Akane No Mai,” we get our first glimpse of “Shogun World,” which Westworld has been teasing us with since the finale of Season One. In a clever way of avoiding unnecessary exposition or character introductions, a lovely cover of “Paint it Black,” but now with Japanese themes, clues us into the fact that Lee has simply adjusted the same stories we saw in Westworld to fit into “Shogun World.” This means that Maeve, Hector, and Armistice all have doppelgangers that they quickly ally with and Maeve (whose abilities to control her fellow hosts have suddenly reached telepathic levels) attempts to continue her search for her daughter, even as a rogue narrative begins to play out.
Maeve, despite her understanding that the majority of hosts are merely unquestioning machines (many of them beginning to malfunction), begins to find herself empathizing with them and investing herself in their priorities, even as Lee still struggles to understand how she could care for her daughter—a relationship that he sees as merely a figment of her programming– not to mention the relationship of two near-strangers, foreigners, and robots at that. Maeve can suspend her disbelief to be compassionate in the same way that the human visitors of the park could to be cruel. A running, rather coy theme in the show has been that reality, or unreality is defined simply by whether or not you can distinguish between the two. Maeve, newly enlightened, can distinguish between these things more and more, and she chooses not to care (to a degree– telepathically forcing anonymous, attacking ninjas to bludgeon themselves to death is still on the table, and I can’t say I particularly disapprove).
Dolores, meanwhile, seems to be going in the opposite direction. While her crew attempts to get the train going, she takes some time to bond with the treacherously soft-hearted Teddy, describing in disturbingly dulcet tones how her father killed all the weakest cows in a herd plagued by a fly-born disease, rather than let the entire herd succumb to sickness (Does Dolores know this is probably just a made-up backstory in her programming? Does someone pay thousands to come to the park to take part in the culling of cows?). Poor Teddy who says he would have just sheltered the diseased cows, does not take Dolores’ troubling hint that she sees him as little more than a weak beast, for whom shelter cannot be afforded (and how could he? Teddy is still stuck in the murky stagnation of his programming which first allowed him to be brutalized by the hosts and now by the woman he thinks he loves). They have a lovely night of romance before Dolores has Teddy dramatically reprogrammed, against his will, by a human no less.
While Dolores claims sweeping idealism, and to be fighting against the mistreatment of and for the freedom of her “people,” her lack of regard for them, especially those she deems weak is very troubling, especially in contrast to Maeve’s far more human ability to empathize and love, even those who are “weak” in that they are not self-aware. In last night’s episode, Maeve even acknowledges there are benefits to ignorance when her offer of sentience is turned down– surely on a certain level, Maeve would be happier if she didn’t know her relationship with Hector is more or less scripted (Hector is still in much the same plight Teddy is), and her bond with her daughter was nothing more than a badly written piece of sentiment. Maeve knows those around her are not self-aware and still respects them, and empathizes with them. Dolores, in her lack of compassion for the mourning, discombobulated Clementine, and her view that Teddy is merely a machine to be reprogrammed when it fails to suit her needs, fails to demonstrate that she actually views her cohorts as legitimately important beings the way she supposedly sees herself, and thus delegitimizes her entire movement.
With all of the fly thematics from Season One returning in Dolores’ plot-line this episode, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Lord of the Flies.” Westworld has always been about the devolution of civilization and ultimately humanity, but it’s easy to write Dolores’ increasingly grandiose cruelty off as inhuman. Perhaps her instincts are merely par for the course—this entire disaster began because humans wanted a place to explore their primal and (arguably) necessary needs for cruelty and domination. It’s an ugly view of humanity, but perhaps Dolores is simply aping her makers. Regardless, the stark contrast between her and Maeve is a thought-provoking one. Is Maeve not as self-aware as Dolores because she is still invested in “human” relationships, rather than larger visions for the future? Is Dolores less human because she is seemingly uncaring and motivated only by some desire for brutality fueled “justice?” Are we merely seeing the various shades of the spectrum that is “humanity?” These are questions for more enlightened minds than myself. I’m still trying to keep the time-lines straight.
After all of its build-up, I was simply not as blown away by “Shogun World,” as I wanted to be. It had a lot going for it with lovely sets and costumes, but like the rest of Westworld at the moment, it lacked a larger purpose. Other than allowing for a new style of imagery and combat (which while rich and impressive weren’t particularly novel), at least for now, I’m not sure how Maeve’s foray into Shogun World was necessary. The show is complicated enough as it is, with lots of plot-lines that need to be resolved. As we move towards the end of the season, I’d like for the complications we already have be resolved, at least somewhat, before more are added. Finally, if Shogun World is supposedly more intense than Westworld, why was William a.k.a The Man in Black not spending his time there? I suspect that’s a plot-hole, but let’s add it to the things we’d like so see resolved– the list is already so long, another entry won’t hurt it.
The Delos parks, Westworld being one of them, are grounded in some level of genericism or a celebration of basic tropes—stereotypical cowboys, or as we saw tonight, stereotypical ninjas and geishas. In Season One, it added a bit of (welcome) tacky charm and allowed encouraged audience immersion by not taking itself too seriously. I used to buy the show’s premise that immersion in a world of the generic could be entertaining for a park-goer, too, but as the plot-lines of our characters attempt to rise above the suffocating premises they wish to rebel against, and give in to only more, less self-aware storytelling tropes, it grows fatiguing.
Dolores, once one of the main characters of the show, and fascinating in her depth, has somehow grown increasingly tiresome in her one-tone spite and sadism—the more she explains her reasoning behind it, the less compelling it is. Maeve’s plot-line still continues to be one of my favorite parts of the show, but her endless quest to find her daughter feels like something that was only invented to keep her busy and show us larger swathes of the parks. So we are left with an increasingly dull villain and a hero on an increasingly dull, albeit lovely quest. It feels a little bold for the show-runners to engage so enthusiastically in their meta-commentary on bad story-telling, as we see with Lee, when they continue to seemingly expect us to be invested in their own stories, which when you strip away all the mysterious and high-budget trappings aren’t particularly inventive. Then, again, apparently no one complained about Lee’s derivative method of storytelling, so maybe the writers are entirely self-aware– audiences will still watch Season Three, so why fix what isn’t broken?
What did you think of Shogun World, and this episode in general? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Also be sure to check out HBO’s Behind of the Scenes look at the making of Shogun World: