[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “Westworld” Season 2, Episode 8, “Kiksuya.”]
Here’s yet another humble reminder that any speculation in this review is based solely on this episode, as this critic has seen no further than this week’s installment.
“Kiksuya” puts the spotlight on someone whose name you might not have even known until now: Akecheta, played by Zahn McClarnon, the incredible “Fargo” Season 2 alumnus who has been a fringe player until now. As the presumed leader of the Ghost Nation tribe, he’s been a bit of a looming figure of terror.
Episode 8 barely touches on any of the main cast; instead, it follows Akecheta’s life as it began — a peaceful existence with his tribe and his love Kohana (Julie Jones) — and then what it becomes, as Ford’s programmers redesign him as the “strong but silent” type, tasked with rampaging through the Wild West. However, Akecheta remembers his previous life after a series of encounters that awoke his inner nature, including the maze symbol that triggers greater understanding of the world. Even as he played his role in Westworld narratives, he not only seeks to reunite with Kohana, but to bring similar enlightenment to other hosts.
This takes the audience all the way up to the time of the uprising, currently led by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) — or, as Akecheta refers to her, “The Deathbringer.” While violence reigns and Maeve (Thandie Newton), badly injured, goes untreated in the Mesa headquarters, Akecheta promises to protect her daughter during the fight to come. Maeve is aware of this because, as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) is informed, her superpowers include being plugged into the “mesh network,” which is how she’s able to control other hosts. How she may use it in episodes to come remains unknown.
White Hat or Black Hat
This episode subverts stereotypes when it comes to this genre of storytelling, making a delineation between white hat and black hat important. Playing with the narrative tropes of the Wild West has always meant having to acknowledge the painfully archaic concept of “cowboys and Indians,” hardly a politically correct or culturally sensitive notion given our modern understanding of how Native Americans have been (and continue to be) treated in this country.
In previous episodes, “Westworld” has danced around engaging with the issue, but “Kiksuya” gives its Native characters far more depth and humanity than ever before, while also acknowledging the tropes that push them into certain roles. The next episode will likely refocus the action on the main cast, as the seasons approaches its end, but it’s fun to imagine what it might be like if the whole show was like this — focused on the marginalized elements of the narrative.
In the Year… Wait, What Year Is It?
One of the most exciting parts of the episode is how it tracks across so many years, from the very beginnings of the Westworld park, to Arnold’s initial suicide, all the way up to the present day. The details scattered into those moments, especially when it comes to Akecheta’s programming, offer up yet more understanding of Delos Inc.’s inner workings, which remain a point of fascination.
This week uses the full-blown version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” as reimagined by composer Ramin Djawadi, which we first heard in the Season 2 trailer. By the way, this is a really interesting time to go back and rewatch that trailer, now that so much of what it teased has come to pass (while some moments remain unseen within the series).
The love story between Akecheta and Kohana could have overwhelmed the narrative here — it’s easy to root for a romance, after all — but instead director Uta Briesewitz and writers Carly Wray & Dan Dietz make it just one aspect of Akecheta’s blooming self-awareness. There’s still genuine pathos to his realization that he has to let her go, but it isn’t the sole force driving him forward, and his broader interest in freeing not just his love, but all of his fellow people, proves to be far more dynamic.
These Violent Delights
What kind of punishment awaits the Man in Black (still far too used to referring to William that way)? It’s not clear, but every time the series shares more about his daughter, Emily (Katja Herbers), it’s reinforced just how formidable she is, and that instills some concern for the man. The epic battle in play over the course of this season is fascinating, but the war between father and daughter might be almost as compelling, especially as it seems to be coming to a climax.
“I had searched everywhere for my love — except for the other side of death.”
This line stands out because of how it speaks to the slow evolution of how the hosts have come to develop something resembling a system of belief; maybe not a full-fledged religion, but definitely a concept of life, death, and beyond tailored to their specific circumstances. There are even God and devil figures within that concept, specifically Dolores the “Deathbringer” and Arnold the “Creator” — the fact that they seem to have emerged organically over the years has us questioning the nature of our own reality, for sure.
The Questions You’re Not Supposed to Ask
- It was previously shared that Logan Delos died from an overdose years before the time widely considered the “present day” — but how connected was that “overdose” to the events which led to his encounter with Akecheta?
- The fact that William never bothered to learn “whatever tongue Ford saw fit to give you” feels odd given his devotion to trying to “win” at the game of Westworld — wouldn’t he want every tool at his disposal? That said, the fact that Emily knows Lakotan speaks to how she may truly be the superior game player.
Real talk: While this season has been humming along nicely so far, this is honestly the sort of episode it’d be thrilling to see “Westworld” pursue more often; building out the world through the eyes of characters who might not normally get this amount of screen time.
By keeping the storytelling so character-specific, “Kiksuya” (which is the Lakotan word for “remember”) brings a fresh energy to the table, while also still keeping the story moving forward (specifically in regard to Maeve’s quest to save her daughter, while the Delos corporation tries to regain control over the park).
This is an episode about… maybe not humanity, because we seem to resist applying that label to however we might define the hosts. But perhaps more than any other episode, “Kiksuya” challenged the definitions of how we see these characters, pushing deeper into the past and the present, reminding us just how many layers there are to this story, and how much further we have to go.
“Westworld” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.