Not gonna lie, compadres – this might be the best Westworld episode of all time. One day after airing, and it has a 9.4 on IMDb. Avengers: Infinity War (the highest rated film in the franchise) has an 8.8. The Shape of Water, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year, has a 7.4. The Handmaid’s Tale, which won the Emmy for Best Prime-time Drama series, averages 8.6. Not that scores mean anything much, I just bring this up to show how much this episode is already becoming a fan and industry favorite. And count me in on that. My reaction when the end credits ran was a combination of shock and joy and for the first time in my life (or so I think), I stood up off the couch and just stood there looking at the television, knowing I wanted to do something and not knowing what. Yeah – I want to marry this episode and have a million of its babies. It’s that good. But I don’t want to oversell it.
A caution: Here there be serious spoilers. I’m serious – if you haven’t seen it, stop reading. Stop doing anything. Stop wasting your life and go watch it right now, streaming on HBO Go. I do not want to be responsible for taking the punch out of this episode. I am as serious as a heart attack. GO AWAY!
Okay, now that it’s just us who saw it – oh my god, right? We’ll get to the end, but let’s touch on some fascinating things along the way.
First, that title. “Kiksuya” is the Lakota word for “Remember.” As with the best of Westworld, it is an episode title that is evocative, carries multiple meanings, and shades the episode. Akecheta (“Ake” for short) remembers his previous lives as a host, and, eventually, seeks to awaken the members of the Ghost Nation to the fact that some of them have changed, been replaced, or were different in the past. It also refers to the story he seemingly tells Maeve’s daughter. BUT, it is so much deeper than that.
This is a show that explores memory intricately – how and why we remember. The hosts “forget,” but what happens when they do remember? Hosts are only supposed to remember within lives and be erased between lives. If the “present” of the show is the host revolution and the quest of the older Man in Black, then all earlier scenes are but memories. Remembering is also a vital, active action. Hamlet’s father’s ghost gives him three commands: kill your uncle, leave your mother alone, and “remember me” (1.5.91). Remembering is how we keep the dead alive (dead as in “Ghost Nation?”) Our national promise after 9/11 was “we will never forget,” but that is a passive structure. All you have to do is nothing. When someone says, “Hey, remember this?” and you say, “Yes,” you’ve done your job. Remembering is an active choice. One must actually work to remember. What is being remembered is the past, particularly the significant past. So, what Ake does, through his quest, is also remember America’s own Native American / First Nation history, which was originally written by the white settlers. Remembering is an act of defiance and cultural resistance in this case. And yet, as encoded in their very name, Ghost Nation exists at a moment in the history of the west where their way of life (and indeed, identity and freedom in the land which was and is theirs) is vanishing. The Ghost Nation is just that, a ghost – something once living and vibrant and now back from the dead to protest injustice and an artificial historic record. And the memory that is narrated is the story of the journey of the Ghost Nation from minor host characters on the periphery of the park (and the park’s narrative, serving only as villains or local color) to the first group to become self-aware, conscious, and woke.
It is no wonder Ake and the Ghost Nation actually started the awake-host movement. On the margin, ignored, Ake was able to witness the building of new structures in the park. Indeed, when Kohana is with him out in the wilderness, two techs find her and wonder why she has wandered so far away from where she was supposed to stay. The fact that she was able to get there (and Ake, as well) is indicative that the village isn’t well monitored. Might even be fair to say it is ignored until needed. And, as the parent of toddlers, I can assure you that leaving curious people to their own devices results in unforeseen consequences. Also, as “outsiders” even within the world of hosts, the Ghost Nation sees things that settler hosts miss or take for granted. (I’m calling them that, since they are predominantly white, but also there are a number of African-American host characters living within Westworld “civilization.”) This phenomenon also echoes the real-world experience of the indigenous peoples of the Americas initially helping and developing techniques that were taught to the Europeans, who then promptly slaughtered them and took their land. Lastly, the indigenous warrior is more in tune with his natural environment. Go and read the writings of the Puritans in New England through the narratives of the “conquest” of the west. Every last one speaks of “conquering” and “taming” the land, “bringing civilization” and living in competition with nature, which must be beaten. Compare this with Native philosophies, which stressed working in harmony with nature and reading the signs of disturbance as problems to be solved (or avoided), not nonsensical nature that needs to be defeated. By recognizing “the world is wrong,” Ake is able to realize the reality of his situation, and then bring that knowledge to his people, which for my money makes him an echo of Wovoka, the nineteenth century founder of the Native spiritual movement called Nanissáanah, or “Ghost Dance” in English. (C’mon, “Ghost Nation” points right to it.)
The Ghost Dance was a religious and nationalist/identity movement which used a circle dance as a basis for a ceremony designed to end white expansion and return the land to the Native Americans. Like many religious revivals, it stressed purity, a return to the “old ways,” a rejection of assimilation and a construction of the oppressor as “evil other.” The Ghost Dance movement eventually led to the Lakota Rebellion and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Wovoka was its prophet, and he spread his prophesy of the end of white control of the Midwest. It was an early form of a Native Consciousness movement. Ake is a similar prophet, with both spiritual and real-world messages. He wants to lead his people to the real world out of this wrong one, but he also wants them to embrace his message of remembrance and awareness.
And can I just go on record saying it is so refreshing to see a depiction of an indigenous culture that is not stereotyping, patronizing, inaccurate, or simply using that culture as a plot point or novelty in the narrative. The language being spoken is Lakota. While not identified as such, Ghost Nation seems to be closely reflecting the Lakota Sioux, and the word “Lakota” is derived from the Lakota word for “unified” or “allied.” Most of the best-known pop culture Native American figures are Lakota: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, Black Hawk, and Red Cloud, not to mention more recent Native Rights activists such as Russel Means and Leonard Peltier. Lakota culture is often employed as stereotypical “Indian” culture. So this episode is welcome relief from other depictions, even well-meaning ones.
What this also means is that the episode is presented from an indigenous point of view. Even in the world of hosts, the native characters are the victims of prejudice and low social standing in the world. “Kiksuya” asks the viewer to remember the Native American presence and privilege it for a change. As I’m writing this, I reflect upon REM’s “Cuyahoga,” which contrasts the pollution of the Cuyahoga River (which actually caught fire in 1969) with the Native American nation it is named after which once lived in that place (“This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang, / Take a picture here, take a souvenir”), another text about remembering historic Native American presence and the exploitation of that cultural heritage (“take a souvenir”) by those who displaced them.
Second, the usual characters are supporting in this episode. Sizemore, Maeve, the Man in Black, Grace, and Ford all have cameos, but this episode is really about the Ghost Nation and Ake. And let’s pause to talk about Zahn McClarnon, who played the role. Why do I not watch award shows? Because Zahn McClarnon should be nominated for his work in this episode for an Emmy, a Golden Globe and anything else for which he qualifies, and if there were any justice in the universe he would be – but if history is any indication he will not be (see: Norman Reedus). The acting in this episode was sublime and nuanced. There is a special joy in watching an artist at the height of his or her craft, and McClarnon proves himself a master here. Emotionally-connected, transcendent, utterly believable and yet somehow inspired. Kurosawa Akira used to say of Mifune Toshiro, “The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needs only three.’ I think that applies to McClarnon as well.
With that much in mind, let’s look at the narrative arc. We begin with the William in Black, bullet-riddled, dragging himself to a stream for a drink. A Ghost Nation warrior finds him and begins to tend to him, telling him, “Death is a passage from this brutal world. You don’t deserve the exit.” Once again, Westworld reminds us that to live is to suffer, and there are a good deal of folks, including his own daughter, that want him to suffer.
Last episode, a very distinct Ghost Nation warrior had kidnapped Maeve’s daughter. That same warrior, Ake, who just began to heal the Man in Black, tells Maeve’s daughter his story. Thus the entire episode is also a series of narrated memories (“Remember” – see, told you this episode was deep and awesome). Back when William first became the Man in Black, and his brother-in-law Logan was sent off into the high plains to live or die as the universe saw fit, Ake encountered Logan and then saw construction on a Westworld lab/bunker. He then realizes, “This is the wrong world.” He becomes the first woke host. He realizes there is something wrong with his reality. His understanding would soon become a virus among his people, so to speak.
Music has always mattered to Westworld, but in this episode we see an instance of a particularly canny usage. As Ake hunts, both for the woman he loves and a better world, an acoustic cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” begins to play. Cemented in this episode, Westworld’s largest thematic arc is the quest for freedom – freedom for the hosts, freedom from real life for the guests, freedom from mortality for the Delos corporation, freedom on the personal and social levels for everyone. William in Black seeks to be free from the crushing disappointment of his life. Ake wants his people to be free. Yet he is looking for two things that are the exact opposite. The other world he caught a glimpse of is freedom. His love for Kohana ties him to this world, and thus searching for her keeps him here. “Heart Shaped Box” is a song about feeling trapped and isolated, particularly in or by a relationship. As Ake looks for the one thing that ties him to this world, a song about being trapped begins to play, with an emphasis on being trapped by love. Even when seeking freedom, Ake remains trapped in Westworld by the feelings he has programmed into him. Even those who fight for freedom find themselves trapped. Maeve stays for her daughter; in opposition, Dolores must destroy what she loves about Teddy in order to ensure the success of her revolution and in doing so, ends their love. The very thing that inspires us to seek freedom – the ones we love whom we want to be free – are also the very thing that threaten that freedom. Last week we talked about free will and whether it was an illusion or not. This week, the episode seems to suggest that freedom is an illusion as well. Oh, Westworld, you’re so pretty. (Thanks to my wife Lacy for articulating this far better than I did.)
He kidnaps Kohana, the woman he loves, when she comes back and is “a ghost,” not remembering her previous relationship with him. He realizes there is something going on that makes his people not right and is determined to search for the cause. He wanders into the white towns, where he is presumably beaten and experiences violent prejudice. Maeve’s daughter gives him water, and this is the reason why he kidnapped her: to keep her safe. He realizes the only way to find out what is happening is to die himself. Killed by a settler, he is brought to an underground lab where he finds his love and the rest of his tribe in cold storage. “For everyone in this place there was someone who mourned them, even if they didn’t know why.”
Simon confesses to a dying Maeve, “You don’t deserve this. You deserve your daughter.” Meanwhile Ake discovers the man in the maze symbol. He begins to scalp and tattoo or carve it on the skin under the scalp. He starts a new movement based on the maze. He also is increasingly protective of Maeve’s daughter, explaining to her that when he came to their cabin, he was there to tell them the truth and protect them. William killed them, and Ake failed to save them. He regrets that his actions had been interpreted as hostile.
Numbers grow. “We were waking up.” Then Ake finds himself in a tableaux of warriors fighting a bear. Ford is there, examining Ake’s handiwork on the scalps and they begin to converse. “My primary drive has been to maintain the honor of my tribe. I gave myself a new task to spread the truth.” He tells Ford that this world is wrong, and he plans to go to a new world which will have “every thing we lost.” Ford tells Ake when he sees the “Deathbringer” kill Ford, he should gather his people and move to this new world. The Deathbringer, by the way, is Dolores Abernathy.
Grace arrives to take back the dying William in Black. “We cannot let him continue,” asserts Ake. “Then, why heal him?” asks Grace. “I want him to hurt,” is the answer. “We want the same thing,” she tells him. “But with mine it will be much, much worse.”
Simon is told to leave by Dr. Roland, the Delos scientist. Maeve, it turns out, can reprogram hosts with her mind. She can change commands and directives. She can even enter other hosts and see and hear through them. She’s doing it right now, however, and they don’t know with whom she is communicating. Enter Charlotte Hale, unhappy over what Maeve is doing, but needing to know who is on the other end of that conversation. In an instant, all the pieces fall into place.
“We will keep your daughter as our own.” Ake says to Maeve’s daughter. “If you stay alive, find us. Or die well.” And HOLY CRAP! HE’S NOT TALKING TO THE DAUGHTER, HE’S BEEN TELLING ALL THIS TO MAEVE THE WHOLE TIME!!!! Changes everything. Best twist reveal since Keyser Soze let slip that Bruce Wills is really dead and a man at the end of The Sixth Crying Game’s Usual Suspects. (I told you there were major spoilers down here!)
As I was saying, this changes everything. Maeve learned how she woke up and who her true allies were. Ake was not protecting the daughter, although tangentially he was. He was protecting Maeve. He recognizes in her a kindred spirit. The Native American and the African-American sex worker are united to overthrow the oppressive system of Delos. This narrative just got a lot more political.
This is also an episode best watched twice, the second time through with the knowledge of what is really happening. The story takes on new levels of meaning and Zahn McClarnon’s performance becomes even more shaded with subtle meanings and reveals. Give that actor an Golden Globe, already! And more work (have you seen him in Longmire?)!
Two episodes left in this season, but this one will be hard to top. Dammit, Imma go watch it again. Join me – so worth it! See you next week, True Believers.