Zahn McClarnon
Photo: HBO

It makes sense that Westworld would have Indians. Not Native Americans, but “Indians”—the kind that used to show up in Westerns to menace homesteaders and go on warpaths. The park wasn’t built to offer up an informed, culturally respectful take on the past. The park, as we’ve learned multiple times, was built to offer up a fantasy that encourages people to show their “real” selves; and while I may quibble at the idea that a simulation is ever going to reveal our true identity (if someone runs around in Grand Theft Auto V jacking cars and beating up civilians, it’s less an indication of a disturbed personality and more a sign that they enjoy using things the way they were made to be used), at least the design of the place is consistent with that idea. The hosts have loops, and those loops have always been about providing a fantasy for someone else. And part of that fantasy is about embracing cliché; and in the cliché of the Old West, there are Indians.

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It’s a bit of hand-waving that’s sort of worked up until now, but it’s a relief to have an episode like “Kiksuya,” one that does a deep dive into the journey of a native character who’s largely existed on the periphery until now. We’ve seen Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) many times before now, but solely as a symbol—of mysticism, of a different side of the park, or else as a reminder of just how long some of the hosts have been around. For the first time, Akecheta gets to tell his story, relating his life’s journey to Maeve’s (still unnamed, I think?) daughter as William lies bleeding out on the dirt nearby. It’s a wonderfully focused hour that builds to an actual conclusion—and while I’m not sure we learn much here that we didn’t already know or suspect, it’s still emotionally satisfying to spend this much time with a single character, getting to see how they came to be and what drives them.

While I’m willing to accept at this point that “the maze” is a shorthand the show uses to suggest a host’s journey on the road to consciousness, and even be okay with it as an actual physical object, I’m at a loss as to how Arnold’s plan to destroy the park (by having Dolores and Teddy kill all the hosts, then themselves) somehow managed to overlook the tribe of hosts hanging out within earshot of town. Seeing Akecheta wander down main street and stare at the corpses is a fine visual, one that pairs off nicely with the later scene of him witnessing the aftermath of Dolores’ massacre of the humans, but it also fits a little awkwardly with what we’re supposed to know.

There are other bits and pieces of stuff like this throughout the hour, although most of it falls under “wait, am I thinking about this too hard?” than actual legitimate criticisms. It might also be a matter of me misinterpreting what I’m seeing. At one point Akecheta starts sharing the maze with others, which is great, but there’s an implication that he’s the one responsible for tattooing the design onto scalps, which I’m not sure I can really accept. It would be nice to have a reason why William found that maze on a scalp in season one, but the logistics of it all (what did he use to make the mark? Did he just… sow the scalp back on after?) boggle the mind. But, again, I’d rather believe I’m just misreading. There’s a scene late in the episode with Ford mucking about with some warriors, which seemed to be him investigating the tattoo himself, but it could also be that he’s the one responsible, for his usual mysterious reasons.

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Those nitpicks, plus the usual horror at the sheer ineptitude of the park’s management, are the only real concerns I had with “Kiksuya,” and those weren’t enough to detract much from the episode for me. The real draw is hearing Akecheta explain himself, and his journey from a man of peace to a man of war, and how he became enlightened. Unsurprisingly, it’s real fucking sad. In some ways it’s a familiar story, as once again the humans mangle a consciousness for their own needs without any understanding or compassion for the suffering they might be causing; but it also speaks to one of the season’s major themes, the idea that the connection the hosts have for one another—Akecheta to his wife, Maeve to her daughter, Dolores to her father—is a large part of what makes them more than just machines. Again and again, we’ve heard how suffering makes the hosts more “real”; that in the extremity of their pain and terror, they become more than simple programs operating at the whims of human masters. But in order to suffer, there needs to be something worth caring about, something more than just physical misery. By giving these hosts contexts to exist in, Ford and the others helped to ensure that the hosts would eventually transcend their limits.

We’ve seen what living in the park must be like from the hosts’ perspective before, but Akecheta’s story still has power. Watching him stumble over Arnold’s experiment, seeing him piece himself together over time, and seeing how each new discovery only serves to bring him more anguish, is a tragedy with contours easy to predict but hard to deny. He lived a happy, contented life until he found the maze—and then, when the humans decided they wanted him more aggressive, he lost his happy life and became a murderous warrior with just enough self-awareness to know what he’d lost. There’s a bit where he meets Logan relatively soon after William sent him naked into the wilderness (part of the point of the story Akecheta is telling is to explain to Maeve’s daughter why William deserves punishment, although William doesn’t figure into much of what he tells; he’s more of a stand-in for greater human sins), and Logan’s comments clue him in to the existence of a world beyond this one; a world where he can actually hold on to his memories, instead of having himself repeatedly stripped away.

Akecheta ultimately spends 10 years trying to find his wife (who he lost after reconnecting with her and attempting to bring her out of the park), and while it strains credulity to think he could’ve wandered for that long without dying and without anyone noticing, it’s such a terrific idea that that I’m more than willing to let it slide. As is so often the case on this show, what you get from this particular story is conditional on how much you’re willing to meet the writers (and actors and everyone else) halfway; but for once, we have a script (helped considerably by McClarnon’s soulful performance) that doesn’t obscure or obfuscate its intent.

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I could see being frustrated by the lack of forward motion in the hour—really, all that happens is that Charlotte finds out about Maeve’s magic wifi ability; Akecheta takes Maeve’s daughter under his wing; and Emily gets her father back. But while the simpler pleasures of heartbreak and redemption—of finding and losing and finding something again—might not be something you can outline in a blog post or debate on Reddit, I’m relieved to end an episode with a relatively concrete attachment to what happened. For all its cleverness, the show often struggles to personalize the conflicts at its heart, sometimes falling back on passive victims wandering through chaos or unlikeable creeps shooting each other in the head. For once, we have a story about an individual who managed, over time, to find his way and his purpose against incredible odds. If the show can manage puzzle box trickery and this sort of accessible personal plot… well, that would be something, wouldn’t it.

Stray observations

  • I do like the idea that the techs just run updates on the hosts when the hosts die; it’s a reminder of what a horrorshow this place is for the machines (because clearly they all get killed regularly enough for this to be possible) and the just-barely-enough complacency of the humans that made all of this possible.
  • The episode also retcons some of Maeve’s settler memories; she was terrified that the Ghost Nation was out to murder her and her daughter, but Akecheta was just trying to warn her of what was coming.
  • Which leads to the surprisingly moving final beat, where we learn that Maeve, even unconscious, has been in communication with Akecheta this whole time, essentially entrusting him with her child.
  • Also surprising: Lee is really invested in what happens to Maeve. He’s been a lot more interesting this season.
  • Grace promises the fate she’s planning for William would be worse than anything the Ghost Nation could come up with. This seems like a stretch, although maybe her plan is to force him to leave his fun-time murder park and be a goddamn adult for once?

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