Sunday, May 20, 2018

REVIEW: 'Westworld' - Maeve Ventures Into a New World and Encounters a Familiar Story in 'Akane No Mai'

HBO's Westworld - Episode 2.05 "Akane No Mai"

Welcome to Shogun World.

One of the biggest criticisms of the first season of Westworld was that the same stories and emotional plot beats happened over and over again. Things were going around in circles just waiting for something big and mystifying to occur. Yes, the show used the power of these circular narratives to paint a bleak picture for just how oppressive life has been for the hosts in the park. The humans use these narratives that are so simple and basic in order to fill out their worlds. It's mostly for the guests' pleasure. They are able to enter into these storylines knowing exactly what to expect while the hosts keep falling into the same patterns over and over again while still making the same mistakes. And now, the hosts are much more sympathetic because they are fighting back against that primal coding. This season is exploring what it means to actually be sentient. Is any of the original coding actually real? Should the hosts buy into the narratives that were designed for them to please others? Or should they reject their code in order to chase their own identities and ambitions in this world? These are the themes the show is reckoning with this year. It's presenting two polar opposite takes on the same subject matter as well. Dolores and Maeve have always been presented as the two hosts in the park who are sentient and have a direction for their immediate futures. Dolores is attacking humanity for oppressing her people for far too long while Maeve is trying to reunite with her daughter. These are the new narratives they are on this season. As such, it could be very annoying whenever they break from those journeys in order to explore other possibilities in this world. And yet, that too is a part of them learning how to be human better than most humans do. They are understanding that it's perfectly fine to get distracted by new stories in the hopes of being affected and evolve in new and surprising ways. It allows them to have a richer and more meaningful sense of themselves.

As such, it's very rewarding when Maeve and her band of survivors meet almost identical versions of themselves while in Shogun World. The show has been teasing this new park for awhile now. The audience got their first glimpse of Shogun World in the first season finale. They teased it with Maeve wondering through the behind-the-scenes world not being able to ask too many questions about what was going on. This season even introduced another new park before returning to Shogun World. The Raj is where Grace started her journey this season before winding up in Westworld. And now, it could be very annoying and verging on cruel for Maeve and company to venture into the place the guests who think Westworld is too tame go. They venture into this completely different world and genre. It's the show providing some meta commentary on how the stories of samurais and Westerns largely follow the same basic plot points. The choice of weaponry happens to be different. And yet, that's very much an abstract conversation that doesn't really go anywhere. It's much more personal to see Maeve, Hector and Armistice interact with their counterparts in this world. It's pointed out that Lee basically just copied storylines between worlds. It's simply too much to expect him to come up with completely original material for every single character in every single different reality of the park. That would be incredibly daunting for him. And yet, it appears that Ford had no problem dealing with the overall narratives of these worlds. Right now, Lee is pointing out all the ways that Shogun World is following a narrative as well as the numerous ways that it is breaking away from its code. It's all to present a situation where Maeve understands the situation as she's watching it play out while also feeling the need to help her counterpart, Akane, achieve what she wants in this world.

All of this is important character work because it actually shows to the audience that Maeve is pushing against her natural coding and is willing to help others in this world. She was designed to be a loner. She was the madam of a brothel who would make any deal so long as it worked out in her benefit. She wasn't designed to fall in love or have close attachments to anyone. And yet, she finds herself drawn to Hector and desperate to reunite with her daughter. Her feelings for her daughter are just remnants of a past identity that shouldn't be informing her current behavior. However, she remembers that life and chose to rescue her instead of escaping to freedom. She made that choice herself. That was her decision that broke her free from her code. And now, she continues to break free by showing that she actively wishes to participate in this new narrative. Yes, it presents a way for her to reflect on her own life and their consequences. She's seeing herself reflected back to her in this new reality. She knows the stories that Akane has to share with the woman who works for her. She feels companionship by trying to protect the girls and ensure that they have a stable and healthy life despite being at the pleasure of men. Here, Akane makes the same choices that Maeve made. She chooses to retaliate against those who wish to corrupt her world. Akane pushes back against those who want to take her dancer, Sakura, aware from her. She is declaring war with the Shogun. It's a precarious situation that could very well get Maeve and her companions killed. And yet, Maeve chooses to continue playing along with this story because she feels a connection to this place and the narrative. It's even unlocking new insight in her mind as well.

It's such a powerful tease to learn that Maeve is possibly conquering a new skill that is forming due to her being sentient. She has always presented as being able to get into a hosts code and change it to her benefit. She has vocal commands that the other hosts listen to as well. She could be just as superior as the humans were last season. And now, she's been struggling on her journey this year because she's faced more resistance to her power of suggestion. Most of the time there have just been too many enemies to try and control. She simply couldn't influence all of them. And here, it takes a situation of great personal danger for her to unlock this new gift. And yet, it's a powerful suggestion of what's to come this season as well. She is able to get into the heads of the hosts without needing to say a single word. All she has to do is think about it and the hosts will respond accordingly. That's an even more powerful form of suggestion. Here, it plays out with Maeve getting the Shogun's men to turn against each other. Their ears have been cut off so there's no understanding that Maeve will be able to influence them in any way. She feels like a prisoner of the Shogun's simply because she can't do anything to change her fate. She believes she has the skills to help Akane rescue her surrogate daughter. And yet, Sakura still dies. The Shogun still takes his personal pleasure in this world. It's understandable why Akane reacts accordingly to that by killing the Shogun. But that only presents an even more immediate threat to her and Maeve's lives. They are at risk of dying and Maeve is able to turn this army against each other. So, it appears to be a new tool that she can only utilize during periods of extreme emotion. However, it's important to understand that she was only able to unlock it by going on this adventure in Shogun World and choosing to interact with the host who mirrors her former life.

Meanwhile, Dolores is wrestling with her feelings towards Teddy. Right now, she is motivated into action because of her connection to her father and needing to save him from the Delos operatives wishing to exploit whatever is inside his head. It's a simple objective that is personally driving her because she is the only one who has a stake in the outcome of this story. She feels the need to rescue him even though he is no longer the host programmed to serve as her father. That was just one of the identities he's had in his service at the park. Meanwhile, Dolores has been programmed to be in love with Teddy. This season has seen her wondering if any of her past identities have been her true self or if they are all a true distillation of who she is aspiring to one day become. Her current actions are informing the person she wants to be. That person is incredibly violent. She sees a world where she needs to act through war in order to ensure her future survival. She is fighting back against the people who have hurt her for so long. But she's also making the conscious choice that she does love Teddy. She understands that he's the guy meant for her. She understands that that is part of her code. And yet, she chooses to accept it anyway. She has love for him and is willing to spend a night together with him. That's what makes it so tragic afterwards when she decides he needs to be completely reprogrammed because a sweet, nice guy like Teddy won't serve her grand desires for this world. She knows that he's not sentient like her. He is still beholden to the identity in his code. She has the way of perfecting him to be the man she needs for this mission. And yet, she's absolutely devastated to lose him. This will serve as the destruction of the man she loves. She was hoping to make him become aware of the world as she sees it. But Teddy struggled seeing that world. Dolores simply doesn't have the same patience that Arnold and Ford had with her. And so, she must completely rework his personality to ensure that no more complications arise with this mission. But that only ensures that things will continue to build in such tragic ways with this story. The audience knows that Teddy eventually dies in this story. And now, we are seeing the first glimpses of how that came to be.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Akane No Mai" was written by Dan Dietz and directed by Craig Zobel.
  • It should be very fascinating to see what happens to Akane and Sakura. Maeve goes along with their story because she feels connected to them. She is willing to take them on this journey with her and open their eyes to the new world. They choose to stay behind. That leads to Sakura getting killed. And yet, death is never permanent with the hosts. Maeve is still working with two technicians after all. She could be able to give Akane the thing she wants more than anything else in this world. That could make her one powerful ally this season.
  • Maeve seems to unlock these new powers during high times of stress and fear for her life. That would be the easy way to approach this new skill. But it's never that simple. She is also able to enter Akane's mind in the hopes of waking her up to her true reality. She pushes back against that suggestion because she doesn't want to be free. That too is a very fascinating choice. It's the kind of decision that may prove that there are so many similarities between Akane and Maeve after all.
  • Dolores and Teddy spend their time together in Sweetwater. It's them returning to the world where their narratives largely played out. They had this romance together that was always being intruded on by the guests. And now, Dolores is fixing up the train to take her and her army to Mesa where she knows her father is currently being held by Charlotte and her associates.
  • Maeve is hardly the only host who comes face-to-face with someone in the same story as hers. Clementine meets the host who came into the brothel to replace her. The new Clementine is still saying the same lines as always. It's a pattern that the audience can easily recognize. Clementine recognizes it as well. And yet, it's also clear that she is just drifting in and out of this world serving whatever purpose or lack thereof.
  • In the future timeline, Maling is draining the valley and pulling out all of the hosts who are just floating there. Their minds are being removed from their heads and being examined by Antoine. Then, he notes that over a third of them are as of if they were never turned on in the first place. That's a very ominous tease as well. All of that data has just vanished. That will cause Delos to worry. But it also proves that Bernard is in a lot of danger right now too.