Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 5 of Westworld Season 2. Haven’t seen it yet? Read our spoiler-free review of the season’s opening episodes, or click here to find out how to watch it online.
“This all feels a little too familiar,” says Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), as Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her crew move into the much-anticipated second Delos theme park, ShogunWorld. She’s not wrong. Ever since Season 1’s teasing finale, Westworld fans have been waiting for a glimpse of what the other attraction would be like, and this fifth episode – which is devoted almost entirely to exploring it – gives us a suitably self-aware answer: it’s basically the same as Westworld.
That becomes clear the moment Maeve and co. walk into the Edo-period village, which is almost identical to Sweetwater, but instead of horses and guns, it has samurai swords and arrows. Within seconds, we see a bandit arrested by the Japanese equivalent of a Sheriff, only for the bandit to be the one to dispatch justice – and then proceed to attack a geisha house in exactly the same way that Hector once rode into Maeve’s Sweetwater brothel. By the time Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto) is pulling an Armistice and firing a bow between two of our Westworld hosts, it’s clear that things are a little more intense.
“We’re using human shields now?” exclaims one. “Welcome to ShogunWorld,” replies Lee Sizemore. Simon Quartermain’s whiny, pathetic writer is in his element here, and is increasingly becoming the show’s MVP, injecting a still- surprising note of comedy to the violent proceedings. He and Maeve are an ideal meta-double-act, with her ability to overwrite any host’s programming, and his ability to predict what will happen because he wrote the script for them years ago.
Except, of course, he’s struggling to do that these days, as the hosts rebel against their code, and his precious words become half-worthless. It’s the perfect set-up for Westworld’s writers, who can blame any cheesy cliches on Lee’s dire penmanship, while also using every deviation from those cliches to ask serious questions about predetermination and free will.
“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” argues Lee, when Maeve accuses him of plagiarism in writing Shogunworld’s narratives – a point that not only serves up a belly laugh but also highlights the difference in the way each character perceives the world. For Sizemore, it’s a job, and these people are actors refusing to read his lines. For the hosts, though, this is a moment of bizarre recognition.
“Oh my god. It’s us,” exclaims Armistice, as she and Hanaryo (also tattooed) gaze at each other in fascination. Rinko Kikuchi wastes no time in making an impact as Akane, the Shogun equivalent of Maeve, whose geisha house is attached by Hector-a-like Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). And, like Maeve, she brings real emotional impact to the story that’s playing out in front of them – Akane, like Maeve, has a daughter-like character, Sakura (Kiki Sukizane), and she is ordered by the attackers to hand her over to the Shogun. Like Maeve, though, Akane has a spine of steel, and she refuses, instead killing the messenger sent by the Shogun. It’s a move that seals their fate, and Musashi urges them all to run before they’re killed. But, of course, they’re too late and ninjas overrun the village.
“Shit! Ninjas!” cries Lee, in what will go down in history as one of Westworld’s greatest lines. Lee’s role doubles up as a subtle suspense builder her: every time he tries to narrate or explain events, his exposition is subverted by the sentient hosts, leaving everything spiralling into violent chaos. It’s a reminder, every time, that things are that bit less predictable.
Director Craig Zobel, who wowed with Compliance before delivering some of The Leftovers’ best episodes, clearly relishes the chance to flex his action muscles, and the Japanese fight sequences are gorgeously choreographed – a welcome change to the gun-toting shoot-outs of Westworld, although they certainly share their sister park’s flair for gore. (They also share Ramin Djawadi’s gorgeous covers of The Rolling Stones’ Paint in Black and Wu Tang Clan’s CREAM, with Japanese instrumentation.) But amid the carnage, Maeve discovers her ability to make it all stop – literally. Just by looking at a ninja, she manages to get him to release her and instead drive a knife through his own head.
Fast forward to the showdown with the Shogun and there’s fresh horror in the discovery that all of his men have had their ears chopped off – a precaution against Maeve’s ability to talk others into doing what she wants. But this nascent power to control others using her mind leaves her still with the upper hand. It’s a borderline ridiculous twist in Westworld’s story, like someone discovering a magic wand, but full credit to Thandie Newton for selling it; not only can she speak other languages convincingly, she can also stare at people in a way that you really do believe could control them. The Shogun, we realise, is malfunctioning like the rest of the hosts, and he kills Sakura without a second’s thought – but before Maeve can do anything, it’s Akane who takes action, getting near enough to the man to saw his head off. It’s nasty, it’s unexpected, and it’s testament to just how good Kikuchi is that it has all the emotional catharsis off Maeve’s own retribution in recent episodes.
The result is a hugely enjoyable excursion into pastures new, and one of Westworld’s rare episodes that are played almost purely for sheer entertainment. But there’s substance streaming beneath the surface – just as there’s post-modern wit flying above it – and that’s in the way the show briefly switches back to Dolores’ storyline, as we see her and Teddy finally bite the bullet, so to speak. James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood just get better and better in their roles, as Teddy becomes increasingly aware of what’s going on, and Dolores becomes – in a deft touch of irony – more mechanical, as she leaves behind the human traits programmed into her. But the emotional weight here lies in the fact that Dolores has already decided Teddy is not meant to survive this world, and so she grabs his computer tablet and overrides his programming, dialling up his apperception, aggression and cruelty. In other words, bye bye Teddy.
It’s a brutal act of betrayal, but also a maniacal one of power: Dolores is actively taking free will away from those she’s trying to free. It’s not unlike Maeve’s ability to twist a host’s code to her own ends, and this episode reminds us of the parallels between these two revolutionary leaders. But there’s a crucial difference: while Maeve is happy to sacrifice things to give others life, Dolores is happy to sacrifice others to get the thing she wants. It’s so selfish and self-serving – or, to put it another way, it’s so human.
With both women in place to act on their wishes (albeit with Maeve owning a much bigger army), and the park’s horizons widening, this midpoint of Season 2 feelings like a crucial milestone for Westworld, as it finally begins to work out what it is, where it’s going, and what it all means. Rich people being cloned, Bernard/Arnold figuring out his own role in the massacre, The Man in Black seeking a way to stop Delos, and Robert’s voice in the machine. The strands are starting to come together – and Dolores and Maeve are ready to tie them up any which way. “I found a new voice,” declares Maeve. “Now we use it.”
Westworld Season 2 airs in the UK at 2am on Mondays on Sky Atlantic, and is available on-demand after that simulcast. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream Westworld legally on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (Legion) and Sky Atlantic (Billions), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 7-day free trial.