"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" Like Game of Thrones' "Winter is coming," that line has become Westworld's catch phrase, used in equal measure by die-hard fans and casual observers alike to denote that, hey, they watch this prestige show. It's become so ubiquitous as to lose all real meaning. And yet, that sentiment is crucial to understanding "Kiksuya," which subverts every assumption we as viewers have made about the Westworld hosts' journey towards sentience.
Up until now, we've been fed a narrative that puts Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) at the center of Arnold, and then Ford's (Anthony Hopkins) plan to help the hosts liberate themselves from digital bondage. She and Maeve (Thandie Newton) have been framed as the leaders of the park's growing population of "free" hosts, planting seeds of truth wherever they can. But there's been a perspective missing — and a pretty crucial one, as it turns out. The Ghost Nation were introduced in season 1 as bit players in the larger landscape of the park. They were obstacles to be surmounted, the specters that haunt Maeve's nightmares. But if you've been paying attention, you might have noticed hints dropped here and there about the warrior tribe's crucial role in deciphering the mystery of the Valley Beyond.
Those disparate threads finally merge into "Kiksuya," the title of which refers to a Lakota word that translates as "remember." The episode opens with William (Ed Harris), still alive after his shootout with Maeve and Lawrence but just barely, giving himself a "don't die" pep talk. And while I have nothing but confidence in his ability to survive on sheer stubbornness of will, it's probably for the best that he is saved by the sudden appearance of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), the very same Ghost Nation warrior who kidnapped Maeve's daughter (Jasmyn Rae) last week.
Speaking of that little girl — who by the way, has no name listed on IMDb; she's just "Maeve's daughter" — there's more to her than we originally thought. Far from being the victim in this story, she has been quietly communicating with Aketcheta for years, and what's more, she remembers it.
Her fear upon glimpsing William, the man who once murdered her and her mother in cold blood, prompts Aketcheta to share his origin story. "You can remember all the things you’ve seen can’t you?" he asks her. "All the lives we've lived?"
So can he. Like so many of the Westworld hosts, Aketcheta has had multiple iterations. Long before he was painted white, he had a wife, and a family, living a peaceful life removed from regular interactions with the guests. That all changed when he accidentally came across the carnage wrought by Dolores and Teddy (James Marsden) during the hosts' first uprising, some 30 years ago. Arnold ("the creator") is lying dead on the ground, along with Dolores ("the deathbringer"), who shot her maker in the head. But the real catalyst comes when Aketcheta finds a carving of Arnold's maze, the sight of which causes something within him to shift.
“I started hearing a new voice inside my head," he says. "But before I understood it, they took everything from me.” (Those words are consistent with the bicameral mind model that was explained back in season 1 in the context of Dolores' journey.)
Perhaps in an effort to stop him from talking about what he'd seen, or just because an extra body was needed, he's taken out of circulation and reprogrammed as the leader of a new group of terrifying antagonists: the Ghost Nation tribe.
More years go by, with Aketcheta mindlessly following his death-filled loop, until once again, an unexpected encounter triggers something within him. Were you wondering what exactly happened to Logan (Ben Barnes) in the time between when he was unceremoniously dispatched into the wilderness by William at the end of last season, and Dolores' conversation with him in "Reunion"? The answer is: He ended up sitting naked and deeply sunburnt in a desert no-man's-land between the parks, raving about being stuck in the wrong world, and looking for "the door."
Aketcheta leaves him for other humans to find, but the experience changes him: memories start flooding back; out trading in his old village once day, he recognizes his former wife; and then one day, he can't bring himself to complete his bloody loop.
Seeking answers, he rides back out to question Logan, only to find him gone. What he comes across in the aftermath, however, is far more interesting: the same site that William showed Dolores in "Reunion." (It can't be a coincidence that those are the two episodes that connect Logan and what I assume is the Valley Beyond — will we be seeing more of him?)
Convinced that he's found the door to the real world, Aketcheta plans his escape — but he won't leave without his wife, Kohana (Julia Jones). The moment where he confronts her about their true identity is one of the most moving moments in what is really the most emotional episode of the series thus far. But this is Westworld, where no one is allowed to be happy. She is discovered by Delos staff one day as he's out hunting, and led off to be decommissioned.
Much has been made about Dolores' relationship to her father, Peter Abernathy, the first host we saw replaced by another in the same role. Her connection to the host, rather than the character, has shaped our understanding of how relationships work in this universe. Aketcheta's bond with Kohana works in a similar way. He begins to search for her throughout the park, averting death at all costs, so as to not run the risk of having his memory wiped once more. That's when he first meets Maeve's daughter. Once again, our perspective (or "reality") of their relationship is skewed by who we've been listening to. In Maeve's understanding, the Ghost Nation showed up in the name of violence, to attack, pillage and plunder. But now we know that's not the case at all. They were there to spread the word about the maze, to make Maeve and her daughter more receptive to consciousness.
As times goes on, Aketcheta notices that more and more of his former family has disappeared. And he's not alone. An older woman is also starting to realize that things are not as they've been. She tells him that "the ones below" have changed her son, words that make clear to Aketcheta that he's been adopting the wrong strategy: in order to find Kohana, he needs to die.
Though much of Aketcheta's story mirrors Dolores' journey, the scene inside Delos is a direct parallel to Maeve's sudden awakening, when she too walked the dark abandoned hallways full of the naked, de-humanized bodies of those she once knew. It's in these more quiet moments that Westworld really finds its strength (emphasized by Ramin Djawadi's epic rendition of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box") — amidst all the violence and the blood, it's easy to forget just how deep the trauma goes for hosts who are finally realizing how much has been stolen from them. After finding Kohana in a cold storage unit, Aketcheta realizes that he's not alone in feeling loss; it's his responsibility to help others emerge from the darkness. His band of warriors are no longer the harbingers of death, as we've been told; they're enlightened, and spreading the gospel.
I've suspected for a while now that the Ghost Nation tribe would be playing a much bigger role than we thought in the denouement of this season. Aketcheta's fireside conversation with Ford fully cements that into fact. After questioning the warrior about what drove him to keep pursuing the maze ("My primary drive was to protect the honor of my tribe. I gave myself a new tribe.”), he warns him: “When the deathbringer comes for me, you will know to gather your people and lead them into a new world.”
For a while, it seems as if this episode contains two separate plot lines: Aketcheta's origin story, and Maeve's struggle to hold on to whatever life she has left. After rushing her into a Delos lab at the Mesa, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) orders the tech to fix her, citing her ability to control other hosts as an asset that must be preserved at all costs. That strategy backfires: rather than save Maeve, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) decides that it would be more effective to let her body die, keeping only her valuable code. Her ability to control hosts through the mesh network potentially holds the key to regaining administrative access to the entire park.
"She was out there reprogramming hosts on the fly, reading their code, changing their directives. Seeing through their eyes," tech guy tells Hale.
"She wasn't just doing it out there," she replies. "She's doing it right now."
And just like that, it becomes clear that the two storylines have merged. Maeve is communicating directly with Aketcheta, who promises her to care for her daughter as his own. "If you stay alive, find us," he says. "Or die well."
The final shot of Maeve leaves her fate up in the air. But one thing is certain: we can't trust anything in Westworld, least of all what we've been told.
Some thoughts on William:
- William's first reaction to Aketcheta is telling: “I never learned whatever tongue Ford saw fit to give you," he sneers. Unlike his daughter, who later comes to his aid, he is only concerned with what Ford has been telling him is important in the park. And that will most likely be his downfall.
- What is this sickness Aketcheta tells Grace that William has been spreading? Is he referring to the Delos scheme of eternal life?