What's true of Grand Theft Auto or The Legend of Zelda is true for the occasional blockbuster TV series too: Sometimes, a side quest can be the best part of a game. For proof, look no further than tonight's sword-slinging episode – "Akane No Mai" – in which Westworld officially goes East. Set in a simulacrum of feudal Japan, it revolves around Maeve's quest to help a local madam named Akane (whose gig and personality are based on the former saloon-dwelling alpha female's own template) rescue her adoptive daughter Sakura from the clutches of an evil shogun. As both her robotic and human companions keep telling her, this is a hugely unnecessary risk for Maeve to take ...which is what makes it worth taking. The dialogue still feels stilted, the pace slow. But plotwise, it's the breeziest, most action-driven episode we've seen in a long time.
This is Westworld in peak pulp-thrill mode. Maeve, for example, is not just one of the park's two Patient Zeroes when it comes to the robot revolution (the other being Dolores) – she's slowly manifesting the powers of a superhero, or even a messiah. Her voice control over other hosts is impressive, though it's started to prove spotty. If there's a language barrier, or if she gets choked or gagged, or if her intended targets have their ears burned off by a crazed shogun (hey, it happens), the transmitter and receiver can't connect properly. So she spontaneously manifests a new talent: telepathy. First, she senses the arrival of the shogun's ninjas before their attack begins, narrowly saving her from an assassin's knife. Then, on the verge of being strangled to death by one of the black-clad attackers, she mentally commands him to impale himself on a nearby spearhead. Remember in The Matrix when Neo suddenly starts seeing in code? It's that kind of "holy shit!" moment.
Then, of course, there's Shogunworld itself. Whether you're talking about the park's designers or the show's creators, this environment is clearly engineered not for strict, dry historical accuracy – it's all about entertaining paying customers/subscribers who like samurai and ninja movies. That may or may not be your thing, naturally. But if you just love the ring of steel on steel and the pitter-patter of ninja feet across wooden rooftops, your response here is guaranteed to be Pavlovian. Kurosawa, Misumi, Tarantino – regardless of who's pushing your drug of choice genre-wise, ShogunWorld is a mainline hit of it.
And since the characters and storyline Maeve & Co. encounter are recycled completely from Westworld (a running gag with narrative department chief Sizemore, who's apparently as lazy as he is sleazy), you even get a bit of the Japan/Western cross-pollination vibe found not just in Kill Bill but in cowboy remakes of samurai classics like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars. The flow from East to West is simply reversed here.
But – listen, this is Westworld, there's always a but – enough baffling decisions remain to knock you out of the action faster than a katana to the face. For starters, despite what looks like very strong fight choreography and a behind-the-scenes budget bigger than a small country's GDP, all the combat is shot in the dark. This is usually either a cost-cutting measure (you don't need to pay for details you can't see) or a way to hide sloppy swordplay. Since neither of those factors appear to apply, it comes across like sheer addiction to the murky, somber lighting and color palette of Prestige TV. What's the point of all that precise blade-wielding if you don't actually get to see the damn blades?
Also, true to the show's programming, cringeworthy music cues are abound here. If you thought the cover of Kanye West's "Runaway" (coincidentally the week he went full MAGA) or the "White Stripes: Indian Edition" version of "Seven Nation Army" were hard to take, wait until you hear faux-Japanese versions of the Stones' "Paint It Black" and the Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M." The former, at least, is a callback to the show's first use of the song, during the Sweetwater bandit raid that ShogunWorld has recycled for its own setting. But "Cash Rules Everything Around Me," during a scene that has nothing to do with cash? Is the idea "Well, Wu-Tang love samurai flicks, so it works"? If so, why not remake a song that actually samples music or dialogue from those films? As it stands, this just sounds like taking the Wu's most recognizable hit and dumping it in the middle of a scene just because they can. Not even dropping a big sack with a dollar sign right in Thandie Newton's lap would seem more jarring.
Still, there's gold to be sifted from the river of corn and cliché. Back in Westworld proper, Dolores and Teddy spend the episode exchanging stiff dialogue about their past and future together, leading to one of the most perfunctorily shot sex scenes this side of a Lifetime movie – all gentle closeups of legs bending and hands clasping and mouths gasping, etc. They finally feel they've come to an understanding of who they really are, though only Miss Abernathy knows who her poor sap of a host-boyfriend really is: someone too kind-hearted and weak to survive the plague of violence that's coming. Like ailing cows dragging down an entire herd during a pandemic, that weakness could destroy her whole plan.
So she forces a behavioral technician to perform an as-yet-unknown alteration of Teddy's personality. She's using her powers to exert control over the good hosts she comes across, not free them – a sister to this episode's anti-Maeve. In that sense, Dolores has already become what she's rebelling against. Now there's a storyline provocative enough to be worth going to battle for.
Previously: Do the Strand