If you want something done right, give it to actor Zahn McClarnon to do. That’s the logical conclusion to draw coming out of this week’s episode of Westworld, titled “Kiksuya” – and the series’ best hour by a considerable margin. For once, the show’s annoyances (easy escapes, constant pointless bickering, those damn orchestral alt-rock cover versions) aren’t enough to overwhelm the material of real value. It took one of its most underutilized cast members, placed him at the center of a storyline that directly addressed the series’ sci-fi conceit but combined it with real mythmaking power and then let him run. The warrior Akecheta may not save Ghost Nation and its many human captives, but he just might have saved this show.
Until now, McClarnon had only been required to do is act mysterious and menacing – which is easy to do when you’re covered head to toe in death-cult warpaint – and spend a little time in a real-world flashback scene looking smart and suave. (The dude is all cheekbones.) But if you watched Fargo Season Two, you know that this actor is capable of so much more. As Hanzee Dent, the Native American enforcer for a Midwestern crime family, he was a nearly mute murder machine whose every move and murmur carried the weight of the whole rotten world. His reading of a weary, whispered line like “Tired of this life” – so tired that even identifying himself as said life’s owner was too much to bear – was all he needed to make himself the season’s greatest monster and its wounded moral heart.
This is the McClarnon we get tonight. And it’s not because all his part requires of him is to play the strong silent type. Akecheta’s arc in this episode is … well, it’s not an arc at all. It’s a labyrinth. Or more appropriately, a Maze.
We first see the Ghost Nation warlord as he discovers the Man in Black, who’s in the process of slowly dying from multiple bullet wounds. (Yet he can still squeeze out tough-guy clichés to himself like “You’re not dyin’ here, not yet.” Ok.) But the brilliant sunlight, as captured by director and former The Wire cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, and the legato strings from composer Ramin Djawadi hint at something more than menace. Sure enough, when Akecheta returns to camp with his hostage in tow, he quickly changes gears, approaching Maeve’s daughter with an affect halfway between concerned guardian and long-lost friend. In soft-spoken Lakota language, he tells her the story of his life – which, it turns out, she once saved, many memory-erasures ago.
From here, the character and actor cycle through several demanding, emotionally draining versions of being the same basic man – or “man,” since in several scenes he’s no more sentient than an iPhone, giving his conversations with other hosts that uncanny-valley vibe. He tells his young confidant that he was once a happy family man living a peaceful life out on the plains, until he stumbled across Dolores the Deathbringer (now there’s a nickname) in mid-massacre. He discovers the mad scientist’s Maze symbol, and his own insane obsession with it leads the tribe to fear him. Soon, the park’s technicians to pull him from service. He’s eventually reprogrammed him into a face-painted killing machine: “This time, I came out breathing fire.”
McClarnon does beautifully sick work in that gruesome guise, at one point smearing the blood of a victim on his face in sheer ecstasy. But Akecheta’s wanderlust upends his life a second time when he rides out into the desert and spots Logan (Ben Barnes), naked and deranged from exposure to the elements following the events of Season One. “There’s gotta be a way out of here,” he rants. “Where’s the door? … This is the wrong world!”
Like the Maze design before it, this triggers something in the warrior’s mind. He visits his old village and recognizes his former wife. He realizes he’s been conducting the same slaughter over and over. Eventually he rides even further into the desert and discovers “The Valley Beyond” – the gigantic excavation where Delos presumably stores all their intel on the guests. He quietly kidnaps Kohana, his lost love, and unlocks her memories by washing the make-up from his face and reciting old, shared sweet nothings. But their time together is short-lived: The Valley Beyond has been paved over. Technicians find and kidnap her while he’s out hunting, filling her role in the village with a different host.
Desperate to hang on to his memories as long as he can, he avoids getting killed – in freaking Westworld! – for almost a decade. He finds more of his family replaced, and discovers that the villagers tell stories of “The Ones Below,” demons who seize people and take them to another world. He realizes that to find his wife again, he must allow himself to travel there. Somehow he’s able to play dead convincingly enough to fool the tech bros and sneak into the storage facility where out-of-service host bodies are kept – including Kohana and her brother. He cuts off the man’s braid and brings it back to his still-living mother; his silent tears and her sobbing collapse during this sequence are the episode’s emotional high point.
Soon, like both Dolores and Maeve (who spends the episode being hacked by park techs, as a genuinely regretful Sizemore sobs apologies to her), Akecheta becomes a spearpoint of robot revolution. He will spread the symbol of the Maze far and wide – including to Madam Millay and her daughter, who misinterpret the symbols and his presence as something sinister. He fails to protect them from the Man in Black, whom he turns over to his vengeful daughter Emily in the present day. But the warrior himself is spared erasure by none other than Robert Ford.
In a gorgeously constructed face-off between McClarnon and Anthony Hopkins – made to look like a gory version of a Natural History Museum diorama – Akecheta receives a warning from the cryptic old bastard that the Deathbringer is returning, and that he must be ready to lead his people to a new world. McClarnon is amazing in this moment; you can feel his reluctance to follow his computerized orders from the park’s omnipotent creator in the intensity of his eyes and the ground-out timbre of every word. It makes for a truly moving contrast with the episode’s finale: We discover that far from being incapacitated, Maeve has been broadcasting to Akecheta all along, receiving his promise to care for her daughter in a series of closeups on the three characters as they look directly into the camera.
Husband, madman, outcast, killer, slave, prophet, parent: Akecheta are all these things in more in the space of a single hour. By allowing the focus to remain on just this one man in all his many incarnations, the still-epic scope of the story feels rooted and real in a way it never has before. The cast is too big for this to remain the creative model for the show, but for now we’ll take what we can get. This is the episode where Westworld lives up to its potential at last.
Previously: High Fidelity