I’m liking this new, more streamlined Westworld. The past three episodes have followed a single A-story, telling almost self-contained stories in their entirety, while touching on a B-story or two. It’s a less frustrating viewing experience, and - in last week’s adventure in human cloning and this week’s journey into Shogun World - resulted two of the show’s best episodes yet. I could get used to this (but I probably shouldn’t).
Westworld has been teasing a visit to Shogun World since last season, and this week's episode made up for the wait. Samurai, ronin, geishas, ninjas, a shogun, and many gallons of blood made appearances this week, as Maeve, Lee, Hector, Armistice, and our two favourite bumbling lab technicians ventured across park boundaries (on what definitively seems a single island). Based on Edo Japan, Shogun World is designed for those hyper-violent customers for whom Westworld is too tame. Amusingly, however, many of Shogun World's characters and locations, though beautifully-designed, are just reskins of those found in Westworld, in a cost-cutting effort analogous to one often employed in video game development. Maeve empathises with her Shogun World counterpart; Armistice is fascinated by hers; Hector immediately hates his. Even the soundtrack's musical covers are the same: we heard “Paint It Black” last season, and heard it again this week, cloaked in traditional Japanese instrumentation.
Maeve and company meet with strange set of AI behaviours, in which hosts continue to express their programmed personalities even as the parameters of their simulation have changed dramatically. With no guests to play the key roles in their preordained narratives, and with Maeve's freedom virus having spread to their park, the Shogun World hosts have begun feeding back upon themselves, creating new Frankensteined storylines far from the park creators’ original intentions. (The fact that the Shogun host is literally broken probably helps too.) It certainly makes for exciting television, as ninjas attack Maeve's counterpart Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) and soldiers kidnap her favourite geisha. As we follow Maeve to the shogun's camp, it's like a greatest-hits compilation of samurai tropes - right up until the final confrontation, in which a vengeful Akane brutally bisects the Shogun's head.
Incredibly, and happily, all this samurai action actually plays second fiddle to the development of Maeve's emotions and abilities. Plagued with flashbacks to her former lives, Maeve can't help but help her fellow host - specifically Akane, with whom she feels an almost spiritual kinship. Akane hasn't awakened like Maeve has, but her maternal feelings are as real (and as fake) as Maeve's. As the fluently Japanese-speaking Maeve notes, she is a true mother - a reflection of how Maeve would like to see herself, perhaps.
Maeve's connection to other hosts also manifests via a newfound and largely unexplained ability, whereby the former saloon madam can issue commands telepathically. That's a big addition to the sci-fi fiction of the show, and though it doesn't entirely make logical sense (despite the presence of wireless transceivers in every host brain), it fits with Maeve's path of development. She's a force of nature now, stopping at nothing to get what she wants - and as she strides confidently across the battlefield, her kimono spattered with the blood of her enemies, I definitely want to see what her newfound inner voice can do.
Dolores, the subject of this week's B-story, gets precious little screentime, but makes up for it with a horrifying character turn. The once-sweet farm girl has a plan to use Westworld's guest train to reach the central mesa, take back her father, and take over the world - but first, she's got some cleansing to do. Citing a story about burning sick cattle to save the herd, Dolores has her enforcers grab Teddy and overwrite his personality with “base-level heuristics.” It's a terrifyingly literal interpretation of cultish brainwashing, and a further development of Dolores’ belief that some hosts just aren't pure enough for her salvation. Apparently, Teddy's awakening came too slow; though she happily went for one final roll in the hay with him, Dolores couldn't abide Teddy's aw-shucks desire for a quiet life. Her emergence as a cult leader with a fucked-up philosophy is one of this season's more surprising storylines. Hopefully there's enough material there to go a little deeper with it.
The episode's sole glimpse of a third storyline comes in a brief flash-forward. QA is draining the corpse-strewn lake they found back in the premiere, searching for Abernathy - which suggests Dolores will successfully reattain her “father” in a coming episode. More curiously, they discover that a third of the hosts recovered from the lake have empty brains. I have to assume that's a result of Dolores’ mental cleansing process. But is it? Little is ever what it seems on this show, after all.
Westworld's two female leads saw some considerable development this week. One decided her preprogrammed feelings might as well be real, while learning the robot equivalent of a Jedi mind trick. The other consciously rejected her assigned romance in favour of a horrifying quest for purity. These two women are very much two sides of the same coin, dealing with their newfound freedom and influence in vastly different ways, and both Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton do excellent work with their disparate material.
Looking to next week, it seems inevitable that Dolores will have some confrontation at Westworld's central mesa, and that Maeve will either wipe out a whole army singlehandedly or suffer the most embarrassing defeat in the show's history. There's also the question of whether Lee will find a way to contact QA, as he clearly wishes to. Delving into Shogun World presents a literal new world of possibilities - even the WB ident in the credits gets in on the rebrand - and it'll be exciting to see where that can go.
Or who knows: maybe we'll get to see the original films’ Future World, Medieval World and Roman World after all. A nerd can dream.