“Kiksuya” is quite an episode of Westworld. It does what the series does best and what the series does worst and it does it in the same hour, sometimes all at once, telling a personal story and shedding new light on the show’s constant questioning of what it is to be human in ways that range from heartfelt to cringeworthy.
The episode focuses itself around the leader of the Ghost Nation, Akecheta (played by Zahn McClarnon who anchored season 2 of Fargo so wonderfully as the hitman, Hanzee). He begins by collecting the severely wounded body of William from last episode’s shootout and taking him back to camp. While there he sits down with Maeve’s daughter and tells her his story starting from the beginning of the park to him picking up the man in black.
We cut to the days when Arnold is still alive and Westworld is still in beta testing. Akecheta has a beautiful wife named Kohana and lives an idyllic existence with his tribe in their teepee village on a ridge overlooking the park. One day Akecheta hears a lot of gunfire and goes down to check it out. He comes across the town where Arnold rigged Dolores and Teddy to slaughter everyone, searching through the destruction and coming across the maze symbol. Thus begins his obsession. He focuses on the symbol and what it could mean to his tribe’s own worry about his mental health. Sometime later he and most of the warriors get kidnapped and taken to command where they are reprogrammed into the Ghost Nation we have come to know—the park’s take on the violent Indians of collective Western pop culture.
But Akecheta has a secret: He remembers all of his lives, so even when reprogrammed, he doesn’t forget where he came from (or his wife). As he travels with his new tribe he hits a bunch of lore sweet spots for the series, seemingly for the writers to show they’ve had it all planned from the start and aren’t just shooting from the hip. He comes across the naked, abused Logan from when William abandoned him in season 1. Logan, wanting out of the park, asks where the door is and tells him this world is wrong. This causes Akecheta to recognize how wrong the world is and to search for that door. He eventually comes across a valley being dug and thinks the bunker door he sees in it is the door out. This leads to him kidnapping his wife whom he eventually convinces was his wife. He tries to find the door with her, but while camping, she gets reclaimed by a Westworld refurbishing team.
Witnessing his own people start to figure out something is wrong with the new hosts replacing their old family members, he decides to get himself killed to go below (to Westworld Command) to try to find his wife. Once down there the techs are surprised to find he’s still on an alpha frame, disbelieving he’s been tootling around Westworld for a decade without being killed. While they leave him to his update he hops off the slab and heads toward the sub-basement in Old Delos and comes across his wife—and all the other decommissioned hosts that have been put in cold storage, making him realize he’s not the only one to have suffered a loss. This gives him his new mission: To spread the legend of the maze and help other hosts find their way to consciousness.
Perhaps the most interesting scene is when Akecheta comes across Ford, scalping Ghost Nation warriors (to see the mazes tattooed inside their heads) in order to find out what’s been going on. Ford puts Akecheta into analysis mode and finds out that the host somehow bootstrapped his way to consciousness and is spreading the maze to try to do the same for the rest of them. Ford finds the idea of a host using a scrapped idea for such a purpose to be delightful and lets him continue on his way, telling Akecheta he’ll know the way out when the Deathbringer returns (presumably Dolores as she killed Arnold back when and Ford later, both scenes of slaughter visited by Akecheta).
Zahn McClarnon deserves an Emmy for carrying an episode like this. He has the two-fold burden of not only having to deliver a subtle and beautiful performance on the most basic dramatic level, but having to do it while shouldering dignity in an episode that, for a series about how colonialism is wrong, still boils down to the hoariest tropes about Native Americans. There are aspects that lean in favor of the writers: That the natives are all but forgotten, programmed to at first be what are essentially buckskin-clad hippies, then turned into bloodthirsty braves, all fit with a critique on how natives are so often depicted in Western fiction. They’re always earthy white hats or war-whooping black hats, but never just people. Okay, fine. On the other hand, they’re also able to mysteriously bootstrap their way to consciousness and go around spreading the word by passing along a mystical symbol they hope will wake other hosts up, the techy version of every magical Indian shaman story ever told.
It’s a disappointing tightrope line the show tries to walk, a “have its cake and eat it too” mindset where the writing tries to eschew colonialist tropes of storytelling so we know the writers themselves are aware of these issues before using those same tropes to tell whatever story they want to tell. There are beautiful aspects—an episode written almost totally in subtitled Lakota is the rarest of gems—but in service to a story about magical Natives that start out as peacenik noble savages and get turned into violent heathens (yet retain their memories of their prior, softer selves) it elicits sighs of frustration. That the show tells such a story using nature shots and lighting straight out of a Malick movie isn’t playing fair in the least. Even at its most clichéd, the clichés glow with diffused, golden light.
The most interesting angle is the look at humanity Akecheta represents. His isn’t just the self-based-on-memory quest of Maeve (currently communicating with him and telling him to protect her daughter even as Lee and Charlotte in Westworld command try to figure out who she’s talking to), but the idea of making up one’s own story and letting that be the guide to the self. Maeve had to break her madam programming to get back to her memories of her daughter (who, like Akecheta, also remembers) while Akecheta was able to take the new plotlines written for him and discard what parts of them got in the way of the quest he set for himself. Perhaps, as Ford is amused by, that is a part of who and what we are. Tell ourselves what we want and let it guide us, even when everything tells us different. Or, As Akecheta says to his wife when he leaves, “Take my heart when you go,” to which she replies, “Take mine in its place.”