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Westworld's Ghost Nation Love Story Is Both the Best and Worst Episode of the Series

"Kiksuya" Is Hauntingly Beautiful. But It Doesn't Work.

By Sam Eichner ·
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HBO

Last night’s “Kiksuya” was as close to a bottle episode as we’re likely to get on Westworld: a quiet, meditative Native American folk story with the emotional tenor of a love ballad, slightly rejiggered to comply with the series’ relentless brand of postmodernism. In it, Akechata (an excellent Zahn McClaron), the leader of the park’s fictionalized tribe, Ghost Nation, narrates a sad tale to Maeve’s daughter, who he kidnapped in the previous episode, the telling of which takes up a bulk of the episode. (Meanwhile, Ed Harris’s Man in Black continues to die a slow and painful death, except maybe not, by a tree somewhere; that he’s not dead yet makes me believe he may actually be a host, because dude is fucking old!)

For the entirety of Westworld, Akecheta and the rest of his tribe have been recurring, if somewhat mythic, presences, existing on the fringe of other host (and character’s) narratives. They’d arrive at inopportune times on their white horses, in full body paint, to strike fear into the hearts and minds of hosts and guests alike. Their modus operandi was to conquer and kill. Ghost Nation was to Westworld what real Native Americans tribes were to the actual American West—at least in the view of most white people. Given Delos’s target audience, this makes sense. The guests need people they can feel justified killing.

According to Akecheta, however, he and his kin weren’t always violent savages. His story begins with him returning to bed, where his love, Kohana (Julia Jones), wakes up to a yellow flower he left on her pillow. They live a simple, blissful existence, with the rest of their tribe, on a region of the plains far from the action. Out on the margins of the park—of the world—the members of Ghost Nation rarely die, and thus are infrequently updated. Akecheta’s memories pile up—“kiksuya” means “remember” in Lakota—and when he happens upon a carving of the maze after a slaughter in Sweetwater, he becomes obsessed with it, and the idea that something’s not right. Traveling out towards the Valley Beyond, he discovers Logan Delos, marooned, naked and delirious—at the tail end of what appears to be one long, bad trip—who repeats something about him being in the wrong world. This triggers Akecheta’s epiphany; he awakens to the notion that he is being controlled by forces far greater than himself. Convinced there must be a way out, he begins searching for the same “door”—to the outside world—as the Man in Black.

The most touching sequence occurs when Akecheta—who has at this point been converted into a savage—recognizes Kohana, upon returning to his village, as his soul mate from a past life. He kidnaps her, and, once he washes off his face paint, she recognizes him, too. They make their way to the Valley Beyond, but one morning, Akecheta wakes up to find Kohana gone. Running over the crest of a hill, he discovers her in the hands of technicians, who are remarking, with incredulity, on how the hell she managed to get all the way out here.

Heartbroken, Akecheta spends his days roaming the park in search of another reincarnation of Kohana. There is a cultural significance to this solitary quest. Some Native American tribes believe in the existence of two souls: the life-soul, which provides energy to the physical body, and the free soul, an astral communiqué of human consciousness, which can persist beyond the destruction of the physical form (and slip into other bodies, animal or human). What is a Westworld host if not a digitalized free soul, capable of being reincarnated, at lightening fast speeds on high-tech iPads, in different robotic bodies? Of all the metaphors Westworld trades in, this might be the most poignant: it elevates the soldierly machinations of the park to new spiritual heights.

Akecheta travels across the park, but to no avail: he can’t find Kohana. Coincidentally, Akecheta takes on the specter of a ghost, haunting a world to which he does not belong. In this way, he calls to mind Casey Affleck’s ghost in David Lowery’s transcendent film, A Ghost Story—he too “haunts” his old home, in a childish bed sheet with two eyeholes, waiting for a time when his love might return to him.

Eventually, he decides he must face death, on the chance that he may find her on the other side. After being killed, he wakes up in a lab, where technicians are marveling over how long he’s gone without an update: nine years. They set him to update, and head off to lunch. In one of the show’s most poignant music cues, a sparse piano version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” begins to play, as Akecheta rises from his chair and wanders the empty halls—where everyone is, nobody knows—down an escalator and into a warehouse for retired hosts, where he finds Kohana standing straight amidst a phalanx of insentient bodies. At first, he’s overjoyed. Soon, however, he realizes that she’s gone. He returns to the park to wake up his fellow tribesmen, using the symbol of the maze as a sign that you’ve been red pilled.

There is a reason, of course, that Akecheta is telling all of this to Maeve’s daughter. She helped him at one of his darkest hours, and he vowed to protect her ever since. All those times in Maeve’s nightmarish recollections you thought he was coming to kill her? Turns out, he just wanted to keep her safe—particularly from the Man in Black. At the end of the episode, he repeats this vow—although, twist!, it appears the message came straight form the mind of Maeve, who was bleeding out in the lab the entire time. Did she create Akecheta’s entire story just to placate her daughter? Or did she just use Akecheta’s existing narrative as a pretext to further solidify her daughter’s safety? It’s still unclear.

It also points to one of Westworld’s fundamental struggles: every time you think something is genuine, the writers pull the rug out from under you, forcing you to question its origins—the motives behind why a story is being told, or why it exists in the first place. And it’s partly why “Kiksuya” is both the best and worst episode of the series: how can we be expected to care about one heretofore minor character’s journey, albeit a profound, poignant one, when it’s nothing more than a single stitch in the fabric of a much larger narrative? With its suffusion of plots and timelines—so much happens on Westworld—a bottle episode of this nature simply doesn’t work. As much as the creators would like you to, it’s impossible to invest oneself in the story of Akecheta on its own terms; the series has trained its viewers too well to look out for loose threads. “Kiksuya” is a hauntingly beautiful episode of television. But it’s in the wrong world. 

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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