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WESTWORLD’s Homage to SEVEN SAMURAI Doesn’t Disappoint

You’ve got some fluid leaking from your ear, and there are spoilers for Westworld through season 2, episode 5.

Let’s be honest for a moment. Westworld‘s twisty mysteries, speculative gold mines, and philosophical conundrums fit for a Murray Shanahan book are all well and good, but Shogun World is what we’ve all been waiting for. Over seventeen months, in fact. We got our first taste of it in the season one finale and a second bite when a blade sliced through the cold night as Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her posse trudged through the wilderness between the parks, and now “Akane No Mai” gave us a buffet of kimonos and katanas.

And it was bliss. Just as they delivered the sun-dappled hues of the British Raj, D.P. Darran Tiernan and the crew offered a lens into a different universe while maintaining the show’s signature cold glare. With as many roads as they could have taken, it was beyond brilliant that they set up Shogun World as a mirror image of Westworld right down to the cat house safe robbery. Everyone got a doppel-bot, the Shogun’s army was camped outside of town like Confederados, and it gave Maeve’s counterpart Akane (played with violent delicacy by Rinko Kikuchi) immediate cause to trust the ragged crew.

But more than set the stage for a joke about how hard it is to write 300 stories in three weeks (say, for television?), the “Paint It Black”-cued familiarity spoke to the lengthy marriage between Westerns and Samurai movies. Like all the diseases fighting to get inside Mr. Burns, Westworld succeeds because it borrows from dozens of famous sources. It was never going to fully shake its foundation as a Jurassic Park forerunner, so Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan leaned into it by adding to the pile. Steal from one pop culture icon, and you’re a rip-off. Steal from dozens, and you’ve created a new monster.

So far there have been nods to Inception, Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut, Gertrude Stein, every famous Western under the desert sun, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and many more. As Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi fed off John Ford, and John Sturges remade Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven, the overlapping narratives present in Westworld and Shogun World’s safest towns makes the genre marriage explicit. There are no Westerns as we know them without Samurai movies, and vice versa. They are one and the same.

As much as I want to claim that “Akane No Mai” is also riffing on Seven Samurai, it’s a bit of a stretch. Although…there is a bullying force harassing a quaint town, a group of six magnificent warriors (seven if you count Lutz, Sizemore, and Sylvester as one passable fighter!), they’re joined in an unlikely way in a singular goal, and there’s a fiery strike on the enemy’s camp. So maybe there’s something there after all.

Regardless of any direct connections, the story of Sakura’s (Kiki Sukezane) kidnapping was an excellent blend of genre classicism and sci-fi curiosity.

To add to the slew of homages, Maeve has become Neo: able at first to reprogram living machines with code, then her voice, and now with her mind. She has stepped far beyond sentience into something greater. A true master of both the matrix and the real world. When she silently commanded the attacking ninja to impale himself through the cheek, it was like watching Neo kill the squids in the real world long after learning that fake bullets couldn’t harm him.

It was also fascinating to see her character grow within her own video game-style quest. She wants her daughter, but she chose to buck her self-interested coding to do a quick FedEx quest to murder the Shogun. In doing so, she also discovered a new super power and led Akane to the path toward sentience. It looks like she and her ronin Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) will be along for more of Maeve’s ride. Does that mean we’re hanging in Shogun World a little longer? Or that they’ll get to see the valleys of their Western neighbor?

Back in that world, Teddy (James Marsden) and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) engaged in a careful dance to save the sweethearted gunslinger’s life, but Teddy was far too earnest to do it. We knew from Teddy’s face floating in the lake that he wouldn’t survive the two weeks between the tuxedo rampage and the QA team cleanup, and his betrayal of kindness all but sealed his fate when they took the fort, but it was still incredible to watch Teddy stay true to himself regardless of the threat of deletion. What a profound statement of freedom. Not to renounce who you are, for anyone, even the one you love who promises enlightenment.

Maybe Teddy wasn’t so dumb after all.

Their minor interlude between the larger story in Shogun World really highlight how the show has changed structurally. Its scale is too big to show us what everyone is up to every single episode, so we’re getting joined pairs. The Man in Black’s maze and Bernard’s failing mind. Maeve’s homecoming and Dolores’s assault. Whole episodes where main characters don’t make an appearance.

Not to mention that the show’s getting even larger. Until this episode we’d never even met Akane or Sakura or Musashi, but we spent all of it focused on their struggles and now have even more characters to care about. By the time this series wraps, we’re going to sympathize with every single host in the park.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Are you truly acting outside your self-interest if you’re helping a psychic twin programmed like you in every way except appearance?
  • Sizemore claims that Shogun World is more hardcore than Westworld, but how’s that possible? If the hosts could never harm the guests, there’s a ceiling on that kind of thing.
  • Imagine paying a huge amount of money to visit Shogun World, only to have the Shogunbot go murderously insane with a brain fluid leak on the exact same week every customer service rep is dealing with straight up sentience in another park. That’s just bad luck.

Images: HBO

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