It’s time to leave Westworld behind for now. Episode 5, as you can probably guess from its title, Akane no Mai, is more interested in another area of the park. The majority of this mid-season episode concerns itself with Maeve’s group and their foray into the dangerous and very different Shogun World. After being teased in episode 3, it’s finally time for us to delve deep into this new and long-awaited world and it doesn’t disappoint. If you’ve become slightly immune to the brutality of Westworld, Shogun is about to remind you how you felt in those early days of season 1, and while it’s done at the expense of moving the main plot forward, you’ll find it hard to care. A semi-standalone episode, Akane no Mai is beautiful and traumatising in equal measure, and it injects some much needed vitality into Westworld season 2.
Note: From here on out there are specific plot spoilers for Westworld season 2, episode 5 - Akane no Mai.
If you think the world-building of Westworld is impressive just wait until you see what the show does with Shogun World in less than an hour. It would have been easy for the showrunners to have half-arsed this excursion into Shogun - it’s not like there isn’t enough going on - but instead, they commit to the new environment fully and create some of the best TV since the second season started. According to Sizemore, Shogun World is “an experience expressly designed for the guests who find Westworld too tame” (let that sink in for a moment) and it isn’t long before Maeve and co find out just how dangerous their Host cousins can be. After being captured by Samurai, they realise that the same ‘infection’ which has taken over Westworld is spreading here too, but the Hosts are one step behind not having realised the truth of their world yet.
With the Shogun Hosts still semi-trapped within their loops, the Westworld group realise that they have very similar storylines to each other... in fact, they’re almost identical (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” moans Sizemore)! As the Hosts attempt to rob the Geisha house, Maeve, Hector, and Armistice look on in disbelief, watching their Shogun counterparts act out an all too familiar series of events. This might sound like a waste of time and repetitive for a show which has made its name by being anything but predictable, but it’s actually a skillful piece of filmmaking, which allows us to get to know, and feel something for these new Hosts in a very short space of time. By the time the sequence is over, the audience feels an affinity for Musashi and Akane because they’re really just Hector and Maeve from a different world/life and it’s clear that the Hosts feel this way too.
This cinematic shorthand only works because of the fantastic performances of Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, and the rest of the Shogun cast who seamlessly blend the similarities their characters share with the Westworld Hosts, with the subtle differences caused by their dissimilar worlds. Different and yet the same, you’ll no doubt have the same reaction to these new characters as Maeve - you’ll barely be able to tear your eyes away from them. And that goes for everything else in this world too! I can’t really speak to the authenticity of Shogun World - which is based on Japan’s Edo period - but one thing I can say with confidence is that it’s wholly captivating in a way Westworld isn’t. Perhaps it’s because this world is even more removed from what most Western audiences are familiar with today, but we spent much of the episode getting to know this new setting and the characters in it, and it still didn’t feel like enough. I don’t think it’ll be long before people start talking about a Westworld spin-off set entirely within Shogun World…
In contrast to the devastating, beautiful storyline Maeve and her band explore in Akane no Mai, Dolores and Teddy continue to tread their painfully dull, slow-moving plot. Not much happens in this part of episode 5, except that Dolores and Teddy talk a lot, have some sexy times, and then she gets her minions to hold him down while she forces the Westworld tech they kidnapped to reprogramme him. It’s clear that Dolores thinks Teddy is too kind-hearted to be a part of her revolution (and she’s probably right), but having done the very thing that she’s supposedly fighting against, our hero is slowly turning into a baddie. I enjoyed watching Dolores throw off her girl next door persona at the beginning of the season, but as she moves ever closer to villain territory, this new character needs more justification… or at least an explanation.
Turning Westworld’s beloved protagonist into the big bad of season 2 could be one of the most interesting character twists we’ve seen in a long while, but if that’s what’s happening, more screen time needs to be devoted to this drastic U-turn. As I’ve said in previous reviews, it’s likely the showrunners are saving the bulk of Dolores’s storyline for the second half of the season, but I hope it’s good because, right now, I’m just dozing through her bits until we return to Maeve or the Man in Black.
As with much of Westworld season 2, the new bits make the show shine while the old characters, and their slow-paced storylines, struggle to captivate. Every minute Shogun World is on screen in episode 5, you’ll remember why you love this show, but as we reach the halfway point, Dolores and the ‘main’ narrative needs to up the pace and actually move things forward. Otherwise, the showrunners might wish they’d left Westworld behind entirely in favour of Shogun World season 1.