Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Akane No Mai,” the fifth episode of the second season of HBO’s “Westworld.”
“This is just the tip of Shogun world’s prick — an experience expressly designed for the guests who find Westworld too tame.”
Thus we are introduced, courtesy of Lee Sizemore, to the hotly anticipated Shogun World, first teased in the season 1 finale, then again about a million episodes ago. “Westworld” producers, sensitive to our cultural moment and to the potential trap they have set for themselves, have talked openly about their desire to create a respectful representation of Japan’s Edo period, whose people Lee so respectfully calls “the true aficionados of artful gore.” Sometimes this show is so culturally sensitive and socially aware you’re like, “Oh, gosh, ‘Westworld,’ wait right there while I go find you a Peabody Award. Don’t move.”
“Akane No Mai” is by turns a fun and frustrating episode, switching back and forth between the show’s two poles, but spending little time in between. As it should, it leans heavily into Maeve’s quest and the introduction of Shogun World, which had been subject of outsize fan chatter after Maeve and Felix briefly walked past a logo and a couple of guys fighting during the season 1 finale. It pays off, mostly.
But first a word about Lee Sizemore, who continues to make his case for being the Pete Campbell of “Westworld.” When Lee describes Shogun World to Maeve in such a juvenile way, it’s irritating — in part because Lee is also effectively introducing the viewer to Shogun World, and as a viewer it’s frustrating for this cool thing you’ve waited a long time for to be introduced thusly by a tiny toolbag like Lee.
However. Lee remains season 2’s most fully drawn character. He’s bad at his job. He is unearned privilege personified. He speaks at the wrong time, says the wrong thing, and is only alive because Maeve has a vague hunch that he can be useful (which he finally proves himself to be, a little). He will clearly betray fellow travelers at some point. He’s basically Smeagol in “The Lord of the Rings.” I can’t wait to watch Maeve shove him into the “Westworld” version of Mt. Doom, which is probably a molten cauldron of sentient white paraffin.
The only thing I find unbelievable about Lee is that he’s a writer, until I remember what writers are actually like. Then I am floored by his realness.
Anyway, Shogun World. Team Maeve quickly falls into the hand of Musashi and his crew — or as Sylvester so Sylvesterly puts it, “Captured by samurai cop killers. F— me.” Turns out Musashi’s crew is the analog to Hector’s Westworld gang, which team Maeve discovers as they watch a sword-fight version of the brothel heist play out in front of them, complete with a silly, period-appropriate rendition of “Paint It Black.” One of the many joys of the Maeve-quest storyline is the rapport being developed between Simon Quarterman as Lee and Thandie Newton as Maeve. When Maeve accuses Lee of self-plagiarism, Quarterman’s whine is pitch perfect. “You try writing 300 stories in two weeks!”
(Lee has so many good lines this week: “Shogun’s army never comes into town!” is one. “S—, ninjas!” is another.)
Where Shogun World delivers most is in its introduction of a bunch of characters worth rooting for — especially Musashi and Akane. And I’m not sure that this show has ever delivered an action-oriented arc as effective as the Maeve-quest story in “Akane No Mai,” which sees Maeve test her powers, find their limits, face a challenge, overcome it by pushing past the limits of her powers, win new allies, then face and defeat an even bigger challenge by pushing past them into full wizard territory.
Unfortunately, “Westworld” cannot just be about Maeve, for some reason. There is also Dolores, whose story feels more tedious with every passing week. The only thing going for Dolores at this point is her frustration with Teddy, which is easy for the viewer to identify with. But the idea that Dolores has real feelings for Teddy is a tough sell, one that “Akane No Mai” tries hard to make. Given that season 1 was all about selling the romance of William and Dolores, why should the romance of Teddy and Dolores feel authentic? If ever a relationship in this show felt like a function of programming, it is Teddy-Dolores.
Seeing Teddy’s iPad personality get inverted, however, was promising. After watching a season and a half of Teddy, I’m more than ready to watch a character who is the opposite of Teddy.
Some more thoughts:
• I have no idea what Gustaf Skarsgård was talking about at the top of the show, and I don’t care. Every time “Westworld” freezes in place so a someone can speak in allegory, I want to throw up my hands and watch “Cheers.” The Golden Age of TV’s major failing has been giving us stuff like this.
• Clementine has been a great slow-burn. Seeing her hover near her replacement host, murmuring along to the dialogue was tough and perfect. She’s going to go like a big narrative bomb at some point.
• Lee stealing that radio can only end badly for him.