In its second season finale, HBO's "Westworld" says goodbye to characters and hello to a new world. But TV Hunter asks that it not forget its heart as it heads into uncharted territory.
[THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE ENTIRE SECOND SEASON OF HBO'S "WESTWORLD"]
When we looked back on 2018, don’t be surprised if the year in television peaked on June 10.
The eighth episode of “Westworld’s” second season, titled “Kiksuya,” was not only the most affecting and absorbing episode of TV so far this year, it is also the most beautifully human episode HBO's robots-on-a-rampage drama series has ever produced.
It almost exclusively followed a single host, Akecheta, a member of Ghost Nation played to utter perfection by Zahn McClarnon, who could best be described before this episode as an auxiliary character with a knowing glare.
As the episode illuminates, Akecheta is not just any host. His place in this world goes back to the beginning, when Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) took a bullet to the head at the hands of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). After catching a glimpse of Arnold’s toy maze, the sight of it lodged in his brain and put him on a path that broke him free of his loop and awakened his sentience.
With that wokeness, he heads out on a mission to understand the world around him and find Kohana (Julia Jones), the woman he was told to love through coding, but for whom he eventually grew to develop real affection. Their story began when he was a peaceful tribesman, but persisted even after he was reassigned to a more murderous storyline. Theirs is the kind of love we dream about, powerful enough to shake you off your axis and clear your vision to what’s real and true -- and the episode takes time to impressively build that love, even in the constraints of an hour.
His journey took him beyond the boundaries of Westworld and into the bowels of the Mesa -- all to find missing Kohana.
The episode was an emotional wallop over the head for a show that can feel cold and distant at times with its deep-cut soliloquies on philosophy and the meaning of life itself.
But with Akecheta, "Westworld" finally found a true heartbeat. There is real emotion in the way Akecheta looks at Kohana across a chaotic raid spearheaded by his own vicious new character, as if the rest of the world melts away and it’s only her. You feel their connection, almost unbearably so when, after years of searching, he later finds her decommissioned, naked and laid bare in cold storage. As he crumbles, so do you.
It’s an outstanding feat in storytelling that pushed “Westworld" into another echelon of television.
It’s been two weeks since "Kiksuya" aired and it’s still hard to shake the tone, emotion and life it exudes. Knowing this is as good as “Westworld” is likely going to get was a great way to go into Sunday’s sprawling season finale.
As the horde of hosts and humans converged on the valley beyond, the show did what it does best -- fascinate and confuse.
This season, while markedly better and more ambitious than the first season, still held on to what is often the show’s worst belief: everything is more interesting when its more complicated. That is hardly the case, as evidenced by Akecheta’s story, which was freshingly linear in its telling.
In the final moments of Dolores and Maeve’s respective missions to reach the vallley beyond, it was revealed the door would lead to a digital afterlife where the hosts' minds can live undisturbed. In true violent fashion, the path to the door was littered with bodies, as most of the host were slaughtered just inches from digital paradise.
For those souls that did step into the valley beyond, it's likely the end of their story, as the connection to this world and that one was severed by Dolores.
“Kiksuya” was a compelling respite from the action that barreled through the season. In yet another example of how powerful his story was in the context of the show, Akecheta’s all-too-brief reunion with Kohana in this new world was the finale’s most poignant moment.
Unlike nearly every other revelation in this finale, their reunion doesn’t need an explainer or a rewatch -- though it deserves it. The show did the work to get their, it built the story and the chemistry, and it paid off beautifully.
The remainder of the 90-minute finale saw Bernard take control and not only kill Dolores, who planned to delete the hosts crossing over, but then brought her back, in the host body of Delos exec Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), as his checkmate. Now hidden behind the face of the one person who could get out of the park, Dolores got passage (the episode’s title is “The Passenger” for many reasons) to the mainland -- with a handful of host chestnuts in hand.
As the finale came to a close with Maeve and her gang dead among the piles of bodies, the Man in Black revealed to be on a loop of his own in the park (or at least a version of him), and Bernard killed by Dolores via Charlotte, it seems as though the park will be left behind, at least for now, and that's disappointing.
The show clearly wants to fulfill Dolores’ mission seize the human world she was denied, but we only got to live in three of the Delos’ parks -- Westworld, The Raj and Shogun World. Will we return to the park and continue to see how the rebellion of season two affected the rest of the hosts? Can Delos do anything but shut the whole thing down after mass casualty event?
There is still life in the park and we should get to live in it a little longer in the future.
It's particularly sad to say goodbye to Akecheta and Kohana, if this truly is the last we see of them. But maybe it is for the best. “Kiksuya” is a masterpiece episode that shows the heights to which “Westworld” can climb with its storytelling, character development and emotion. This second season, while still attached to that confuse-to-compel mentality, found that heart and those heights, and season three would be wise to find it again.
As "Westworld" heads to the mainland, I hope it takes that heart with it when it goes.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.