Westworld’s period-appropriate cover songs have always been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and I have, accordingly, always sort of loved and sort of hated them. There’s a bit of comic sparkle to the entire concept, rolling up a somber player-piano cover of Radiohead or Soundgarden or whatever for each new montage of death and disassociation. It lands as both a weirdly authored, auteurist move for the show, and a bit of levity to punctuate all of its otherwise icy, perfectionist production choices.
But while last season was defined by the player piano, this season has delighted in new variations on the idea. Ramin Djawadi’s cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” was so buried beneath mountains of sitar that it took awhile to pick out the melody, landing as a bit of wry wit as the show introduced imperialist fantasy park The Raj. And last night’s “Paint It Black” cover in Shogun World, intended to echo an identical scene from the first season, felt similarly coy, illustrating just how clearly Shogun World would match the titular park. They even cut to the old player piano at one point last night to show that it had now grown so gummy with blood and viscera that it’s not even playing right, as if to underscore the sentiment that there was a new cover-song philosophy in town.
And they made good on that promise with an episode-closing Wu-Tang cover that has got to be the series’ musical high point thus far.
After watching a friend be brutally murdered, new badass madam Akane is forced to dance for a crazed shogun’s pleasure. The song takes its time to gather steam, building a meditative pace before clicking into a 4/4 beat, and even then the melody to “C.R.E.A.M.” takes a second to pick out. Unlike a lot of other Westworld cover jokes, which sort of end with their very existence, the Wu-Tang cover was just preamble to a shocking act of stylized violence. The Raekwon verse finally entered my head just a second before Akame’s hairpin entered the shogun’s. The geysers of blood and the brief moment in which his decapitated body staggers before falling are straight out of a Lone Wolf And Cub movie.
There’s a sort of stylistic synergy here that the show hasn’t dabbled in much before, teasing the notion that as the narrative moves into different parks, so might the show’s filmic and musical influences. (Drum ’n’ bass covers in Futureworld, then?) The only hip-hop act previously featured on the show was Kanye West, whose “Runaway” scored early trailers and was obliquely referenced when Logan gives a toast to the assholes in episode two. By choosing Wu-Tang here they nod to the group’s long-time affiliation with kung-fu films, from their name and endless Shaw Brothers samples to the RZA’s own soundtrack work for Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, not to mention his own (ill-fated) foray into directing.
It’s got to be the show’s most audacious stylistic choice ever, and they pulled it off with panache, part of a greater clarity to the overall vision that seems to be settling in this season. In lieu of timeline trickery and mystery-box plotting, Westworld is becoming something much simpler and better—a massively ambitious and masterfully executed sci-fi saga that thoughtfully grapples with many of the issues its viewers are. The musical choices have always been a little on the nose, but it’s hard to argue with clicking into Wu-Tang right as a geisha stabs a shogun in the neck. If he’d listened to the Clan he’d have known to protect it.