Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Two: The First Day – ***
Part One: Backstory!
All right, first things first, I need to acknowledge that from this point to basically the end of the season, there are a lot of similar moments between Brotherhood and the original anime. I would love to do a comparison of the two in detail, but this review series is mainly concerned with looking at Brotherhood on its own. I’ll mention the earlier show on occasion, but before I broach a comparison here, I need to describe this episode for what it is.
Now that the audience is familiar with Ed and Al as main characters, the series rewinds to give us a look at how they came to be fighting an ice wizard in the middle of a not-German city. This is the backstory episode.
Ed and Al learned alchemy from their father’s books, their father being a skilled alchemist and apparently estranged from the family. The boys have a loving mother except whoops, she dead. The utter disinterest the story has in presenting the boys’ mother as any sort of character beyond “loving mother” only gets funnier the more emphasis it puts on her later. She’s arguably the main motivation for the boys’ character arc, and she’s about as complex as a piece of plywood. We don’t know anything about her other than she’s Ed and Al’s mother, she loves them, and she’s dead.
The important part of the story is that after their mother dies, Ed and Al try to bring her back to life using alchemy, dismissing the illegality and supposed impossibility of human transmutation. As you might imagine, this goes poorly, and Ed ends up in some sort of afterlife/alternate dimension on the other side of a mystical door. An eyeless demon creature makes a deal with Ed to let him see the other side of the door, taking his leg and Al’s whole body as payment. Ed returns to the basement to find a monstrous abomination where the Elrics intended to revive their mother. He’s horrified to discover his brother is missing, so, using arcane knowledge of alchemy he learned from the mystical door, and paying with one of his arms, he binds his brother’s soul to a nearby armor suit.
Their neighbors — a girl named Winry and her grandmother — and Colonel Mustang find the boys in dire straits shortly after this event. Mustang is searching for the boys’ father, but becomes interested in their case when he learns that they’re talented alchemists themselves. He invites them to apply as State Alchemists when they’re a few years older. Ed agrees and decides to get automail limbs from the neighbors’ automail shop (automail being a fancy name for cybernetic limbs in this universe). After living with the neighbors for a while, Ed sets off for Central City, he and Al agreeing that only one of them should be in the military. There, Ed tries out to become a State Alchemist, which requires him to come up with a form of alchemy that will impress a military committee. He does just that by revealing he has no need for a transmutation circle, another perk of that mysterious door.
Part Two: Show, Don’t Tell. Also, Tell, Don’t Show.
Like the previous one, this episode has a lot to unpack in a short span of time. I’m a little torn on its overall execution because while this one seems to be much more structured and polished than the first episode, especially where its dialogue is concerned, I still kind of feel like the previous one handled its premise better. This episode feels like it should be at least two if not three episodes long. There’s easily enough material to fill that many episodes, and if expanded, their pre-quest life would give the boys’ backstory some much-needed weight.
There’s a very clean point of separation within the episode — the point between the human transmutation attempt and Ed’s choice to become a State Alchemist. The motivations for each act are related but distinct. In the first half of the episode, the boys are dead-set on bringing back their mother out of stubbornness and naivete. After this fails, they drop all notion of reviving their mother and instead Ed proposes they try to find a way to restore their bodies. They both feel some amount of guilt for losing each other parts of their bodies, so their second goal is mutual, but it’s also less focused. We’ve heard a bit about the fabled Philosopher’s Stone by now and it’ll later become apparent that they’re searching for it as part of their main quest.
But no time, or little time, is really given for us to see how these events affect them. There’s emotion in this episode, but it’s out of sync with the events in the story. The other side of the door is interesting, but again, too much of it is explained where little or no dialogue is needed. Ed’s unique ability to transmute without a circle has little buildup and no mystery. It’s treated with all of the reverence of someone recognizing one of their birthmarks looks like a duck from a particular angle.
I do understand the desire to get the backstory out of the way quickly. Backstory is one of those things that is often important to communicate clearly, especially if, as in this story, it’s complex and crucial to understanding the characters as they appear in the main plot. However, backstory is also tedious and derivative. The emotional highlights of a backstory are often intense, but the majority of it will inevitably be less interesting than the main plot — otherwise, the backstory would be the main plot.
It’s challenging to find a suitable balance where the important details of the backstory play out naturally but don’t distract from the main plot. The convention in fantasy seems to be to sequester backstory away in the prologue or first chapter and otherwise craft the main character so that the exciting parts of their development happen in the story itself. Of course, this limits the depth a character can start out with and sometimes simplifies the main plot. I’m partial to backstory revealed slowly over time through flashbacks and exposition that coincides with the main plot, but doesn’t stem from it directly. This technique is used effectively in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Inception, Cowboy Bebop, and Psychonauts, and even Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has characters whose stories are revealed slowly over time.
The main protagonists’ narrative is so front-loaded, though, that I’m not sure why it wasn’t more dispersed. Not everything about the boys is conveyed in this episode, but all of the key beats are hit and the only things left unresolved are those Ed and Al themselves don’t understand. The rushed delivery and limitations of the episode reduce the gravity of these events to the point where the backstory probably could have been condensed down into a piece of dialogue or a far briefer flashback than an entire episode. The opening sequence should not be better at detailing the relationships between the characters and the trauma of their backstories than the rest of the show.
Part Three: The Limb-Stealing Eye Goblins
This is one of the areas of the narrative that aligns closely with the original show, yet I greatly favor the 2003 show’s delivery. I think it’s therefore useful to take a look at the major divergence points in the backstory.
The first big change between the earlier and later series is how the backstory is introduced. The 2003 show opens with a glimpse at the failed transmutation, providing a look at the boys when they were children, showing that Ed lost his leg and Al vanished, but little else. It then proceeds to fill in the backstory gaps through the modern plot. Ed declares to a minor character that human transmutation is impossible, then rattles off what would be needed to attempt it, suggesting even a child could come by the necessary elements. During a later fight, Ed reveals that he’s an exception to the transmutation circle rule, and that he and Al are missing parts of their bodies.
Brotherhood delivers the same information, but its delivery is more stilted. We see the characters, learn that there’s something unusual about them, are told that they’ve committed a grievous taboo, then get slammed with a massive backstory dump in the next episode. Essentially, we’re given the payoff before the buildup, and by the time we get the buildup, it no longer holds as much weight. It’s not an especially elegant delivery, and it hurts the emotional core of the series. Again, the series seems to expect the audience to have familiarity with its conceit prior to watching the pilot. You might start the series with the second episode, but you would likewise lose the in medias res action-packed opening that the sets the tone of the series. I lean more toward the backstory being a better starting point, but it’s not an easy decision either way.
On the more nitpicky side of things, a comparison of the earlier series and Brotherhood also reveals some stylistic choices that weaken the latter in small ways. The pixelation and small black hands that emerge when the characters lose their bodies are unique to Brotherhood, and foreshadow recurring visual motifs throughout the series. However, they end up making the scene look digitized and cartoonish in a way that is inconsistent with the visceral impact of the animation elsewhere in the series. The characters treat the loss of their bodies due to magic as a traumatic event, but it feels much more like they’re being erased in a video game. I don’t necessarily need the series to make the scene more graphic; the series has plenty of gore elsewhere. I just think that the effort to make the scene more dramatic by showing the magic limb-stealing ends up having the opposite effect.
As it is, the whole scene is given a sort of otherworldly tone that clashes with what we saw of the last episode, where the magic of transmutation was pretty much confined to one reality. Now there’s this weird almost religious element that borders on the supernatural (strange as it is in a world with its own sort of magic), with gods and demons and such – which could work later on in the story, but not in episode two. Of all the things to explore in more detail here, though, the door has to be the least emotionally-driven.
I should also probably mention that, ultimately, this is a series about two disabled kids using magic to become able-bodied. What’s more, widely-available futuristic cybernetics make an approximation of being able-bodied easy to achieve, and the characters still opt for the flesh-and-blood magic option. Al being trapped in a suit could easily be dismissed as more of a fantastical phenomenon without real parallels, but it’s a lot harder to make that argument for Ed. This series does later go on to show Ed’s mechanical limbs reaching limitations, especially in combat, but otherwise he seems to have no movement restrictions or need for in-house maintenance. I don’t know where disabled viewers tend to fall on this series, but I’ve heard more than a few people express frustration toward fantastical cybernetic limbs in fiction series, so it’s something to keep in mind.
This is an important episode. It has a lot of strong beats that impact the broader story, and even with its too-fast pace and occasional tonal inconsistency, it’s competent. I maintain that this series should have spread out its backstory over the rest of the series, but if it’s any consolation, the purpose of the plot does shift after the first season.