Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Three: City of Heresy – **
Part One: The Second Opening
This one isn’t exceptionally great or insightful, so I’ll try to keep my review short*. In this episode, Ed and Al head to a remote desert city called Liore, where inhabitants worship a monotheistic sun god. A priest working at the local church, Father Cornello, appears to have incredible powers, including the ability to revive the dead. This interests the Elrics because they believe he has access to a powerful object known as a Philosopher’s Stone. The episode is unclear about the exact properties of the object, but Ed and Al seem to think it can be used to restore their bodies. As the episode progresses, they realize it’s all smoke and mirrors and end up exposing
Yet again, we have an episode with clear parallels to the 2003 series, so I feel the need to compare the two. The opening to the older series followed this same plot, though extended into two episodes’ worth of content. Several of the scenes from the original are cut or pared down for this plot in Brotherhood, though curiously a lot of the pilot-specific material remains. Early in the episode, Al breaks a clock and uses alchemy to repair it, showing the audience how the magic system works. This is a curious choice for the third episode in any series, especially one where the magic system has been demonstrated and explained multiple times already. Ed also hints about the boys’ failed attempt to resurrect their mother, and halfway through the episode, Cornello has the same epiphany about the boys’ metal bodies that the ice alchemist had in the first episode. These are highly redundant plot points and cram the episode-specific story into too-short of a span of time. The repetition is also very clunky and a bit condescending, as though the audience is too inattentive to understand the basic premise of the show. At one point, it even feels the need to flash back to a scene, images and all, mere minutes after that scene plays out. Nothing in the repeated scene is anything new to the audience, nor is the minor character’s very gradual understanding of it.
The haste of the episode has a similarly negative impact on the material that isn’t repetitive. I don’t have especially strong feelings about the Cornello plot in the 2003 series — they serve the purpose of introducing the characters and the premise, but they’re also a little slow. However, there’s some nice imagery that Brotherhood’s iteration of the plot isn’t able to capture, like how Cornello uses mutated birds to fake his resurrections. What the episode does contain is silly and uninteresting o the point where you have to wonder why it was included in the narrative at all. I imagine it’s here because of an obligation to remain faithful to the source material, rather than a genuine interest in exploring this aspect of the narrative.
Part Two: PLOT!
The actual characters and beats of the plot aren’t distinct enough to draw direct comparisons to the older show, but I can talk about them all the same. The new characters of focus are Father Cornello and a minor character named Rose, only the latter of which appears again, and in such a minor role that her presence in the series is pretty unnecessary.
Rose is a follower of Father Cornello’s church and recently lost her fiancé. She’s convinced that if she’s faithful to both the sun god and Father Cornello, that Father Cornello will bring back her fiancé. Ed spends much of the episode trying to convince Rose that Father Cornello is lying to her and that resurrection of a human is impossible. She rather suddenly turns murderous and shoots Al’s head off at the slightest suggestion from Father Cornello, but it’s really hard to say as a viewer if this is within her range of character. Rose has very little personality besides being hopeful and naive, and she seems to function within the plot mostly as a dim-witted commoner who needs to learn from Ed and Al’s wisdom. I really do not like Rose.
Cornello isn’t that much better, though. He screams, he monologues, he cackles. He’s about as generic of a villain as you could get. The most interesting thing about Cornello is that he’s in league with some mysterious figures with orouboros tattoos, who eventually kill and replace him. Cornello is a basic selfish person whose motivation seems to be the ever-popular fame and glory, and at no point does he show real boundaries in what he will say or do to get what he wants. Ed foils him by straight-up asking what his plan is and broadcasting Cornello’s answer to the town. This is accomplished with little to no planning as well, which does less to emphasize the protagonists’ wit than it does to point out the incompetence of the villain.
Part Three: Isn’t it Cute When Ridiculous Series About Fighting Magicians Think They Can Pull Off Philosophizing?
Aside from what I said earlier about this episode being here because it was in the books (a statement I should note I have no way of backing up at the moment), I have a feeling that the main purpose of this episode is to introduce the Philosopher’s Stones. Cornello’s stone, which turns out to be “a fake,” is a major thematic focus of the episode. As far as we can tell from this episode, a Philosopher’s Stone allows an alchemist to ignore the basic tenants of transmutation — they don’t need to use a circle, they can turn one thing into anything else, and they don’t have to obey the Law of Equivalent Exchange.
This last point is an especially touchy subject for the boys; within the series, the Law of Equivalent Exchange says that in order to obtain something, something else of equal value must be lost. The boys paid for their failed human transmutation and a glimpse behind those mystical doors with their bodies. They’re hoping to use a Philosopher’s Stone the same way to get their bodies back, but understand on a fundamental level that life isn’t that easy. However, Ed in particular internalizes a philosophical viewpoint based around the idea of Equivalent Exchange: that everything has a price and anyone who cheats it is playing god.
“Playing god” is such a bland idea at this point that it retains very little practical or informative significance, so it’s kind of telling that the episode (and the series as a whole, to be honest) hammers the audience over the head with it repeatedly. I tend to see this theme primarily as an attempt to bolster religious power structures with narrow-minded anti-intellectual rhetoric, as that seems to be its underlying goal in most media. Sometimes it’s directed at harmful targets like unethical quasi- and pseudo-science, but just as often, it’s leveled against the entire concept of science in general, and has been for centuries. The common interpretation is to caution against power-hungriness and encourage humility, which isn’t a bad intention for a theme, but describing it as “playing god” has always felt to me contradictory. It assumes that your perspective is one of a religious (often Christian) simpleton who doesn’t understand newfangled technology or what all those millionaires in lab coats are up to, and appropriately fears them.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has astonishingly little authority on this particular theme as a fantasy series. Not only does there appear to be some sort of god or god-like entity as a flesh-and-blood being in this world, but there is also no boundary between science and magic here, either. Alchemy is frequently described as a science rather than magic, but a bare-bones set of laws (that are constantly broken, by the by) and ingrained religious imagery does not a science make. At least, it’s no more scientific than, say, the magic in Harry Potter. Distinguishing between the scientific reality of a fantasy world and its magic is something of a futile endeavor because when the latter is demonstrable, all comparisons to the real world get thrown out the window. We don’t have glowing lightning effects and giant, dimension-hopping eyeballs that could be measured quantitatively within the real world. In a fantasy world, therefore, concepts like faith and religion have to have their underlying principles altered to make them even remotely recognizable.
The bottom line is, if religious-looking elements are an unambiguous reality of a fantasy world, that world is going to struggle to draw any meaningful commentary on real-world religions. Faith and belief are fundamental aspects of all real religions because they’re based on interpretation and tradition, not unambiguous, observable reality. It’s not impossible to use fantasy stories to explore the nature of religion, but it’s hard to convince your audience that you understand anything about crisis of faith, for instance, when your characters’ gods are pummeling each other very visibly with giant flaming axes on top of a volcano. Just sayin’.
Aside from the botched moral philosophizing that adds nothing to the plot, the episode is pretty clumsy overall. The dialogue, even when it’s not being needlessly repetitive, is cringe-worthy, and the execution of several scenes doesn’t flatter the writing, character designs, or animation. There are two action setpieces, both of which are simultaneously over-the-top and surprisingly boring. At one point, Cornello accidentally turns himself into a mutated gun monster, which is as hilariously awful as it sounds. There’s not really any reason for this episode to exist other than to show that Ed and Al are looking for a Philosopher’s Stone. It introduces the homunculi more fully than the first episode, and parts of the Liore subplot come back later, but as with the Philosopher’s Stone, none of these are connected to Cornello or Rose as characters.
I would honestly recommend skipping this one. If you feel the need, just watch the first two episodes of the older series and you won’t miss anything.
* I have failed.