Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Four: An Alchemist’s Anguish – ***
Part One: Mandog
Anyone vaguely familiar with Fullmetal Alchemist has probably seen or heard references to the morose dog-like creature that sends fan running from the room, weeping. This is the episode where that creature appears.
The plot focuses on the Elric brothers reaching out to a fellow alchemist in search of resources pertaining to the Philosopher’s Stone. The alchemist, Shou Tucker, is an expert in the creation of mutated animal chimeras, and is renowned for being the only person in the world to ever have produced one capable of speech. Tucker has since struggled to make new breakthroughs with his work, though, and a test to renew his status as a State Alchemist is fast approaching.
While Ed and Al use his library to search for mention of the stone, they get to know his young daughter, Nina. The family has been under stress ever since Nina’s mother left, and Tucker’s work has simultaneously gone downhill. Upon the boys’ return one day, Tucker leads them down to his basement to show off his newest creation: another talking chimera.
Between the rapid progression of events and choice sinister shots, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots: the creature is a grotesque blend of Tucker’s daughter and her dog. There isn’t any sort of dramatic fight to contain Tucker; he’s captured without much fuss, but nothing can be done to change the chimera back. The episode ends on a somber note that presents the limitations of the Elrics’ abilities and the bleak nature of their world.
Part Two: Creative Villain Name for a Guy with a Scar
This episode also marks the first appearance of another major antagonist, a scarred criminal running around Central City, murdering State Alchemists. The episode cuts away from the scenes at the Tucker house to reveal developments in the search for this new villain, mainly by showing military officials dealing with the aftermath of his brutality. The villain is nicknamed Scar and has no clear background established as of this episode, though his character design indicates that he has a fun one. Scar is something of a secondary villain, not one of the big baddies or even directly connected to them, but still recurring and personally tied to the protagonists. His contribution to the plot will build over time, but reaches something of a climax within the first season.
I’ll talk more about Scar as his backstory is revealed, but his character design is a strange combination of both intrigue and blandness. He’s a buff tattooed man with tiny sunglasses, an X-shaped scar across his forehead, and a voice perfect for monologuing. I think I like the concept of Scar far more than the actual character — his motives are compelling and thematically relevant insofar as motives can be in this series, but everything about his delivery is just a bit too cartoonish for me. Yeah, I know. “It’s an anime, Hat — what did you expect?” But especially at this point in the series, Scar just feels like another random element meant to propel the plot. I think he could have been worked into the series more effectively.
Part Three: Yes, Sad Horrific Monsters are Sad
Ultimately, I end up struggling to find much to say about this episode. It has a nice balance of warm and cold moments, and the sense of dread surrounding Tucker’s character propels the plot, but I don’t know that the events in the episode hold up to their reputation.
There might be something worth exploring in the revelation that Tucker’s actions are devoid of empathy, that he’s not motivated by his family’s prospects but his own ego. I don’t think that revelation is cohesive within the story as much as it’s a simple plot twist. This is one of the rare situations where Tucker’s few lighthearted moments with his daughter actively undermine the character the series is going for. The morals of the episode are “even people who look trustworthy can be monsters” and “power corrupts.” The former theme never really comes up again, though, and Tucker doesn’t seem to have a “before” state that any power is corrupting. He’s already turned his wife into a chimera by the time we meet him, and him merely having a family doesn’t equate to him being a morally complex person. He doesn’t ever seem to question or regret his actions. He’s just a simple horror villain.
I get the sense that this episode primarily runs on shock value. The idea of a cute child being transformed into a mutated animal by her own cruel father is horrifying, and it sticks with people. Dig beyond the surface, though, and I don’t think you’ll find much to explore. The Elrics are sad because Nina was their friend and what happened to her was singularly awful. It’s a downer, and it makes a good meme. But its impact doesn’t reverberate through the story for long. Nina and Tucker die at the end of the episode, the story implying their arcs are done and ended. Ed and Al mention Nina once or twice later in the series, but they don’t change their attitudes or actions following this experience. They don’t become more suspicious, they don’t become more critical of alchemy, they don’t have any more sympathy for chimeras.
The only thing you lose if you cut this episode out is the striking imagery and the knowledge that humans can be merged with animals in this world. Even the imagery is softened by how much the episode broadcasts its ending. Like the previous episode, it’s repetitive bordering on condescending, and the lack of depth makes it less shocking the second time around.
Then again, the episode still manages to strike a chord with the show’s fans. There is a precedent for the intense emotional response the human-dog chimera elicits on the internet. Nina and the dog have good designs, as does Tucker, and the dog-chimera is deeply unsettling. The episode isn’t devoid of content, and the first time you hear the narrative, it can be impactful. I could caution against over-hyping this episode, as it isn’t perfect, but I’m not going to knock anyone for genuinely liking it.