Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eight: The Fifth Laboratory – ***
Part One: Revenge of the Trash Cans
This episode basically accounts for a single long action sequence, but at least it’s a fun one as far as the early episodes’ action sequences go. Ed and Al were separated at the end of the lat episode, Ed sneaking into the abandoned laboratory through the ducts and Al waiting outside, when they both encountered armored guards. They fight them in this episode, Ed against a man who calls himself Slicer and Al against a more eccentric character who calls himself Barry the Chopper. The brothers quickly realize that these guards are human souls bound to armor, like Alphonse — specifically the souls of executed inmates from the prison next door.
Ed struggles against Slicer, discovering midfight that the armor is controlled by two separate souls, but he eventually gains the upper hand by using a destructive technique he learned in his battle with Scar. Alphonse, meanwhile has little difficulty with the overly-talkative Barry, until Barry suggests that Al was never a human to begin with, but rather a construct of Ed’s imagination. This idea will come up again, and I think it’s inane. While the concept would be juicy if the series treated it like it were plausible, there’s nothing preceding the suggestion to lend it any credibility (these pieces of armor certainly aren’t fabricated). Alphonse takes it to heart for seemingly no reason, and gets over his concern so quickly, I’m astonished the time spent on this plot point isn’t instead used on the rushed earlier episodes. I think it’s the show’s attempt to inject a plot point exclusively relevant to its themes of brotherhood and playing god, but boy does it not land.
Right as the brothers start to gain the upper hand, they’re interrupted by the Homunculi Lust and Envy. Lust kills kill both Slicers right as they’re about to reveal important news about what the laboratory is up to, and Envy then removes Edward from the building, mentioning that he’s important for their plans. The Fifth Laboratory destroyed, the brothers are left with no new leads, but survive their first encounter with the strange Homunculi working behind the scenes.
Part Two: More Creepy Backstory Visuals, Please
The animation in this episode, while not the most extravagant, is still nice to watch, and the fight sequences incorporate some amount of plot and background elements. Ed’s automail starts to weaken mid-fight, for instance, the consequence of Winry updating it to make it lighter. There’s also something lightly poetic about Ed learning a new technique from fighting Scar. I like stories that can find ways to make fights character growth moments as well.
Of course, the episode again struggles to trust its audience, explaining what the characters are thinking and doing every step of the way through repetition and flashbacks. This isn’t an issue unique to this series, but I’ve noticed it’s surprisingly common in Anime series for some reason. It could be part of the style of the genre or a consequence of the series aiming for a teenage audience, but I tend to think more cynically it comes from an unwillingness to risk challenging its audience. After all, other types of Japanese animated narratives, like Miyazaki films, are rarely so blatant.
I suppose it’s worth briefly mentioning that the earlier series has a similar reveal, though a preceding episode set further in the past has the characters run aground of Barry the Chopper in a small escapade, so there’s a little bit of history between them. Here, Barry monologues his backstory, which I’m kind of okay with as well. It uses an eerie art style, and I’m a sucker for creepy stories told like children’s stories. The guards don’t have an abundance of character, but their dialogue and animation has enough personality to fit their purpose in this episode. Barry is comic relief, and while I wouldn’t call him outright funny according to my sense of humor, his bombasity levels the mood a bit.
Part Three: Orouboros
I’ll accept this as a middling episode for the series, given that its flaws are not isolated. This isn’t an exceptionally annoying story (though it does set up some annoying threads the series will chase later). The action is decent and the pacing is fine. The dialogue is sometimes cringeworthy, but it gets a few genuine laughs and it’s far from the worst the series has to offer.
Honestly, the most disappointing this about this episode is that it ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. The boys don’t gain any knowledge by visiting the Fifth Laboratory, apart from confirming their suspicions that some branch of the military is conducting shady human research experiments.
Actually, I’ll amend that. The series is slow to roll out the Homunculi in full, but as this is the first time Elrics encounter them, I can count it as a contribution the Homunculi subplot, I suppose. A first-time viewer could probably figure out that, given their proximity to the shady events and stated involvement, these inhuman creatures are the ringleaders, or at least working alongside the ringleaders. We also get a touch more personality to some of them. They show that they have no qualms about killing their own henchmen when they cease to be useful, and Lust at least has a sort of sadism that seems to relish the pain of others. Yet they aren’t solely agents of chaos, or at least they display some forethought. What purpose Ed and Alphonse serve to them isn’t clear yet, to the Elrics or the audience, but it teases some fun developments for later.