Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Nine: Created Feelings – **
Part One: BUT IS HE A REAL BOY?!?
I have to say, I’m not a fan of the main driving drama in this episode. Alphonse being suspicious that his brother created him out of nothing and fabricated his memories jibes poorly with established character and makes no sense for three main reasons: first, we never see any indication that this is even possible (for Ed or anyone else); second, there is no reason for Ed to have wanted to create a giant talking bit of armor that thinks it’s his brother; and third, HE LOST HIS FREAKING ARM AND LEG FOR AL! Why in the world would he spend so much time on this quest to get Al’s body back, risking life and [remaining] limb in the process, if Al doesn’t even have a body to get back to?
Yes, I understand that this plot point is brought in to create drama, and Al’s a kid, so his thought process can be irrational. This is a fantasy anime about souls and alchemy; I don’t need or expect it to have the most cohesive story on the planet. However, I do consider the complaint “it doesn’t make sense” to be valid. It indicates a lack of flow in a story, suggesting the connective tissue is damaged. In this case, Al wallowing in self-produced misery at Barry’s suggestion clashes with his established relationship to Ed, and who Al himself is as a character. Alphonse has shown himself to be sharp for his age, perhaps a little naive and trusting, but not inept. He’s notably not suspicious, and aside from the incident with Shao Tucker, he has no reason to be. Alphonse isn’t easily duped, and the series has provided the audience enough information to conclude that even if Barry’s words did get to him, he should be able to come up with a counterpoint to them on his own.
Annoying as Al’s existential meltdown is, the bigger problem is that it doesn’t serve the story. The episode resolves the issue after a single episode, so it only really has an effect on any of the characters for twenty minutes of the show. The intent of this subplot is to create a rift between the main characters and then have them reconcile, making their brotherhood stronger. The show might be able to achieve this by building tension, perhaps with Al initially dismissing Barry’s suggestion but growing suspicious as the series progressed. I could see that fitting his character, as Al seems like he dwells on things for a long time and has a good memory. Setting up and resolving the issue here with little action between and no consequences weakens what is already a pretty flimsy subplot. Functionally, it’s another cul-de-sac.
Part Two: Tell ‘Em, Winry
Let me back up a bit. This episode follows the brothers recovering from their encounter at Laboratory Five. They’re both a little worse for wear, Ed more than Al since his automail has been damaged. They call Winry out for a visit, and in the middle of repairing Ed’s arm, Al goes bonkers and attacks his brother. After fighting for a bit, they reconcile and regroup to figure out how best to continue their investigation.
Winry’s visit to repair Ed’s automail is one of the more compelling parts of the episode, as is eccentric but level-headed Colonel Hughes’ cryptic advice to the brothers. Winry spends time with Hughes’ family, which is cute and definitely means someone’s about to die (I did warn you about spoilers), but it sets a pleasant tone for the otherwise mopey atmosphere of the episode. We see in her interactions more of the friendship between her and the brothers, and it reflects effectively on their shared childhoods. She curses them (Al in particular) for not getting along and not trusting each other, and confesses that she feels like a background set piece in the boys’ journey, someone who’s only able to stand by and patch them up when they get hurt.
This is a good bit of character development for Winry, and some self-awareness on the part of the series regarding the constraints it puts on her. There’s compelling material in non-magical characters feeling weak in stories where magic is the main means of combat. Winry is frequently cast off to the sidelines, forced to watch her friends die and unable to do anything about it. She is overly critical of her own mistakes, blaming herself for Ed overextending the automail when she realizes she left out a minor piece. Despite these feelings, Ed in particular is heavily dependent on her. Without her automail repairs, the Elrics wouldn’t be going anywhere.
I really wish the series would give Winry more of a role within the plot. She’s not a useless character, and episodes like this one demonstrate her complexity. And yet, if we’re being honest, there’s something disturbing about how this episode frames her. Her dialogue is aimed at the Elrics and how she feels inadequate to them in particular. Even the cinematography looks down on Winry, positioning her as a figure to weep over them, not because of them. The episode seems uninterested in how Winry’s feelings affect her, but rather how they guilt-trip Ed and Al into getting along. Her points are valid, but the show makes Winry’s actions, as elsewhere, all about the Elrics. She’s not a realized person, merely a prop to aid their travels. The irritating thing, though, is that she clearly doesn’t have to be. Winry has a personality, and goals, and interests completely unrelated to the Elrics. The ingredients for a nuanced female character are here, and the show squanders its opportunity to use them. That the show could make Winry complex and opts instead to turn her into a prop is more frustrating than if she were simply a poorly-written character through and through.
Part Three: There is No Situation in Which We Need to See One Scene Five Times. No Situation.
To be fair, Ed actually has a fairly compelling dilemma in this episode. When Al brings up his suspicions, Ed confesses that he does feel guilty, specifically about binding Al’s soul to that suit. As the older brother, he has more say in what the two of them do, meaning the quest to become alchemists, the attempt to revive their mother, and their search for the Philosopher’s stone have all been Ed’s ideas, with Al tagging along. Ed is therefore at fault for the problems Al faces and his frustrations in being trapped in a suit or armor.
Aside from the Elrics’ little squabble, the episode follows a fairly simple ambling design, with Ed in the hospital and Mustang’s crew working to make sense of the events at the Laboratory. It ends with Scar in an Ishvalan refugee camp, and a bit of an insight into his past as well, though we won’t see more of that until a bit later.
It’s not that this episode is bereft of satisfying or significant moments. Parts with Winry, Ed, and Hughes are all compelling, and I normally love steady episodes that focus on character interactions. These are all potentially interesting characters. You can even see their better sides shine here.
But none of that excuses redundancy or ineffective execution. The episode has some compelling visuals and concepts, but those are the exception, not the norm. Much of the dialogue and actions of the characters, including Al’s fight with Ed, is excessive and adds nothing to the story, the world, or the characters. We learn nothing from these actions except misconceptions about the characters’ motivations that confuse later actions and generally don’t feed into the rest of the story. If you want a good example of this, my old friend repetitive flashbacks has returned. One particular scene, the one where Barry tells Al that he’s not a real person, plays out multiple times with no variation and little changing circumstance. Considering how insubstantial this scene is, repeating it only has value if a character is ruminating, or if the audience needs a reminder. The frequency of these flashbacks disrupts both reasons for using them. The end result is that the character seems too dim to understand very basic information (the consequences of which are never explored later anyway), and the show continues to assume its audience has the attention span and memory of a toddler. It’s a bit insulting, honestly.