Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Ten: Separate Destinations – ****
Part One: Gut, Meet Fist
Yes, I’m just that cruel, aren’t I?
Well, let’s get into it. Long story short, Hughes is killed. This is arguably the most prominent protagonist death in the series, actually, and as with the girl-dog’s death, it brings fans of the series to tears. For me, it’s a more complicated situation, which I’ll get into, but I want to address what works about this episode.
First, it’s gorgeous. The animation isn’t much to look at, but the environments and gently sweeping wide shots carry a lot of the emotion. Much of this episode works well without dialogue, and I might even recommend a watch with the sound off so you can absorb the visuals. The pacing is also sharp, particularly for the first part of the episode. Dialogue exchanges compliment plot progression to make a fairly inactive episode come alive. A lot of the aesthetics work.
The plot isn’t bad, either. Hughes is an enjoyable character, and as comic relief, is likely to have endeared the audience to him in a short amount of time. His shared history with Mustang, some of which we see at the start of the episode, implies that Hughes is more than just the lovable eccentric who shows off his young daughter’s pictures every chance he gets. Like any good sacrificial character, he’s not the first person you’d expect to go – someone like Hawkeye, or Winry, or even Mustang himself would seem a more reasonable candidate. Hughes isn’t an alchemist and though he offers aid to the Elrics, he doesn’t seem to be especially useful. He’s amusing, but also annoying, and seems to serve more as a buddy of Mustang’s than anything else. He’s the sort of character the audience doesn’t want to die, but his minor role means that the story can kill him off without altering its course.
Admittedly, I don’t think that killing off an important character and changing the course of a series is necessarily bad, as long as the series has enough strengths elsewhere to smooth over the transition. However, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood kind of needs to keep Ed and Al alive because its main plot (Ed and Al trying to get their bodies back) doesn’t offer anything interesting if either protagonist dies. It’s therefore effective for the series to kill off Hughes instead.
Hughes’ death is significant in that it prompts reactions from the other characters, Mustang especially. The audience knows that he was killed by Envy, a shapeshifting Homunculus, disguised as minor officer Maria Ross. Half of the episode is spent with Mustang alternating between grief and investigation as he tries to piece together what happened. We also see Hughes’ loving family weeping at his funeral, and, as a further punch to the gut, a reminder that Ed, Al, and Winry remain unaware of Hughes’ fate; shortly before Hughes dies, the main protagonists set off with Winry to visit their alchemy teacher, leaving them to gossip about Hughes on the train ride there. Lovely.
Part Two: Okay, So What Ruins It, Then?
In a word, cheese.
Yet again, this episode’s worst enemy is its lack of subtlety. Effective elements for the plot are there — while recovering from their encounter at the Fifth Laboratory, the boys confide in Hughes what they know about the Homunculi, he starts to investigate on his own, gets killed, and now Mustang has to continue his investigation while grieving his friend. This is a lot of material, but the episode can handle it. It gets these plot points and many more in to boot. While I wish Hughes’ death came closer to the end of the episode, especially since it’s played partly for shock value, that’s a minor gripe.
I have more of a beef with how much the episode telecasts that he’s going to die, then milks most of the emotional weight out of it by going way too far. It’s worth pointing out that this and the previous episode ramp up the amount of time the audience spends with Hughes, with no reason other than to make his death more get-wrenching. While those scenes aren’t bad, really, they make his death a lot less surprising, like when Disney films open with loving parents, at leave one of whom will definitely die within the next twenty minutes to motivate the protagonist. When you consider that almost every memorable moment we’ve spent with Hughes has taken place over the last episode and a half, he starts to feel a lot more like a prop. This episode also falls pretty early in the series as a whole. While one could argue that makes Hughes dying unexpected, it also limits his utility. After the next few episodes, Hughes barely gets a mention, and his contribution to the plot is effectively to show that the Homunculi are dangerous.
And then we have the funeral. It’s sad, at first. People are crying, the casket is lowered into the grave, and Hughes’ daughter is screaming for her daddy to come back. I can forgive a lot of things; I can forgive the long, drawn-out farewell to his family for what would be an ordinary work day for Hughes; I can forgive the lack of buildup in Hughes’ investigation before he’s flat-out murdered; I can forgive the almost flash-cut funeral scene. I can even forgive the length of the scene, even though I think it goes on for a bit too long.
But I cannot forgive the dialogue, even for the kid. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the translation, but subbed or dubbed, the dialogue completely brings me out of the scene. Nothing will do that faster than bad dialogue written for child characters. I get that children say quaint things and sometimes have difficulty grasping concepts like death, but the scene takes it so literally that the scene loses all immersion. This scene should have been silent. The silent parts work. Really well, in fact. And the child is far from the only one. Mustang’s dialogue is presented as profound, but through the rest of the episode, he says things like, “It’s a terrible day for rain” when he’s crying.
And I know that people really like this line, which is why it kind of hurts to criticize it. It’s a cheesy line. If you still like it, if it made you cry, that’s fine. No judgement here. Whether something is over-the-top is largely a matter of taste. The game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons made me cry, but one of the common criticisms for it is that it hits you over the head with its metaphors. And yeah, I can see that. I can also see that Hughes’ funeral is an emotional scene in a series that fan adore, and maybe the sincerity of the moment makes the line play better for some people. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
And then the scene on the train where Ed and Al discuss Hughes and his wife, that doesn’t really bright me back. Again, it feels artificial. It’s the sort of writing I would expect from high school students. Do you get it? It’s ironic because he’s dead, and they don’t know that? Do you get it? Are you sad yet?
This comes down to taste again, but I honestly think that the series would lose very little if it opted to obfuscate events slightly more to make its emotional impact more genuine. This is a decent episode. It could have been an excellent one.
Part Three: The Plot Thickens
Outside of Hughes’ death, or really the source of it, is the continuation of the main conspiracy that will direct the remainder of the series. There are odd people called Homunculi running around. They look human but have supernatural abilities — something the main characters have yet to find out. They also have access to high-level government resources and are manipulating events behind the scenes for nefarious purposes, including making Philosopher’s Stones from human beings. The audience knows more than the protagonists, but not by much. We’re still in the dark where the purpose of the Homuncli’s actions are concerned, and why they opt to preserve Ed and Al while they’re more than willing to murder people like Hughes remains a mystery.
Ed and Al deciding to head out to the East region to find their former teacher sounds like a fun endeavor, especially considering how apprehensive they seem to be about it. Their reactions give just a taste of what kind of alchemy teacher they have, and in a light-hearted way that offsets the otherwise dour tone of the episode. I’m less interested in Winry accompanying them to visit the automail haven of Rush Valley, but she does tend to shine when she’s in her element and not simply staying behind as the mom friend.
A lot of this episode works — quite well, in fact. Like I said, the plotting is decent, and it adds much-needed weight to its stakes. Characters can die now. Characters we like. And I am sad to see Hughes go. He was fun, and the dynamic between him and Mustang was kind of adorable. With him gone, who will be there to take up the mantle of comic relief character?