Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode 12: One is All, All is One – *****
Part One: They’re Incredibly Lucky Neither of Them Had a Medical Emergency on the Island. That Would Have Been Awkward.
I think this is the first episode I’ve genuinely liked in a while. And with good reason.
We finally get to meet the Elric’s alchemy teacher, Izumi Curtis, and boy, what an excellent character she is. The episode is essentially split between the present day with the boys going to her for help and flashbacks to when they first met her. Not much has changed about her person in all that time; she’s a self-identifying housewife to a large burly butcher, unassuming in appearance but completely domineering in personality. Like Ed, she can perform alchemy without a transmutation circle and is a highly knowledgeable and skilled alchemist.
Her teaching practices, while effective, still leave something to be desired, though; when she agrees to take on the boys as proteges in the flashbacks, she immediately abandons them on a deserted island. The relevance of this month-long survival exercise is left to the boys as they try to track down food and build shelter. The survival component of the episode is probably the longest, although like most survival stories, it boils down to a very simple plot. The boys are fine at the start but soon grow weary trying to find food, catching a rabbit by chance but finding themselves unable to kill it. Weeks into the endeavor, Ed starts to grow delirious and eats some ants, stumbling upon the lesson in the process: there is equivalent exchange in natural organisms, and in order to gain anything, you must be willing to destroy something else.
Izumi’s life is heavily grounded in a respect for the principles of alchemy, including the “all is one, one is all” tenant, which reflects the interdependence of living things on a cycle of death and rebirth. Her general philosophy is to have humility against the power of nature and to be aware of the consequences of one’s actions — a lesson she learned firsthand.
Part Two: The Burden of Watching Others Make Your Mistakes
I’m normally not one for episodes heavily grounded in philosophy, as so many series (especially sci-fi and fantasy ones) overcomplicate simple ideas. However, this episode is clear and doesn’t dwell on its philosophical lessons for too long. Surprisingly so, given the series’ track record.
Ed’s revelation still comes across as a little goofy because the leap from ants to the interconnectivity of all life on earth is a steep one, but it works. The island lesson’s format follows a pleasing progression: the boys are left to figure out a riddle in a harsh environment, they face trials and eventually overcome them, then have time to reflect on what they’ve learned from experience and how that solves the riddle. Izumi’s casual delight at them coming up with an answer — never confirming whether it’s the correct one — makes the exercise an internal one. Ed and Al take it seriously not because Izumi has asked them a hard question, but because they’re driven; they want to learn from her.
Her response to how seriously they take the question also sets up a nice dynamic between her and the boys. The first thing she does when they knock on her door in the present day is attack them, informing the audience that she was the one who taught them how to spar. The boys are terrified of her for this reason, but also a much more crucial one — in performing human transmutation, they have directly opposed her most important lesson. They try to keep this information hidden throughout the episode, but she tricks Ed into using alchemy without a transmutation circle, revealing in the process that she figured out what they had done when she sparred with them earlier. While she’s upset about what they’ve done, it’s out of sympathy more than disgust; she tried to bring her stillborn child back to life years ago and lost many of her internal organs for it, hence her ability to transmute without a circle.
Izumi recounting her backstory to the boys is a powerful scene, showing in just a few minutes how her rigid personality was forged from the same mistakes that Ed and Al have made.
Part Three: Those All-Important Elements Missing Until Now
This episode does a great job of balancing story elements, using flashbacks to show essential parts of Ed and Alphonse’s lives before they performed human transmutation, but allowing all of the characters time to develop. The finale sees the Elrics and Izumi come together as a small found family. The boys are the closest thing Izumi has had to children of her own, and she likewise took up the role of a mother figure for them after their own mother died. The ending is tragic in its irony; not only have they followed in her footsteps with human transmutation as well as the island exercise, but both Izumi and the Elrics committed the taboo in a vain effort to obtain something they could get through other means.
The characters recognize this, but they’re gentle about it. Perhaps in another life they could have come together as a proper family, united in the way they all need. That can’t happen now, though, because the Elrics have shit to do and Izumi is unable to help them except as a mentor. Their roles are locked in the boundary space between parent-children and teacher-pupils, and that’s hard for them to accept, but they have to.
The pacing of this episode is excellent, and while the visuals aren’t flashy, they serve their purpose. Its story is easily the strongest stand-alone out of any of the episodes so far, and what it contributes to the larger arc is substantial. The bulk of Ed and Al’s character development has been focused on their backstory, and while bits of drama have been sprinkled in through their encounters with Nina, Barry, and Scar have affected them, those effects have been largely superficial. What we learn through their history with Izumi and see through their interactions with her in the present day cuts deep. Izumi is the real reason for Ed’s constant equivalent exchange rants; his encounter with the transmuted mother monster cemented a reverence for alchemy into his mind, but it was Izumi who taught him it.
The episode offers the right amount of everything, and it lacks most of my favorite complaints, which is a welcome change from the previous episode. I’ll tell you now, there are episodes I love far more than this one and there aren’t a lot of things in this one that make me actively excited. However, while it’s not my favorite overall, it certainly packs enough punch to make it my favorite so far.