Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Three: Cold Flame – ****
Part One: Anger: The Best Way to Deal With Pain
Okay, so knowing the turn of events from my previous viewings, even if I didn’t remember this episode in particular, this is still an intense episode. Its gravitas (if one can call it that) is woven throughout the opening scene, with Maria Ross under suspicion of murdering Hughes. Despite this, the episode is surprisingly lighthearted, regularly bringing non-diagetic anime effects into dialogue exchanges and providing levity in the form of amusing lines or characters. The story beats dance between comedy and drama, which I enjoy thoroughly when done well, though I’ll admit that the delivery gets unruly at times. It trends toward the humorous side of things, for the most part.
Right until we reach the halfway point, where one of the characters ends up a charred corpse.
I’m the sort of sadistic asshole who likes stories that make characters suffer — at least when them suffering pulls them through interesting arcs. Stories create safe spaces to explore, as a writer or reader, situations that would be unethical to expose any real human being to. That layer of distance protects us (for the most part), while still exposing us to enough of the situation to let us learn from it. When a character experiences some serious upset, be it grief, trauma, or any other sort of pain, their reaction informs us, engages us. How do they deal with it? Are they a victim, a perpetrator, both, or does it matter in this situation? How does this change them, or rather, how do they change themselves in light of it? Do they retaliate?
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood addresses character pain in many ways here, and it’s quite effective. Ed and Al continue to grieve Hughes, responding to the situation placidly, distracting themselves where possible. Armstrong tries to control his emotions in light of not only Hughes’ death, but also the fallout from Ross’ imprisonment, eventually turning angry when he fails. And then, of course, we have Mustang, who is difficult to pin down throughout the episode, clearly acting shady, though for unknown reasons. The show is cartoonish about it, perhaps appropriately so, but there’s something chilling in the way it delivers Mustang’s pursuit of Ross with such clinical detachment. Far more than any of the other characters in this series, Mustang’s potential for destruction and forced control of it makes it easy for him to slip into the suit of what would in another series be the primary villain. This is not the last time, but it’s certainly one of the more frightening.
Part Two: This Doctor is the Best Damn Character in the Series
Okay, so enough beating around the bush. Here’s the run-down of events:
At the end of the previous episode, homunculus Envy started to point fingers surreptitiously toward Maria Ross in an attempt to put Mustang off his investigation. Someone has to be convicted eventually, because Mustang isn’t likely to let this go otherwise, and Ross is a low-level nobody who readily serves the role of scapegoat. While the Elrics and military personnel close to Ross realize this accusation to be bullshit, they don’t have much recourse against it aside from incessant protests based on Ross’ character. She is sentenced to death.
As an aside, while it doesn’t work if the audience remains aware of all parties pulling the strings, I think there’s potential in a series using a fishy accusation like this as a mystery point. I like it when a series makes us question our trust in other people based on their personality alone. The show isn’t doing that here, but it does so at other points to greater or lesser degrees.
Continuing on, Barry the Chopper, held captive by Mustang’s crew, recognizes pictures of Ross in the newspaper. She ran into Barry while trying to rescue Ed and Al at Laboratory Five and Barry apparently has a bone to pick with her, so he storms the prison cell where she’s being held and kidnaps her (with Ling’s help, Ling being there for failure to pay a tab at a restaurant). This is rather clearly a runaway ploy, though why Barry has had a sudden change of heart is unclear. Apparently he knows she has an alibi and wants to set the record straight out of the goodness of his heart. The attempt is foiled, however, when the posse run into the Elrics, the ensuing chaos of which allows Ross to escape to the alleyways of Central.
Where, of course, she runs into Colonel Mustang all on his own. He fries her to a crisp in what is easily the most viscerally horrifying image in the show. Ed hears the explosion and runs to find Ross’ charred body, complete with identification tags. This is a dark place for the show to go, not only killing a recurring character in a gruesome way, but having one of the major characters — a good guy, no less — be the one to do it.
Mustang’s unauthorized force lands him in hot water, promoting disgust from all sides, and rightfully so. Even the medical examiner (who is a mopey ray of sunshine and rounds out this series) declares that the body is so far gone, it can only be verified as Ross from her dental records.
Part Three: Let’s Take All of This at Face Value
Chilling as this development may be, falling at the halfway point of the episode, skeptical viewers would be right to suspect deception. Things aren’t quite as they seem in the second half of the episode, presenting a vague mystery leading into the next. It’s pretty obvious that there was a plan to break Ross out that isn’t solely dependent on the goodwill of Barry the fucking Chopper, but the episode wants to play coy and make us wait for the next one. Fine. The remains are confirmed and a body is there, burnt, so it’s a convincing display to both the audience and the characters, even if it turns out to be a fake (spoiler alert, it absolutely is).
I’m sure the show will going this in excruciating detail in the next episode, but even if Mustang is in on the plot and isn’t actually that cold-hearted, the fact that we could see him being that way is a curious insight into his character. While I won’t call Mustang especially nuanced (he’s a broody drama queen with ambitions of being in charge of everyone), he has the potential to be a compelling antagonist. He’s not a villain, but he gets in the way of the Elrics and has neither their sense of ethics nor their innocence. He burned people to death in the Ishvalan War, and he’s more than willing to use his rather dangerous fire alchemy to violent ends even in regular combat scenarios. His inability to control his temper and the casual emotionlessness with which he kills Ross is a good indication that he’s probably not the best person to sit in the highest seat of power in the country.
The end of the episode really racks up suspicion, especially when it strangely returns to the comical nature of the first part of the episode. Barry returns to his confines of his own volition, bringing Ling along with him. Major Armstrong gets a sudden urge to act violent, breaking Ed’s automail (again) and proclaiming in a not-at-all suspicious way that he needs to get it repaired. Then he kidnaps Ed.
I realize why this needs to happen, and from a structural standpoint, it’s fair. Actually, this series is pretty good with its structure in the broad strokes; events happen generally with some cause, and episodes lead cleanly into one another. However, that doesn’t make the events in the series any less silly.
Anyway, this was still a decent episode.