Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Four: The Arrogant Palm of a Small Human ***
Part One: Deceptive Moral Ambiguity
I’m sure no one saw this coming. Following the odd reactions of characters in the wake of Maria Ross’ death, this episode opens with Ed and Major Armstrong heading into the desert, guided by Ling. There, they find the ruins of Xerxes, along with a very much alive Maria Ross. The episode then elaborates on how Mustang and his team pulled off the plot to save Ross from false accusation.
The writers didn’t hold up the ploy for long, but this is something of a mixed blessing I think. Startling as the image of Mustang as a cold-blooded killer is, the show retains a relatively simplistic morality — characters have set boundaries for their actions, and the series makes a big deal about its protagonists ever doing anything outside of their typical purview. Much as I wish Mustang’s brutality in the previous episode remained a revelation of deep character flaws, this development and its delivery would leave me suspicious given its tonal conflict with the rest of the series. I’m glad the show didn’t drag out Ross’ reveal, though it’s still a bit of a weak plot point given how broadcast it is.
The explanation for the rescue is necessary, but a bit underwhelming. Heists and similar convoluted plots that are framed to pull wool over the audience’s eyes are hard to do well; frequently, they come across as simultaneously smug and oblivious, proud of their own cleverness while not actually delivering anything particularly clever. Because these plots are written more as tense action sequences than mysteries, they tend to be simplistic, which means they have to withhold more information or else risk the audience figuring out the secret plan long before they’re supposed to be aware of it. However, withholding too much information requires a recount of all of the events of the heist once all of the information is gleaned, often making the initial account feel dull and manipulative in retrospect. Seasoned heist writers tend to show the audience enough information that they can follow along without problem, only throwing a twist in at the end (for instance, revealing a character to have different motivations than they seemed, or revealing that the jewels in the vault are actually a person).
Part Two: MEAT MEN
The rescue of Maria Ross tries too hard to convince the audience that Mustang’s intent is to murder her. Not only is there a wake of suspiciously unrelated plot developments, like Barry escaping his confines at random and bringing Ling along for the ride, but the dark tone and high tension are in such conflict with those of the rest of the series that the audience is immediately signaled to start sniffing.
Mustang dragging up a credible burned body would seem to alleviate all concerns and confirm Ross dead, which I’ll admit got to me in my first viewing. The reason for this, though, is that the explanation of the body clashes with established rules of the world. The meat analogue for Ross is apparently real enough that it can deceive anyone short of a medical examiner (the doctor in the previous episode was an old friend of Mustang’s), but while manipulation of organic materials is established within the lore of the magic system, I’ve never been under the impression that finesse was part of it.
Since when can people make meat men? Since when can Mustang make meat men? Since when can he make them on such short notice? Why doesn’t anyone else use meat men to hide their crimes? Why don’t the authorities keep tabs on people who know how to make meat men if they’re apparently convincing human analogues? (And yes, I realize they kind of come back at one point later, but they feel even more tacked-on then.) My perturbation about this plot point is minor in the long run, but it still sours my experience. I like the idea that Mustang is a more morally ambiguous person than he seems, but if the show isn’t going in that direction, I’m not sure the attempt to deceive the audience works better than towing us along for the ride. The important thing here is that Ed is horrified by Mustang, and that stays the same whether the audience knows Ross is alive or not. That Mustang would let Ed believe her to be dead is the important reflection of his character here.
Part Three: Please Kill Barry Already, Show. Please?
The rest of the episode is a mishmash of action and exposition, much of which is rather dry. We learn a bit more backstory about alchemy and alkehestry, courtesy of Ling, and Ed encounters some Ishvalans who appear out of nowhere. From them, we learn, also out of nowhere, that Winry’s parents were killed by a man with a tattoo on his arm (I wonder who it was). Ed then leaves Ross to hide away in Xing.
Now that the homunculi seem to think him sated, Mustang continues to investigate their conspiracy and contribution to Hughes’ death. He knows he’s getting close, and it doesn’t take long for the homunculi to grow suspicious again. Mustang’s crew is confronted by a second Barry the Chopper (I’m a big fan of this character, if you hadn’t already picked up on that), this time as his rotting body implanted with an animal’s mind. Again, this is an odd contribution to the lore that is never explored further. While Mustang’s ground crew is occupied with Barry’s body, Hawkeye is ambushed by Gluttony, leaving the episode on a cliffhanger.
Sporadic unnecessary action aside, I really can’t wait until there is no more Barry the Chopper to contend with. I suppose he’s not the worst character in the show, but he’s long overstayed his welcome. Barry works as a minor villain in a side episode, not a fully-fledged recurring tertiary character. While he has a vibrant personality and cool character design, he lacks any potential for development, and the show knows it. He has no connection to the other characters, little contribution to the plot, and while I don’t hate his sort of humor, I likewise feel no desire to see more of it. He takes up too much screen time and we would lose nothing if his character were destroyed completely. I almost feel like the show just liked him as a side comic/action character, and the only reason he’s still around is that they couldn’t be bothered to ax him off. This is a taste of the show’s future issues with accruing too many side characters with similarly little contribution to the story.