Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Five: Death of the Undying – ****
Part One: Just Let Me Do One Synthesis Review, Show!
As with many long-running anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood frequently slides directly from one episode into another, each episode functioning more like a chapter than a complete arc. This isn’t necessarily a problem (it’s simply the consequence of a longer story format), but it can lead to some odd juxtaposition between episodes. Viewed in isolation, this episode is actually pretty good, a tense payoff to the ominous air of the homunculi and a compelling character piece for Mustang. He’s had a few decent character moments in these last few episodes, actually.
However, the continuous serial nature of the show also works somewhat to its detriment here. While plot points have technically been established in earlier episodes, with one of Mustang’s men unknowingly dating Lust and the homunculi eager to end Mustang’s meddling, the narrative arc of this episode feels like it ought to fall later in the season. The show has just run from one big subplot (Ed and Al finding out about Hughes) to another (Ross being falsely accused and nearly executed) to yet another (Mustang fighting for his life against Lust), none of them bearing much connection to each other outside of small segues. It doesn’t affect the pacing of the series — far from it, actually, as this is a mostly enjoyable slew of episodes — but it does look odd when you step back from it for a moment.
What, for instance, is the big plan Mustang has to lure the homunculi? Let Barry run loose and hope something good comes of it? Even if they have a plan that becomes more apparent later on, everyone seems surprised when they attract homunculi. Like, what exactly did they think would happen? I realize Mustang doesn’t know about the homunculi and Alphonse doesn’t know that they’re involved in the military conspiracy, but the characters have a hard time accepting that the homunculi are involved even when they state it outright. Like, these people are involved in making Philosopher’s Stones and binding souls to suits of armor. Broaden your expectations, friends.
That said, of all of the episodes this season* so far, this is easily the most impactful. Aside from Hughes, this is the first time Mustang or his crew have ever faced the homunculi directly. Ambushed by Gluttony after chasing down Barry’s rogue body, the non-alchemists and Mustang alike are stunned to find the homunculi impervious to anything they can throw at them. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the audience, after seeing the beating that Greed took, but the bulk of the episode deals with the effort to kill them, and as Mustang soon learns, the damage they can deal before that happens is substantial.
Part Two: Bloody Hands
Okay, so how do you kill a homunculus?
According to Greed, they’re hard to kill, but not impossible. Greed himself meets his end by being melted into goo. Like a popsicle. Damn I miss that character. Anyway, while alive, Greed mentions that his body can last a while, but indicates that it will eventually wear down. We know that the Philosopher’s Stones can disintegrate, or at least the incomplete versions can, and given the stones fuel the homunculi, we might imagine they put a time limit on the homunculi’s bodies. Curiously, though, the homunculi have no established kryptonite, unlike their counterparts in the earlier anime; they just take a while to kill, apparently.
The show pulls a bit of a kryptonite bait-and-switch with Lust, though. She’s ambushed Mustang and one of his men, Havoc, seriously injuring the latter. Mustang, in a desperate bid to save his friend, pulls the stone that fuels Lust out of her chest, attempting to use its power for healing. Her body crumbles, initially implying that removing the stones will kill the homunculi. However, Lust re-forms around the Philosopher’s Stone; it’s not merely her heart, but the source of her.
The imagery in this episode is, as you might imagine, intense. This is probably one of the most graphic episodes yet, but with good reason. Havoc gets stabbed by Lust’s spear fingers (Lust has spear fingers, if I hadn’t mentioned), as does Mustang. Lust opens up her chest to reveal the Philosopher’s Stone (though for what reason other than to serve the plot, I have no idea), and Mustang later opens it to retrieve the stone. The eeriest visuals are probably when Lust’s muscles and viscera regenerate around the Philosopher’s Stone while it’s still in Mustang’s hand. The horror of the moment drives home the desperation the characters feel when faced by these monsters, and it turns what would otherwise be a mundane death into something that sticks in the mind.
Lust does die eventually, though. Like many things, burning a homunculus long enough will apparently kill it. Mustang lets loose after cauterizing his own wound and carving his signature transmutation circle into his hand. I’m not sure the body horror here is necessary, as it mainly seems to be there to show how badass Mustang is, but again, it’s a striking image. It also plays into Mustang’s arc, as even in a pained state and barely able to stand, he continuously burns Lust alive until she finally disintegrates — risking Al and Hawkeye’s lives in the process.
Part Three: These Ladies Can Take Care of Themselves, Thank You Very Much. Except When They’re in Danger. Then They Need to Be Rescued.
Speaking of Hawkeye and Lust, I feel like we should return to my favorite topic, the way this show needlessly screws over its female characters.
This is the first time any of the antagonistic homunculi have been killed, and I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by it. Lust has been a background player for a long time, and while her femme fatale design is a bit predictable, she nonetheless manages to instill a sense of dread within the audience. She seems to be prominent within their ranks, in charge of Gluttony and Envy at the very least, so her dying here is abrupt. More than that, she dies without doing much, really. Lust threatens characters, but as we soon learn, she doesn’t even kill Havoc. All that tension and mystery gone to waste on a character who seems to exist largely to titillate. That’s disappointing.
What’s more disappointing is how the show treats Hawkeye. I don’t take issue specifically with her crying when she thinks Mustang is dead, nor that she has to be rescued. It’s the combination of these things, along with her being rescued multiple times and being written like she can’t count to four. It takes multiple dialogue exchanges for her to deduce that Lust has attacked Mustang, despite, you know, context clues and heavy-handed exposition (something that plagues much of this episode). She breaks down almost immediately, resorting solely to guns when when she knows they don’t work against the homunculi, and when Mustang does appear, sexy action hero that he is, Hawkeye is relegated to damsel status and has to be rescued by Alphonse. This is the second time she has to be rescued from the homunculi, and it’s as tedious as it sounds.
Hawkeye is a complex, capable character. It doesn’t take much to write her well. I’m frankly astonished that the episode crammed all of these demeaning tropes into one episode and still had time to kill Lust (the only one of the female homunculi, by the way). It’s not motivated, it doesn’t mean anything, and it really doesn’t serve the characters. There’s no reason to make Hawkeye break down at this point when Mustang reappears almost instantly, and even if they wanted to show her military resolve diminish when faced with true horror, there were plenty of better ways to go about it.
At least they didn’t fuck up Winry, I suppose. And they finally got rid of Barry. Thank god.