Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Seven: Advance of the Fool – **
Part One: Please. Please Stop.
Hhhnngh. Okay, so I should open by saying this isn’t the worst episode in the series — not by a long shot. But it’s episodes like this that make me cringe when people compare Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to Avatar: The Last Airbender, specifically. The episode plot has nothing to do with Avatar and few similarities, and I won’t pretend that Avatar is flawless or that FMA:B doesn’t have its own appeal. I understand why people compare these two series — both are character-focused fantasies with an interesting magic system and a gradually expanding plot that brings a host of characters at odds with a larger-than-life antagonist. They also have a similar feel in their summation, with the spirit world in Avatar mirroring parts of the Truth in FMA.
But those are just the broad strokes; at their cores, these are two very different series, and the experience of watching one rarely compares well to the other. Your takeaway may vary, but generally speaking, I see Avatar as an endeavor to present a simple story about several characters’ internal journeys through their interactions with a vast fantasy world. In the moment-to-moment, it tries to capture childish whimsy and blend that with a gradual recognition of the darker parts of reality. It doesn’t always succeed in this, but it wears its intent on its sleeve.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a squirrellier beast. I’ve honestly had a bit of a time trying to figure out what this series is and wants to be, but taking into account its more significant moments, I’d say it aims to capture the strong relationship of two characters to one another in their effort to make sense of a harsh world that has been particularly cruel to them. The characters encounter others on their travels as they walk their frequently diverging paths, but the story is ultimately intent on bringing them together and having them show their support for one another.
That’s not a bad focus, but here’s the problem: the internal arcs of Ed and Alphonse rarely have anything to do with the plot at hand. There are moments later on that put the brothers in conflict or test their bond, but an episode like this highlights the more frequent plot development that serves mainly as an excuse to advance the unrelated action plot. The A plot (the action) has almost nothing to do with the B plot (the brothers’ love for one another). So much of this series could be split into two completely different stories without breaking their internal cohesion.
The result is that a lot of the main plot comes across as padding or even kind of commercial. Most long-running series, especially animated ones, feel like this sooner or later by virtue of their release schedule. In this one, though, the storytellers have tried to string the irrelevant plot beats into the makeup of the core of the series, but without connecting it to that core directly, what they’ve done is ensure that it’s difficult to untangle. From a distance, the plot looks cohesive; this episode feeds directly into the next few, and those eventually lead to important points for the core of the series. You can’t take this episode out of the mix. However, the padding is still there, and it continues to weaken the series every step of the way.
Part Two: That Doctor Will Get the Best Char Award for this Series. Just You Wait.
I know I’m being a bit of a downer. I recognize that this isn’t really my sort of series, certainly not since I was about sixteen. But dammit, I wrote all of these things way back when and I’m going to suffer through it to get to the good stuff!
This episode is a transition from the events at the start of the previous one into a long action sequence in the next few. Now that Ed and Al are set on their way, they track down a probable location for where Mustang’s underground fight with Lust occurred. Through a bit of abductive reasoning, they realize that the Fuhrer might be involved. While the boys continue the investigation, Mustang learns that one of his men, Havoc, was paralyzed in the fight.
I actually really like the first half of this episode. It focuses on the characters, as it should, and presents many moments of pure atmosphere. I love seeing the figures walking through empty streets with only their thoughts for company, and when they leave a bit up to audience interpretation, I can see some surprising depth come through. Mustang’s conversation with one of his doctor pals from the Ishval Massacre is especially poignant, with the doctor essentially berating him for thinking he can be a better person. Mustang’s desperation to find a way to heal Havoc is also a decent point in his character development, not in the least because it ends in failure. Mustang has to accept that he can’t always have his way.
I’ll bring this up again, but it’s worth taking a quick look at how the episode treats Havoc’s disability. Fantasy series have a poor track record in this area, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fumbles on more than a few occasions, but I’m kind of okay with how the show treats Havoc. Becoming paralyzed through traumatic means is different than being born without working legs, so Havoc’s depression is understandable, and he takes it much better than his friends. While Mustang is running around trying to figure out magical cures for him, Havoc is figuring out what he’s going to do now that his life is changed, and while he’s not especially happy about it, he seems to recognize the reality of his situation. I wish the series had done this with a more important character earlier on, because Havoc is already a minor player so the audience isn’t going to experience any change to the structure of the story. However, it also manages to bring Havoc back in a valuable way later on, and I kind of like that. You can get a lot more out of a story when it doesn’t rely on cheap fixes to real issues, like magicking a disabled person into an able-bodied one.
Part Three: Flawless Plan, Guys
Of course, the good parts can’t last forever, and the last part of this episode is a slog. Admittedly, part of that is due to the cliffhanger ending, which leads into the next episode as more of an action piece.
Scar has returned, and now that the boys have a fresh new plan to confront the homunculi — put themselves in danger! I think the idea is that, as important sacrifices to the homunculi, they can’t be killed before the homunculi’s plan comes to fruition, so they’re hoping to lure the homunculi out into the open. I have to imagine that there’s an easier way to do this that doesn’t involve placing themselves between two sets of antagonists, but the heroes see nothing wrong with this plan and initiate it as soon as they can. With the help of Lan Fan and Ling, who can apparently detect the homunculi’s chi, Ed and Al go about attracting Scar by loudly performing good deeds. It’s a silly sequence.
This gets Mustang invested, now that he’s suddenly over his man being paralyzed on his watch. Mustang getting really into misdirecting the other officers over the radio is quite fun, though I struggle to fully understand its purpose. Who cares! Scar comes and attacks Ed, who realizes that he must be the one who killed Winry’s parents on the basis that he has a tattooed arm. Because I suppose arm tattoos are a one-in-a-million thing in this world. Ed figures out how to cancel out Scar’s alchemy somehow (with, I might note, no explanation or moment in which he figures out he can do this), and eventually Bradley shows up along with Gluttony. That sets us up for the next episode, in which Ed will be fighting Scar and Ling and Lan Fan will be fighting two of the remaining homunculi.
Like I said, it’s not a godawful episode, just a weak and occasionally incoherent one. Fingers crossed that the next one will be better.