Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eight: Backs in the Distance – ***
Part One: Visual Obsolescence
This episode, more than almost any other, has me torn. I don’t really like it — the melodramatic cliches that punctuate the ending spoil what should be strong character beats, and the dialogue is excessive to the point where a full third of it could be cut without obscuring what little story exists. That said, this episode is genuinely beautiful. It captures harrowing imagery with loaded and pertinent real-world significance, and its focus on reaction shots and close-ups gives it an artistic flair rare for this series. As has happened before and will happen again, the artists appear to have a better understanding of the narrative and the means to tell it than whoever is in charge of the dialogue.
The thing that brings this episode down, ultimately, is its irrelevance. Individually, this episode is impressive. If you showed it to someone wholly unfamiliar with the series, they might balk at the overexplanation of everything and the general lack of logic strewn throughout, but they would likely be intrigued by the art and concepts brought up in the story. I don’t feel that the show has earned it, though. Set within the context of the broader story, what does this one tell us that we don’t already know? We know that Scar is at least hypothetically sympathetic. We know that he killed Winry’s parents. We know that Winry isn’t a murderer. We know that the police state of Amestris is monstrous and slaughtered indiscriminately in Ishval.
The most this episode tells us that will become relevant to the story is that Scar feels burdened, and that his brother was studying alchemy and alkehestry and arranged his findings in a notebook. I suppose we also learn that his tattooed arm comes from his brother. This episode is far more interested in revealing things to various characters and showing their responses. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that the episode concentrates its efforts on moments that are trivial.
The center of this series it that Scar killed Winry’s parents. Distraught by the news when Ed taunts Scar, unaware of Winry’s presence, she grabs for a nearby gun and aims for the killer, but finds herself unable to pull the trigger. She takes a good long while to make her decision, in which we see Scar’s past and firsthand experience in Ishval. In another show, the tragedy of the situation might hit a significant point in these characters’ arcs. Scar is a bastard, sure, but his plight is relatable and surprisingly similar to that of Winry and the Elrics. He lost an arm and his brother gave his life to save him. In fact, the loss of Scar’s family at the hands of the Crimson Alchemist is what prompts him to attack Winry’s family. There’s, like, a metaphor in here for systemic cruelty and how it propagates grief or something.
But the visuals of the episode hammer home a simpler message. Scar is the bad guy now, in Kimbley’s spot. The Amestrians’ fear of Ishvalans with their red eyes is mirrored in the creepy imagery of the blue-eyed Amestrians from the Ishvalan perspective (which, admittedly, is striking as a stylistic choice). The episode falls into further mud with the frankly silly moments where Scar realizes his brother’s arm is now his and Ed blocks Winry from Scar’s hand. These beats are well-worn and simplistic; even if they fit the expectations of the series, they demean the material preceding and following them.
And at the end of it, what does it all draw to? Scar killed Winry’s parents. But Winry isn’t a main character. She’ll be shipped off to Resembool again in an episode or two, with little reflection on her experience. If she learns it was an accident, then there’s not really any tension between her and Scar, at least not that this series is set up to deal with. If it had been Ed and Al’s parents, or if Winry had been developed more fully, this could be a pivotal moment for her. But it’s only by contrivance that Winry even learns about this, and the scene almost seems to be more about Ed than her. He’s there to protect her, comfort her, and tell her that it isn’t her place to be involved in fights. Leave that to the men. It’s totally normal that a girl should draw parallels between her crush and her dead father. It’s fine.
This is what comes of weakening a character who should be far more integral to the story.
As an aside, I think I should also mention that Winry’s parents don’t die this way in the earlier series. In the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist, it’s Mustang who kills the doctors, partly by accident but also partly under orders, as they were helping Ishvalans. Winry never finds out about it, and I can’t honestly remember if Mustang learns the doctors’ identities either. The audience knows, and that’s enough.
Part Two: Stills and Action
My gripes with this series should really just run in a list, like MPAA ratings. Sexism. Monologues. Overwrought drama. This episode adds a new twist to the elements I don’t like by providing a voiced-over recap at the start. This is a very odd thing to give the series partway through, and it makes for a jarring experience when viewing episodes in quick succession. It’s also not good or really necessary, given the relative simplicity of the episode and how it virtually explains everything you need to know over the course of its run time.
But enough negativity! I want to talk about the visual language of this episode and what it’s doing with its animation. Do you know why anime series so often zoom in on a character’s eyes to the exclusion of their face? Sometimes it’s to bring the audience into their headspace more effectively, but as expressive as eyes are, it’s usually more effective to show emotions through a whole face. Except, that takes a lot of time and money, and when you’re churning out episodes weekly, you want to save the effort for scenes that require a lot of movement, like action sequences. Animated series that have a lot of these types of scenes tend to reallocate resources. Hence, tricks to hide or obscure faces (especially mouths), many still shots where characters don’t move, and shots of inanimate objects with characters speaking over them.
Much of the visual style of anime action-dramas like FMA arise from this necessity, much like a bottle episode in a live-action series. The stunned facial expressions, the emphasis on eyes or hands, views from behind, shots where the face is covered by hair or the eyes and mouth disappear entirely. These are cheap to make — far cheaper than the action scenes. The heightened sense of drama common to the genre is partly the result of trying to make these shots less static, hence characters thinking out exposition when their expression remains unchanged. If there were only music playing over reaction shots, instead of dialogue, the shots would need to be shorter or risk bringing the audience out of the experience.
This may not be the case for every anime out there, but it’s visible in this episode once you know to look for it. My guess is that they’re saving resources for the next suite of action scenes and intricate animation. Ling’s fight with Bradley is impressive, but short. However, the battle isn’t nearly done yet, so there’s likely more to come. “Likely” — never mind that, I know what’s coming up because I’ve seen it. And it’s visually stunning, if nothing else.
The visuals of this series, if not always the animation, tend to be one of its strong points. It has a good sense of color, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but the editing is quite good. What really brings it down is the story, and more specifically, how the story is presented. A lot of the information given to the audience is ultimately redundant. While I understand why the show opts to have characters explain their predicament in order to mask the stills, I can’t help but think the series would have held up better if it kept more of scenes silent and let the art speak for itself.
Of course, they may not have had the musical strength for that. The ambient music in this series isn’t bad, but it’s pretty obvious they only have about four themes with little variation between.
Part Three: Winry Likes Ed Like a Father. Ew.
This episode is meant to conjoin the start of the fight with the subsequent action scenes leading up to the end of the season. I don’t mind the set as a whole — it brings the season to a finale with a bit of a kick, and flows more smoothly from the preceding episodes into the next season. Episodes like this one that are meant to preserve the budget and catch up on backstory or interactions that may not be feasible for the next season are necessary. And, to be honest, the story in this one isn’t bad. Nor is its delivery, as far as this series goes. But it just doesn’t do much here. It feels like padding, juxtaposed as it is with more distinct action scenes that have nothing to do with Scar or Winry.
You know where this one should have gone? In the middle of Season One, near when Ed and Al first encounter Scar. The conflict drawn up by Winry learning Scar killed her parents is far more motivation for Ed and Al to fight him than what was given earlier, and it probably could have been reworked to provide a reason for tension between the brothers as well. It even feels like an extension of those mid-season episodes, with the same characters involved in the same conflicts and concerned about largely the same issues. I get that the show wants to establish a longer-running antagonism between Scar and the Elrics, but given they have few concerns for Scar in the interim, there’s not much reason to split what seems like one fight into two halves.
The episode does have a small aside with Ling in its opening, which is fine, though doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the episode. In it, Ling fights Bradley, learns that he’s a homunculus, shows a bit of compassion for both Lan Fan and his people that he hasn’t before, and that’s largely it. This episode is fond of comparing and contrasting characters thematically, so Ling being set against Bradley as a fighter and a flawed leader is comparable to Scar being compared visually to Ed, Al, and Kimbley, or Ed being compared to Winry’s father and Hughes. (Which, just… what? Why did they use Winry’s sexy Ed shot for that comparison?)
Hey, so that Xingese girl with the panda, Mei! She’s not in this episode. Nor any of the others since her introduction. I’m sure she’ll be a contributing member to the plot just as important as Ling and his ninjas.