Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode One: Interlude Party – *
Part One: Skip This Episode
Yeah, so this is the worst episode of the series.
If there are people out there who think it’s a captivating take on the human condition that beautifully visualizes the internal struggle of humanity or something, I’ll leave them to that. It’s a clip show, and if you were a child at any point between 1980 and 2005, you’ve probably seen your fair share of them. They string together scenes and shots from previous episodes between a small amount of new content, usually with the scenes’ original dialogue. While a clip show may technically tell a new story, the point is usually to get something out the door to fill a time slot when the budget is all but used up. Shows, especially those with long seasons, have a number of strategies for balancing budget constraints, a favorite these days being the bottle episode, where a small number of characters are stuck in one location. Clip shows are still around, but they’re kind of the bottom of the barrel as far workarounds go, so most series will only dip into that well when they have no other option.
A clip show doesn’t necessarily need to be utterly redundant, and plenty of series make good use of repeated scenes to convey information in a new light or highlight information the audience might have missed. Because clip shows are mostly made up of recycled materials, they’re much more limited than a typical episode in creating new content. I’ve yet to see any that make full use of their format in the same way that a creative YouTuber might, but some clip shows are at least watchable.
Much of it depends on the clips they choose and how they frame them.
Part Two: Anatomy of a Clip Show
The framing device is, curiously enough, centered around Hoenheim. We’re initially unmoored in time and place, but as the episode progresses, it seems to be a play on Hoenheim’s past (evidenced by the presence of a young Pinako and a cheerful bonfire) and his internal struggles (as evidenced by the surreal and frequently grim imagery, as well as the clips pertaining to recent events). Hoenheim is trying to make sense of the show’s plot, and Pinako is there to help him while other entities, including himself, sink him into a deep state of uncertainty.
As often happens in a clip show, the clips come in waves interspersed with the framing device. The transitions to clips are usually vague, with the clips themselves only holding a broad association with the last thing the framing device characters have said. In this case, the themes of the clips are, in order: Amestris has been at war for a long time, Ed and Al’s entire quest, the Philosopher’s Stones are made of people, Homunculi are scary, humans “will never give up,” and humans are getting better at being strong.
These run the gamut from expositional to uplifting, but aside from the clips being long and frequently diverging from their stated purpose, the closer the show gets to conceptual ideas, the harder of a time it seems to have imbuing these with much meaning. When Pinako and Hoenheim’s wife are touting the merits of humanity, they have to state the thesis of the series outright with their words, or else the show fears its audience won’t understand. The show has a surprising lack of trust in people considering it claims we’re worth trusting. The clips it shows also become redundant when they follow up this statement. The show means for them to serve as evidence, but the best evidence for the merits of humanity that the show has to offer haven’t yet appeared. The early scenes provide a taste of the thesis, but its impact doesn’t become prominent until close to the end. So, it’s kind of hard to justify a clip show that summarizes the series when it’s not even halfway through yet.
But, it’s just a clip show, right? They’re supposed to be bad. Or, at least, not as effective as regular episodes. You can’t throw in any new plot developments or action scenes, so what’s the point?
That seems to be the show’s approach, which offers more insight into the series and its priorities than I think I ever could. The content of the clips is just a show of the best parts of the series, strung together as though repeating those scenes can evoke the same response they did initially. There is no connection between the framing device and the actual clips outside of the piss-poor attempts to introduce them, as the show doesn’t even attempt to use them to convey Hoenheim’s inner demons. It describes his personal struggle exclusively within the framing device, then slaps the clips on top. They might as well have no theming whatsoever. If you cut out the clips, the episode has its own intact story, and does not need them at all. They’re there as filler, which is the point of the format, but they never strive to be anything else.
Part Three: Wasted Potential
The clips are annoying, even a bit noxious with their disconnection, but they’re all readily skippable. What bothers me more, honestly, is that parts of the episode try. There’s a surprising amount of new animation here, and some of it is quite impressive. We’ve gotten glimpses of Hoenheim in episodes past, but this is the first to focus on him exclusively.
And he’s an intriguing character. At this point, probably the most complex one in the series. He’s the father of the protagonists, and not a particularly good one, but one whose absence has weighed especially hard on them. He was gone during the two most important events in their life, and after all of that, he’s returned. At this point in the series, his mysterious past and role as an alchemist points to him being the father of the Homunculi and the conductor of all of the larger political ills of the country. He’s the villain. But, between all of these indicators that Hoenheim is an asshole, we get quiet, contemplative moments of him as a human being. He feels guilty about abandoning his children, he fears for their safety — he has emotions, just like anyone else, and not just anger. We don’t have good reason to forgive Hoenheim of his ills, but the show has put us in a position to empathize with him. This sort of episode focusing on his inner turmoil seems fitting.
However, the episode still falters. While the fantastical imagery is both haunting and indicative of Hoenheim’s state of mind, the arc of this little story is predictable and chaotic in much the same way as the clips. Here I’m also going to get into spoilers for the next episode, so buckle up or duck and roll.
It’s important to remember that this episode falls between Ed and Al approaching Father and their actually meeting him. Part of the placement of the clip show episode is to build tension for this encounter. As viewed, it also seems to be trying to explore Hoenheim’s dual nature as both a human being and the main villain. It’s here to provide context for his actions as we know them so far. It shows a man seemingly torn between his love for humanity and his desire to use them in Philosopher’s Stones. These two goals are incompatible. The episode pushes the audience to assume that Hoenheim needs the stones for something, probably alchemy related, but he regrets using and creating them. The struggle then becomes one between hubris and culpability. Fine.
But that’s not actually Hoenheim’s character arc. The show isn’t nuanced enough for that kind of gray morality. Instead, as we’ll soon learn, Hoenheim has an evil twin, and he’s the one who wants to turn the world into a Philosopher’s Stone, while Hoenheim is just some guy who feels guilty by association. The upshot of this disappointing twist, aside from maintaining the moral binary, is that the framing device in this particular episode, with Hoenheim’s darker impulses battling his humanity, is nonsensical. He doesn’t have darker impulses as far as the show is concerned.
So both the clip show and the framing device are useless. Great.