Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Three: Struggle of the Fool – ****
Part One: The Shuffle
Little happens as characters regroup and inform each other about what they’ve learned. Ed and Al, captured by the homunculi, are led upstairs to Central Command to join Mustang in Bradley’s office. Bradley, whom they all now know to be the homunculus Wrath, tells them to keep quiet and not draw attention as they otherwise go about their normal routine. Ed and Al are to resume the business of finding their bodies until the homunculi have a use for them. The homunculi are watching them more closely now, and Wrath threatens to use Winry as a hostage to keep them in line. With his officers already spread thin and his own love interest similarly threatened (doing well with those female characters, show), Mustang is also unable to make any considerable moves.
Ed goes about trying to better understand how Father took away his alchemy, asking around town to see who else was affected and whether his own alchemy still works. Realizing that Scar and May’s alchemy must be different than Amestrisian alchemy, he starts to wonder if it might be capable of breaking some of the bounds in the alchemy he uses. If that’s the case, he supposes that this new sort of alchemy might give them a way to get their bodies back without relying on a philosopher’s stone.
Alphonse has secreted away May in his hollow armor, which creates a bit of tension in the drawing room sequence. After Greed drops off a message from Ling, Al heads to the doctor’s house where Lan Fan is recuperating and gives it to her. He also drops May off so she care recover from her own wounds, which goes poorly given the ladies’ divergent affiliations.
Meanwhile, Mustang warns Major Armstrong of Bradley and the homunculi, foreseeing war and bloodshed on the horizon regardless of what he does. We see less of his position than that of the boys in this episode, but he gets ample opportunity to draw comparisons between what’s starting to happen in Central and what happened a decade ago in Ishval.
Part Two: Plot Relay
I don’t think it would be controversial of me to say this is a plot-heavy show. It involves a lot of moving pieces and information passing between them, with significant events often taking some time to reach distant ears. A large cast of characters interacting in a massive fantasy world is nothing new, nor is it a bad thing by any means. However, it’s not enough to just organize the characters like toys and transfer information between them in a linear fashion.
For one, it’s boring. Films used to show multiple shots of characters opening doors to get up to rooms, the assumption being that if someone is in one building in one scene and another in the next, they would get confused without a clear transition. This assumption was, to some extent, true, but filmmakers quickly realized they only needed to signal a brief change in setting, like an establishing shot, for the audience to ground themselves in the reality of the film.
The other issue with a series that relies on logical progression of every piece is that the appeal of in-universe logic can only go so far. It’s pleasant to watch a desktop toy bounce around, but it doesn’t exactly challenge you. Memorization of names and places, comparison of the inner workings of different magic systems, and association of real-world analogues with fantasy series is all more involved than watching a machine churn around, but not by much. On the smallest level, any action involved with those sort of “geekdom” activities can be simplified into putting things in a list and organizing that list. This wizard is a class A warlock because he found the Sword of Galthibrand, which grants him a ten-second shield. This superhero wears these colors and has a costume with this logo, which symbolizes this superpower that she got with this dramatic origin story.
I enjoy that kind of geeky thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s appealing precisely because it’s busywork associated with your favorite thing. Knowing random facts that no one else cares about can give you the satisfaction of knowing how much you love a film or show. It mainly becomes a problem when the film or show is nothing but facts and names and dates to memorize, because it’s easy for series creators to come up with new slightly different content that stops meaning anything substantial. In the real world, memorization of leaves and animal species can give you useful information because you can interact with those elements physically. In fiction? Less so.
To its credit, this series adheres closely to its own internal logic. Aside from the strange god-related metaphysical lore, which the series means to be rule-breaking, everything that happens in the series follows some sort of command or magic system rule. Characters don’t learn information at the same time as the audience, and need to go about discovering it for themself or they need to be told it.
This is where a lot of the repetition in the series comes from. The desire to lead the audience through every interaction essentially in real-time is common in anime series, in part because it’s necessary for elaborate fight sequences, and because it allows a series to captivate its audience for longer. Comics in the US often do a similar thing, especially for long-running series. What I often find lacking in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in this regard is meaning. I’ll take characters having to learn everything in real time if their reactions justify the wait, and a show can often use information the audience knows that the character doesn’t to create tension. This one doesn’t do that. It gets close a few times, with Hughes’ death, with Hoenheim’s machinations, and with Bradley being a homunculus, but these reveals still tend to correlate with at least one character learning the secret, or only offering the audience a miniscule hint about the full revelation. Further, the show rarely uses its restrictions on dissemination of plot to good purpose. It could use the slow relay of information to put characters into a bind, or set a mood, or play up the reactions in more nuanced ways than exasperated shock. But no, for the most part, the audience follows the characters through every step of the process, and watches them tell everyone else they come across to the exact same angry gasps.
This episode comes close, though. It’s not quite there, but it’s fingertips are brushing the edge.
Part Three: Being Human
This is the first episode to deal with a new theme: what it means to be human. Well, technically the Hoenheim episode was the first to really touch upon it in the same way, but it doesn’t fit in the story, so I’m ignoring it.
The show is littered with characters who have done horrible things. Murder, mostly. The antagonists are all culpable, obviously, but so are most of the State Alchemists, especially those who participated in the Ishvalan extermination. Scar is becoming a more rounded character as he fades into a neutral role in the story, and now that we’re well-acquainted with most of the homunculi, we’re starting to see them, not exactly as sympathetic characters, but as characters with their own interests and motivations to some extent. The show is going a bit gray on us, and I like it.
It draws attention to this new theme mainly by putting the protagonists and antagonists in a truce. Ed, Al, and Mustang all have roughly the same goals as before, but they’re realizing that they’ll have to make a few deals with the devil to get to them. Mustang is now aware that he’s been working not merely for a corrupt political system, but actual inhuman monsters. He claims that this knowledge soothes his own guilt, because knowing they aren’t human helps to put his own actions into a new context.
Ehh… I think we’ll dig into that a little later. One of the flaws this episode has is that by making the protagonists all human and the antagonists distinctly not, it draws a clear boundary between good and evil, despite its character-specific dips toward a grayer morality. Hence why Greed is an important addition.
This version of Greed is not nearly as fun as the old one, mainly because he’s not nearly as low-stakes. He’s still with the other homunculi, and his brazen attitude doesn’t play quite as well when he’s a strict antagonist. However, we see glimpses of the character’s main conflict, and that is predictably more interesting. Ling is indeed able to peek through occasionally, taking back control of his body and even apparently negotiating with Greed. Greed is nice enough to drop off a message for Ling’s friends, so whatever his ultimate game is, it seems flexible.
While there’s something charming about one of the villains frequently just checking in on the protagonists as, like, a favor to the guy whose body he possesses, the award for best absurd homunculus in this episode goes to Wrath. His reaction when Ling briefly takes back control of his body is priceless. Even better when you remember he’s technically the same sort of homunculus as Greed, so you can imagine for a split second he’s thinking something along the lines of, Oh shi, that could be me, couldn’t it?
The episode gets a few good laughs. Not as many as I would like, but the slightly subtler comedy in parts of it almost works. The dramatic moments, especially little touches in the animation like Winry winding her finger around the phone cord, make it for me. It’s not a bad episode. Still doesn’t quite break through many of the show’s major issues, but it’s close.
Also, the cranky doctor is back, and apparently he lives in a completely filthy house. I adore how few fucks he has to give. MVP.