Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Four: The Ishvalan War of Extermination – ***
Part One: Hawkeye the Alchemist
In this episode, we get an in-depth look at what happened in the Ishvalan War of Extermination, and in doing so, also learn a bit about Colonel Mustang’s personal history. The story opens with a flashback of Mustang at the bedside of dying alchemist, begging the elder to teach him a unique sort of flame alchemy. The older flame alchemist initially refuses, but as he dies, tells Mustang his daughter guards his notes. The twist? The old alchemist is Riza Hawkeye’s father. How, precisely, Mustang came to acquire the research we now know to be his signature move is not a part of the story, but we know he and Hawkeye eventually came to trust one another out of their mutual horror about what they did in Ishval.
Most of the episode entails Hawkeye sitting Ed down and explaining her role in the genocide after he returns her gun. This is paralleled with Marcoh explaining to Scar what happened to his people.
s we know from previous episodes, years back, Amestris attacked Ishval under the premise of reigning in an unruly state, though in reality it was for the bloodlust of Father and his homunculi. The military quickly escalated tensions by sending in more manpower and eventually state alchemists, which, against a largely unarmed Ishvalan populace, turned the attack into a holocaust. Hawkeye had joined the military as a sniper before the war started, and found herself in the midst of the genocide, eventually meeting up with Mustang and Hughes who were in the same position.
Mustang, along with the other alchemists, played a particularly violent role. While he and more compassionate characters like Armstrong questioned their roles in the “conflict,” others, notably Kimbley, reveled in the violence. Midway through the war, Kimbley’s bloodlust garnered him authority to use a newly-created philosopher’s stone crafted to enhance the destructive power of the alchemists and accumulate more bodies for the homunculi. In the aftermath of the genocide, Kimbley was convicted as a scapegoat.
Seeing the corruption implicit in the military, Mustang resolved to climb the power pyramid in order of prevent a similar event from occurring again, choosing Hawkeye and Hughes as his confidants to keep him on-track.
Part Two: Simple Reasons
The bulk of this episode is paint-by-numbers in a way that often undermines the horror of its imagery. More than most, this episode suffers from purple prose, with characterization given largely through haughty monologues that resemble human dialogue in the same way I resemble Buckingham Palace. The opening is conventionally rote, nothing new about Master Hakweye’s hacking coughs and curmudgeonly dire take on the state military. The reveal that he’s Hawkeye’s father is neither surprising nor particularly insightful, but it might get an “ahh,” out of the audience the first time around.
More cringe-inducing is the show’s first proper reveal of Kimbley, who has been foreshadowed longer than any other villain in the series. The show doesn’t really have much room for yet another murderous monster who loves violence, so I don’t know that I had high hopes for it making much use of him, but the delivery is still somehow underwhelming. Kimbley is a conventional psychopath, apathetic to human suffering and a glutton for bloodshed. We know this because he tells it to the audience and other characters. Twice. The show is kind of trying to opt for a Shakespearean villain in Kimbley, one who is Evil with a capital “E,” but it seems to not realize it lacks the nuance to deliver such a character as well as the context for that character to be in any way meaningful.
There are a few poignant lines here and there, like when Mustang asks Hughes what could possibly be the reason for so much death, and Hughes responds, “Reasons are always simple.” That’s a level of clarity the series rarely achieves, but it gets at something the series spends considerable time trying to show. It’s also an effective way to relate the fantastical plot of the homunculi to a real-world scenario. Horrible things are often the result of assholes who either don’t know better or don’t care. Even if evil monsters like those in the series aren’t real, their actions certainly are, and real monsters have similarly pointless reasons for it. It’s a sharp line.
Or, it would be, if the show didn’t then spend several minutes explaining it. Ah, well. Halfway there.
Because the genocide is recounted through a character lens, sometimes Hawkeye will add her own descriptions to what is happening on-screen. There’s a fair bit of narration of character inner monologues, which is questionable even when used elsewhere in the series, but this episode fails to even keep consistent with its own framing. How, precisely, does Hawkeye know what was going through Mustang’s head that day?
I don’t need the series to adhere to a stringent internal logic (though it does that often enough on its own). I do find it frustrating, though, that the episode tries to capture the whole of the event rather than focus on Hawkeye’s specific perspective. If anything, the episode is far more centered around Mustang, to the point where Marcoh’s little aside with Scar seems like an afterthought.
It’s not the only time the episode diverts from its main point, either.
Part Three: Why Yes, I Would Like a New Love Interest for May
Yay, it’s time to discuss the Problems in this series again!
I don’t think I need to point out how the show’s perpetual efforts to jam its few female characters into romantic relationships is tedious, especially given these relationships often conflict with their other personal goals and generally serve as weak jokes. Yes, it’s annoying that the episode spends a good five minutes on May falling in love with Alphonse after he explains to her his body is handsome, but I’d like to did a little bit deeper.
There’s a point to critiquing the roles of female characters in any story, or other underrepresented or poorly-represented groups, for that matter. Shallow portrayals can end up replicating harmful tropes if they’re not careful, and in doing so, become antagonistic, even if they mean no harm. It’s probably worth mentioning that the manga this series is based on what written by a woman, and while the director and writer of the anime were both men, to my knowledge, the adaptation is pretty damn similar. I have not read the manga, so I do not know for sure. However, the story does have a lot of female characters in active roles, and it sets a baseline for their personal character growth. I feel like the series generally doesn’t live up to this standard, but I wouldn’t be giving it proper credit to say it isn’t there at all.
However, even if the intentions of the creators were golden, specific turns of phrase, visual depictions, and editing choices for where certain scenes fall in the story paint a different picture. Of note in this episode is how Hawkeye is framed in relation to Mustang. I don’t think the show meant to imply it, but the relationship starts to look outright abusive in this episode. Right after her father reveals she has his research notes — notes that we know Mustang wants, and eventually gets — the show cuts to a shot of Hawkeye in the shower, with a scarred and tattooed back. Presumably these were the research notes in question, and Mustang was the one to destroy them. A later episode will confirm this to be the case. While the full explanation makes it a sexy sacrifice on Hawkeye’s part, both in showing Mustang her nude body and letting him deface it so no one else can use flame alchemy, every step of this process looks bad.
For one, Hawkeye’s father storing his notes on his daughter’s body is gross. It dehumanizes her, and the position is such that it’s clearly meant for someone else to view — specifically, for them to view the notes along with the rest of her body. Hawkeye becomes a literal object to be possessed.
Without further context about how her back got scarred, we’re left to assume it was either her father or Mustang who did it, probably Mustang. While we learn later it was Hawkeye’s decision to destroy the tattoo, the means is still painful, and there’s nothing in this episode to suggest it was consensual. It’s equally plausible to interpret Hawkeye’s tattoo and scars as traumatic, which is how they look in this episode.
Hawkeye, despite being a sniper, is put in positions of relative powerlessness compared to Mustang throughout the rest of the episode, looking up to him (in some cases, literally) for guidance. At the end of the episode, when she comes to aid him, he’s the one who decides how she’ll do it, and he appoints her to always be at his side. While the rest of the series implies this relationship is one of trust and romantic tension, the juxtaposition of Hawkeye being mutilated by Mustang with the image of her at Mustang’s every beck-and-call suddenly leads us to reconsider whether their relationship is a healthy one. Hawkeye’s proclaimed faith in Mustang doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence. If anything, it sounds more like the plea of someone who doesn’t have any other choice — which she kind of doesn’t.
Ed refers to Winry in this episode as someone he doesn’t love, but who he wants to protect, and while this is clearly meant as a comedic denial of feelings, there’s an insidious implication in the assumption many of the men make throughout this series that women exist for men to protect. Again, I don’t think this was intentional, but the danger of that particular assumption is more than just not trusting women to take care of themselves. “Protecting a woman” is often a blanket excuse men make for violent behaviors, especially those directed toward minorities, and abusers will often turn it on their victims to either threaten them away from leaving (“I may be bad, but I protect you from worse things”), or to gaslight (“I’m not hurting you, I’m protecting you. It’s for your own good.”).
Hawkeye’s reveal toward the end of the episode that Mustang’s ultimate plan involves incriminating everyone involved in the Ishvalan genocide comes as a shock, but a warranted one. Throughout the series, we’ve heard characters refer to the genocide as a “war” fought with “battles,” a common tactic used by oppressive regimes to make their war crimes sound fairly matched, even noble. To its credit, the episode points out the hypocrisy in the way Amestrisians view Ishval, and how the willing participation of characters like Mustang and Hawkeye factor into it. They know it’s wrong, but orders are orders, so they follow like good little soldiers.
The only problem is that the culpability of these characters is rarely questioned after this episode. It also doesn’t add favorably to Hawkeye’s personal arc, as Mustang is effectively signing her into a death pact with him, even if they achieve their stated goal. The episode implies a fraught backstory for Hawkeye, but it’s really just using her to tell Mustang’s backstory. Both of them are responsible for war crimes, but the episode implies that they damned themselves by joining the military for selfish reasons. Mustang wants to become a flame alchemist, so he seeks his mentor’s notes. Upon reaching that position, though, he’s drafted to participate in a genocide, and despite moral objections, he kills people en masse. Afterward, he feels guilty and wants to ensure this sort of executive extermination cannot happen again, so he seeks power, presuming he will eventually have to give it up and suffer the consequences of his actions.
At first glance, the narrative is sound, depicting a morally-fraught situation. I have problems with it on a few levels, namely that this is really just a coup and we have no reason to think that Mustang being in power would be much of an improvement on the situation aside from him not being a literal soul-eating monster. I think I’ll have opportunity to dissect Mustang’s plan in a later episode, but suffice it to say, the bigger problem in this one is that it’s Mustang’s arc, not Hawkeye’s.
Why did Hawkeye join the military? She doesn’t seem to be seeking glory or finding recompense for her past wrongs or anything, so her reason for being sent to Ishval is fundamentally different from Mustang’s. And we don’t know how or why. Her opting to join Mustang’s crew, knowing it will eventually lead to her imprisonment and probable execution, is also questionable. What about her in particular makes her do this?
The answer is that she’s there to watch Mustang’s back and serve as his love interest. Her personal arc is not related to Ishval, she just happens to be a set decoration there. Throw in a clever line about snipers being more responsible for deaths than other soldiers, show her feeling remorse, link that to other characters, and you can transition to the actual story you want to tell, no problem. It doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t have anything to do with Hawkeye outside of her being the narrator, because her arc takes place wholly in the present.
I’ll be revisiting this subplot.