Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Five: The 520 Cens Promise – **
Part One: Reconvening
This episode features Mustang contemplating how spread out his underlings have become, Ed and Al deciding to learn Alkehestry, Kimbley making bail, that doctor reuniting with his estranged family of half an episode, and Scar pretending to kill but not actually killing Marcoh. Twice.
As you might be able to tell, this is one of those episodes where precious little happens. It’s actually astonishing how slow the episode is without resorting to the usual gimmicks. The episode is mostly bereft of flashbacks and repetition, but it still doesn’t make especially effective use of its time. Characters get into position for later events, occasionally talking to themselves or briefly to each other, but never to any end within the episode itself.
This lull is somewhat necessary, given the fast pace of most episodes up to this point. The show prefers a straightforward approach to storytelling, with information typically conveyed one piece at a time in chronological order, alternating setup and payoff. Payoff for bigger events may take some time to come about, but the show still prefers to vary its action-oriented and revelatory episodes with quieter ones. This is not a bad idea in principle, but it only works as long as the quiet episodes have a reason to exist. Which this one doesn’t, really.
Part Two: IT’S A METAPHOR
The most prominent scene in this episode is the one involving Mustang fiddling with his chess pieces. Chess will become a recurring motif in the series from this point onward. On its own, I probably wouldn’t mind. Chess has been a popular shorthand for strategy and cleverness in Western storytelling since at least The Seventh Seal, so it isn’t surprising that a Western-inspired anime would use it. Hackneyed as it can be as a metaphor, the relatively simple rules of chess and the varied positions of the pieces make it easy to translate what’s happening on the board to an external context with just a small bit of explanation.
However, this episode stretches my limits quite a bit. It’s one thing for two characters playing against each other to point out their opponent’s moves, but very much another thing for a single person to talk to their pieces and relate them to individual people. Generally, chess metaphors work best when the players are partway through a match, because that’s when the strategy of the game and the importance of individual moves becomes apparent. There are alternatives, of course, like the famous scene in The Wire where one low-level gangster is trying to communicate to his friends how to play the game by describing the rules in terms of the gang’s organization. This communicates the importance of different people and objects within their world, and the other characters’ reactions to the rules of the game reflect how they feel about their lot in life.
Okay, maybe it’s a bit unfair for me to compare Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to The Wire. They could have tried just a little bit harder, though.
In this episode is that Mustang sees all of his underlings as chess pieces, with himself as the king. He claims that all of his pieces have been taken, but the game’s not over because he’s not in checkmate yet.
Except… yes, it is. According to the metaphor, at least. Ignoring for the moment the fact that you have more than one pawn, knight, rook, and bishop, if all you have left in a game of chess is your king, at most, you’re in stalemate, and if the other player has any other pieces whatsoever, unless you capture one of them, you’re done. If they have a queen, you lose by default because a king can’t capture a queen. What are you even trying to say, show? We don’t even know enough about Mustang’s men aside from Hawkeye for the comparisons to chess pieces make sense. And they’re not gone, they’re just moved away. How far did you think this metaphor through?
Yes, I realize Mustang pulls a secret message from his chess piece, implying he’s more than willing to cheat to win, but that has even less context because we don’t see where this message came from, what it says, or why it’s important within the episode itself.
This creative decision is such an odd choice, I can’t help but admire its unearned confidence.
Part Three: Ugh, Kimbley
To nobody’s surprise, Kimbley becomes a major player after his official introduction in the previous episode. If he seemed a bland villain before, the show continues to demonstrate how little it knows what to do with him. The story needs a disposable human antagonist now that Scar isn’t one anymore, so Kimbley is the solution. He’s intimidating but well-spoken, and he has a history with both Scar and the State Alchemists that makes him a good potential foil. Sounds perfect, right?
Except that Kimbley doesn’t have anything to do, and his character is weakly defined at best. We still have six homunculi plus Father running around, and even if the show wants to save the more important ones, like Wrath and Greed, for the end, there’s no real reason they couldn’t send Gluttony or Envy or either of the two unknown homunculi after Scar. In fact, there’s no real reason within the story for the homunculi to go after Scar, even if he has Marcoh with them. What’s Marcoh going to do, tell more people that Philosopher’s Stones are made from humans? That genie’s already well out of the bottle. Tell people about Ishval? Again, Ed, Al, Scar, and Mustang all know about that already. Why go to the trouble of chasing down Scar for anything at this point? And what the hell qualifies Kimbley for it over a character that’s basically a rotund bloodhound?
Kimbley certainly isn’t here because he’s an interesting character, that’s for sure. Yes, they dress him up in a snazzy suit and he plays a weird joke on a guard, but the show is trying far too hard to imprint on the audience that Kimbley is a force to be reckoned with. Which… he just isn’t. He’s good at making magical bombs, but when any alchemist in this series can punch the ground and send debris flying or make a crater, what makes Kimbley so special? Is he just that much crueler or craftier? Because he’s not overly charismatic. Why is he suddenly an important character?
Come to think of it, why the hell is Marcoh an important character? Marcoh’s contribution to the story ended a long time ago, to the point where I actually almost forgot he was still alive. We have a healing character and we have plenty of characters culpable for the Ishvalan genocide, and he divulged his relevant knowledge to Scar and the Elrics already, so the only reason we have for anyone to want to keep Marcoh around (aside from out of the goodness of their hearts, which, let’s face it, would not involve him becoming a major player) is because Marcoh is smart. He can figure things out. He can, I suppose, plan and the like.
Which I suppose no one else in or outside of Scar’s group could have done?
The show has a tendency to ascribe one character trait to each character, thereby requiring large groups of extraneous characters to make the story interesting. This is I think a reaction to the typical protagonists in anime series being granted every power and tragic backstory and characteristic under the sun so they can personally face any obstacle, and in that regard, I think FMA:B makes a wise choice. However, it’s starting to accrue a lot of characters, most of whom are not essential to the plot, and as we go forward, that trend is just going to compound and cause further problems, even when the characters it gives us are compelling.