Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Yes, also minor spoiler for the older Fullmetal Alchemist anime.
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eight: Ice Queen – ***
Part One: WALL
The story continues as we get more of an introduction to Briggs Fortress and its varied occupants. Major General Armstrong steps to the side initially as Ed gets his automail checked out and her subordinate, Miles, gives them a tour around the facilities. They find Briggs to be a tough place full of correspondingly tough people, and also one of Mustang’s men. It’s not at all dissimilar to the encampments on the Wall in the Song of Ice and Fire series, as it’s sort of a refuge for those who wouldn’t be able to hold similar jobs anywhere else.
About halfway through the episode, we get a few inciting incidents that set the stage for the next few episodes. First, Kimbley arrives, injured, at the Briggs infirmary, dropped off after his latest incident involving Scar. Second, and much more unexpected, a new Homunculus, Sloth, bursts through the extremely secure floor of the Briggs engine room and begins to tear about the place. Neither of these are to Armstrong’s liking, so she fires a rocket launcher at one of them (not Kimbley, sadly). When Ed tries to talk to Sloth, assuming he’s been sent to check on them, he learns that the Homunculus had no intention of popping up here, so the whole affair is a bit of a clusterfuck on everyone’s part. Seeing Ed talk to the monster, Armstrong questions him about his allegiances and he refuses to answer, but being fair and seeing him to be of use, Armstrong prepares him to help her fights the monster. I imagine we’ll get to see the end of the encounter next time.
Part Two: Are You Sure That’s What That Means?
There are a few worldbuilding notes I quite like in this episode. As I’ve mentioned, Armstrong is probably the most entertaining and competent of the show’s female characters, given decent dialogue and a unique personality. She’s aggressive, but not foolhardy, and despite her often rash and rage-fueled decisions (such as firing a rocket launcher at an unknown monster), she’s actually a decent leader. We learn about her mostly through other figures like Miles, and what we learn is that she’s tough but fair. She doesn’t harbor the same racism as other Amestrian officials, nor does she seem to care about a person’s physical skills, background, gender, or other attributes. Her facility runs a research division as well as typical military drills, and she keeps both in line through her constant orders.
You get the sense, however, that the ruthless face Briggs puts on isn’t quite the full story. on two occasions now, Armstrong has given Ed the benefit of the doubt with only the barest reason to trust him. Miles explains that she’s offered the same to him in the past. While we have no reason to doubt Armstrong would make good on her offer to cut an insubordinate down in a one-on-one fair fight, Briggs seems surprisingly peaceful despite the constant threat of violence looming overhead.
This is, I think, an important point, because a macho affect and threats of violence rarely lead to order, and the show knows it. I’m not overly fond of how the show treats Armstrong, a much more masculine woman, with far more respect than most of its other female characters, but she is likewise not just an angry man with a woman’s face. We’ve seen violent, angry men in positions of power throughout this series make big mistakes because they’re guided by their muscles before their brains. Mustang, Bradley, Scar, Kimbley, Father Cornello, Envy, Gluttony, Ed — they’ve all hurt others and themselves by accidentally by rushing headlong into conflicts that can’t be solved with sheer power alone. Olivia Armstrong comes across as far more restrained than any of them, despite her constant outbursts. She talks a big talk, but unlike, for instance, Bradley, she doesn’t use a show of force to keep her men in line. She doesn’t need it.
Briggs works on a more communal framework, despite characters making assertions like “Briggs is about survival of the fittest.” Miles even mocks Ed lightly when this is his takeaway; Ed dodges a falling icicle, and Miles proclaims, “That was survival of the fittest as well. Your luck was strong, so you survived.” Luck, of course, is not a fitness trait of any sort, and is the exact opposite of “survival of the fittest.”
… Or it’s perfectly possible I’m giving the show more credit than it deserves, and it actually has no idea what that phrase means. Given a lot of people still — still, over a hundred and fifty years later — think “survival of the fittest” means “only strong people can survive on their own,” I wouldn’t put it past a cartoon fantasy series to make a similar mistake. Armstrong having a heart at her center gives me hope, though.
Part Three: Points for Effort?
You might expect me to devote this last section to Sloth, as he’s the first new Homunculus we’ve come across in a while and the second-to-last to be revealed, but honestly, he’s not worth it. Sloth is the most boring of the Homunculi, and far more ridiculous in this version than in the first anime, which is saying something given the first anime used Ed and Al’s mother as Sloth (despite her having nothing to do with laziness). Sloth in this version is a large muscle boy with shark teeth, I guess, who complains about everything. It almost seems like something was lost in translation, because aside from a brief bout of narcolepsy, Sloth isn’t especially slothful. He’s irate and finds everything annoying, but that doesn’t stop him from rampaging around and destroying things. He’s basically one of those roided-out versions of regular enemies you find partway through a difficult level in every RPG. And that is all he will ever amount to.
No, I’m more interested in Miles. I think the show is going for something genuinely deep here, but it fumbles its message quite a few times on the way out. Miles is Ishvalan, or at least he looks Ishvalan, which is noteworthy because not only are Ishvalans discriminated against in Amestris, but the State also eradicated most of its Ishvalan officers following the genocide. Miles wears dark glasses to hide his eyes, and exists in a kind of ethnic no-man’s land, being racially Ishvalan and upset about what Amestris did to his grandfather’s homeland, but not directly connected to Ishval himself and very much a part of the same system responsible for the genocide. Miles is an interesting character, and reasonably well-crafted outside of his backstory.
However, his interactions with Ed leave something to be desired on this front.
When Miles reveals that he’s Ishvalan, he also informs Ed that Ed’s people destroyed his own. Ed counters with an accusation that Ishvalans destroyed the countryside where he grew up, and he has fought both against and alongside Scar, so he’d rather not give Ishvalans any leeway just for being Ishvalan. Miles says that he’s relieved Ed is willing to stand up to him rather than regard him with pity, and Ed declares that he thinks people should just treat everyone as equals.
I don’t want to overstep my bounds, being white as a polar bear covered in marshmallow fluff myself, so I won’t remark on anything Miles says, but rather Ed’s role here. Amestris is heavily coded as Germany circa or just prior to World War 2, and the Ishvalans are coded as a sort of Middle Eastern conglomerate, the genocide being reminiscent of the Holocaust and also more recent refugee crises. While the Ishvalans are remarked in the series for having distinct red eyes, they are also drawn to be darker-skinned than most of the Amestrian characters, including Ed and Al. The genocide is not that far in the past — less than a decade — and along with instances of propaganda by the State, the audience has yet to see any actual indication that what went down in Ishval was ever a “conflict” beyond Ishvalans trying, and usually failing, to defend themselves. So Ed’s assertion that the Ishvalans destroyed his countryside is either greatly exaggerated or an outright lie.
This comes after Ed knows what went down in Ishval and what it was really for, so although Miles doesn’t berate him for it and Ed apologizes lightly, he should have fucking known better. Replace the fictional groups with real ones in similar positions and see how that scene plays out. I know that Ed is the protagonist, and he wasn’t involved in the genocide personally, and it’s not at all bad to have a sentiment that people should treat each other equally. But “equal” doesn’t mean that rich little white boys get to spout their wisdom about how racism works both ways. Because it doesn’t, Ed.