Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Nine: The Shape of This Country – ****
Part One: If it Ain’t Broke…
We return after an unintended hiatus! I would love to say that I had something come up that prevented me from releasing these reviews during my spree in November, but to be completely honest, I just mostly forgot about them until the last minute and had other series I was more interested in working on.
But I will finish this review series, by god! It may take several years and a lot of bellyaching, but I will finish it.
Anyway, I left the last one on a cliffhanger, so, uh, oops. Sorry about that to anyone following these. If it’s any consolation, though, I did actually like this episode.
It’s not an especially exciting or character-building episode, and despite its major revelation, it doesn’t provide much of a twist in the plot either. A lot of the information we discover has been doled out already to a greater or lesser degree, so this episode is mainly a stopping point to allow the series to collect itself and regroup.
Normally, the series has struggled to reiterate its plot effectively, opting for repetition above all else. This episode, though, hits the right notes, managing an appropriate pace and linking information together that is applicable in multiple ways to multiple characters.
In fact, the part of this episode I remember clearest, the fight against Sloth, is short and sweet. It plays to the humorous excess of Major General Armstrong’s character and even allots time for Ed, Al, and Mustang’s lackey to prove their worth. It’s a cute little team effort, and the means they use to stop the Homunculus — freezing him solid — is actually kind of clever. The fight scene doesn’t drag and isn’t overly complicated, which is useful when the combatant is likewise not overly complicated.
The episode spends time where it needs, and ends up unusually well-balanced compared to many of the episodes so far. Also, that joke about their teacher lying about her survival prowess only makes her negligence in the One is All, All is One episode that much funnier.
Part Two: Into the Tunnels
The focus of this episode, as its name indicates, is development of the conspiracy plot. We’ve known what the Homunculi and Father are doing, roughly — creating an enormous philosopher’s stone – and now we know how they intend to do it — by enshrining all of Amestris into an equally enormous transmutation circle. We still don’t know why they want to do all of this, as Marcoh points out, but that’s not important to know right now. Villain plans usually aren’t. They’re doing it for the fun of it, to gain power, to get revenge, whatever. Unless a series is interested in exploring the humanity of its villains, usually all the protagonists need know is how to stop them.
Ed figures that a rail line in the tunnels Sloth has been digging forms a circle around the country, because he knows the Homunculi intend to reap the souls of Amestrians for their massive stone. Sites of bloodshed reveal the nodes in the circle, and Ed puts the thing together. Figuring out this plan just from a tunnel might be a stretch, especially given the tunnel is surely too dark and massive for anyone to judge its curvature and Ed conjures sites of bloodshed as the solution based on almost nothing. I’m willing to forgive the show because it’s not so convenient as to be distracting, and the characters’ responses are appropriately grim.
Oh hey, look, a flashback montage with depth! I have never seen one of those in this show, at least not that I can recall. When someone suggests that the military is involved in all of this, suddenly the warnings hit Ed all at once and he realizes what he’s gotten himself into. It shouldn’t surprise him that the Amestris military is involved, especially considering he knows this conspiracy goes straight to the top, but in that moment, he’s not only coming to understand the extent to which this plot has defined the country, but also how he’s willingly complicit.
Amestris was founded to create this transmutation circle; its entire system of governance is rotten to the core. All of its military might has been built up for the single purpose of slaughter, meaning everything Ed has done since becoming a State Alchemist has been at least partially to benefit the Homunculi’s bloody cause. This hits him particularly hard when he learns his actions in Liore toward the beginning of the series were partially responsible for violent riots that erupted after he left.
Do you see what flashbacks can do for you, show? They aren’t just there to hit the audience over the head!
Part Three: Major General Armstrong Seems Like She Would Make a Great Mom
If the Sloth fight takes up the first third of the episode and the discovery in the tunnel takes up the second, the final third would seem to be the weak one out, and I think it is. It still has its merits, though.
Major General Armstrong and her closest confidantes are called out of the tunnel with the news that General Raven from Central has arrived to see her. Armstrong decides to trust Ed, suspicious that the final bout of bloodshed is going to be spilled at Briggs. Ed requests that she try to figure out what General Raven is up to, while he, Al, and Armstrong’s right-hand man, Buccaneer (who coincidentally is missing his own right hand), listen in.
Raven has arrived with Kimbley, who to our great chagrin has not succumbed to his wounds. The telling-off he gets from Miles is delightful, short-lived though it is. While Kimbley is getting a tour of Briggs, Raven talks to Armstrong about recent events at the base.
Armstrong lies and tells him that she suspects the Homunculus outside is a Drachman creation and that she’s locked up Ed and Al for their association with the creature. She then twist Raven right around her finger, spinning an absurd narrative about her “feminine ways” and how she “regrets not having children.” The show, for once, is fully aware of the concept of gender bias, and uses a simple but effective subversion of it to propel the plot and give a bit of insight into Armstrong. While I would have nothing wrong with her showing a stereotypically feminine side if the other female characters were more roundly written, the scene is pretty clear on her outright lying. The character complexity comes with Armstrong showing her flexibility and social awareness on top of her regular brute-force approach. She may be fierce, but she knows when to switch up her approach. You get the sense that if she had wanted, she probably could have taken over Amestris alone if she had wanted. And she’s not even an alchemist, remember.
You also get the sense from her word choice that being a rare woman in a position of power in this world, she’s had to deal with the assumptions men make about her plenty of times, enough to know how malleable a figure like Raven is compared to her own men. Buccaneer, of course, finds the whole ordeal hilarious. Which it is.
Not a bad way to get Armstrong into the good graces of the villains.