Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Yes. Also for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Frozen, and Unbreakable.
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eleven: The First Homunculus – ***
Part One: Premonitions
The fun stuff comes later, for better and worse, but the bulk of the episode is not actually based around the titular first homunculus. Not really.
To recap the last few episodes, Armstrong has made a pact with Ed and Al to help, hoping to avoid the slaughter of her men. The homunculus Sloth and a deadly tunnel have set Armstrong on-edge, and the arrival of General Raven and the recently freed murderer Kimbley aren’t helping matters. With Raven killed and buried under concrete, Kimbley is now apparently in control of the Briggs base, and he’s decided to use Briggs forces (as well as his own men from Central) to hunt down Scar. He has brought Winry along as collateral, unbeknownst to her, to keep the Elrics in line.
Beyond any individual scene, the Briggs plotline is driven by mystery and the impending sense of something bad about to happen. Ed and Al want to find Scar’s companions, but they’re iffy about doing so under Kimbley’s watch. Technically, they’re still just trying to get their bodies back, but because they’re the heroes of this story, one might imagine that they’re also slowly accumulating information about how to stop Father and the homunculi.
This episode, like many, is a waypoint to catch the audience up and establish the stakes before another action sequence. Kimbley is taking Ed and Al to go find Scar, and presumably something will happen before or when they get there. Most of the Briggs portion of this episode, which is most of the episode, really, involves characters getting ready and Kimbley explaining what he wants. Armstrong has also sent her best men down to explore the tunnel, which seems like a bad idea to me, but it gives us an excuse for more of that impressive monster, and visually ties the Briggs storyline to events happening at Central surrounding Lieutenant Hawkeye.
Part Two: The Fair Maiden
Winry’s back in the story, and this is one of the episode sequences she plays a significant role in, so I have to talk about her again. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, so I’ll cut through the obvious complaints quickly. The series continues to build up its bland and obligatory romance between her and Ed, which I still don’t buy or enjoy; the series plays her up as naive and gullible despite her having no particular reason to trust Kimbley (if a guy immediately brings up your dead parents in conversation, that’s a bit of a warning sign, isn’t it, Winry?); and finally, I still don’t like that she’s mainly in this part of the series exclusively to be put in danger so the Elrics can worry about her.
None of this is new, though, and to be honest, Winry’s role in the story hasn’t really changed, nor is it likely to.
Winry is essentially what TV Tropes calls My Girl Back Home, a (usually female) character who developed a relationship with the (usually male) adventurer back when they were younger, until the quest called the hero out to travel the dangerous road alone. The usual portrayal of the character looks something like this: the hero is introduced and maybe shares a passing glance at the girl before something sweeps them away into the wider world. Sometimes the girl catches them on the threshold of the village and gives them a trinket that will be of help, physically or emotionally, then she waves goodbye. For adventurers who meet their love interest along the way, the role of Girl Back Home is often played by a mother. The hero might look at the girl’s picture or trinket, or confess how much they miss her to their close travel companions, but they rarely ever meet up with her again until the quest is over. If they’re physically close enough to home, sometimes the girl might be kidnapped at the end of the story, but after the hero rescues her, she goes back to waiting for him at home. When the hero returns from the quest, she’ll run up to him and they’ll embrace, and if she’s his girlfriend or crush, they’ll get married almost immediately.
Essentially, the girl is there as the ultimate end goal. Once they’re married, the story is over. They live happily ever after in their peaceful idyllic cottage in the countryside. The story rarely gives her any motivation other than seeing her love again, and if it does cut back to her at any point in the middle of the adventure, it’s usually to show her pining. If the story is a tragedy, or especially if the hero has another love interest available, like a travel companion, then the Girl Back Home will usually have cheated on him or settled down with a family of her own. But in Western fairy tales, and many others besides, marriage concludes the story.
With this archetype in mind, I should credit the series for its attempts to bring Winry into the tale more frequently. Her anger toward Scar, her role as Ed’s mechanic, and her attempts to make things better, as well as the show’s willingness to have her variably succeed and fail over the course of the plot, are all suitable plays on the trope. And, really, the scene in this episode where she ogles the automail tech that continues to frighten Ed is a highlight. It’s genuinely funny when she offers to upgrade Ed to Buccaneer’s ridiculously overpowered model.
The problem is when these brief moments of delight pass. I almost get the sense that the show wanted Winry to be a more involved character, but was working so heavily with a pre-established framework that it constrained itself unnecessarily. Why not have Winry traveling with the main characters all of the time, like the Sokka of the group? Why not have her on-board with helping them get their bodies back, chastising them for doing damage mid-battle, instead of waiting for them to come home and being surprised that they got hurt when they decided to fight? She could easily be the group’s healer. That’s what she acts like most of the time already, between her mechanical and medical knowledge, so why not give her a bigger role?
The show doesn’t do this because the Girl Back Home isn’t supposed to be along for the ride. And I kind of doubt the series would know what to do with her if she was. You see a similar issue with Hawkeye, who by all accounts should be a motivated and compelling character on par with Mustang, given their similar jobs and histories, but because she’s the woman, and not the main character, Hawkeye gets pushed to the back at best and used as a prop at worst. Occasionally, we see glimmers of the character as her own person, but remove the man to pine after her, and like Winry, she has very little going for her in her life.
I do think the show gives Winry enough of an external goal — run an automail shop — that she can stand as a distinct character better than Hawkeye, but Winry’s goal doesn’t line up well with the Elrics’ goals. Consequently, in episodes like this where Winry is called away from her own subplot to spend time with Ed and Al, she’s either going to feel like she doesn’t want to be there, or she going to have to suddenly lose interest in her main personal interest, and fawn after Ed again.
And that’s what happens. Real pity, because it’s not like the scenario couldn’t be salvaged. Just cut the romance subplot or make it far more subdued until the end of the story, and make Winry and active participant. It almost gets it here, almost. But, alas, no cigar.
Part Three: First and Last
I’m sure none of this is what engages most people about this episode, though. This one has a rather substantial setpiece in the reveal of the final homunculus we have yet to meet, and his creative power.
Pride is, as he puts it, the first homunculus, and the most dangerous. He’s the monster in the tunnel, a massive creature able to grow with any light, and manipulate his shadows to slice, cut, bite, and tear.
He’s also — TWIST! — Selim Bradley, Fuhrer King Bradley’s son.
I love this, but as you might expect, I love it both seriously and ironically.
The plot twist is very silly. Yes, it’s unexpected, and at first, it’s a cool surprise. This is another major divergence from the older series, in which Selim was just a kid (and also Sloth was Ed and Al’s mother reincarnated, but I don’t want to dig into that right now). Unlike the reveal that Bradley is the homunculus Wrath, Selim has been entirely innocuous up until this very episode. No hints, no strange looks, nothing.
On top of that, Selim has acted like a small kid who really likes Ed and Alphonse, which is where this twist gets good.
See, in most series with an assumed good guy who turns out to be evil, the twist comes at the end of the story so the audience doesn’t question the validity of the twist for long. Especially in stories with fairly strict moralities, it’s rarely plausible for a wholly evil character to spend time pretending to be sweet and innocent. The more you see of them stomping around, barely containing their glee at misery and destruction, the harder it is to accept any altruistic actions earlier in the story. We don’t see what Professor Quirrel would be like on a typical day at the end of the first Harry Potter book, we just see him as a meat puppet for a more evil person, so it’s easy for us to accept that he’s been in disguise this whole time. If we learned that the real Quirrel was a Moriarty-type with a severe need for attention and a blaring criminal record, we might be more suspicious about how he avoided detection until now.
Likewise, you need to sow seeds throughout the story so a character’s turn doesn’t feel like a last-minute addition. Many recent Disney films, Frozen most notably, have gone out of their way to create twist villains that fulfill what in other stories would be entirely benign roles. This makes pre-reveal characters very different from their post-reveal selves, even in private. If Hans secretly hates Anna and is quick to anger, he has no real reason to be delighted by accidentally falling into the water. The twist needs to build upon what we already know of a character, like the reveal in Unbreakable that crotchety, comic-obsessed Mr. Glass has no qualms about killing people if it gets him what he wants. This is more extreme behavior than the audience would expect from this character, but nothing he’s done in the film up to this point actively conflicts with the twist.
So, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fails on both of these fronts. That might be a bit harsh of me — occasionally the show presents Pride as puerile enough to sort of fit the mold of a child, and it does show him adopting the same affect Selim has in the first half of the series. But the series goes so far as to even change the character’s appearance, like his eye color (because all of the homunculi have purple eyes, other than Wrath), when he’s acting evil. I’ve held off on this for a long time, but rewatching the series, it is wonderful to see Selim written as an ordinary kid knowing he’s supposed to be a big shadow monster. Because he never reads like that until this single episode, and this episode has no real reason to show us that Selim is Pride in the first place. This is easily a reveal that could wait for a few episodes. Selim hasn’t come up since the start of the season. We spend so much time with the character after he’s been revealed to be an all-powerful monster, that basically everything prior to this reveal regarding the character is non-canonical.
I’d like to remind readers that at the beginning of the season, there’s a scene where Selim runs up to read his father a child-quality essay he wrote about why he loves his dad. Yes, his fake mother was in the room and she doesn’t know about the homunculi for some reason (which… I have many questions about that), but it is very clearly the action of a small child, not an all-powerful immortal being.
The best part about this scene is that Mrs. Bradley mentions that Selim got the highest score in his class.
Which means Pride goes to an actual school.
And has homework.
Somehow, the homunculi decided that a crucial step in their plan for world-domination was to force an ancient and powerful goo monster that eats people to go to grade school, and do children’s homework.
Why isn’t this show about that? I would watch the hell out of that spin-off!
But I do like this character, mainly for his design. Pride is the most complex of the homunculi, many of whom already have impressive animation. I love how the design of the character uses shadows that initially start as ordinary shadows, then can peel themselves off the ground or other backgrounds to slice and cut. I like how the shadows are always two-dimensional, even when they have eyes and teeth, and the eyes and teeth are delightfully creepy additions to the design. It also incorporates the eye and shadow hand motifs, affirming a relationship between the Door of Truth and the homunculi. On the whole, an excellent fantasy character design that I have yet to see replicated.
So really, Pride’s a win-win all around as far as I’m concerned.