Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Two: The Dwarf in the Flask – *****
Part One: Xerxes
I find that pacing tends to be the most reliable determiner of whether I will enjoy an episode in this series or not. It has to progress the story at a particular pace, on the fast side, but with enough time to breathe in the animation and ambiance. This episode nails it, telling an entire self-contained narrative with beautiful scenery and eerie magic animation, in about fifteen minutes. I’ve seen deeper narratives in other animated shows, but I’m comparing this series to itself, and this is about as solid of an episode as they come.
This episode details Hoenheim’s backstory, revealing him to be a former slave from the ancient civilization of Xerxes. The alchemist who owned him used his blood to conjure a strange little shadow creature confined to a flask. Upon speaking to the creature, the slave learned it was called a homunculus, and the homunculus took an interest in him. It gave him a name and knowledge about alchemy, allowing him to become the most powerful alchemist of his generation. This garnered attention from the king of Xerxes, who in his old age, demanded Hoenheim and the homunculus make him immortal. The homunculus agreed, telling the king to create a circle around the city and carve seals of blood at specific points. This done, the spell was started, but the homunculus had tricked the king. The souls of everyone in the city were absorbed, not into the king, but into Hoenheim and the homunculus, turning them both into living Philosopher’s Stones. The Homunculus gained a body, using Hoenheim’s blood to become his twin, the figure we know as Father in the main story. Hoenheim, disgusted by the homunculus’ trickery and murder, parted ways with it.
Nice, succinct, and ending with a not-insubstantial punch.
The thing I like most about this episode is its pacing, but second to that is its visuals. The episode almost feels like something out of Avatar, with brilliant sets and cityscapes that take inspiration from Athens, Baghdad, Uruk, and other major ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cities. The framing implies a land not at all dissimilar to Amestris, with an elite class of alchemists and a predatory monarch easily willing to sacrifice his own people in secret. Many of the frames are beautiful, some of the most colorful and detailed the show has ever offered, but the animation of the homunculus and the effects of the transmutation circle are haunting. It also gives us a rare glimpse into the personality of Father, and even more of Hoenheim himself.
Part two: Hoenheim of Light
Now we finally have a good look at Hoenheim’s character, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken the show so long. Hoenheim is an important figure, to be sure, an almost mythical presence in the lives of his sons, largely because of his absence. Like many children with estranged fathers, Ed and Al have conflicting feelings about him. When young, they want him to come back, to teach them alchemy and be a person they can look up to. Al holds on to this idea. Ed, however, is more jaded, angry at their father for abandoning them, especially with their mother ill, and he’s come to view Hoenheim as a deadbeat, someone who maintains an air of distinction and enigma mainly to hide his ineptitude.
And Ed’s not half wrong.
Hoenheim has been humanized over the series, in this episode especially. As we learn that he is fully human, or at least once was, we can see that he faces apprehension and inner conflict like any person. But he’s also a Philosopher’s Stone, sharing more physiologically with the homunculi and Father than any of his actual family. He’s too old to have the sincere connection to his children a better parent might, and though he seeks to reconnect to them, he can’t. He’s already lived his life; he’s a being of magic, and his knowledge of the homunculi and their plans to destroy and consume prevent Hoenheim from ignoring them.
Hoenheim seems to be acting in opposition to the homunculi. The story isn’t yet clear about how long he’s been doing this, but based on his response to the homunculus’ “gift” in the backstory, it seems that Hoenheim likely spent a good while wandering around and trying to figure out his new life before becoming concerned with the plot to turn Amestris into a stone. Unlike in the earlier anime, there’s no indication that Hoenheim had other families before Ed and Al, so it would stand to reason that his absence from their lives comes out of fear for their safety as much as uncertainty about how to connect to them. He certainly seems to have been busy, sowing blood worms and wandering the world and whatnot. With him finally starting to run into the other characters more frequently, the season foreshadows that Hoenheim will become a much more pivotal character, rather than just a shadowy figure the show tries to pass off as his doppelganger.
Part Three: Secret Messages
Bracketing the backstory are sequences accelerating the thrill of the series, though not in the way one might expect; Hawkeye devises a way to inform Mustang about Selim Bradley, while Hoenheim runs into Izumi and does what he can to heal her.
Neither is strictly necessary nor adds much to the plot, and I have minor gripes with each. The secret message is clever, but not especially difficult to break, and it directly contradicts Hawkeye’s fear of being tailed by Pride. If she can’t communicate anything to him over the phone, why should she feel more comfortable doing the same in person? Likewise, she has no idea if Pride is tailing Mustang as well — surely it’s a possibility, right? This section seems to favor Mustang’s point-of-view, so it doesn’t see a need to show Hawkeye’s thoughts, but I would have appreciated an expression or two indicating her decision at least.
The section with Izumi is less meaningful, mainly away to demonstrate Hoenheim’s power and introduce him to Ed and Al’s teacher. He notices she’s injured from her attempt at human transmutation, and sends her husband off to “go find help.” He actually just wants to be alone while he uses his Philosopher’s Stone, as this requires him to gore her with his hand. The show continues its trend of framing Hoenheim as an ominous figure, potentially a deadly one. But the gig is up; we know by now Hoenheim is with the protagonists and not even a particularly duplicitous person compared to many of the other protagonists. The drama of the scene is artificial, and that makes its tone more confusing than anything else. Maybe if it was set earlier in the show, but as with the other floating encounters like it, it just feels a bit out of place.
Nonetheless, both bracketing scenes flow well and have a nice look to them. Mustang’s horror at decoding the message is a nice moment where he realizes what he’s up against. The backstory portion of the episode is more than enough to make up for weaknesses elsewhere.