3P Reviews, Anime and Manga, Fullmetal Alchemist

3P Reviews: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Season Four, Episode Three (Episode Forty-One)

Fullmetal Alchemist Episode 41

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Creativity: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Dialogue: 4
Sum: 30/50

 

Spoilers: Yes.

Audience Assumptions: None

 

Season Four

Episode Three: The Abyss – **

 

Part One: So Many Smells

We return to Ed and Al in the north, trying to get Winry to safety along with Scar, May, Marcoh, and a couple of chimeras. The Elrics have hung back with Miles and his men to keep up the ruse that Scar has kidnapped Winry, but when they learn Kimbley’s men have taken over Briggs, Alphonse braves a sudden blizzard to tell Winry and the others not to go to the fort.

I’ll be completely honest, I missed the plot point earlier that Alphonse was in the blizzard for that reason. They’re clear about it in this one, so Ed and Al’s actions are a bit more clearly motivated, but this is the part of the series where the story starts to lose me a bit. Tensions are ramping up and characters are coming into major culmination moments, but the series insists on adding new characters all the same. And we have a lot of them already.

Think about it — as far as characters who have gotten significant screentime or arcs in series so far, we have Ed and Al, Mustang, Hawkeye, Havoc, Hughes, his wife and daughter, seven homunculi (eight if you count the two Greeds) plus Father, Hoenheim, Winry, her grandmother, Ling and his crew, May and Shao May, Scar, the two Armstrongs, Miles, Buccaneer, Marcoh, Yoki, the two chimeras, Izumi, her husband, Kimbley, those two bodyguards Ed and Al had in the first two seasons, Barry for some reason, General Raven, and that general Mustang fraternizes with. You could argue for even more than that, now that we have two more chimeras hanging with Ed at the end of this season, and we’ve still got the better part of two seasons to go.

That’s over forty significant characters. I will grant the show that it handles a massive cast more effectively than a lot of similar series, like Game of Thrones or the Marvel films. In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, even the more minor characters are well-defined enough that the show can set them aside for several episodes and return to them later without having to re-introduce them. I attribute this mostly to the character design and animation, which allows a lot of personality to be expressed in a short span of time.

But forty’s still a lot of characters, and at that point, the show is pushing the efficacy of its character design. All four of the new chimeras could be condensed down into one person. Maybe two, but one would suffice. There are plenty of characters with interesting narratives in this show, and the idea of chimeric soldiers trying to reclaim their humanity isn’t a bad idea on its own. They make for cool fight sequences, which I’m 90% sure is the reason they were added in the first place. But four of them? Four, when there are already plenty of superfluous characters who don’t fit tonally or narratively into the story?

Normally, I’d imagine they’re coming in at the end just to be cannon fodder. Killing off minor characters introduced late in a story is lazy, because it speaks to a reluctance to put the main characters in real danger. But introducing them for seemingly no reason, and carrying them through the rest of the story? It’s a gutsy move, but those don’t always pay off.

 

Part Two: Glowy Eyes

You’d think from the title I’d stopped taking these reviews seriously by now. Actually, that’s kind of what I want to talk about here — not my reviews, which are of course very serious, but rather how this show wants its audience to view it.

A few years ago, I started to hear the term “bathos” thrown around more regularly in film analysis and criticism, usually with regard to The Last Jedi or Marvel movies. Bathos describes that deviation from the serious to the trivial that often comes from badly-placed jokes. Often, it’s a marker of an underdeveloped sense of humor, where one’s timing and attentions are not where they should be for a scene. Bathos is usually a concern of the creators of entertainment, though I would argue it’s perhaps even more important for viewers. Whether a person views a scene with both comic and serious elements to be tonally dissonant partly depends on their sensitivity to bathos. If they have a high bathos sensitivity, they’ll treat a serious scene with the dignity it desires, and likely won’t appreciate some asshole laughing at it. If they have a low bathos sensitivity, they’ll likely prefer even critical scenes to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek, and are likely to be said asshole.

Hello.

In general, I would say I probably have a pretty low sensitivity to bathos. I prefer comedies to straight dramas, and the strength of a joke is a far more telling than its placement in determining whether I’ll find it funny. I love jokes you miss the first time viewing a piece, and if something doesn’t have appropriate points of levity, I’ll often find my own. As you might be able to tell from some of my reviews, this is not always a good thing. I sometimes laugh at inappropriate moments, and I have difficulty immersing myself in serious subject matter unless it has specific cues to indicate that humor would be distasteful.

That said, I get it. On the occasions where I can immerse myself in a dramatic moment in a film, I get just as annoyed as anyone when people point out inconsequential details that make the scene unintentionally funny. It’s not necessarily that those moments are bereft of flaws, or that I don’t see the accidental joke (often, if it’s funny enough, I’ll enjoy seeing it on a rewatch). Rather, it’s that I feel the merit of the scene goes far beyond the value of that joke, and if all you’re paying attention to is a blatant anachronism, you’re going to miss the point.

Back to Fullmetal Alchemist. Near the end of this episode, there’s a sequence that is aesthetically and narratively intense, and feels like a pivotal moment for Edward. While nominally trying to save Kimbley — or rather, his men — from Miles’ snipers, Ed starts a tussle, that eventually sees him fall down a mine shaft and become partially impaled on a broken pipe. Facing a serious, potentially lethal, wound, Ed decides to risk healing alchemy, using his own body as a Philosopher’s Stone. It works, but it’s a bodge that leaves him only just able to function.

The layout of this scene, the drama of its execution, and the detail that goes into the animation work all indicate that this near-death experience is really important. In another series, it might be the turning point for Ed’s arc or the transition into the climax. I don’t know how fans of the series view this particular scene, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s emotionally affecting to a lot of people.

I think the artistry of the animation and much of the execution is commendable, and there are moments that come together effectively. Ed saying, “You can’t kill me that easily” when he comes back around is one of them. That moment effectively communicates his carefree adolescence and edgelord attitude better than almost any other moment in the series. It’s not too forced, and it’s actually kind of badass, in a way that suits the character. I like it.

But I do think that the rest of the scene is tonally mismatched. It goes so far in trying to express the drama of the situation, it becomes comical. The concept of Ed being in mortal peril now, in a random middle of the story, lacks overarching tension, and his solution is impromptu and a bit absurd in his own right. Since when can he just use himself as a Philosopher’s Stone? Why hasn’t he tried that before, like to get his and his brother’s bodies back, for instance? It seems to work fine with few consequences, so where’s the lasting tension? Why doesn’t he ever use it again, or encourage someone else to?

Structurally, this scene exists to give Ed and Al a reason to split up for a while, as Ed is recovering from his wounds. That reason is not, to my mind, sufficient to merit the ordeal of Ed being impaled. That he’s yelling his inner monologue the whole time, that the art becomes distorted in the way of more melodramatic action animes, that the music continues to play the same dirge it has for completely unrelated dramatic scenes, and that the show tries to link Ed’s convenient new knowledge to that time he used a Philosopher’s Stone — none of this does the scene any favors. Even if individual ideas within the scene work, they lack cohesion, making it a big event with very little purpose.

It’s not even funny really, it’s just sort of sad. I know the scene wants me to take it seriously, but I can’t. I just end up seeing it through a filter, like watching fish in an aquarium. I know what it’s going for, and I can see how it’s choosing to do that. I could probably even see how someone else might connect to the scene, especially if they love Ed and are emotionally invested in whether he makes it out okay. But I can’t be emotionally invested myself; I can’t separate out the absurdities long enough to feel empathy for the character as intended.

I find myself in this position quite often when watching this show, and I’m not sure if it’s the show’s fault for being tonally dissonant or my fault for seeing it that way. In either case, it’s frustrating.

 

Part Three: On Morality

There’s a scene early in the episode where Ed and Miles are talking amongst themselves about what to do about Kimbley and his men. In it, Miles explains that the Briggs soldiers will take them all out with sniper rifles, and Ed is horrified by this. He insists that while Kimbley is a terrible person who probably deserves that fate, his men are innocent.

Ed’s protest made me stop the episode and think for a moment. I don’t like the death penalty personally, in any circumstance. I feel that killing even dangerous people is an admission of failure, that you couldn’t find a way to keep them from harming others, so you’ve opted for the easiest solution, which also happens to be pretty barbaric. But fiction allows you to compartmentalize and play with stories that you would never want to witness in real life. Up to a point, that allows violence in those stories to be excessive or realistic, and merit very different emotions than they would in real life, especially if they’re isolated to the logic of their own world. Video games flat-out would not work unless that were possible.

What I was thinking about was not, “Is Ed right to spare these men?” I am not overly fond of Kimbley as you’ve probably noticed, so I doubt I would care about that choice in the fiction of the story. Instead, I was wondering, “Does it make sense for Ed to care about this?”

I don’t know. Intuitively, I would say no, it’s not consistent with his character, but as this moment gives me pause and this is a series largely about morality, I think it provides a good opportunity to take stock of Ed’s actions and how he feels about violence.

Both Ed and Al dislike violence toward innocents. They empathize with fellow children and pleasant adults alike, and are appropriately horrified when bad things happen to nice people. That’s not especially surprising in and of itself, as it would be difficult to make them relatable protagonists if they were sadistic. They also aren’t on-board with murder for the sake of trivial pursuits, as they refuse to create a Philosopher’s Stone once they learn what they’re made of. They’re reluctant to even use a pre-made stone unless the circumstances are dire, as when Ed has to escape Gluttony’s stomach. Their training on that island teaches them to kill living things, but also to have humility and know that it could just as easily be them becoming someone’s meal.

But the real question here is, how do these characters, Ed in particular, respond when someone bad is getting their comeuppance?

It doesn’t happen all that often. Only a few major characters have died in this series, none of them killed by Ed or Alphonse. I know Alphonse’s response to this question, as he witness quite a few antagonist deaths. He’s distraught when Bradley kills off Greed and his minions, and even though they kidnapped him, Al tries to save one of them. He forms quick bonds with everyone, even former enemies, and is far quicker to forgive than his brother. Al is a sweet boy, so he doesn’t like to see anyone get hurt. He usually only attacks people once they attack him, and although capable of holding his own, Al prefers to talk to people rather than fight.

Ed I’m not so sure about. He’s the obvious main protagonist of the series, and while certain character traits of his are evident (he’s hot-headed, impulsive, self-conscious), I’ve never had as good of a grasp on his character. Ed has a soft spot that makes his reactions to bad events often more extreme than Al’s. This is partly in contrast to his less empathetic default demeanor, and also his role as the older brother. Al brings home stray animals out of compassion, but Ed understands they can’t keep a pet around when their lives are so hectic. He’s more suspicious of people, and tends to respond with anger as a coping mechanism when upset.

Of the two of them, I would expect Ed to be begrudgingly okay with murder. He takes on the role of State Alchemist so that his brother doesn’t have to, and while I don’t doubt that Ed, as a kid, is unprepared for all that role entails, over the course of the series, he tends to be closer to the militaristic aspect of the alchemists. He’s the one who interacts most with Mustang, and Mustang has no qualms about killing as long as he thinks the person deserves it. Ed is the one who goes to Hawkeye and hears about the atrocities in Ishval. At this point in the story, Ed has not ever killed a person — he’s used a soul, which deteriorated it — and he’s injured quite a few people, but never in a way that has led to their death. He’s directly witnessed two killings, Lust and Envy destroying the Splicer brothers, and while shocked, his reaction to someone being murdered in a rather gruesome way doesn’t seem to affect him much. He confronts Envy almost immediately and shows little empathy for the Splicer brothers themselves.

A lot of Ed’s arc has been building up to him having to make a big moral decision, perhaps surrounding the Philosopher’s Stone, but certainly relating to killing. I actually kind of appreciate a lot of this early scene where he opposes Miles’ plan, as it leads to some interesting admissions like the observation by Miles’ men that Ed is still a child, and that all of them used to have his same convictions. It also leads to a genuinely cogent line: “Sometimes killing someone isn’t as hard as letting them live.”

I wish the series delved into this topic with more nuance, because while it forms the basis for a lot of important interactions for the Elrics, especially Ed, his response doesn’t really change much from this scene. He goes along with Miles’ plan, then immediately warns Kimbley and gets in a fight with the chimeras despite trying to save them. We transition into zany action, with little contemplation about what led to it.

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