Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Four: Signs of a Counter Offensive – ***
Part One: Alphonse Becomes a Metaphor
As we move closer to the ending of the series (and I realize we still have almost two seasons left, but trust me, we’re approaching the finale), the episodes will start to blur together more. I think I’ll end up focusing a bit more on specific scenes, lines, or concepts within the show as a result, so expect a few more odd tirades here and there.
In this episode, Al’s group works to interpret Scar’s brother’s notes at an abandoned shack, and Hoenheim arrives at Leore as part of his investigation into Father.
There isn’t much else that happens in the episode, so I’d like to look a bit closer at that first half to start.
Fantasy series often utilize some sort of macguffin to initiate or resolve plot points — a crystal ball, a magic wand, a letter, a book, whatever fits the world. The reason the macguffin is such a common trope in fantasy in particular is because it initiates quests, which means characters often have to journey to find what they want, and the journey allows the characters to bond while running into cool fantasy world beasts and places.
But you run into a problem once your characters find the macguffin: now what? Some series end there, with a big fight over the macguffin. Others ping the players off to find another macguffin, allowing the characters to use macguffin #1 while searching for macguffin #2. Neither solution is especially compelling, because it either lends the macguffin far more significance than it merits given it was thrown in initially just as an excuse to get the characters to move, or it creates an arduous loop of “the princess is in another castle.”
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood opts for a slightly different solution, with Scar’s brother’s notes providing a potential solution to the country-wide transmutation circle, but no hints about how they can realistically implement it. I like this approach, though I don’t recall it ever really coming together in a clear way. Perhaps if it had been established sooner.
In any event, the way the characters arrive at the solution is a bizarre combination of clever and contrived. While reading the notes, May and Marcoh realize they’re written in code, using various words to symbolize immortality and the Philosopher’s Stone. They can’t crack the code, but when everyone has to put Al’s armor back together after recovering him from the snowstorm, Marcoh makes a comment about “putting the pieces back together.” May decides that this must apply to the notes, so she unties the binding and spills all of the papers on the floor, piecing them back together based on repeated words. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I’ll buy it. But then they start drawing lines connecting the words, making the murder transmutation circle like Ed did in the tunnel, with about as much clarity about how to connect the points as before (which is to say, none).
They’re disappointed that the code reveals information they’ve already discovered on their own, but May decides, with even less prompting, that if they turn the pages over, they’ll find something else. And they do; an alternative alkehestry circle!
I’ll set aside the question of how the characters figured any of this out, and instead ask a simpler question: why? Why couldn’t the notes just explain the alkehestry circle? I get that it’s a fun reveal for the audience, and the idea that they need to make a new circle sticks in the mind pretty well, but what, beyond plot contrivance, drives this mystery from a structural standpoint? They only recently received the book, after all. Wouldn’t it be just as exciting for the characters to come up with a new circle on their own, perhaps with the help of the notes?
It’s not especially important, but the choice is odd enough that I remark upon it.
Part Two: The Shadow in the Tunnels
For me, the emotional highlight of this one is the reappearance of Pride in the tunnels surrounding Amestris. Hoenheim’s mysterious investigations lead him to explore the ruined temple in Liore, which he suspects to be the epicenter of another massacre. He discovers an entrance to the tunnel, and confronts Pride, apparently for the first time.
And may I say I still absolutely adore this character’s design? The animation of Pride is delightfully creepy, and I kind of regret not including him in that essay I did a while back on monsters. The way he moves through the tunnels, the enormous eyes and teeth that seem to have no bounds… it’s creative, and its initial impact doesn’t easily wane. Eyes and teeth are immediately recognizable because most predators have them, and they often signal danger — something watching you, something licking its chops.
Another benefit to eyes and teeth? Expression. Pride often has this sly visage that suits his name; he loves the hunt, and he knows his prey can’t get away. However, when Hoenheim lands in trouble and runs back to the tunnel exit, he exposes a heretofore unseen weakness of the homunculus that brings him into a new light. Pride can’t reach past the tunnel, so like the homunculus Hoenheim knew, he’s confined to a flask, albeit a very large one. He can only travel through the tunnels and Central (which doesn’t entirely make sense to me given these two areas don’t appear to be connected, but I’ll let it pass). If he leaves, he’ll die. For a creature with seemingly no other weaknesses, that’s pretty substantial, turning him into a glass cannon of sorts.
And he is furious that Hoenheim points it out. It would seem that the homunculi have more to them than their names imply.
Part Three: Oh Boy, It’s White Savior Time!
This topic was actually raised in the last episode, but as it seems to be recurring and I don’t have a lot else to say about this episode, I might as well address it here. The usual disclaimers — I’m white, so I don’t have a good grasp of the depth of this conversation, so take what I say with a healthy grain of salt.
To be clear, this series does a lot of things right with racial diversity, and it’s honestly refreshing compared to many other popular animes. I appreciate how it continues to remind us that there are refugees from Ishval all over the place, and aside from Scar (actually, including Scar at this point), it paints a sympathetic image of them. That means a lot, especially for a show that’s over ten years old now.
Honestly, the white savior thing strikes me more as an oddity than anything else, but because I see this sort of trope in anime and manga especially, it’s worth examining a bit further.
Within his backstory, Hoenheim is established as native to the civilization of Xerxes. Xerxes is sort of like Atlantis, an ancient civilization that predates Xing, Amestris, Ishval, and all of the surrounding countries, and therefore seems to have no particular affinities to any of them. Its ruins are located in the middle of a sparsely-inhabited desert, so it might be seen as a sort of ancient Mesopotamian city. Nominally, a character from Xerxes would not necessarily coded the same way a real-world white European would.
Except that they all appear to be pale and blond.
This is the sort of thing I think people miss about Danaerys Targaryen as well. Yes, light-colored hair and eyes can crop up in any population, but globally, those traits are unusual outside of Europe, as is light skin in equatorial regions. How people look is largely due to coincidences of history and random mutations, so it’s not difficult to write around a character’s appearance, especially in a fantasy series. Choosing to do so in order to make characters look more European, though, especially if it would be simpler or more realistic for them to look nonwhite, says something about the priorities of the narrative.
Centuries of colonization by predominantly white Europeans, many of whom were unusually preoccupied with skin color and had cultural views that made them think themselves superior to other people by birth, has kind of messed things up for everyone. Colorism in particular is not unique to Europe, but Western culture has certainly favored the notion that a lack of pigments should be equated to beauty, mystique, and divinity — to the point where even our predominant god looks far more French than Middle Eastern in most interpretations.
Fullmetal Alchemist makes the discrete decision that Hoenheim looks white, and then it decides that he was the one who introduced alchemy to the world.
The reason within the story is to make Hoenheim seem that much more powerful, and establish him as a link between the different techniques, which the story implies will be important for the resolution. It’s perfectly likely that the creator of the series chose to make Hoenheim look the way he does so that he, and by extension Ed, would stand out compared to the other characters, none of whom has the same sort of golden hair. The story also references gold periodically in association with alchemy, suggesting Ed and his father are amazing alchemists right down to, well, I guess their scalps. Given the prominence of unusual hair color denoting characters of interest in manga and anime, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of the series made the choice oblivious to the social commentary that inevitably comes with it.
That still doesn’t make it a good one.
The white savior trope is harmful because it implies, first, that brilliant ideas must always be linked to single individuals, as opposed to arising in multiple places independently, and second, that nonwhite people aren’t capable of coming up with brilliant ideas themselves, so a brilliant white person must come along and “show them the way.” This is an especially odd choice here given that alchemy as established in the series seems to be a physical phenomenon universal to the entirety of Earth and humanity, so the idea that a single guy propagated the art is a bit hard to swallow. Likewise, alkehestry as explained by May is very much steeped in the culture of Xing, so it’s a bit difficult to accept that Hoenheim was the one source of alkehestry and it wasn’t influenced by any pre-existing practices. Civilizations often exchange cultural resources — just look at Buddhism — but the notion that a group of farmers or hunter-gatherers needs some “more cultured” entity to come in and make the plebs more like them in order for the plebs to have culture… I mean, we have a word for that, it’s called colonialism, and it’s generally frowned upon in this day and age. And most ages, really.
I get why this trope is used in the show, but it would be nice to see it less often, especially in fantasy series. You can do anything in a fantasy, so maybe let’s not do colonialism.