Anime and Manga, Fullmetal Alchemist

3P Reviews: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Season Four, Episode Seven (Episode Forty-Five)

Fullmetal Alchemist Episode 45A

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 Seven: The Promised Day – *****

 

Part One: Safe Houses and Secret Networks

Here we go, here’s the fun stuff! Episode 45: The Best Episode of the Whole Series.

It’s not perfect by any means, and oh hey, the series still has not figured out womenfolk, but I’m more than willing to give it a pass for now, because good fucking god, that opening.

The story flow from start to finish doesn’t seem disjointed or awkward, even though looking back I realize a lot of what has happened came out of nowhere. A lot of this episode is spent preparing for events to come, so in that regard, it isn’t technically all that different from the other recent episodes. But where we’ve seen a lot of setup up until this point, little of it has come to any breaking point. Here, we see that, and in fact a lot of it, but the difference is that this episode doesn’t just further the plot by moving characters across a chessboard; it takes them and throws them around and forces them to work for their screen time.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The episode opens with an utterly spectacular fight between Greed and Bradley that spans less than a full minute and is the single best minute of the entire series. The fight works best with the lead-in from the end-credits sequence of the last episode, where Greed shows up and knocks out Bradley’s guards in fury after his memories returned in the last episode. Greed loses the fight, but escapes with his life, running off into the night.

Elsewhere, Major General Armstrong (whom I’ll be referring to as Olivier in her family interactions) declares herself head of the Armstrong household, usurping her brother’s claim. Their father demands a duel between her and her brother, which destroys most of the house. Olivier then evicts her parents and younger sister from the house and suggests they go on a long vacation, the whole thing rather obviously a ploy to evacuate the family without raising suspicions (odd as this strategy may be for, you know, normal people). This subplot is not really important and could easily but cut from the series, but I love it.

Meanwhile, May is in a shanty town on the outskirts of Amestris. When the townsfolk realize she’s planning to head out into the desert on her own with few provisions, they band together to give her a bed for the night and supplies for her trip. She feels guilty about leaving them to potentially suffer the same fate as the people of Xerxes, and Envy taunts her.

Ed sets out to find Alphonse, checking the safe house Mustang had set up outside of Central. Al isn’t there, but as they’re getting ready to leave, Greed shows up and passes out in the doorway. Ling, it seems, has partially regained control of his own body after Greed’s existential breakdown. He warns Ed that Father intends to open the doorway, presumably the Doorway of Truth, on the Promised Day, and that Ed and Al might find a way to get their bodies back then. Greed resurfaces, cutting off Ling before he can explain what he means. Greed confirms that he is no longer in league with the homunculi, but rejects Ed’s offer to let him and Ling travel with them. As he starts to set off on his own, though, Ed changes his offer and says that he and the chimeras will follow him instead, that way they all stay together either way.

Briggs is attacked again, this time by Izumi Curtis. She meets Miles and Buccaneer, relaying strategic information as part of an emerging communication network that seems to be Mustang’s doing. Other figures transmit information along this network, spreading the message of the Promised Day to coordinate some sort of counter strike against Father and the homunculi. The episode ends with the news reaching Mustang himself.

 

Part Two: CHHHHHAAAAAARRRRACTERS!

A lot of things happen in this episode, only a few of them closely related. However, this episode avoids many of the common pitfalls earlier episodes in the series have stumbled into; it is, in effect, a complete piece despite being composed of mostly unrelated clips of several characters’ arcs.

The characterization is a big part of why this episode feels more cohesive than most. Few characters get much screentime, but even minor ones who don’t appear much elsewhere are well-drawn to the point where I almost feel someone completely unfamiliar with the series could watch this episode and piece together much of what is going on. I wouldn’t recommend it, since context is important to understanding why the characters are making these decisions, but there’s a certain clarity to this episode that’s missing in much of the series. Doubly important is that the episode mostly lacks gratuitous explanations of the characters’ actions, so a lot is conveyed through subtle gestures, the focus of the camera, and character expression. It’s not Oscar-worthy or anything, but it’s a rare glimpse at the full capabilities of the series.

I want to do something a bit odd and point out how the episode conveys character piece-by-piece.

A lot happens in the Greed-Wrath fight that I’ll get to in Part Three, but it’s worth noting Pride is in the room while all of this is happening. Pride, still in the guise of Selim Bradley, starts to extend his shadow form when Greed shows up, but between Wrath telling him and his wife to stay back, and the briefness of the fight, Pride doesn’t have a chance to do anything. He doesn’t seem overly happy about this either, relegated to the role of “child.”

The Armstrong household, while the least important of the subplots attached to this episode, is a hilarious and charming sequence. This isn’t the first we’ve seen of the Armstrongs (recall Yoki’s flashback), but it’s the first they’ve come into play in the story. They are all exactly as absurd as one would expect, instantly recognizable from their hair curls and sparkly diamond effects. The family works more as a unit than individual contributors, the Major (Alex) being the most restrained of them. He’s the only one to question his sister’s coup d’etat, not that it does him much good. Olivier is effervescent as always, giving orders to her family members like a drill sergeant, and taking no mercy despite her brother’s pleas for mercy.

For the rest of the family, this is business as usual, and they seem bothered not at all by the two older siblings destroying the house in their quest for dominance. They are in fact packing to leave as they fight is destroying said house. The moment I think encapsulates the glory of this scene best is when Olivier throws Alex through a wall and then grabs him by the scruff of his neck, his arms flailing, back into the room from whence he was thrown, all while the younger sister pauses to watch and wave goodbye to them and wish Alex good luck. As they leave, they discuss what they should bring Alex and Olivier back from Xing.

May’s interaction with the people in the mining town is probably one of her best moments. It conveys her strengths — her compassion and determination — alongside her flaws — sentimentality and gullibility. It’s relatively rare to see a character’s strengths and weaknesses illustrated side-by-side, especially in an action series like this, but it gives May some much-needed texture. Although she doesn’t specifically do much in this episode, she still has agency, and the one decision she makes builds off of her perceptions of the characters around her. Envy goads her, feeding back her own conniptions about leaving Amestris to fend for itself, but as much as he’s manipulating her, you still sympathize with May in that scene. It’s pretty clear that Envy is plotting something, but May’s decision to return to help is the morally right one for her, and it’s what most audience members in her situation would do. We know it’s going to go wrong, and so there’s tension attached to it, but we feel worried for May, not frustrated at her.

The chimeras don’t get much to do in this episode, but Ed’s interactions with Greed and Ling are decently amusing. I like that the episode is willing to show him acting his age and making mistakes — small mistakes that ultimately have few consequences, but show that he’s human all the same. Ed overreacts appropriate to his inclination, but he has difficulty reading the room and ultimately has no say over what Greed or Ling do. However, the show isn’t content to leave Ed as the butt of all jokes; he rethinks his strategy and opts to appeal to Greed’s nature in order to get what he himself wanted in the first place. Ed’s not a numpty, he just has the impulse control of a fifteen year old. It’s a nice change of pace from the show framing Ed as two steps short of Jesus.

Greed and Ling, but mainly Greed, are the only characters in the episode who really get complete arcs. This episode features a critical turning point in their shared arc, bringing Ling back into the fold and cementing his goal to return to Xing as he is, and splitting Greed from the rest of the antagonists and instigating a redemption arc.

I won’t go into detail on the communication line at the end of the episode, but I do want to make two quick notes. One, that Mustang is the last person to receive the crucial information reaffirms him as the most important figure to get that information to, while also demonstrating his dependence on the people around him. And two, yes I am aware that Grummin is a harassing creep. I don’t know that I want to give the series the benefit of the doubt on this front, but I am willing to overlook the show’s weak attempt at a joke because it characterizes Mustang’s one military ally in a way consistent with his actual motivation. General Grummin is one of the few military officers who hasn’t been swayed by the homunculi, and up to this point, he’s been eccentric but harmless. Once Mustang’s plans come to fruition, Grummin will attempt to usurp him and pin the group’s crimes on Mustang himself, making the alliance with Grummin tenuous at best. Grummin’s sleazy behavior in this episode is our first introduction to him as a duplicitous agent, and gives the audience fair reason to dislike him even before we know his ulterior motives. Is there a better way to communicate this? Oh absolutely. But you can read a bit more into what would otherwise be a tasteless joke if you wish.

 

Part Three: Damn, That Fight Tho

This is the part I really wanted to get to. The opening fight sequence blows my mind every time, and I’m honestly still baffled that this series can pull this off. Look, I realize Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is many times more competent than a lot of the guff that comes from the genre, and just because it isn’t usually my thing doesn’t make it wholly inept. I have my own internal biases, and the storytelling of this series often does not align with them.

Except here.

The scene is almost absurdly short, yet it packs a lot in. Greed breaks into Bradley’s home in Central and charges him while he and his wife (and Selim) are relaxing on an otherwise normal evening. Wrath blocks the initial attack with his sword, shouting at his wife and Pride to stand back. This is of course a fool’s errand for Greed; he’s nowhere near the fighter Bradley is, and Pride could make quick work of him even if he did start to get the upper hand. Greed is distressed, furious at Wrath, but more confused than anything, it seems. He demands to know why he’s seeing flashes of his old life and why, from what he can gather, Wrath was there killing his friends. He frames this exchange in the only way he knows, of course — by calling his friends possessions and insisting that Wrath “broke them.” But the emotion of what he’s really demanding is apparent; his family murdered his friends and then erased his memory so he would rejoin them. Most people would be pretty upset about that.

Wrath has understandably little patience for this. Aside from Wrath being, you know, a bad guy, Greed’s barely-coherent accusations clarify little and sound utterly petty. Even if Wrath can intuit what Greed is going through (which is hardly a stretch considering they have similar origins), he’s hardly being specific enough to even indicate what Wrath took from him. Wrath just passes this off as the problem homunculus being a nincompoop yet again, so when Mrs. Bradley knocks over a teacup, the fight begins in earnest.

Both of them are supernaturally quick and have their advantages (Greed has his diamond armor and Wrath his swordfighting), but what makes this fight that much more engaging than the previous Greed-Wrath fight is that in Ling’s body, Greed also now has advanced combat training. As a result, they’re more evenly matched, Greed handily dodging and blocking blows, and even getting in a few of his own. Wrath only has his sword as a weapon, so although he flings it across the room and Greed aims to knock it out of his hands, Wrath is perpetually aware of where his sword is throughout the fight. (As a side note, this is a great way to characterize the different fighting styles of these two characters — Wrath being formal and lethally quick, always planning his next several moves several steps in advance, Greed being chaotic and adaptable, but haphazard and clearly more desperate.)

The critical point in the fight comes when Greed kicks Wrath’s sword away, giving Wrath the chance to fling him over the table and onto the floor. Before Greed can get up, Wrath has pinned him with his feet and caught his sword. The only thing Greed can do before Wrath brings his sword down to decapitate him is pull his armor up to his neck to block the blow — which he manages just barely. The force of the swing against the diamond-hard armor breaks Wrath’s sword in two and sends the tip flying. Wrath watches the sword tip as it tumbles through the air, a momentary distraction that would give Greed an opening. However, at that moment, Greed has flashbacks of fighting, and losing, to Wrath before, and realizes he’ll be lucky to escape with his life. His sense momentarily restored, he uses the brief respite to jump out the window and run off.

The kicker? One of those flashbacks of fighting Wrath belongs to Greed. The other is Ling’s. It’s a curious thing they have in common, that they both fought Wrath and lost, but this shared knowledge allows them to work together toward a common goal — that being getting the fuck out of Bradley’s house.

I just… Agghh. I love everything about this scene. I love that the outcome is pretty much set from the start: between Wrath being the better swordsman, Greed being disoriented, and Pride being there for backup, there’s not really any scenario where Greed wins. He’s either going to get captured or give up, and we’ve already seen the former, so the outcome of the fight isn’t particularly surprising. The choreography of the sequence goes on to show that a known outcome doesn’t automatically dispel engagement in a fight sequence, though, and indeed, it serves to strengthen the characterization of the scene. The emotions and goals of each character is established ahead of time, and the fight plays out in real-time with only a brief slow-motion sequence. But even the slow-motion sequence is excellent, displaying a small but important reversal in the characters’ conditions. Greed only escapes because of his own quick thinking and Wrath’s oversight. A lot happens, especially considering the actual fight is about forty seconds long. At no point do the characters monologue or even speak once the action begins, and even the words beforehand are tempered to stay true to the characters.

Oh, did I mention that the animation is about as smooth as this series ever gets, the angles are creative and genuinely impressive, and the lighting is perfect?

Why can’t the rest of the series be like this?

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