Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eight: Looming Shadows – ***
Part One: Well, it’s all downhill from here!
I exaggerate, it’s not, but if the previous episode stands as my favorite of the series, I don’t think it will surprise anyone when I express my profound indifference to much of the finale. It’s going to get a bit squirrelly.
To catch everyone up, all of the major characters have left the north and are figuring out what to do before the impending Promised Day, when Father will trigger the giant transmutation circle and try to wipe out the entire population of Amestris. Ed is traveling with Greed and some chimeras, Winry is on her own for the most part, and Al is traveling with some chimeras of his own. In this episode, Winry returns home only to find Ed’s crew already there, to her surprise (her grandmother seems to have been in the house the whole time, so I can only imagine Pinako is into pranks). Al and his crew ride off for Central, and Ed decides to not follow them, instead leaving on his own way after telling Winry to flee the country. In the last third of the episode, the homunculi capture Al, and General Grummin springs a trap on Bradley, blowing up the Fuhrer’s train with Bradley presumably still inside.
Two of the more memorable moments in the episode (by my calibration — remember, I’m weird) are conversations. The first of these is a confrontation between Ed and Winry. Yes, ha ha, Ed’s in her room when she starts to undress, violating people’s privacy is romantic and hilarious. God I wish this show would stop that. But after their awkward run-in, Ed and Winry have a deep conversation that precedes Ed heading to Central for what might be the last time. This comes just before the break into the third act and the nigh-endless action that will accompany it, and many fantasy series have similar moments. It’s the heartfelt goodbye, when the hero decides who will go with him and who will stay behind. It’s typically a low point in a story, as it is here; those who head into battle may be marching to their certain deaths, but those who stay behind won’t necessarily fare much better. War stories always bias toward the front lines, but the families who depend on fighting soldiers are trapped in a hell of their own, worrying about their loved ones and constantly fighting back the emptiness that their loved one left. This can accompany something as simple as sorrow that their loved one must endure hardships, or it can be utter, helpless terror as they lack information or agency. Many people left at home in times of hardship have nothing to do but wait, resigning themselves to utter dependence on people who might not come back.
Even if the story wants to keep Winry away from the main action, it can still make her perspective interesting by showing her emotional response to it. I imagine this is a large part of why Winry is such a popular character, because the story does show her in moments like this expressing frustration at how she can’t do anything significant, but still makes an effort where she can. I maintain that it would not be difficult to expand upon Winry’s character and use her position within the story to draw a more complex figure than her dialogue often portrays. This scene, though, still disappoints me in its wording, as it makes Winry out to be Ed’s lifecoach rather than allowing her frustrations to be internalized. Had the previous episodes built more slowly upon her devotion to the Elrics, her insistence that Ed mustn’t give up and Ed’s admission that he’s worried for her and Pinako would probably be really impactful, but in terms of the actual dialogue, this conversation sounds very much like most of Winry’s conversations with or about Ed.
But the scene doesn’t play out that way, which is a little bit odd. Honestly, you could replace the words in the characters’ mouths without changing the tone or context of the conversation, and you could resolve many of the technical issues with the scene. It’s not really what the characters are saying that diminishes the emotional impact, but rather how they say it.
You can probably guess where I’m going from here.
Part Two: Dsub
I have seen this series both dubbed and subtitled, which I don’t normally do for anime shows. I prefer to listen to things more than watch them directly, and as I don’t speak Japanese, I usually opt for the subbed versions of these shows. Both versions have to be translated, and in a series like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood where the budget is high and most facial animation is largely reserved for still expressions, there isn’t a lot of difference between the dubbed and subbed versions. The voice actors in the version I’m most familiar with (the Funimation dub) also act in the dubs of many other well-known anime series. If you watch a lot of it, or heck, even if you just watch animation in general, you’ve probably heard several of them before. I’m not very well-versed in how the sub/dub debate usually goes for this particular show, but it strikes me as quite good most of the time.
However, since I haven’t given much mention to the sub/dub debate even though I tend to nitpick the particular word choice characters use more than the intent of the expression, now is as good of a time to do it as any. Obviously, I could be missing something in the translation to English, and I probably am, at least in terms of cultural context. That’s always something to keep in mind whenever a reviewer is giving their take on a work made in a different culture. For now, though, I’m going to focus on the English version, because, again, I do not speak Japanese.
Focusing on this particular conversation, the fundamental information is not much changed, but there are noticeable differences in the conveyance between the two versions. It’s not enough to say that one is explicitly better than the other, but the emotion of the scene does play better to the subtitled version with the original Japanese voicework. I suspect some of the awkward phrasing elsewhere in the show may also be related to the way the dub was written.
Starting with Winry bringing up the Promised Day, the first major change is in Ed’s suggestion that she and her family flee during the confrontation with Father. In the sub, it’s an order, in the dub, it’s a request. The dub is slightly politer on Ed’s behalf, but it actually works better for the scene if he comes across as irrational. Not only is Winry reacting to his obstinate personality, but it’s this same personality that prevents Ed from genuinely opening up to Winry and admitting that he’s scared, which is what the scene is ultimately about.
Also, Winry hits him over the head with a wrench, so the more reason the show can give her to use brute force, the better. She’s angry in both versions over Ed telling her to run away, but her subsequent rant has a slightly different tone in each iteration. In the sub, WInry cuts directly to Ed needing to set his goals higher and not just get her out of danger, but try to actually win. Technically, this is most of what the dubbed version is aiming for as well, but it’s made to be a little bit more personal to Winry, and the English voice actor plays it as such. Instead of, “What good is having only those close to you get away? Can’t you do anything to stop the country from getting messed up?” the dub gives Winry the line, “You can’t just send us off like that! I know you want to protect us, but you need to try to save everyone!” I think what the script was going for initially was for Winry to emphasize the “us,” making Winry’s complaint more about Ed not saving enough people, as implied in the sub. However, the emphasis in the line read implies that Winry is upset at Ed dismissing her like a maiden what needs saving. I actually like this better, but it makes the next line a non-sequitur. If anything, in conjunction with the next line, it implies that Winry wants to stay put to motivate Ed. Like a carrot.
Ed’s excuse is notably different in each version, with the sub saying, “I’m gonna stop it! I’m going to stop it, but there is that one chance in a million!” and the dub changing the phrasing to “I’m gonna try to do everything I can to stop it, but there’s a chance it might not work!” It’s a subtle difference, as most of them are, but the subtitled version characterizes Ed as less willing to admit his own vulnerability, even though the reason he’s worried about Winry is the thought that she might die if he fails. It’s a slightly more flawed version of Ed, one who isn’t fully capable of grasping or articulating his feelings. The awkward, defensive way he delivers it shows his uncertainty, where the dubbed version is more practical. While a rational character might be more comforting to some, it’s important in this scene that Ed is actually afraid. If Ed knows the risks and wants to assess them carefully, Winry’s pep talk comes across as naive instead of affirming.
Adding to Winry’s portrayal in the scene, the dub adds more moments where Winry sounds more passive, begging Ed to do things specifically designed to benefit him anyway, like getting his and Al’s bodies back. Part of this is down to the voice actor’s delivery, but the dialogue is changed to give a more pleading tone as well. The ultimate outcome is that in the dubbed version, it sounds like Ed is voicing reasonable concerns and Winry is begging him to save the country, something he was already planning on doing, while in the subtitled version, Ed isn’t planning on making it through the Promised Day alive and Winry essentially tells him to “man-up.”
And then in both versions, Ed tells her that she doesn’t know anything because she’s a loudmouth girl. Wow, that’s a protagonist you can really get behind. Someone who tells his future wife to shut up because she’s worried about him. What a catch.
Could we throw him back, maybe? Use him as bait to catch a better protagonist?
No? Too late for that, I suppose.
The scene is marred by problems unrelated to the specific wording of the dialogue, but it is interesting to see how word choice alters the impression the scene gives. The sub is clearly the more nuanced in this particular case, better suited to the way the scene is animated and shot, but I’m not convinced that the sub is that superior in all aspects of the story otherwise. Again, I have watched the subbed version before. I’ll keep an eye out for other scenes that differ like this, though.
Part Three: Beings of Ambiguous Lore: The Best Beings
The other significant conversation comes directly after the former, where Greed eavesdrops and comments that Ed and Winry have the hots for each other because they fight so much. I really despise the trope of characters flirting by constantly arguing with each other. It sets an unhealthy expectation for people interested in relationships and gives audiences the expectation that two characters who have nothing in common will end up with each other for that very reason — not to mention, anger-fueled arguments are annoying to watch. Bickering is one thing, but when it goes past playful banter and the characters involved become emotionally invested in their side of the argument, that’s when it stops being a means of light character expression.
However, this leads Greed to draw comparisons between Ed and himself, which Ed prickles at, and, on a softer note, suggest that greed isn’t always a bad thing. Series that draw heavily from known archetypes like the seven deadly sins often fall into cliche or start to become a little too cute about how they lean into their own thematic meaning, but I appreciate multi-faceted morality, and it’s one of the things this show does well with its use of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Seven Deadly Sins are a popular way to set out a number of enemies with discrete but connected themes. Countless series through the last thousand years or so have drawn from the Seven Deadly Sins, some to keep to the original root in quasi-Christian and Classical philosophy, but more because the sins themselves can be drawn as cool characters. They’re great, go really well as a collector’s set on the shelf next to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Modern fantasy series that draw from Christian mythology, and also plenty that don’t, often have the Seven Deadly Sins as enemies that get progressively more deadly or are the prelude to some greater evil. As common as the trope is, I’ll readily admit that the Fullmetal Alchemist series is probably my favorite portrayal of the Sins archetypes. I have my biases for how they’d portrayed in the original anime (where Lust has, you know, something resembling a character), but Brotherhood does some interesting things with the characters and how they link back to the original concepts.
I say the Seven Deadly Sins are quasi-Christian because the concept has its roots in Ancient Greek philosophy and doesn’t really have a set lore. Many of them have been tweaked over time, some have been added or removed, and the connotations associated with each change as culture changes. The standard for the Seven Deadly Sins, as best as I can tell, comes from Dante’s Inferno. This and the paintings inspired by it are largely the source for how we depict the Seven Deadly Sins today. However, the nice thing about a mythos with no standardization is that you can change it to fit your needs, which is part of what Fullmetal Alchemist is doing with its depictions.
Lust and Gluttony are the first of the Sins introduced, which perhaps overemphasizes their role in the story. Envy is also up there, but in Brotherhood, he’s more significant as a driver of the story.
Lust is almost always sexy. In nearly every iteration I’ve seen, Lust is a femme fatale with gams for days and voluptuous breasts. She is also often the only woman out of all of the Sins. It gets to be a bit annoying after the fourth or fifth time. Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t do much to challenge that trope, and indeed seems to have less interest in Lust than any of the homunculi. The needle fingers are a nice change, but Lust is probably the least developed of all of the homunculi because she dies so early on in the story. Which is a pity, because the show initially presents her as the ringleader. She also, weirdly, does almost no lusting, outside of looking sexy.
Gluttony is a bit more nuanced, being a simple-minded cannibal who occasionally seems nervous or frightened. Gluttony has a sometimes childlike demeanor, as evidenced by his interactions with Alphonse, and aside from enjoying eating people, Gluttony is probably the least harmful of the homunculi in a literal sense. He tends to be directed around as muscle, or really more a mouth, for the other homunculi to use as they please. He seems particularly attached to Lust, though the show doesn’t every explore this beyond him being angry at Mustang for killing her. Gluttony’s simplicity and round design are one of my favorites of any of the characters in the series, because they allow him to go from friendly to menacing and back again easily. I kind of wish the show did more with the character, but he has a bit more of a role to play.
Envy is far less connected to his namesake than the previous two, the show having to shoehorn in the idea that he’s jealous of humans because of his monstrous form. Hypothetically, I like this idea fine. Having the character hide it from everyone else could easily make him more relatable and sympathetic when it does come out. The show could even do a cute little honorary human thing a la The Good Place if it wanted to. It does not. Envy is not supposed to be a relatable character, even if the series occasionally feints that way. The show is also not at all subtle about Envy being envious of humans, with him commenting about how pathetic they are about every other line. Nor is the show interested in presenting anything specific for Envy to be envious about in humans, other than them not looking like worms, I guess. All of the homunculi are supposed to be a part of the original Homunculus that Hoenheim knew (which makes me really want to see the moment he decided he was so lusty he needed to make a be-boobed homunculus to hold all his lusty thoughts), so the desire to look or become human is evident in how confined the Homunculus was, and still kind of is.
Wrath is one of the odder interpretations of the Seven Deadly Sins, and the fact that he’s the only homunculus character whose sin is swapped between the original anime and this one is maybe an indication that Bradley’s design and his connection to Wrath is fairly tenuous. The show occasionally shows how merciless he is in battle, but that itself isn’t really related to any Sin. He also usually doesn’t kill people because he’s angry at them, but rather because he has to do so strategically. I don’t think comically angry people are usually the ones designated to make the practical decisions in a party. The low connection Bradley has to the concept of Wrath becomes increasingly comical whenever the show has him mention it, like when admitting to shaking his hands in fury at Hughes’ funeral. It’s a stretch.
Though perhaps not as much of a stretch as Sloth. Initially, Sloth has a decent design, being a large, mopey monster who just wants a nap. It’s certainly an unusual Sloth design, and it goes in contrast to the archetype (which usually looks more like a Snorlax), while also adhering to it perfectly. However, Sloth isn’t effectively utilized by the show as a character or a plot device; he’s kept hidden from the audience for unclear reasons, and he doesn’t ever interact with the other homunculi as far as I know. Of all of them, he is easily the least essential, and should probably only have a cameo appearance in the series, but unfortunately well overstays his welcome. We’ll get to that.
Pride has an excellent monster design as I’ve expressed before and likely will again. However, like Wrath, he’s not especially tied to his designated Sin. You could switch the two and I assure you, no one would know the difference. Pride is deemed the First Homunculus, a reference to the old idea that pride is the most egregious sin of all, and the one from which the others spring. In the modern age, this is a very strange concept, because not only are we taught on an individual level that some amount of pride in our work is good, a complete lack of pride is generally viewed as a problem. In fact, of all the sins, Pride is the only one that isn’t often considered a sin all on its own. Excessive pride, sure. Overconfidence, hubris, arrogance, all of that is the mark of an asshole. But pride on its own isn’t, nor is it necessarily in conflict with humility, the quality those denouncing pride have historically sought to foster in its stead. A person can be proud of their own accomplishments without flaunting them. Pride in the Fullmetal Alchemist series has a smugness to him that fits the archetype, and the presence of the monster is imposing enough to earn the title of the most important Sin, but I do think the show hints here and there at Pride having more complexity (underestimating people, fearing his own vulnerability, wanting to be more) than the series cares to explore.
Which brings us to Greed. As a character, Greed is wonderful. His segments in this episode draw a little much attention to themselves, but fit surprisingly well amongst the chaos of the rest of the story. I think this is because we don’t really have another character who fits this archetype — not among the main characters, anyway. Fitting the Greed concept to the character archetype I call the Second Cousin Character is a good call; these characters are usually peripheral and highly flawed, but that’s what makes them interesting. Greed is a somewhat complex sin, because how bad it is entirely depends on what one wants. It is often related to pride in that the more one has compared to everyone else, the more likely one is to think themself better. People often desire things beyond just material goods, like respect or power, and when those things require others to be hurt, greed can be a vice on par with the worst humanity can come up with. It is the driving force of much human pain.
However, as Greed points out in this episode, the desire to hurt people isn’t always a part of the package. Wanting things is reasonable up to a point. People can want joy and comfort and safety, and they can want it for more people than just themselves. Big ambitions and big desires don’t have to be inherently negative. But, that begs the question, if it isn’t selfish, is it really greed at all?