Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Ten: The Oath in the Tunnel – ***
Part One: It’s Fine
It’s fine. It’s fine, you guys. It’s a fine episode.
I really don’t have any strong feelings about this one. It’s a continuation of the fight from the previous episode, so it has a few fun twists and turns, but none of them are nearly as exciting as in the previous one. The promise of the cliffhanger is somewhat tantalizing, as it proves Pride to be even more monstrous than before, but in the effort of sustaining suspense through the next episode, the fight cuts off before Pride can make another attack.
The lights are back on, so Pride is back in the fold with all of the raw terror of his shadowy body. While the protagonists manage to hold him and Gluttony off for a while, even rescuing Alphonse, Pride shocks everyone when he turns on his own ally and devours the hungry homunculus for a power boost. Meanwhile, Mustang has reunited with his crew and is starting the counter-strike on Central in the morning.
The highlights of the episode are fourfold. First is Ed transmuting his carbon-fiber arm to have a diamond coating, similar to Greed’s Ultimate Shield power. I like this, it’s a nice callback. Ed’s learned something. On a similar note is his use of flash grenades against Pride’s shadows to save Alphonse. This is a clever little intuitive mood that the visuals sell without need for explanation (you get one, but the animation works well on its own).
I’m not especially invested in the Madame Christmas subplot, but we also learn here that she’s Mustang’s mother. Mustang has been hiding out with Madame Christmas for the past season or so, using her as a secret communication line to his allies. This subplot doesn’t get a lot of attention, and there’s little characterization of Madame Christmas or her relationship to Mustang. The reveal that she’s his foster mother only raises questions, really, and it seems like a twist inserted to vaguely excite the audience. Functionally, Mustang is only in hiding because the show needed him out of the way for the third season. I think it could have done something more interesting with this subplot, and the surprise really wasn’t worth it for me, but I’m sure some fanfiction writer out there loves it..
Then, of course, the big event that most people will remember from this episode is Pride killing and eating Gluttony. It’s gruesome, both in concept and imagery, and made all the worse from Gluttony being a more sympathetic villain. You feel sorry for the guy, getting eaten like that. What an ironic way to go. This is actually true for most of the homunculi; they’re killed in sort of inverse ways to the things that they stand for. Lust was revenge-killed by a man out of his love for his friend; Gluttony was eaten by his own brother. My memory is a little hazy, but I think this holds true for the others as well. I’ll take note of it.
That said, the Gluttony-devouring scene has its ups and downs, and gives me a good opportunity to talk about…
Part Two: Subtle Horrors
Horror lives or dies on its ability to creep under your skin. Throw out something too light and it won’t get very far before it dies, but throw out something cartoonishly gruesome and, like Greed, the audience will pull up their defenses so they can’t be genuinely frightened after the initial scare. At least, that’s how I’ve always imagined it. I’m not usually frightened by jump scares so much as startled by them, and if a game or a film uses them many times, they lose all of their potency. If you can predict the scare, you can make it funny, even cute. Uncertainty keeps you from doing that, which is why stories with a few intense scares tend to stick with you longer than those that wave a zombie or creepy puppet in your face every other minute.
Fullmetal Alchemist is not really a horror series, but it definitely has tones of one. Heck, the opening sequence involves children performing a hellish necromancy ritual. Throughout the show, characters are pitted against monsters, atrocities, and the pervasive loss of their own humanity. The metal bodies Ed and Al have are more than just physical features, they’re also metaphysical stand-ins for the sins of the characters in a way. They dabbled in the dark arts, and it nearly destroyed them, making their attempt to recover their bodies parallel their attempts to cling onto their own humanity. All over the place, characters are giving up their humanity for power; the military characters compromise their values to control more of Amestris, Ling gives up his body to Greed, Hoenheim becomes immortal through his participation in a sacrifice, Father becomes more and more villainous as he splits himself into the Homunculi, Scar loses his identity for revenge, etc. The Elrics are something of an exception in that they are willing to sacrifice power for morality. Not many of the characters would do that, it seems.
One of the major themes in the story is attempts to reach and supersede the unknowable — God, perhaps, but not in the sense most Westerners would know. God in this series is represented by an ominous eye and shadows, motifs used for the Door of Truth and powerful alchemical reactions, but also the Homunculi, flesh-and-blood villains. You can read a lot into this (and don’t worry, I’ll take you on that magical journey with me), but the fact remains that the space beyond the Door of Truth is hardly welcoming, apt to punish but not really reward. It’s creepy because you don’t know what it wants.
As we approach the end of the series, it has a certain obligation to make sense of its own mysteries. Like I said, it’s not actually a horror series, it just has tones of one. I mentioned earlier that I really liked Pride’s design as a monster and as a character, on a physical level, and this remains true. But this particular episode illustrates the flaws in how the series wants to use him moving forward… which is to say, it kind of doesn’t. Pride continues to hound the protagonists up until the last few episodes, but he really doesn’t have much of a role left to play in the story unique to his character, other than die. We can kind of see how he’s going to die already; a powerful Eldritch horror like Pride will either fade into the shadows for good, or, like a dragon, be felled by its own hubris.
The story provides setup for how Pride can change from an unbeatable monster into something mortal. We learn of his practical limitations during the forest fight and with Hoenheim earlier — Pride has a vessel, and he dies if it’s cracked. He’s a glass cannon. Personality-wise, though, he also has some vulnerabilities. As his name suggests, he’s easy to provoke, and he’s a snob, so one can herd him emotionally if they figure out how to push his buttons. Small, simple transitional steps to bring a monster into the light are a good way to maximize the effect of horror in the early stages of a story without limiting oneself in the ending. Once the monster is understood, it can be defeated.
So, then, where does him eating Gluttony come into the mix?
Well… it kind of doesn’t. Much as I like a good gore fest with a touch of cannibalism, the principal and perhaps only reason for Pride to devour his brother is because he’s running low on health and it’s easier than begging for scraps from Daddy. Like, yeah, I too have played Prototype. I’ve never been much of a fan of the health bar-type lore associated with the Philosopher’s Stones in this series, mostly because it’s just not very interesting to watch. It has the same effect as magical powers that “drain” their users in an arbitrary yet plot-convenient sort of way. Surely there are more impactful ways to communicate that your character is in danger, aren’t there? Unique events, like an otherwise healthy character being gravely injured or becoming emotionally broken from something they learn, are far more meaningful in a narrative than a generic health system.
Beyond being boring, though, it deeply undermines the horror of the scene. It’s out-of-character for Pride, and it goes on for long enough, with enough over-the top imagery, that it almost comes across as goofy. Pride needs a top-up, so he turns on his ally. Ooh, so scary. Look at how evil this bad guy is. He not only eats his ally, he cuts him in half with giant jaws!
The scene is a bit too much for me. I could easily enjoy it as intended if Pride didn’t lick his lips beforehand, or if we saw less of the whole process, or if it was more malicious in nature. I know, right — make it more subtle by making it darker? But the thing is, Pride has never been portrayed as especially clever or practical, and the scene almost plays out as a desperate character willing to go to horrific lengths to win a fight. I would argue that as depicted, Pride doesn’t even need that much justification; Pride’s a selfish dick with a very short fuse and no tolerance for whining. He’d eat Gluttony for no reason beyond minor irritation.
Part Three: Blink
This episode feels astoundingly short, so I really don’t have much else to say about it. Hoenheim has yet to get involved, so you have that to look forward to, which is exciting since we haven’t actually seen him in combat yet. I mean, he’s not much to look at moving forward because, no hands, but the first time he shows off what he can do, it’s pretty cool.
Uh, what else…
Yeah. Damn. That’s it, really. Good animation. It’s fine. Future episodes will be better and more flawed, fingers crossed.