Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode One: The Immortal Legion – **
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: I Hope You Like Zombies
When you asked for the series to end on an epic finale that tied up the established threads and brought the characters to satisfying conclusions in their arcs, did you actually mean you wanted zombies? No? Well, too bad, because you’re getting zombies.
I do not like the zombies. I complain about a lot of things in this series, but most of that is down to personal preference. I’m not the ideal audience for this series, and I understand that. But the zombies are hands-down the most asinine addition, and I despise them with every fiber of my being, even when trying to meet this show on its own terms. They infuriate me. There is no point to the zombies, they clash with the tone, they undermine a lot of the themes the show has been tailoring up to this point, and they basically stop the plot dead in its tracks for a few episodes. I don’t know anyone who likes the zombies. If you do, well, good on you friend for standing by your wrong opinion.
Zombies are an ask in any series, but there’s a very good reason they don’t usually come up outside of zombie-focused narratives. If zombies are the only thing one has to keep track of, supernatural-wise, then the rest of the story can be as fanciful or realistic as one wants without having to bend over backwards to make the zombies blend in with the rest of the aesthetic. We’re used to seeing zombies in all sorts of real-world scenarios, from nuclear wastelands to the Old West. The zombie apocalypse is a very consistent plot archetype, and it works mostly in isolation. In series like Game of Thrones, where the zombies have to share space with dragons and witches, the show isolates them in a particular region so that we don’t get zombies wandering aimlessly in front of scenic castle shots or interrupting jousting competitions. Even then, the aesthetic coherence of the series starts to fall apart when the zombies collide with the rest of the show. Unless you are explicitly going for comedy, you can’t really throw zombies into a pre-existing fantasy world, certainly not as archetypal zombie hordes.
So what the fuck, Fullmetal Alchemist?
The Immortal Legion has been built up as Father’s way to entice the military officers to join his side. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure what his motivation in-universe for this would be, since he already effectively has control of the Amestris military via Bradley and various evil scientists, but I suspect the council of officers exists partly to provide resistance to Mustang, and who can die without making the audience feel sorry for them. The story is much more tense if Mustang is surrounded on all sides by capricious enemies instead of well-meaning officers just doing their jobs.
However, the earlier decision to make the military officers irredeemable creates new problems for the show, because they’re not really that important. The finale is building to a conclusion between the protagonists and Father, not the military officers, so the show needs to get rid of them quickly and permanently so it doesn’t have to worry about them for that confrontation. If Mustang is acting the pacifist and giving the military personnel second chances, he can’t be the one to kill them. While it’s plausible for Armstrong to take out a few, her goal is not to wipe out the treacherous officers, but to control them, so she’s in a similar basket to Mustang there.
No, see, the simplest way to get rid of the officers is to have them die by accident, perhaps because they overestimated their own capabilities. You see this sort of trope all the time, a minor villain destroyed by the doomsday device they helped create, or sacrificed by the eviler main villain. That’s essentially what’s going on here.
The show has also built up this ominous Immortal Legion that it has to do something with, because the name sounds cool and intimidating. However, as with the officers, the Immortal Legion can’t be too powerful, otherwise that would diminish the importance of the big battle at the end. Mustang’s allies couldn’t reasonably take on a properly immortal army on top of everything else the show has going for it, so it’s much easier for the show to sic the army on the officers and have them sort of destroy each other. Two birds, one philosopher’s stone.
I’m at a loss for why zombies seemed like the way to go, though. I guess there is an established trope of evil people being eaten by their own foul creations, either because they assumed they were immune or in control. Within this world, that might fit tonally if they were trying to create chimeras or homunculi, perhaps. It’s the functionality of the zombies that doesn’t gel with the rest of the aesthetic, really. The show tries to link the zombies back to the many times Ed and Al have come across people abusing human souls, either to make philosopher’s stones or human-animal chimeras, or homunculi, and we get some of the abject horror of how the zombies were made through them being in constant pain and only able to say a few words at a time. Ed has flashbacks to Nina when one of them says, “Brother,” which would be reasonably haunting on its own.
However, you can’t have both; you can’t make the zombies tragic wretches, and also use them to eat up your excess antagonists. Making the zombies sympathetic just makes it all the stranger when they’re used as cannon fodder to rebuild Envy, or give Ed’s crew a bunch of things to punch. There’s a lot of tonal dissonance baked into a creature that screams in pain in one scene and in the next is just creepily munching on some intestines. Maybe there’s a way to create a monster you simultaneously fear and feel sorry for, but Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood sure has not figured that one out.
Part Two: Dumbdumbs Galore
We’ve established that the officers were gormless ding-dongs to release the Immortal Legion, especially after seeing that Father had clearly not sold them the soldiers they thought they were buying. But the officers are far from the only characters making terrible decisions in this episode.
Okay, I may have gone on a bit longer than necessary ranting about the zombies. Here’s what actually happens in this episode:
Ed and the others arrive in the Fifth Laboratory where the Lust fight happened back in Season Two. They run into the newly-awoken Immortal Legion and block most of the zombies from escaping into the wider world, fighting the horde they’ve trapped with themselves. Major General Armstrong takes one of the officers hostage, but Sloth accidentally kills him while trying to attack her; Father has sent Sloth to deal with the insurrection. Major Armstrong joins her in the fight against Sloth. Meanwhile, outside of Central, Pride has been tapping on Alphonse’s head for about three episodes now, and Al has not figured out that he’s sending a message in Morse Code. One of the chimeras, left behind because of his injuries, warns Al, immediately before Kimbley shows up and breaks Pride out. The chimera gives Alphonse the philosopher’s stone he picked up back at the beginning of Season Four, which apparently he never gave to Ed for some reason. Finally, May, guided by Envy, brings him back to Central, where they run into the Immortal Legion. The zombies break Envy out of his glass and he latches onto them, returning to his gigantic form.
Most of what happens in this episode plot-wise is just setup for future fights; Ed versus the zombies, Sloth versus the Armstrongs, Alphonse versus Kimbley and Pride, and Envy versus May and whoever else he runs into.
The amount of feckless incompetence required to maneuver the characters into these positions baffles me, not in the least because I’m not sure why the show opted for these particular encounters. Al and May both have to lose their brains for a little while in order to fall for the homunculi’s ploys, and I don’t really buy it for either of them. While these are perhaps the most gullible characters among the main team because of their youth and empathy, they’re not inept. Al may not be military himself, but he’s a trained alchemist and the show explicitly points out that he and Ed are good at deciphering codes. If nothing else, he at least ought to be as frustrated as I am about Pride’s constant pinging. As for May, I can readily accept that she would want to go back to help the Amestrians and fulfill her duties to her family, but the show seems conflicted about how incompetent it wants her to be. She doesn’t seem to have any hesitation about following Envy directly into the bowels of Central, even when he leads her along a path she already knows to be full of chimeras. Both of these characters’ actions are chosen explicitly by the writer of the story based on what needs to happen plot-wise, not what fits the characters as they’ve been established. But to what end?
Action anime as a genre often struggles to derive meaning from character battles, especially at times like this when multiple characters may spend several episodes facing off against designated combat partners. Ideally, the audience wants battles to be both unique and character-driven; it’s far more enticing if a character has to overcome a new challenge to defeat an enemy, and if that enemy is a foil to them somehow. For instance, despite all of its other faults, Bleach uses its main battles to build it character arcs. The protagonist faces off against easy villains at the start to establish the rules of the world, then fights other characters who later become his allies, then fights representations of himself as he starts to come into new powers, then gets to higher-level villains who have been built up over many seasons, before finally facing off against the Big Bad. The minor characters have similar trajectories, developing new abilities based on what they need in order to overcome specific antagonists.
As far as Fullmetal Alchemist goes, very few of the characters in this episode have particularly compelling reasons to face off against their assigned enemies. Ed has had to confront human transmutation in its various permutations, so he has good reason to be especially horrified by the Immortal Legion, but he’s not really set up to resolve anything along those lines. His team is defeating the zombies through punching mostly, which doesn’t exactly allow Ed much time to contemplate the morality of alchemy. It’s also mostly his friends who are fighting, none of whom have any thematic reason to be fighting off zombies.
May is part of the reason Envy was confined in the first place, so he has some beef with her, but Marcoh probably has a stronger connection to him on a metanarrative level. Olivier Armstrong has confronted Sloth before, but she defeated him before as well, so I don’t really see the point of pitting her against him again. He certainly doesn’t seem to remember her, so there’s no revenge or strategy aspect. I like the Armstrongs fighting together, because their relationship has been exclusively confrontational up to this point, but they probably could have chosen a better villain to foil them against.
Kimbley, for instance, whom neither of them like, and who provides a good military contrast. Alex is by-the-book, Olivier is more of a renegade, but both of them are just and selfless in the end, where Kimbley is just a serial killer. But no, Kimbley is fighting Alphonse instead, along with Pride. Pride maybe has reason to go after Alphonse, as Al tricked and humiliated him. However, the only person Kimbley has any built-up rivalry with is Scar, who is currently off fighting zombies.
It’s almost as though you need to use the earlier parts of your story to build up a history between characters so that when they fight each other, it actually means something, as opposed to nothing.
Part Three: Do I Have to Be Nice?
All right, here are my concessions. You may have noticed that I did not give this episode one star, but two. That is entirely down to the animation, which even considering very little happens in the episode, is unusually smooth and lovely. I’m looking forward to the look of the next one, if nothing else.
I really dislike the structure and plotting of the episode, but it would be unreasonable for me to put this one among the very worst the series has to offer. Much of it is bland but benign, and there aren’t even that many bad lines, considering how awkward some of the rest of the series’ phrasing is. It’s mostly just boring, which means you have ample time to fume over the bad decisions made by both the creators of the show and the characters. I am not impressed, and there are a lot of glaring issues with the episode, but it’s not as egregious as some of them have been. Even with the zombies.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5