Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Two: Combined Strength – *
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The Blue’s Clues-Style Exposition is Back!
Well, that episode was… packed. Normally when an episode of anything has so much going on, at least some of it is worthwhile, and that is the case here. There are a few funny moments, a few clever touches, and the fight animation isn’t bad, either. Oddly, it’s not as smooth as it was in the previous episode, but there are still a few creative encounters, especially in the opening fight between Pride and Alphonse.
But look there, at the stars. Star. You might imagine that the worse elements of the episode would have to be pretty bad for me to offer praise, yet simultaneously declare this one of the worst episodes of the series. And yeah, that is the case. Like I said, it’s packed.
I don’t bear any of the people who worked on this series ill will. It’s a damn sight better than I could do, all told, and there is plenty to appreciate in the craft of the animation and voice work in this particular episode. It’s not garbage. But I also don’t like it, and I feel qualified as an amateur complainer to criticize things for my own amusement in order to alleviate my frustration. I also find it amusing to make fun of questionable decisions in series that are way more competent than I am.
Let’s start with the plot. As I mentioned in the previous episode, most of the protagonists have settled into battles against the various homunculi and their minions. To start, we have Alphonse confronting Pride and Kimbley. This is actually a pretty compelling start; the action is very quick, but because Al is using a philosopher’s stone, the speed and creativity of each measure and countermeasure is impressive. It’s still a far cry from the Greed/Wrath fight in Episode 45, but I like it well enough. A nice little touch is how much effort Pride exerts, and how nervous he seems throughout. Most of the time, the character’s human body is stationary while the shadows are doing all of the work, but here he’s flinging shadows around with his arms. He’s learned from his earlier humiliation and isn’t going to underestimate Alphonse again. I like that sort of thing.
And then Kimbley joins in, and you know what that means. Well, actually, I suppose people who like Kimbley think that the fight gets more exciting and philosophical, but for me, it just dies, painfully. Alone and forgotten. Goodbye, good part of the episode. You shall be missed.
I kid, but not by much.
The episode cuts between the different fights, and while I usually try to summarize separate plot points in full if they don’t overlap narratively, I think it’s important to convey how this episode is structured, because it’s part of what makes the episode a slog. After Al traps Pride again, Kimbley remarks on how philosopher’s stones are powerful, and asks Al why he doesn’t use it to get his body back. You’re a little bit behind the curve there, Kimbley, considering that hasn’t been part of the boys’ goal for about two full seasons by now, but okay, I do like Al’s response. Self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary, but you shouldn’t go straight for that well if you can take care of yourself and help other people at the same time. But then Kimbley reveals his own stone and we’re back to explosions and punching.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again, fights are most interesting when the characters involved have good reason to fight, or don’t want to fight in the first place. Al and Pride have built-up animosity. Their confrontation is interesting, both in execution and purpose. Kimbley’s a bastard, but Al doesn’t really have any particular beef with him that would warrant an all-out brawl. The only reason they seem to be fighting is because they’re in proximity and they both have philosopher’s stones, so somebody thought it would be cool to smash them together like action figures. (This fight also seems to be the sole impetus for giving Kimbley two philosopher’s stones in the first place, because aside from this and one moment in the fight between Kimbley and Ed, only one is ever used at a time otherwise.)
Again, the problem of the philosopher’s stones having somewhat arbitrary power scales diminishes the tension of the fight. The audience doesn’t have a good gauge for what Kimbley’s powers look like with the stone versus without (he seems pretty good at making explosions however he wants). The proximity of the Pride/Alphonse fight brings the arbitrary nature of the stones into sharp focus as well; Pride is monstrous, so the rapid action scene that shows Al holding his ground and overcoming Pride illustrates how much power the stone affords him. Powerful magic objects tend to be more impressive when they’re used against very weak characters to heighten the contrast in skill levels. When two immortal god wizards fight each other, there’s not a lot of contrast to latch onto unless the fight is varied.
But before we get to that, we have to cut to another battle.
Part Two: “The Fastest Homunculus of them All”
While Al is off fighting Pride and Kimbley, the Armstrong siblings are facing off against their mortal foe: that burly homunculus with precious few personality traits. Sloth’s a big angry Frankenstein, and that’s about all there is to him. In this episode, for no discernible reason, we learn that Sloth has a magical ability: he’s super fast. The one trait he did have was that he’s slow, so I guess that’s out the window now. This is the sort of reveal a bad RPG would make to elongate a boss battle into stages that are functionally the same but are supposed to feel slightly more intimidating. I’ve played enough video games to know how you defeat Sloth; you wait for him to do his special smash move that gets his hand stuck in a wall or something, and while he’s trying to pull it out, you hit the glowing weak spot in his exposed back. It’s every burly video game boss that has ever existed. The speed component is just his change attack that lets you punch him while he’s dizzy.
If you find that sort of trope boring to play, you can imagine how riveting it is to watch, especially with all of the characters in the room narrating what’s happening as you watch it, lest you miss anything.
Back to Alphonse!
Kimbley frees Pride, and the two of them go after Alphonse, initially gaining the upper hand, before he tricks them, apparently having coordinated a deal with both the lion chimera and Marcoh, who is here now, in the middle of battle without Kimbley or Pride noticing. Pride captures him, but the lion chimera sneaks up behind Kimbley (the two antagonists have been taking turns attacking Alphonse) and bites him in the neck, fatally wounding him. Good. Good chimera. This one can stay.
This episode ends Kimbley once and for all. I should love it on those grounds alone. But we’re not through yet.
Mustang sneaks back into the city by dressing the ice cream truck up like a meat truck, and just driving past what have to be the city’s worst security guards. You might think that the city is is lockdown, given no civilians seem to be about, and at the very least, a checkpoint might, you know, check the one car that drives past. I mean, Mustang is literally sitting in the front seat and the windows are not tinted, but we don’t even get a second glance from these guards. “The pig on the side of the truck was eating a hot dog, not ice cream, so we figured it was good.” Brilliant work, fellas. That will hold up flawlessly in court.
Ed’s team, meanwhile, have puzzled out the solution to their immortal zombie problem: remove the legs. Ed is still visibly torn up about killing creatures that have human souls, as evidenced by him karate-kicking them in the face and cutting off their limbs. (I’m not giving the show enough credit — he does have a look of horror to him through much of it, but because the scene plays out like the action in it is cool, Ed’s feelings about the creatures are diminished.)
The episode transitions quickly between action pieces, more to keep up the energy of the fights than because it has reason to switch between characters so much. Again, we return to Alphonse. Kimbley has been fatally wounded, but as Al tries to catch Pride, the homunculus restrains him.
And then Yoki arrives.
Part Three: No, Yoki, You Do Not Get a Heroic Moment. Fuck Off.
We are only about halfway through, if that gives you an idea about how this episode is paced. And yet they still manage to work in lines like, “You cannot defeat me,” and “I guess it’s good I’m so beefy.”
Anyway, Yoki rescues Alphonse from Pride because apparently his shadows cannot penetrate cars. This ends the encounter between Alphonse and Pride, sending the former off to Central to join in the fray. As you may have guessed, I consider this to be a weak ending to the fight. While I appreciate the episode’s attempts to reinforce the idea that the protagonists are a team, this is one of the clunkier ways to do that. Characters come out of nowhere, and the actual fight occupies very little of the time in the episode. There is some strategizing, but the call for villain monologues is too great, and the series dips into that well once more to explain everything that is happening as the audience sees it, lest they miss any of the few major beats in the conflict. Yoki rushing in to save the day is just the cherry on top of a pile of increasingly bad decisions. Yoki is supposed to be the C-3PO of the group, the character who’s mostly dead weight and there for comedy, but who is endearing to the audience nonetheless. The show greatly overestimates how endearing this character is, and he’s done little to deserve a redemptive moment. His mere presence in the series is frustrating because he absorbs a surprising amount of attention for a mostly useless character, which means that him saving the day is both ineffectively set up, and just a continuation of Yoki hogging the limelight. It’s an odd choice at this juncture, and not in a good way.
Oh, and Pride eats Kimbley. I’ve got nothing productive to say about that.
There’s a surprising amount of body horror in the later episodes of the show, and I’m not sure why that is. In this episode, aside from Kimbley being eaten, we get a little setpiece where Alex Armstrong hits Sloth’s head with an alchemical stalactite, which impales his arm and mouth in a particularly gruesome way, immobilizing him. The show has set a precedent for gore and violence, but one of its markers, especially in comparison to the older Fullmetal Alchemist series, is that it’s somewhat more tempered in its gore. The gore in this series is often cartoonish or left implied, generally only exaggerated to demonstrate the horrors that the characters are facing at any given time. When the homunculi are unknown factors, or when the characters are learning about the gruesome experiments performed by the state, the horror elements of the series are accentuated. However, at this point in the story, horror isn’t really a compelling driver for characterization, mood, or plot; the characters already know what the homunculi are capable of, so increasing the level of graphic violence in the show doesn’t do much. Sloth getting gored (and then growing back, because we’re not done with this battle by a long cry) is a peculiar choice, seemingly made primarily because it looks cool but it would be much more horrible if it were done to any of the other characters. I’m not a fan.
And then, I think just to frustrate me, the zombies arrive. More action equals better action, I guess? Now the Armstrongs have to fight off Sloth and the zombies. It’s riveting.
We have two more scenes to go, one with May in combat with Envy (and zombies), in which she runs further into the tunnels in search of a philosopher’s stone. She has little reaction to being tricked by Envy, and I fear the show has lost sight of her character beyond the very basic motivation she had when she was introduced. One of the problems with introducing so many characters over the course of a series without ending a few of their storylines along the way is that you end up bottlenecking at the end; minor characters are put on the wayside because the focus needs to be on the larger characters, and if the minor characters do stick around, they become very quickly non-essential to the story. May is functionally here as transportation for Envy, so he can enter into the fray. She has personal motivation, but no real connection to the other characters (they can’t help or hinder her at this point), so she’s on her own. Random loose characters don’t make for a particularly cohesive final battle.
The final scene has Mustang busting into the Fifth Laboratory to save Ed from the zombies. I have no idea how or why he got there — an earlier scene implies that it’s to use it as a secret passageway into Central, but I don’t recall it ever being used for that. Father’s secret base is under Central, as we know, but if there’s a way from it to the actual command area, I don’t know how Mustang would know that. Whatever, Mustang’s here now, and Envy’s on his way, so we can have an epic showdown between them.
And, mercifully, the episode is over.
So, the finale has already turned into a bit of a clusterfuck. The show seems to be most interested in setpieces, which is appropriate for both this series and animes in general. Impressive fights are a mainstay of the genre, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has certainly pursued stylistic battles as a means to draw its plot along plenty of times in the past. The battle with the homunculi at the end of Season Two leads directly to several other homunculi battles and a lot of important character moments happen along the way. Lan Fan loses her arm, Ed discovers that the homunculi have an evil plan, then learns how to use himself as a philosopher’s stone, Ling gets turned into Greed, Hawkeye is taken prisoner and Mustang’s group is disbanded, etc. Setpieces are sometimes the appropriate tool to use to establish the foundation of the story. But that is only true if you can manage the interstitial moments at the same pace as the fights. If fights don’t naturally allow characters to have impactful character growth, the setup for the fights needs to be very carefully tailored so that the important fights are emphasized and the less important ones can end quickly or lead into something more crucial to the story. Fights exclusively for the sake of fighting become very quickly tedious.
The show faces an added problem where it has setup a natural progression of events that could make for a satisfying ending, but the payoff does not line up with the setup. The show starts the invasion of Central with the idea that it will be a highly coordinated attack thought up over the preceding months. Cool, that’s a fun setup. But by this episode, the apparently coordinated attack has almost completely fallen apart into ragtag bands of random characters all converging at their own pace on their own goals, encountering random fights with the antagonists. This too could make for a fun finale, but it’s at odds with the setup. You can have a strategic plan that incorporates all of the major characters working toward a shared goal, or you can have them run around and bump into each other by coincidence to create exciting chance encounters, but you cannot have both simultaneously, especially not without some critical turning point that causes the characters to reevaluate their plan.
Mustang bursts into the zombie room to save Ed as though he knew Ed needed saving and was rushing in to respond to a call for help. But he’s actually here because the show wants to pit him against Envy and the zombies, so it’s a complete coincidence that he happened to burst through in the nick of time. I am admittedly excited to see what Mustang will be doing in the next episode, but I also can’t help but feel disappointed at the direction the show has taken. So much of the previous season — heck, the whole series — seemed to be built around this eventual invasion, and now most of that seems largely unimportant. All that we needed was to get the characters within the same physical space at the same time, and all the finagling the show has gone through to do that seems largely to work around inconveniences the show itself introduced for dramatic effect in earlier seasons. Mustang’s team is broken up and sent off to separate corners of Amestris, most of them in mortal peril. I initially thought that was because it would place an emotional toll on Mustang or have consequences for him later down the line. As it turns out, his men were moved away just so that he wouldn’t be able to invade too early and would have something to do while Ed and the others were fucking around in the north. You could cut the scenes of Mustang’s men being taken away and him trying to get them back, and functionally, nothing would change. As he seems largely ambivalent to most of his men upon their return, the emotional weight of them being in danger is also kind of thrown out the window.
How depressing. Well, onward!
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5