Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Three: Flame of Vengeance – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: WELL I’M GLAD WE DERAILED THE PLOT TO HAVE ZOMBIES FOR ALL OF TWO EPISODES
“Immortal Legion” my fucking ass.
As with the rest of the final season, a lot of things are happening simultaneously in this episode, but the part that will be forever burned into my brain is that about two episodes after the zombies are introduced, Mustang wipes them out in one fell swoop. Just poof, gone, bye-bye, no more unkillable zombies to worry about. Guess we solved that problem.
It makes me realize in retrospect how little Ed even tried to use alchemy on them in any way. The previous scenes with the zombies are made even more pointless by the simple demonstration that even a slightly creative approach could have taken care of the entire problem. Like, the entire fight scene was made up of punching and stabbing. Ed, you are a magic wizard, you could have put them in little rock cages or something, but no, a spear was the best you could come up with. Not that it ended up mattering, I suppose; the zombies only existed as a minor obstacle to slow Ed’s team down so Mustang could catch up to them. They had no use whatsoever after that, and the creators couldn’t think of any way to use them, so they just retconned the fucking things. Zombies? What zombies?
I feel like this is why more people don’t complain about the zombies, but it honestly just makes me angrier that the show put them there to begin with. The shot of mustang burning the room while avoiding the people in it is cool, I’ll grant the episode that, but honestly, fuck the zombies.
Part Two: Askew
The oddly ephemeral zombies are in a class of their own, but indicate a problem I’ve been noticing with the finale. I actually remembered the non-magical subplots being kind of clever and coming together effectively, which isn’t quite the case I’m realizing. In this episode, Mustang’s crew (aside from Hawkeye and himself) have hidden at a radio station and are broadcasting a partially fabricated story about Mustang saving the city from a coup. On its own, I really like this. Actually, I really like a lot of this episode on its own. It’s creative, the animation is well-done, and the writing is none to bad either. A bit of it is on the cheesy side, especially when that strange patriotic music plays again as the people rally to Mustang’s side, but I’ll take it. Within this episode, I don’t see any glaring issue.
See, what’s going on is that Mustang’s side are still acting in the genuine good of the country for the moment, but they’re bending the truth in a way that’s convenient for them. They’re using the chaos to whisper hearsay and spread rumors as a tactical method, putting Grummin on the defensive as they get closer and closer to throwing him under the bus, and also distancing themselves from the violence of the Briggs soldiers. They’re pretending to act under the orders of Bradley since he’s gone and with the commanding officers in chaos, Mrs. Bradley seems (at least to the civilians) the next best authority. Because Central Command has kept Bradley’s disappearance under wraps, Mustang’s team look like an honest source of information simply by telling the “truth.” It’s devious, but they’re still the protagonists, and I think the episode gives a good look at how this is clever but somewhat questionable behavior. While Mrs. Bradley is crying her eyes out, Mustang’s men are laughing with the radio host off-air about how readily they’re fooling everyone. They spend the interview alternately playing as sympathetic while also presenting startling news to gain the most attention from their audience. On top of all of this, the Ishvalans are around to back up their claims, fulfilling Scar’s promise that the Ishvalans will be redeemed in the eyes of the Amestrians.
Here’s the one problem: all of this is coming out of nowhere.
While this episode on its own is fully competent, it implies preceding events that never happened, and contradicts those that did. Watching this episode, you would probably expect that Mustang’s team had built up trust with the radio operator (who risks his life to cover for them), or that Mustang had given his team the orders to spread rumors (not unlike the false radio reports from Season Two), or that they had coordinated with the Ishvalans, or that they had purposefully maintained boundaries with Armstrong and Grummin so that they could spin a more acceptable yarn, or that the different fronts are coordinated and Mustang knows who all he’s working with.
However, the show has distinctly established that that is not the case; all of this appears to be impromptu, and as far as I’m aware, we haven’t had much if any setup for the radio report. It’s certainly possible that Mustang and his crew planned this ahead of time, but if that’s not impressed upon the audience so that they can anticipate or even understand the progress of events, the assumptions made to explain how we got to this point are just fan fiction. The only thing that would appear to be set up ahead of time is the Ishvalans, but as Mustang seems surprised that Scar is even here, much less working with his allies, and no one else appears to have talked to the Ishvalans, they seem to be acting with no knowledge of the plan. Why are they talking up Mustang in particular? Did any of them actually come from Eastern Command, because the cinematography implies that they are likewise telling half-truths to bolster the story. Why? What’s they’re personal motive to do this?
I try not to complain about the internal logic of a story too much. I’ve come across a lot of people, in real life and on the internet, who fixate on the little things to the exclusion of all else, and end up disliking a film on very petty grounds like “it was historically inaccurate.” I won’t pretend I’m immune to that same sort of fixation (again, zombies), but I try to look at things from a more holistic viewpoint. I can easily forgive a few mistakes and pseudo-plot holes here or there. In some series, those can even improve a story by adding unintended humor or subtext.
What we have here, though, are not little problems with the story, but narrative discontinuities that almost make the story feel like it stepped through a parallel dimension at some point. The story implies that it’s going in a particular direction, only to double-back and change its mind so it can take a path it already discounted previously. The first few episodes of the invasion of Central indicate chaos and disorder, and that Mustang is only slightly aware of the plan his people have put together. The chaos of events also implies that this plan is succeeding, but only through sheer coincidence. There are certain beats that have unfolded predictably, like the Briggs soldiers hiding in Armstrong Manor and coming out armed to the teeth, but others have been fortuitous coincidence, like Bradley going missing. I have no idea which one the radio report is. It seems to be pre-meditated, since Mustang’s men have figured out exactly what they want to say and have the Ishvalans, radio host, and Mrs. Bradley all lined up. But most of what they’re using to strengthen their argument is based in coincidences we already know they couldn’t have predicted or known about, which implies this is all happening on the fly. They must have a hell of a debate captain on their team.
It messes with the flow of the story. We like events in a story to have clear associations without jumps too big for us to follow naturally. Maintaining suspense is a balancing act between giving the audience enough information that they don’t feel lost, but are still somewhat surprised by what happens in each new scene. Absence of information becomes a problem when one of two things happens: either the omitted information is distracting (e.g., a character changes outfit mid-fight to a garish orange dress between cuts, an obvious mistake), or the audience gets shifted to a different path (characters start talking about something the audience missed, the audience believes unimportant information will be going somewhere, etc.). Either way, a prominent enough shift in the direction of the story without additional information to patch up the gap will leave the audience floundering, making the story less appealing.
I like where the plan goes in this episode. I just wish the show had indicated any intention it was going in this direction earlier, because now I’m worried it’s going to change back in the coming episodes. It kind of seems like the show creators and characters alike are just making it up as they go.
Part Three: Burn, Baby, Burn
A full half of this episode is dedicated to Mustang facing down Envy and learning that Envy killed Hughes. It’s a bit important.
Okay, so I’ll be the first to admit that some of the styling in this part of the episode is not really my thing, but it’s well-done for what it’s going for and I will put my complaints down to personal preference. Specifically, some of the animation becomes especially exaggerated, especially on Envy, and the characters spend a lot of time verbally sparring before the actual fight. Villain monologues are a mainstay in anime, and I’m not a fan of them, but if you’re going to write one, this isn’t a bad way to do it.
At this point in the story, Envy is outnumbered and eventually becomes aware of just how outmatched he is by Mustang. It takes him a while to accept it, but Mustang’s fire ability is easily enough to match Envy’s shapeshifting, and not only that, he’s proven in battle; Mustang is the only human in the series so far who has killed a homunculus. If there is one person Envy really ought to watch his tongue around, it’s this one, but he doesn’t. Either because he thinks himself immortal, or because he’s a bit loopy from spending the last few — weeks? Months? — in a jar, he goads Mustang and eventually lets slip that he was the one who shot Hughes.
Mustang sends the others off to continue looking for Father, leaving only Hawkeye at his side. The interesting part of the episode is that it’s not even close to a contest; we don’t often get to see Mustang live up to the suave fire boi aesthetic the series gives him, but this is a worthy exception. Indeed, Mustang has no difficulty shooting fireball after fireball at Envy, and seems to take pleasure in hurting him. He knows very well where he stands with the homunculi, and intends to watch Envy suffer every moment of it.
So that sounds a bit villainous, does it not? The series has played around with Mustang going over the edge before, but it’s been awhile since we’ve seen any of that, and my response in the past has generally been that it’s an interesting idea, but not one the series seems keen to explore. Here, though, it’s elevated to straight text, with Mustang chasing after Envy as he runs for his life, intent on hurting him to the best of his abilities. He sends cascades of fire at the homunculus between low blows at his eyes and tongue, easily repelling the few attacks Envy tries against him without a hint of danger to himself. It’s not a fight so much as revenge torture.
The lighting, cinematography, and character responses reflect the idea that this is well beyond the purview of what the show considers justifiable. Mustang is in shadows, his eyes often obscured (my favorite trope!), embers around him. As well as Envy coming across as manic and flimsy through his frantic expressions, the episode makes good use of Dutch angles and slight distortion to give the scenes, especially those in the catacombs, a more horrific look. Ed and the others are discomforted by Mustang’s single-minded revenge spree, commenting in low voices that this is the sort of thing that could consume him, and they return to help. Hawkeye seems to have a similar reaction and runs off to help him, or stop him, as she listens to Envy’s wails from another room. The episode ends with Envy escaping long enough to realize Hawkeye’s on her own, implying that when she runs into Mustang and holds a gun to his head for the episode’s cliffhanger, either she or Mustang are actually Envy in disguise.
So what of all of this? I like the direction the show is taking, presenting Mustang as capable of great destruction and also vulnerable to losing control. This is a common trope for fire-based characters, as it creates drama between their personal desire to show their full strength and their human desire to not hurt others. Although the show plays with this idea in earlier episodes, Mustang does not get the full arc that characters like Jean Grey, Shoto Todoroki, and Liz Sherman do; he’s an adult, in the military, who already has this whole shooting-fire-from-your-hands thing figured out. Whenever the show questions his actions, it’s framed less in the context of self-control, and more in the context of who he is as a person. Is Mustang an honorable man who uses his extremely dangerous ability non-lethally, or is he ruthless and willing to do whatever he feels is necessary to get what he wants?
The show has already tipped its hand and shown us that it’s the former. Even though Mustang was part of the atrocities in Ishval, we never see him personally kill civilians (it’s all from a distance), and he’s visibly mortified by it. The closest we come to the sort of thing he’s doing to Envy is his outburst at Lust in the second season, which is also brutal, but there, the show presents it as Mustang’s emotions getting the better of him. That’s likely how the show intends it to read here too; Mustang is seething with rage and wants to take it out on Envy. The difference here is that Mustang is mostly cool and collected, not merely trying to kill Envy, but play with him. That’s a big part of his friends’ concern for him; that he’s not the sort to normally do this, and normalizing it is in direct contradiction to the weight he carries in using a unique and deadly alchemy. It’s also not a great look for the person you aim to seat in the highest position of power in the country.
This episode gives us some compelling imagery and a bit of a test for Mustang, but I think given the precedent set earlier in the season, the direction the show intends to go is rather clear. It would be strange for Mustang to suddenly turn into a monster in the last few episodes without much buildup or tension around that risk, and the show has been careful to frame Mustang as tough but ultimately just throughout the series. We don’t really have any close calls or incidents that set Mustang apart as apathetic, so it’s a pretty safe bet that his friends will succeed in talking him down from wherever he’s at in his head right now.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5