Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Four: Beyond the Inferno – *
Spoilers: Yes. Oh, also warning for a suicide reference here, because that’s the direction the show wants to go now.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Hooray, the Zombies are Back.
As we steadily make our way toward the end of this series, I remember more and more vividly why I never actually finished writing the original review drafts. It’s not any single aspect of the final season that I particularly dislike (except for the zombies), but rather the sheer length of it. All of these last few episodes tend to blend together because they exist as a series of interconnected fights, but some of them are more important than others, and most of them aren’t especially well-connected. The show is trying to force a lot of big, dramatic conclusions where they don’t quite fit, in part because it has so many characters to get through.
The end result is a slew of episodes that are best to watch all together. The weaker moments are a bit slow, and there are a lot of little silly choices in the story and dialogue, but these are ironed out by the grand presence of the finale. The bigger the finale and the more characters play a role in it, the more epic it feels. However, that feeling is contingent upon the unity of the episodes; watching and reviewing them one at a time, like I’ve chosen to do, is an absolute nightmare. It’s like reviewing the end of one of the Avengers movies scene by scene. Sometimes there’s enough for me to talk about, but most of the time I feel like I can’t get a grasp on an individual episode because so little happens in it that defines a self-contained narrative. It’s really best to review them all as a whole.
Believe me, had I actually thought this through properly when I started this series way back when, I would not have chosen either this format or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to fit it. Brotherhood has its perks, but like many anime series of this style, it’s kind of meant to be binged. It runs on punctuated beats that are spaced out somewhat irregularly throughout the series, so critical moments tend to happen all at once and follow a long lull in significant plot development. While Brotherhood doesn’t have nearly as much padding as some series, its less crucial features (characters especially) are along for the entire ride.
What is the core of this series? I think that’s a worthwhile question to ask for any long-running story as it comes to its conclusion. The amount of time spent resolving certain plotlines matters, because minor characters usually only need a gentle nudge or a means to help out in order to complete their arc. Characters who have more complicated goals need to be doing more in the finale.
If you strip everything about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood down until you can’t take any more without making the show unrecognizable, it might look something like this:
Two boys dabble in alchemy and lose their bodies for it. To set things straight, they seek the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, becoming part of a military system in the process. They start to realize that the system they have joined is corrupt, a fact solidified when they learn that the Philosopher’s Stone is made from living people, and that the military is more than willing to use the stones anyway. The boys uncover a plot to turn the nation’s citizens into Philosopher’s Stones, but they feel powerless to stop it. They have to team up with a ragtag group of military dissidents, criminals, experiments, and similar strangers in order to dismantle the corrupt system from the inside, rooting out the monsters, both human and inhuman, behind it all. In doing so, the boys become part of a cause bigger than themselves.
According to this plot, Ed and Al are the most important characters, and everything else is peripheral to their journey. They have to give up their search for their bodies in order to save the country, in some way or another. Everyone around them, then, should feed back into their narrative in some way, providing parallels to their arcs as inspiration or warnings, inspiring them to do what needs to be done, or steering them down the wrong path. Some of them do this clearly; Scar, Mustang, Greed, and Father are selfish, showing their worst qualities when they mindlessly pursue whatever benefits them on a personal level, be it revenge, violence, or power. Those who are redeemed show empathy, and are willing to sacrifice what they really want in order to help others.
But there are plenty of characters who really have no role to play in the finale, and are only here because the show didn’t conclude their arcs earlier. It’s not that characters like Izumi or the Armstrongs aren’t delightful — I love them dearly — but the conclusions to their arcs are not as strong as those of other characters more directly connected to the Elrics, and in the case of Izumi, her arc effectively ended when she reconciled with the death of her child. She has no reason to be here other than because of plot nonsense, and it shows in how the series uses her here.
Part Two: Sad Boi Gets Angry, “Still Good Tho” Says Show
Okay, so Izumi comes in at the end and much of the nonsense I was alluding to happens a bit later in the episode. The big part of this one, and the reason for its name, is the conclusion of Mustang’s rampage and his friends trying to talk him down.
I really dislike how the show handles Mustang in this episode. I’ll give it credit for the animation and Mustang apologizing for going overboard, because both are effective and the latter is especially important given how many series like this I’ve seen where that doesn’t happen. It’s much more common for the enraged character to cool down and walk away sulking, rather than admit their mistake. Very few characters framed this way show genuine remorse. Mustang is one of them, and that counts for something.
That said, I can’t help but feel that Mustang’s sudden animalistic rage and later remorse for his misbehavior kind of come out of nowhere.
I realize that people can react in unusual ways when riled up about their friends or loved ones, and Mustang did lose someone very close to him in a terrible way. The show sets enough groundwork ahead of time that it becomes very plausible for Mustang to be prone to violence. On paper, he has an inherently destructive ability and has killed innocent people with it, and in the earlier seasons before we really get to know him, Mustang occasionally comes across as a loose cannon. I think the show is trying to create associations in the mind of the viewer so that they have an image to draw upon when he’s rage-fueled and out of control. It’s not surprising to see Mustang looking like he does here, where it probably would be for a character like Winry or Marcoh.
Yet, the show also goes out of its way to temper Mustang because it’s not terribly interested in framing him as a morally ambiguous person. Half of the point of this finale is to dethrone Father so that Mustang can lead the country, and then the show ends. It doesn’t have time to worry about whether Mustang will be a good leader or not, and as we’ll see (spoilers), it wants to end on a happy note. Mustang is, and always has been, a good guy, and the show never fully calls him into question as such. He has solid morals and wants to make Amestris a better place, so we’re to assume he’s incorruptible and his motivations are genuine. If he’s anything less than good, the show has to allocate time to justify why he gets to sit on the Iron Throne in the end.
So the show’s already in a weak place by introducing Mustang’s descent into madness abruptly at the end of the show. We know how this is going to end, so as is, it’s little more than a detour. To make the scene work, the emotions of all of the characters have to be running high, meaning Mustang can’t just have a small slip-up; he needs to go full monster for a moment so that the others have a reason to bring him down. The show opts to make him a sadist who likes torturing homunculi because they die slowly, and is willing to burn to death anyone who tries to stop him, including his closest friends. He screams at Hawkeye and does the magical equivalent of holding a gun to her head for telling him not to kill Envy.
That’s a bit overkill, if you ask me.
Indeed, by making Mustang sway so far in the other direction at a moment’s notice, the show unintentionally implies that it is very easy to get him into this state. Even though we haven’t seen his nastier side like this before, the idea that it comes so readily to him raises concerns about how stable he actually is. Preferably, you want your world leaders to be calm and collected at all times, but if they are prone to outbursts, you at least want them to have experience mitigating it. If the one and only time Mustang breaks down, he nearly kills everything in his immediate vicinity… I mean, I personally would want to make sure it is the one and only time, before, you know, handing the country over to this man. In real life, extreme emotional reactions are rarely single events, and the fallacy that just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen again often leads to tragedy.
It doesn’t help that the show’s brilliant idea for stopping Mustang is to have Hawkeye threaten suicide.
Part Three: Hnnng, That’s a Yike
Yeah, I forgot this was in here, but this is just flat-out bad writing. It’s a cheap, exploitative cliche that exacerbates an already prominent flaw in the way the show depicts some of its female characters. Hawkeye could just as easily threaten to quit and walk away, to the exact same effect. The idea behind her giving up on Mustang is that first, he would lose her as a friend and ally, and second, he would hurt her, meaning both of them would suffer for the loss. The show thought it would be more dramatic if she chose to commit suicide over leaving her job. That’s why they opted for it. That’s the only damn reason, and I despise it.
Even ignoring how tasteless casual references to suicide are, the big thing here is that it implies that Hawkeye literally has nothing to live for other than Mustang. Like, guys, is she okay? Because that is not the mindset of an okay person. The show has Hawkeye tying her entire life to Mustang, forgoing all of her other relationships for the sake of a man who just threatened to hurt and possibly kill her himself. You could certainly read it as Hawkeye playing to what she knows Mustang will react to, rather than actually being suicidal herself, but that’s not much better. If Mustang feels sorry for making Hawkeye feel bad, he has a funny way of showing it. And even if I was wrong and misread his threats against her safety, I’m not sure I would particularly trust a man whose one fragile tie to socially acceptable behavior is the continued survival of one woman. Jesus, Mustang, get a fucking grip on yourself, and also maybe some other people in your life.
The icing on the cake is Envy’s ill-timed interruption and final monologue, all done in the squeaky worm voice of course. Envy is very chatty in these past few episodes, and I’m not a fan of the show’s attempts to give him thematically significant dialogue. Ed, genius child, figures out that Envy berates humans so much because he wants to be like them, an astoundingly cheesy line that neither fits with Envy’s established or implied character, nor fits within this very scene. Since when has Envy shown even the slightest interest in people? Just because someone complains a lot about something doesn’t mean they secretly love it. You kind of need a bit more to go on than the vague assumption that everyone’s secretly hypocritical. I’m genuinely surprised that Ed doesn’t point out that Envy is green.
And what does this revelation do for us, anyway? Well, I’ll tell you what it does: it embarrasses Envy enough that he removes his own Philosopher’s Stone, ending his life. This show has very strange ideas about dramatic suicide, but what irks me most here is that Envy killing himself is entirely a functional part of the narrative. It has jack shit to do with Envy’s character; we just needed a way to get him out of the picture without making Mustang do it or making any of the other characters look hypocritical by doing it themselves. The blood’s off all of their hands. How convenient!
Envy is only here so that Mustang can have his revenge, because that’s something the plot feels needed to happen. Otherwise, there’s no reason Envy couldn’t have been killed off seasons sooner. The last few episodes have been a plot cul-de-sac with no bearing on the actual meat of the story, and in fact they’ve weakened several characters by giving them narrative conclusions that they never needed. I appreciate some of the more interesting moments, like Ed asking whether that’s the face Mustang intends to lead with, and Mustang slumping to the floor in shame for what he’s done. Those are both good. But they didn’t need to be in this scene, and indeed, I don’t feel like this scene served a particularly effective purpose in the story at all.
That’s annoying; I thought I would like this part upon revisiting it.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5