Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Five: Adults’ Way of Life – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Why Does Armstrong Have No Nipples? I Demand Manly Nipples!
This is the episode that broke me originally. During my first run at this show, I got all the way to Episode Fifty-Five, and then stopped. So, assuming I can finish this review, that’ll be a good sign!
In retrospect, I don’t think it was really the content of the episode so much as my desire to follow the story that stopped me here. It’s not a terrible episode — bland, but far less tedious than the previous few, and it throws a few good turns here and there. As with the rest of this season, the episode lacks much definition, and so lack an identity, best binged with the other end-series episodes. I do kind of wonder if I just got distracted and forgot to finish it.
Sloth is (finally) dead, hit enough times by a combination of Alex Armstrong and Izumi’s husband. There’s a moment where the homunculus has been impaled again and one of the characters says something to the effect of, “Oh no, he’s still alive!” which almost made me sob in fury because I wanted the fight to be over already, but then he disintegrated. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so happy watching this show.
Armstrong and Izumi’s husband have what I can only describe as a muscle-off, which is very odd but amusing, and I like how it ends with them each giving the other a firm handshake. Someone on Tumblr or Twitter once described it as a perfect example of positive masculinity, and while I’m not sure I would go that far, it’s a very good use of our beefy boys.
Alphonse helps change a tire!
There’s a bit where Ed argues lightheartedly with Mustang and Hawkeye thanks Scar for his help talking Mustang down. The dialogue doesn’t do much for me, but that’s down to my response from the previous episodes mostly. The functional point of this scene is to establish that they’ve gotten turned around and don’t actually know how to reach Father. There’s reason for that later, but in the mean time, Hoenheim has reached Father and is battling him one-on-one. When Father tries to take Hoenheim’s Philosopher’s Stone, Hoenheim contaminates him with something. The episode leaves us on a bit of a cliffhanger here.
It also leaves us on a bit of a cliffhanger where you might expect. The Briggs soldiers have finally made their way through the various compounds of Central Command. (The episodes previously distracted me so much I forgot to mention the tank — they brought a tank with them, and it’s very cute.) But their celebrations are cut short when they’re interrupted over the radio by Bradley himself. Heh heh, oops.
Part Two: Greedy Grubbins
You might expect me to talk about how the twist with Bradley, however inevitable, is well-times for a simultaneous comedic and dramatic moment, which it is, but I’ll have plenty of opportunity to discuss the implications of his return next time. For now, I think the most crucial part of this episode is really Hoenheim’s fight with Father.
One of the disadvantages of using a rogues gallery of villains during the finale is that you can’t usually give each of them the same weight in the story, especially if the narrative is rigid enough that it doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility in the kinds of villains you can have. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as rigid, it is still a fairly conventional fantasy with a fairly simple morality system. The villains are varied in their character designs and abilities, but less so in their character. Most of them are supposed to be scary, then they grow weak if you hit them enough, and then they die. Usually they have a bit of humanity in their deaths, so you’re supposed to feel at least a little bit bad for them. Greed is an obvious exception because he’s working with the protagonists half of the time. Pride may be another because we spend so much time with him and he’s contrasted with the rest of the homunculi, and I think you could make a case for Bradley as well. Gluttony is a tad more sympathetic than the other homunculi because he’s simple-minded and occasionally friendly, but otherwise, most of the outright villains don’t rock the boat much.
Which brings us to Father. Father is the big boss at the end, yet he’s also the villain we’ve spent the least time with. I think it’s telling that he hardly speaks in this episode, even as he’s locked in heated combat. He doesn’t have a personality, and that’s partly by choice; the homunculi are supposed to be physical manifestations of this character, as Hoenheim indicates.
Just because it’s established within the lore doesn’t mean it’s a good choice, though. What the series has created with Father is a particular type of villain that is less of a character and more of a force of nature or Eldritch horror. Father is vastly more powerful than most of the other characters, and he can’t be reasoned with. He craves power above all else, and feeds on it like a leech, apparently smart enough to figure out how to manipulate an entire country to get more of it, but little more than an animal otherwise. This is the sort of villain that turns into a giant space squid or dragon for their second form; in other words, cool to look at, but not especially memorable otherwise.
I get why the show has opted to go this direction, as dragons are flashy, dramatic bosses that, when slain, sell the idea that the final battle meant something, that the world itself was in danger, and now that danger is vanquished. It’s a common trope in fantasy for a reason. Harry Potter, Eragon, Percy Jackson, Fable, Skyrim, The Avengers — all of them end with a big battle, usually against some powerful monster. But in every single one of these, the ending is generally not what people remember about them. The ending needs to feel big because of established conventions, but the exceptions to the rule illustrate the benefits of the end of the world riding on smaller conflicts.
In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the massive battle is secondary to Frodo’s moral choice once he gets to the top of the volcano. In Hellboy, both the comics and the film, the battle is an internal one (even though there is also a squid). In Avatar: The Last Airbender, perhaps the most relevant series to compare to FMA in its ending, the epic final battle comes down to a moral decision, as Aang has the power to kill the antagonist, but chooses to go the harder pacifist route. Other series, like Watchmen and Preacher, build up to a grand finale, only to make it smaller at the last minute because whether the villain wins or loses isn’t the point.
It’s certainly possible to have a classic big final battle while also taking the story inward and making it more personal to the protagonist, but if you want to do that, a lot hinges on what it is they’re up against. As we’ll see later, Fullmetal Alchemist goes halfway with this, so it understands how to finish off a character arc. However, Father certainly has nothing to do with it. And that’s a problem, because the show spends so much time showing us how powerful Father is.
Father is not interesting. He does very little himself over the course of the story, and because the show wants to dehumanize him and shroud him in mystery, well, I mean, mission accomplished, but to what end? Usually, a villain like Father would have some sort of lackey or summoner who interacts with the main characters on his behalf and then gets eaten or squished when it’s time for the monster to fight. The way this season is structured, Father is supposed to be a big part of the end, he’s supposed to come up out of his comfy chair like Thanos and actually play a role in the story. Except that it’s taken five or so episodes for the characters to even reach him, and we’re still not even halfway through the season. The thing about dragons is that the lead-up to them can be as long as you like, but once you bring the beast out for real, unless you have very carefully-planned pauses in the action, you can’t stop until it’s dead. And when you have a morally simplistic villain who does not have an especially charismatic personality, structuring the boss battle becomes fully dependent on their skills and those of the protagonists.
Father does not seem to have especially varied skills, and the magic system of the show has become increasingly boundless. These two things in combination are not good. Best get ready for a lot of red lightning and rock columns smashing into each other.
Part Three: And Now, Time for Some Doctor Who
There is one thing that bothers me quite a bit about this episode, and it’s a small thing, but I think it’s important. After he defeats Sloth, Izumi tells the Armstrongs to take a break and sit out the rest of the battle. Alex Armstrong has a flashback to Ishval, where he defected after discovering the body of a child in the rubble, and feeling guilt over his contribution to the destruction. He refuses the offer to sit out the fight and recuperate, declaring that he won’t be called a coward again.
… I’m sorry? It just goes to show the delicacy of crafting a character, because even just one misplaced line like this can do a fair bit of damage. I highly doubt the show intended to do this, but the juxtaposition of these two very difference scenes implies that Armstrong’s main takeaway from Ishval was shame for dessertion, not shame for being an accomplice to genocide. What made the scene in Ishval so poignant originally was that it spoke to Armstrong’s soft nature and empathy, that he was one of the very few good characters who chose to quit Ishval, despite the damage to his reputation thereafter, and that what he saw traumatized him. I never got the sense that Armstrong ever felt he made the wrong decision in running away; staying would have been the morally decrepit option, surely? So to make the comparison and suddenly shift Armstrong’s character to one who has to prove himself in battle, that comes across as rather disingenuous to me.
I think the show is opting more for the idea that Armstrong feels like he should have been the bigger man and stood up to his commanding officers, that way he could have fought alongside the other men in his company who felt what they were doing was wrong. That’s not what comes across in this episode, but a preceding scene speaks to Armstrong feeling like he should be there for his men. During the Sloth battle, the Briggs and Central forces team up to try to slow the monster down and help the Armstrongs. It doesn’t do much, but it touches Alex and gives him and Sid (I finally remembered his name) a slight advantage.
I would like to point out, however, another small thing I’ve noticed in this series on the topic of chivalry and community. The show has a pervasive theme of The People, which is cool, I like that theme. It’s especially nice in genre series like fantasies when the common folk are presented as allies or even powerful forces in their own right, despite living in a world full of monsters and magicians who could wipe half of them off of the planet any moment. Collective strength is a powerful and essential thing, and it’s always relevant to our modern society. If you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of people everywhere, and getting along with other people is not always our strong suit.
That said, I find it curious that these scenes keep surprising me when they come up, because they’re common enough that I would would have expected them to make an impression on my memory of the series on the first, second, or third time watching it. But very few of them have stuck at all, certainly not enough to establish an aesthetic. It’s very strange for a series to use of motif so often and for it to leave almost no impact. I have a good memory for this sort of thing, so what gives?
I think it’s because there’s a disconnect between the theme of community and what’s actually going on in the plot. The characters are going up against the villain all together, but only a few of them are actually essential. Ed, his father, and maybe Alphonse and Scar are the important characters in this ending. Even Mustang is really just sort of peripheral to the narrative, since he could sit the entire battle out and come in to sit on the throne at the end and little would fundamentally change about the major plot beats. As the themes of community are more critical to the stories of the other characters, like May and Marcoh and Greed, the theme comes across as a bit weak. Hoenheim has something of his own connection to community, but that’s not really what wins the day in the end. The soldiers banding together, and the people supporting Mustang, and the four chimeras, all of them are kind of irrelevant to the story.
There are ways to do this better. I think the mistake the show makes is that it assumes community requires a large number of people, but a community can be any size. In order to make a theme effective, you need to tie it emotionally to the story and characters, otherwise it’s just an aesthetic choice that no one’s going to notice.
Community is also a big theme on Doctor Who, which is perhaps a bit strange because the core case ranges between about one and four people, and many of the side characters encountered in an episode don’t appear anywhere else. However, the show keeps the theme relevant by playing to the importance of those small, one-off characters; not only are they sometimes referenced later, but when they die, the main character feels the weight of each person lost. The concept behind Doctor Who is that the main character is god-like in their abilities, and functionally immortal, while the people they encounter are proportionally tiny and insignificant, but the Doctor finds inspiration in their spirit and tenacity all the same. The Doctor knows that they wouldn’t be where they’re at if not for the help of all of the people they’ve encountered on their travels.
The episodic and long-running structure of the show helps in the case of Doctor Who, but I am kind of surprised that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood doesn’t opt to place as much emphasis on the many innocent people who have been lost. Or, you know, try to give the various smaller soldiers names, backstories, etc. I guess those two officers who were supposed to watch Ed and Al at the start of the series fit the idea I’m thinking of, but it kind of treats them too gently compared to its unnamed masses. I kind of suspect the show is nervous about putting its named characters at risk, because it doesn’t seem to have much middle ground between side characters who get dramatic deaths and faceless corpses piled up in the background.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5