Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Nine: Lost Light – **
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Lies
When we last left our heroes, Hawkeye’s throat had been slit and she was being held against Mustang to force him to commit human transmutation. The previous episode ended with him breaking and saying, “All right.”
In this episode, we learn that line actually should have ended with an ellipse, and the full line is, “All right… all right, Lieutenant, I won’t perform the transmutation.”
Surprise! Except it’s a boring surprise.
I suppose there is something to be said about a character sticking to their morals and giving up something they care about for selfless reasons. As Hawkeye is the one giving the order here, Mustang giving in and watching her die is a sacrifice on both of their parts for the sake of the others. Nothing goes forward if the homunculi don’t have another sacrifice, and Mustang resisting playing their game even when it harms him personally is an important decision. If he’s going to lead, he has to be willing to endure hardships to protect others. Not too enthusiastic that Mustang’s sacrifice is his love interest’s life, but this is framed as her call so I suppose I ought to appreciate what I can get.
However, the plot must move forward, so, TWIST! Apparently homunculi can force people to use transmutation now (???). The show wants to have its cake and eat it too; it wants Mustang to be beyond reproach, but also, we do want to see Mustang go the same way as the Elrics and lose part of his body. You know, for symbolism.
So Wrath and Pride appear, pin Mustang down, and use the gold-toothed doctor to make him transmute human tissue, which apparently counts as human transmutation. Mustang is transported through the doorway to Father, where he and the others discover that he’s now blind. “He can no longer see his future.” It’s like irony or something. Much metaphor. So deep. Wow.
Oh, don’t worry, it’ll get worse.
I deeply despise this subplot, because on top of giving a character a legitimate disability for cheap thrills and implying sweeping statements about “what it means” to be blind, note also how Mustang has no agency in this at all. It’s not just that his eyes are taken or he’s transported by force; it’s that his decision to not use human transmutation is meaningless, even though the show suggests by emphasizing that it’s important. Either way, the outcome is the same. Mustang ending up a sacrifice has nothing to do with his earlier decision.
Denying a character agency or giving them an artificial choice are not inherently bad things to do at the beginning of a story, as they can be used to demonstrate how a character responds when the deck is stacked against them. These techniques are often employed to thrust characters into conflicts they would otherwise rather not be a part of. However, as a story goes on, and especially as the moral choices of characters gain more weight, forcing them to go along with the plot simply because “it would be so cool” is no longer a legitimate strategy for constructing tension. You need to move past that.
I won’t deny that the imagery is harrowing. The animation is fluid, there’s a neat little action sequence at the start, and it’s distressing to see Mustang tortured like that. The concept that one can be forced to transmute when they don’t want to is very disturbing, especially since transmutation is often dangerous. However, the show has zero interest in exploring the consequences of that concept, otherwise it would have introduced it earlier and given it weight later. It doesn’t.
Part Two: What Really Matters
Thankfully there are a few characters in this episode who have significant experiences impacting their development. The first is May, who finally has a Philosopher’s Stone — a real one, not attached to a homunculus — within reach. However, she’s the only one who knows healing magic, and Hawkeye’s bleeding out, so she makes the decision to help another person instead, losing track of the Philosopher’s Stone in the process. It’s a little thing, and the show is a bit cavalier, turning her dilemma into something of a joke, but it’s nice to see May get a moment of importance. She has a fair bit more agency in this episode than Mustang, which is somewhat ironic given their usual roles.
Ultimately, though, the episode ends on Al, with him facing perhaps the most difficult decision any of the characters has in this entire series. While travelling through the Doorway of Truth, his iron body comes through, but his soul lingers, stumbling upon his atrophied human body in the process.
Al has had little to do this season since its start. He found Pride for a while, but it was Marcoh and Heinkel, and even Yoki, who ended that fight. At the best of times, Al is a side character, usually of less importance plot-wise than even characters like Ling and Greed. He’s a crucial emotional core for the story, easily the most empathetic of the bunch, but in many ways, the story would change very little if Al were mostly absent. It’s a strange thing to realize this late in the game, and I’m not saying that Al being cut out of the story would be a good idea — I like him, and the series would lose some of its humanity without him. But I also doubt anyone would argue which of the brothers is written to be the lead.
That’s why it’s so important that this moment belongs to Al. Often, he’s the motivator for Ed’s actions, but here, he’s all on his own. Retrieving his body is what all of this has been about, after all. Now he has the thing he’s wanted for years, waiting for him to take it back, but doing so means tapping out of the fight. His body is hardly in any condition for combat, and there’s a good chance he’ll return with the thing he’s sought for so long, only to lose it again should Father see victory. The choice is fairly straightforward, but it’s one of the most emotionally taxing things Al has ever had to do. He gives up his body to go back to the iron one he so despises, rescinding a personal victory for the sake of his friends. Now that’s powerful.
Part Three: Splitting at the Seams…
As much as the show continues to plod along at the same pace as usual, there are some indications that it’s winding down outside of the climax. Pride and Wrath body show signs of deterioration, their nigh-immortal bodies closer to the nigh than the immortal now. They and Greed are the only homunculi left, so once they’re gone, Father is the final hurdle for the heroes to overcome before the end of the series.
On the one hand, I’m relieved, as these last few episodes especially have left me eager for the end, but I also kind of feel cheated by the homunculi lasting only as long as the show can keep coming up with cool-looking things for them to do. One of the tricky things about working with a host of villains is that it can be difficult to find adequate ways to end their roles in the story. This is a difficulty in all forms of media — you see it in video games, films, television shows, comics. My favored approach is for the villains to die off or otherwise exit the story as arcs pertinent to them come to a close — for instance, at the end of a season in a television show. This one tries to do that with Lust and Gluttony, and the first Greed, but it takes so long in establishing the homunculi that the audience doesn’t have much time to see them develop a rapport with the main characters before the early few are gone. Lust is almost introduced as the main villain at the start of the series, but she hardly does anything before Mustang incinerates her. Gluttony dies almost at random, Sloth is introduced too late to have much role in the story and dies in a similarly meaningless way. I don’t mind the way Envy goes out (at least on paper), but he’s really the only one of them whose death is particularly significant to any of the human characters one way or the other. Now we have Wrath and Pride just sort of disintegrating, apparently because they’ve over-exerted themselves. The idea that the homunculi have a limited number of lives doesn’t do much to help.
I get that character death doesn’t always need to be symbolic, and especially with how people tend to conflate the way fictional characters die with what death means in the real world, perhaps my desire for more narrative villain conclusions is unfounded. Sometimes things just need to end. I’m not going to complain about that. I do think writers should take note, though, and carefully consider what, if anything, they intend to say by the way they go about it.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5