Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Thirteen: The Other Side of the Gateway – **
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: What We’ve Learned
You’d think that after sixty-some reviews, I’d know how to talk about this series, but alas, it would seem some things are beyond the scope of human ken.
Greed dies, Father dies, Ed brings Al back, and Hoenheim dies. That’s the plot, really.
Full disclosure, I don’t care much for this episode. You may have noticed a pattern with this final set. I haven’t given any of them more than three stars since Season Four, and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but don’t hold your breath for the last episode either. I feel bad about it, really, because I want to be accurate to my disappointment in the conclusion of the series, but it’s a downer note to go out on. It kind of seems like this whole exercise was for nothing, and well, I mean, it kind of isn’t, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel? I would love to say, “Hey, it’s not a perfect series, but it’s worth making it through to the end.” I can’t in good conscience do that, though. Unless you pick up the first few episodes and realize it’s the show for you, I don’t think I could make a reasonable argument that watching the entire thing is intrinsically rewarding. I wish it were.
But that’s not to say it’s pointless either, so I think before I put on my faux-angry face, I’d like to address some of the things this episode does in its finale that I like. There are lessons to learn from this show, so even if you haven’t seen it yet (which… kudos for finding this review I guess?), hopefully you can make use of some of these concepts if you’re a fiction writer yourself. Here they are:
#1: Power from Humility
There are two moments that characters come across the Door of Truth in this episode, one when Father, the villain, is defeated, and again when Ed, the hero, sacrifices his own Doorway to save his brother. Father, now merely the Homunculus, confronts the being on the other side of the Doorway and asks why he failed. The being explains that he is all the universe, the Truth, God, everything, and by extension, the Homunculus himself. By consuming souls and striving to devour God, but deigning to respect the elegance of even the simplest life forms, the Homunculus cannibalized himself in his effort to attain enlightenment. The being then repeats the mantra, “One is All, All is One,” which we’ve heard before in relation to the idea that making use of alchemy and claiming power from others requires the acknowledgement that the more power you have, the more can be taken from you. Domination is not the way to Truth; balance is.
Ed demonstrates that lesson when he transmutes himself, confronting his own version of the same being, which borrows his voice. Ed offers up his Doorway, meaning that when he returns, he will be cut off from the art of alchemy forever. He explains that he almost fell into the same trap as the Homunculus, trying to do the impossible by seeking the Truth, but failing to understand the real issue at hand. He hid his grief behind knowledge, trying to logic his way out of accepting his mother’s death. He’s come to understand since then that trying to bring her back was wrong, but he’s continued to seek the answers to his problems in books and research, when the solutions were internal the whole time. He needs to accept his limitations and understand that he can’t do everything himself.
It’s not just that he gives up his alchemy; it’s that he does so willingly. He finally understands that strength is more than physical aptitude and prowess. To keep moving on in his life, he can’t rely on his natural talent to get him where he wants to go. There is a trade off, but he gets Al back because he’s grown as a person, not just because he knows what the toll is.
#2: Be Careful What You Wish For
It’s a smaller note, but the punishment for the Homunculus is not really death or destruction, but exactly the thing he wanted. He strove to know the Truth and become one with God, and that’s exactly what he gets at the end. He is trapped behind his own doorway, absorbed into the collective unconscious of the universe. What upsets him is his lack of power and purpose, his having to give up his individuality to achieve this goal. It is not on his own terms, highlighting the importance of agency. A forced reward is little more than a punishment, as is an end goal one does not fully understand. While the villain is defeated in the traditional way, his final conclusion could be a creative means to imbue a story with meaning by letting the villain win, only to be defeated by their own failings. It’s not a solution for every story, but it’s an interesting one.
#3: Failure to Save the Villain
On a related note, the Homunculus is brought down to size in the end, crying and pitiful as he’s pulled behind the Doorway. While the audience is the only one to see this happen, Hoenheim understands the gravity of the Homunculus’ defeat as it was part of him, and he owes it his life. We don’t have to mourn the failure of the villain, but we can accept it as a failure of our own that the villain go to their position in the first place. Hoenheim is left wondering if he could have prevented this, stopped the Homunculus sooner, or made it into a better person so that no one need have died. It is not always good to dwell on such things, as they are often out of our control, but it is good to ask the question, and mourn destruction. Violence happens, but it is not something to revel in. An extra level of empathy can go a long way toward making a character more complex, be them a protagonist or otherwise.
Part Two: Tug-o-War
Sentimentality over, let’s dig in.
Greed dies one of the most unnecessary deaths of the series, and I get the sense that he primarily dies because the writer fears it would be too awkward to deal with him as part of the wrap-up. He is still part of the bad guys’ team, after all, and it would likely be wise to let him go about unrestrained, given he’s tried to take over the world twice in the past hour or so. I mean, he’s failed — spectacularly. Greed’s intricate approach to hijacking Father’s Philosopher’s Stone has been “run at him really fast and stick your arm into his gooey body.” Both times. Both times, that was his ingenious plan. He has been plotting for multiple seasons, and this is what he has come up with. I fucking love this dork.
I suppose it’s somewhat fitting that he goes out in a similar way, when Father, starved of souls, steals Greed’s and removes the Philosopher’s Stone from Ling. That’s a bit more creative than the usual method of just wearing the homunculi down until they disintegrate, I suppose. Greed turning Father’s body to charcoal is also a nice touch. They came so close, but oh boy, when the silly visuals start in this episode, they don’t stop.
The problem is twofold. First, I was always under the impression that the television-static mask we see representing Greed inside Ling’s mind was… you know, a representation. NOPE! That’s apparently just what Greed looks like. The strange little mask buddy is flesh-and-blood, and not only can Ling hold onto it like they’re in a slapstick comedy as Father’s siphoning away the souls, but Father can also pull Greed’s face out of his mouth once he’s consumed him again. Is the same theoretically possible for Ling? Or Kimbley? Can a visible version of one’s soul pop out of one’s body if it’s not fully attached? YOU CAN’T JUST RAISE THIS POSSIBILITY IN THE SECOND-TO-LAST EPISODE AND NOT GIVE US ANY ANSWERS, SHOW!
The other problem, surprise surprise, is the dialogue, which is at the cringiest it’s been in a while. Ling explains to Greed the meaning of friendship, which is so corny I kind of love it, then he and Ed, and other random characters shout, “No! Greed!” and I’ve lost it. Oh, there are flashbacks as well, all of which reiterate the same lesson. It’s quite a lot.
I honestly go back and forth between despising this scene and adoring its ridiculousness. But in the end, I come down on it hard because while it would be an excellent send-off to an unimportant character, Greed is readily one of my favorites and it’s discontinuous with his better qualities. It’s as though the end of a good television drama switched over to a Blue’s Clues-style exposition for its final piece. Not bad on its own, but certainly aimed at the wrong audience, and more hilarious than somber without intending to be. It makes me a bit embarrassed for getting so invested in this character’s arc, because inadvertent as it may be, the condescending tone his conclusion takes indicates that the writer feels the audience doesn’t understand what it was going for with Greed, and needs him to be redeemed in the end in an exceedingly explicit way, complete with a heroic sacrifice. If the show wanted to challenge us, it should have kept him alive and figured out where to go with him from there. It at least could have given us a properly sad ending, without mucking up the tone of the scene.
Part Three: Dear God, the Flashbacks Have Returned
I find it a bit odd that a series which draws so heavily upon the power of community and multiplicities still comes down to frame only a small few characters as divine in quality. For all that Ed learns to be one of the common people and become humble where Father was not, this is only permitted because the other characters put him on a pedestal. There’s a phenomenon Dan Olson mentions in his Fifty Shades videos where the protagonist of those books and films constantly refuses generous offers but receives the material rewards anyway. I think this can apply to a lot of other stories as well, particularly ones where the main character is meant to embody some sort of fantasy of the viewers. In Ed’s case, we want him to be everything we cannot, so he is physically powerful and sassy, obviously, but he is also wise and noble, the sort of character who arrives at philosophical truths through learned insight. He wouldn’t claim to be the savior of humanity, but the people around him are free to do so, and indeed the audience wants them to, because they’re meant to relate to Ed.
I think that’s the idea, anyway. I’ve certainly latched onto other characters who receive praise in this manner, but I find my frustration toward Ed puts me as a bystander to this phenomenon, so when he’s praised, all I can see is a whiny boy who had most things handed to him on a platter because of “natural gifts.” Obviously Ed is a bit more nuanced than that, but if you aren’t entirely on-board with blanket praise being poured over a character, it’s easy to remember the reasons you dislike them and conveniently forget anything they might have done to merit their accolades.
I think the continued melodrama is getting to me. After the fight, May and Ling offer a Philosopher’s Stone to save Al, then Hoenheim does the same, and Ed lashes out at both of them. While trying to figure out a different solution, Ed notices how many people are sad that Al’s gone, which then gives him the idea to use himself as a stone. I think the idea here is that Ed realizes the value of ordinary people, and it’s not that he’s figuring out he can give up his alchemy in that moment, but rather he’s accepting that losing his alchemy wouldn’t be so bad. That might be why he’s so nonchalant about losing his Doorway, an element I like, but I do wish the show had done at least something to set up the possibility if that were the hurdle to overcome.
On the topic of lack of setup (and unnecessary character deaths), the ending of the episode is designed for Hoenheim. His Philosopher’s Stone is spent, apparently, so he makes it all the way home and dies in front of Trisha’s gravestone. We get more flashbacks played over the credits, and he dies smiling because he got to say goodbye. It’s poetic, and it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t complain about if I saw it in a writing workshop short story. However, I’ve to grow weary of this sort of character death, the perfect finale that’s clearly trying to elicit tears from the audience. Greed’s death is in a similar wheelhouse, though much more ridiculous. It’s the sort of ending I see in fantasy books a lot, and every once in a while the surrounding material is strong enough to warrant it, but most of the time, I find it unintentionally perpetuates negative tropes. Game of Thrones does this toward its end as well, especially with characters who die in the last two episodes.
The problem with poetic character deaths is that they suggest that once a person’s goal is fulfilled in the story, they should die. This especially applies to characters who are old or whose kids are grown up and living their own lives, or characters who would have to change their life and pick a new life goal to keep going. Reformed villains, mentor figures, parents and grandparents, action heroes who save the world — none of them apparently have any place in the new world, so it’s their job to die so that the next generation can live in the world they’ve helped to create. It’s a depressing outlook, both for older people and younger people alike. It works in stories because stories are simple and the end is the end, usually. We can fast-forward to when the heroes are married or have kids of their own, and everyone lives happily ever after. Maybe the characters are given epilogue trajectories, but most stories don’t care to deal with the actual process of restoration and reparation (which, I should note, is often nearly as messy for conflicts and disasters in real life as the moments of crisis are). You can’t set up an entirely new life for characters in an epilogue, especially if they’re minor players, so unless they mentioned what they intended to do after the war was over, it’s easier for the writer to forget about them entirely. Character death isn’t always there for drama, much as it may seem. It has a colorless utilitarian purpose as well.
On that cheery note, join me next time for the epilogue and final wrap-up on this project that started… god, over a year and a half ago. Oh yes, we’re finishing this thing tonight if I have to stay up until daybreak.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5