Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Twelve: A Fierce Counterattack – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Punching
I’m kind of getting Game of Thrones flashbacks with this one, mainly in the sense that this almost feels like it should be the final episode but we still have several more to go. You really feel the padding of the ending, as though making the final battle longer will somehow make it more epic.
Still nowhere near as bad as Thrones, though.
There isn’t a lot to summarize about this episode because it’s mostly battle. The characters we’ve come to know and (mostly) love band together to attack Father, steadily wearing down his defenses until he can no longer hold God in. A few characters are injured and set aside, like Izumi and Olivier, while others who have been out for the count are now joining in the effort, like Mustang and Alex. Greed intervenes, trying to steal Father’s stone at the last minute, and in the process messing things up a bit for the heroes, but the main development during the battle is when Father destroys Ed’s arm and much of Al’s armor. Seeing that his brother is vulnerable to attack without a way to use alchemy, Alphonse breaks his own blood seal, returning his soul to the void behind the Doorway, and giving Ed back his arm.
Part Two: The Sacrifice
Easily the most interesting development of the episode, I think the show mostly succeeds in driving home the potency of Al’s sacrifice. One would expect the show to arrive at a culmination related to the heroes’ original quest by the end, and this feels like an appropriate time to instigate it. Al has always played second fiddle to Ed in the story, but he seems mostly content with that. Al’s good nature and milder temperament lend themselves well to a supporting role, bolstering Ed in his schemes so that they might have more success. Al is a suit of armor in more ways than one, there to protect and strengthen, but not to move of his own accord.
Al’s gesture in this episode shows us that his typical role is an active choice. He takes the spotlight here for a moment, opting to make good on an old debt and give something crucial to his brother in a time of need. It’s a constructive sacrifice, but its intent isn’t to glorify Al or give him a tragic finale. On the contrary, he defers leadership to Ed, and it’s strongly implied that whether he himself comes back by the end of the series or not, he will still come back eventually. And that’s his decision to make, not Ed’s.
This scene is simple without being simplistic, and therein lies its strength. It’s a reversal that matters, because it brings the boys back around to the start of the series. It almost teases the audience Wizard of Oz-style by having the characters realize that the things they always wanted were with them the whole time. Except, this revelation doesn’t feel contrived because it’s a hard decision to make, and it kind of seems like they’ve always known their agreement was reversible but never before had reason to undo it. Ed’s look of horror when Al prepares to transmute himself gives the sense that he knows exactly what Al intends to do, but only in that moment did it fully register to him how easy it would be.
That it’s easy is not a good thing, either; it’s a concession, a sort of admission of defeat, that there are more important things than holding onto a ghost of the past. The characters can’t hope to move forward until they recognize and accept their failures, and give up trying to have everything. Honing in on what truly matters — for Al, his brother’s safety — is crucial if they’re to live in a world governed by the cruel law of equivalent exchange.
Part Three: Asshat
There’s something to be said for a piece of art that takes itself seriously, even if you don’t care for it. I think that part of my problem with this show, and saying it’s going to make me rightfully an asshole here, is that it’s so earnest, even when it’s at its more ridiculous.
I tend to prefer self-deprecation to sincerity. It’s a coping mechanism for me personally, but I also think it provides a lens through which to view difficult subject matter. A humbling sort of comedy is prosocial and can be used to broach topics that one wouldn’t be capable of discussing with the appropriate deference. Bringing up those topics can lead to more serious discussions, and meld into sincere expression, but you need some sort of in first, be it a joke or hyperbole or sarcasm. Sincerity is potent when used in an appropriate context, but it’s easy to present sincerity to an audience that doesn’t buy the performance. This is the tricky thing about drama.
I can see that the people involved in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood really care about the story they’re telling and want it to mean something. I think that sincerity is part of the reason for the show’s success. If you accept the emotions of the characters as presented and empathize with their plight, this story is a vast epic that puts its characters on an emotional roller coaster that is exhausting but fulfilling to ride. I can absolutely understand why so many people enjoy this show so deeply.
Part of the difficulty in writing this review series has been my inability to settle into the show in the same way as it’s intended audience. I can see the story, I can understand what it’s doing, but I often can’t sync up to the emotional beats the way I can for a show or other piece of media that more directly suits my aesthetic sensibilities. My frustration about certain scenes is a reflection of the show assuming that it and I are on the same wavelength and plowing ahead without bothering to verify, like a well-meaning friend who signs you up for spin class with them.
This episode ends with Ed pummeling Father using his newly-restored arm, casting alchemy spell after spell at him, screaming most of the way. It is extraordinarily silly viewed out of context, and the show’s self-seriousness denies it any acknowledgement of its own absurdity. This is IMPORTANT, it screams at you. Don’t laugh at polygon-braided Adonis as he punches Satan with his magic hand! It’s not funny, he just lost his giant ghost brother temporarily!
Because the show isn’t willing bear the weight of presenting its subject matter in a light relatable to the audience (me, in this case), the impetus is on the audience to decide how they want to perceive the material. They can choose to live vicariously through their peers’ honest enthusiasm for the piece, or they can disengage with it entirely and view it as an object rather than a story.
And then they can go complain about it on the internet because life is a travesty and screaming into the void is one of the few ways for a person to find some semblance of meaning in this fever dream of late-stage capitalism we call the 21st century.
Where was I?
Oh yes, Fullmetal Alchemist. Well, I suppose holding any story to accountability at every moment is asking a bit much of it, and it’s not like I go into every show with an entirely open mind, especially if I’ve seen it before. Some people do, and I commend them for it, but that’s not me. I’m not the ideal audience, and this show doesn’t speak to me the way it does for some people. But I think it’s worth mentioning all of this, the tonal disparity and lack of self-awareness and whatnot, because I have watch the whole thing multiple times and I have written sixty-two reviews of the show without giving it up, so clearly there’s something here that I enjoy enough to prioritize it over more mediocre shows I would never want to spend time on. I assure you, I’m not bullheaded enough to do all of this fueled by spite alone.
The first series to figure out what works for me about this show while improving or cutting the parts that sour the experience will make, well, not a fortune exactly, but easily a cool thirty bucks from me at least.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5