Fate / Zero – 04

“You can’t see it, but trust me…it’s there.”

Here it is: the first Grail War battle in which neither side is trying to lose, and what do you know, it’s between Saber and Lancer. It feels like there’s been a lot of buildup to this, but I was still caught off guard by just how well-executed it was.

I didn’t even mind the frequent cuts away from the combatants to their various observers, because the weight of their interests and stakes in this fight felt just as significant as the thrill of the fight.

“Did I leave the oven on?”

Lancer, AKA Diarmuid of the Love Spot (best name, or bestest?), is a formidable opponent, able to surprise Saber and Iri on more than one occasion with his surprise tactics based on insufficient intelligence on his abilities.

But these aren’t two people who don’t like each other fighting to the death, it’s two people who through their interaction in battle only gain more and more Capital-R Respect for one another. They’re knights, but they’re also warriors who love a good opponent and they’re having a blast.

NOT THE BANGS

What also made the fight so engrossing was my complete lack of an idea how it would go. Early on, Saber is pushed back on her heels, so to speak, made to discard her armor only to play straight into Lancer’s Gáe Buidhe-and-Gáe Dearg dual-wielding hands.

But while he draws blood and seems to have the edge in the battle, even he knows one cannot simply underestimate a Saber-class Servant, especially one who has yet to really dig into her own bag of tricks.

(One thing I did not realize until this episode is how and why Saber’s sword is invisible: she conceals it with wind magic because it bears her true name. That…actually makes a lot of sense.)

YOU GUYS I BROUGHT BEER

But what truly makes the battle special is that it isn’t the only thing going on. Aside from Matou and Uryuu, virtually everyone is carefully watching this fight, from Toosaka through Kirei via Assassin (who still, for the moment, believe Iri is Saber’s Master) and Kiritsugu and Maiya, to Velvet and Rider.

Iskandar is increasingly worried he’ll lose the chance to have a good fight against the other heroes if he lets Lancer kill Saber too soon, so he crashes the party in grand fashion, landing between them in his chariot in a cloud of lightning. Quite the entrance, and one that promises a more complex and nuanced outcome than simply one Servant beating another.

And this is because these are three epic heroes we’re dealing with—not mindless obedient robots—whose actions are driven almost as much by their histories and charisma as by their Masters’ orders.

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Fate / Zero – 03

“Oh sorry, did YOU want wine?” | “What channel is He-Man on?”
As Tokiomi apologizes to his Servant Archer (AKA Gilgamesh) and begs him to be patient as the plan unfolds, Waiver celebrates the death of Assassin, but his Servant Rider (AKA Iskandar) doesn’t really care, and is far more concerned with acquiring B-2 Stealth Bombers and other weaponry with which to defeat…Bill Clinton.

I enjoyed the contrast between these two Servant-Master pairs, with Tokiomi exercising the utmost deference to Archer, who abides by his wishes while Rider is more of a constant nuisance to Waiver, who can’t even get him to enter spirit mode. I can’t blame Rider; Waiver may have shown guts in stealing the relic with which to summon him, but he hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence since then.

They’ve already won the Holy Fashion War.
Rider’s not caring about Assassin’s death is just as well, since Assassin isn’t actually dead; he can take the form of many different people. What is dead are Kirei’s chances of winning the War, so he withdraws and is granted asylum in the Church by the observer, his dad Risei, and plans to use his Assassins to spy on all of the remaining Servants for Tokiomi.

Meanwhile, with Saber summoned and ready to go, she accompanies Irisviel to Fuyuki City, her love’s hometown, and the first place she’s ever left Einzbern Castle to visit. While Iri sightsees, Saber is her knight and bodyguard, wearing a stylish, practical black suit that contrasts nicely with Iri’s snow-white garb. They make a stunning pair…even though Iri isn’t Saber’s real Master.

“I sense my man kissing someone…”
That guy, Kiritsugu, arrived in Fuyuki a bit earlier, and enters a hotel room to find his assistant Maiya and a cache of weapons with which he’ll fight the War. When his thoughts turn to his frail daughter and he momentarily despairs, Maiya re-centers him by taking him in her arms and kissing him.

Whatever history those two have, I doubt it’s a threat to the union Kiritsugu and Irisviel, an unexpected pairing, but both a necessary and intriguing one. Their love for and trust for one another is above reproach. Irisviel, meanwhile, enjoys a walk on the beach with her night in black tailored suit, until Saber detects trouble nearby.

“Okay…let’s see what you got.”
The women head to the harbor, where the Servant Lancer is waiting for them, but with no Master in sight. Far from being concerned by a potential attacker in the night, it would seem Irisviel was acting as a faux Master of Saber in order to accomplish what came to pass: luring out the last Servant unaccounted for.

As for who commands Lancy, I’m not ruling out Archibald, who has been curiously absent despite Waiver having stolen his relic for Rider. And as for who will win this duel, I suspect neither party will end up dying, since we’re only three episodes in. A draw, perhaps? Either way, I can’t wait to see it.

Zero continues to excel where often UBW fell down, managing to make virtually every patch of dialogue (or monologue) compelling, integrating just enough comedy to avoid being too stodgy or serious, and most important, making every participant either eminently rootable, deliciously loathable, or a lovely synthesis of the two.

GATE – 20

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I often groan at GATE episodes that mostly or wholly omit the core gang of Itami & Co., but that’s a bit unfair, knowing that GATE is about more than just one man or one group’s adventures, but about an entire sprawling world of multiple races, political affiliations, and ideologies.

This week may have felt more like a Sherry & Casel spin-off than the GATE I typically like, but it was nonetheless a strong and surprisingly moving episode that gave the current political troubles and Japan’s involvement (or lack of same) a smaller, human scale.

Under Tyuule’s manipulation, Prince Zolzal has passed extraordinary laws and raised a paramilitary force called “Oprichnina” to oppress all pro-peace actors in the Empire. Among those is Senator Casel, who hoped to find safety with Sherry’s family, but are soon set upon by Orpichnina “Cleaners” led by the sniveling Gimlet.

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Sherry leads Casel out of the house, and her parents proceed to burn it down, presumably dying in the process but covering the escape of both their family’s and country’s futures. Of course, Tyuule is on the scene and aware of Sherry and Casel’s movements, and uses her porcine assistant to get the two to “dance for her.” Not sure why Tyuule is micromanaging things to this extent, but I do know her evil smirking is getting old.

Sherry, despite being only twelve years old, doesn’t show her fear as she finds herself out in the world with people after her and an adult senator to protect. She haggles with a villager for food and secures a room at the inn, but the only way they’ll both be safe is if they can reach and gain asylum at the Jade Palace, a territory that is technically Japanese soil by treaty.

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They get to the boundary of the de facto embassy easily enough, but are met by Princess Pina’s knights, who relay the Japanese diplomats are unwilling to harbor political dissidents at this time, thanks to a hard line from the ministry back home that doesn’t want to look weak or further embolden Zolzal by harboring doves. Even Sugawara, whom Sherry is in love with and truly believes she’ll marry someday, won’t let his personal feelings interfere with his diplomatic duties.

The Japanese refusal to accept Casel means as soon as Gimlet arrives with his Cleaners, they arrest the senator and prepare to take Sherry into custody too. It’s hard to watch her come so far, with so much childish faith in her shining Japanese hero, only to be turned away right before the finish line, and into the jaws of those who have already destroyed her family and likely have nothing good planned for her.

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At the same time, while I despised Sugawara as much as he probably despised himself when he refused to act, I also appreciated his duty to his country. People can’t just disobey orders all the time. I thought this would all come to a heartbreaking end, with Gimlet’s grubby mitts all over an increasingly pathetic Sherry screaming for Sugawara’s help.

Turns out, Sugawara couldn’t abandon Sherry to a horrible fate. He orders her brought over to the Japanese side. This obviously led to the desirable outcome of Sherry being safe (in exchange for Sugawara promising to marry her after all when she comes of age), but GATE doesn’t pretend such an action wouldn’t have messy consequences.

There are knots and kinks in this particular fairy tale: Just as Sherry’s parents gave up their lives to get her out, Sugawara may have sacrificed his career and complicated Japan’s position to a potentially disastrous extent to save her. He did something he didn’t have the authority to do. Zolzal and Tyuule wanted nothing more than to stir the shit with Japan, and Sugawara’s heroism did just that.

The Vice Minister, who previously respected his decision as a diplomat while loathing him as a man, is forced to reverse both positions: condemn his actions as a diplomat, but laud him for being a decent man who couldn’t let the screams of a child go unheard.

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Schwarzesmarken – 01 (First Impressions)

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A recent deciphering of ancient papyrus fragments indicates the number of the beast is 616 rather than 666, but never mind; 666 is still a pretty apropriate number for the East German “Black Marks” TSF squadron that stars in the new Muv-Luv Alternative spin-off, Schwarzmarken.

They go into the thickest BETA shit and kill everything they see, prioritizing that over answering distress calls. In fact, all of East German society seems to have a fundamental trust deficiency; never a good problem to have in a military unit utilizing cutting-edge mecha and fighting a merciless alien foe.

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In such a tenuous situation, something’s going to give now and again, and it ain’t gonna be the BETA. Rather, the nerve of a PTSD-suffering comrade complicates the operation. Another pilot has to stay behind and calm her, and then ends up getting thrashed.

Her commanding officer, Irisdina Bernhard, has to finish what the BETA started. But she might not have had to if only Theodor Eberbach had done something other than suck his teeth and complain about having to deal with an “insane” pilot.

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In an op in which only Theodor and Irisdina sortie, they recover an injured but alive pilot who bears an uncanny resemblance to Theodor’s little sister Lise, from whom he got separated from during an apparent Stasi purge in which their parents were gunned down as they ran for their lives. As far as Theodor knows, he’s all that’s left of his family, and this kid pilot he’s found is a visceral reminder of how helpless he was.

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Rather than allow that feeling of helplessness consume him, Theodor clearly built a wall around himself, only looking out for number one from now on, and always feeling put out and annoyed if he has to deal with anyone. Regardless, or even on a lark, Irisdina assigns him to train the recovered West German pilot, Katia Waldheim, after she requests asylum and to join the 666th.

Katia has a big mouth, as befits someone from a freer country than the GDR, which is apparently fully stocked with people who’d stab you in the back as soon as look at you. Theodor almost calls out Irisdina as a Stasi informant, which isn’t to say she isn’t.

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He warns Katia to watch her back, because no one else will, including him…but I wonder about that. If anyone can thaw his frozen-solid heart, it’s the upbeat and optimistic Katia, who again, reminds him so much of the sister he couldn’t protect. Or perhaps he’ll have a freezing effect on her heart, to go along with the freezing temperatures. We’ll have to see.

After the credits, we look in on an even more unpleasant Stasi unit led by a somewhat sadistic male-female pair rounding up suspected Western collaborators and shooting them. Among the soldiers standing fast in the shadows is one whose silhouette indicates she’s Theodor’s sister Lise.

This show may look like it was made ten years ago, but its bleak scenario in which the BETA aren’t the only enemy—and may not even be most immediately worst one—is a darkly enticing one. The question is, when will the dreaded hot spring episode rear its head?

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