Fate / Zero – 08

Maiya has orders to escort Iri away from the castle, but the orders aren’t so precise that Iri can’t countermand them when she senses Kotomine Kirei approaching. She doesn’t want that guy anywhere near her Kiritsugu, and Maiya feels the same way, so the decide they’ll do what they can to keep him away.

Neither of them are any match for Kirei’s considerable mage-executing skills, so all they can do take up as much of his time as they can. The bravery, grit, and selflessness the women exhibit without Saber by their side is something to behold. There’s no doubt Kirei is a fearsome, superior foe, but it doesn’t matter: he’s not getting to Kiritsugu, period.

Meanwhile, a bullet from Kirei’s pistol gets through Kayneth’s quicksilver defense, but he chalks it up to a fluke and a moment of poor focus to the disgust of fighting such an awful mage, and redoubles his defenses…which is exactly what Kiritsugu wants.

Saber and Lancer are having no luck, as there’s no end to Caster’s minions as long as he’s holding his noble phantasm, an old grimoire. Rather than keep hacking away, Saber clears a path with an Air Strike, through which Lancer dashes and slashes the book with Gae Dearg, and just like that Caster is defenseless and must withdraw.

Saber and Lancer’s ‘knightmance’ proceeds apace when Lancer senses his Master is in danger, Saber senses it’s because of her Master, and gives Lancer leave to tend to Kayneth, in accordance with the ideals of nobility and chivalry, while she rushes to help Iri and Maiya.

The next time Kiritsugu fires his pistol into Kayneth’s heightened magical defense, it scrambles the opponent’s magical circuits, causing him to cough up a good deal of blood and pass out. Kiritsugu remembers his mentor(?) explaining the bullets which contained his own ribs in powdered form; but he was only given 66 of them, and we see him use two on Kayneth.

And even that doesn’t kill Kayneth, only gravely wound him. Lancer arrives to rescue him and withdraw, and tells Kiritsugu that he’s only alive because of his Servant Saber’s devotion to the right-and-proper precepts of nobility; because she is the King of Knights. I’m sure Kiritsugu’s glad Lancer didn’t kill him, but less pleased Saber let Lancer get away so easily.

What’s so great about this situation is that everyone has a reasonable position here and nobody is outright right-or-wrong. In a way, Saber went rogue, but again…Lancer would have Kiritsugu him if not for her.

As he beats Maiya to a pulp and chokes then stabs Iri (who he thinks is a homonculus), Kirei can’t fathom why not one but two people challenged him, of their own accord for Kiritsugu’s sake. Kirei has been operating under the assumption that Kiritsugu is, like him, friendless, alone, and understood by no one. But he’s wrong…and I kind of pity him for being so.

One could say Kiritsugu using Iri as a kind of “decoy master” smacks of cowardice, but that position doesn’t take Iri’s (and Maiya’s) feelings into consideration. They do protect him of their own accord, as we witnessed here, and they will continue to do so.

Kiritsugu seems to know this, because when Saber finally comes and touches the injured Iri, she is immediately healed by the scabbard Avalon implanted within her according to her husband’s wishes—something only he and she knew about. Kiritsugu is not alone, because there are those who don’t want him to be.

Fate / Zero – 07

“I KNEW all those cereal box tops would pay off!”

After a slight stumble last week, Fate/Zero immediately regained its footing as I thought it would. It starts out strong, with some more delightful comic relief courtesy of Rider and Waiver, who were absent last week. The fact that Iskandar’s main motivating factor at this point is his Master buying him pants works in a way Iri’s terrifying joyride just…didn’t.

Meanwhile, the War for the Holy Grail is on hold until all participants hunt down Caster and his Master…who are a couple of disastrous bastards. Risei promises whoever kills him will get a rad new tattoo a Bonus Command Seal. That would bring Tokiomi and Kayneth back up to three, and give the others four.

“Maiya, would you tell Iri to tell Saber that I’m NOT talking to her?”

Not surprisingly, the Magehunter-by-trade Kiritsugu is planning to break the truce by going after any Masters who are occupied with finding Caster. At the same time, he’s under no illusions anyone else will abide by Jisei’s rule change, and his cynicism and pragmatism are later validated…and then some.

This is key, because despite making the right calls once Caster arrives with a brace of child hostages, Saber urges her Master to let her defeat Caster. Kiritsugu stubbornly refuses to respond to Saber in any way, continuing his planning talk with Iri as if Saber weren’t even there.

I’m not sure if a Servant’s like or dislike of their Master makes them better or worse at fighting, but Kiritsugu is operating under the assumption a Servant’s personal emotions play next to no role. Either that, or there’s a very good reason he’s not speaking to her that just hasn’t been revealed yet.

“If this is about my cousin Sephiroth, I told him he can’t ask you for money anymore.”

What is revealed on the balcony after that tense meeting inside, is a side of Kiritsugu we haven’t seen since the scene in the first episode when his daughter was born. It’s a side he has no problem showing his wife. He’s afraid; afraid of losing those he loves most, and afraid of Kotomine Kirei in particular.

He wants to take Iri and Ilya, run away, and never return to this nasty business. But Iri won’t let him, because if she does, she knows the regret he’ll feel from running will be the end of him anyway. If death is to come for them all, one way or another, better to face it together as a family, no?

“Can’t a lady fight someone wielding a SWORD for once?!”

When Caster starts popping kids’ heads, Saber finally gets the order to deal with him. But Caster isn’t alone; he may not have Uryuu with him (thank God) but he does have a legion of tentacle demons that restore themselves as fast as a still-depleted Saber can cut them down.

Sometimes I worry that Saber has too often been depicted as a pushover, but it’s more of a “Worf-in-TNG” situation: if he’s getting schooled, you know the foe is tough. Besides, even with her injured hand, Saber kicks plenty of eldritch ass before finally becoming surrounded, overwhelmed, and bound by their tentacles.

“Sooo….while you’re here, d’you mind fixing my hand?”

And that’s when Lancer arrives, and the two warriors who respect the hell out of each other go back-to-back to fight off Caster’s legion together. Lancer assures Saber that this doesn’t mean they’re suddenly allies, just that this is the most efficient way of carrying out the order to defeat Caster. This pairing-up was a definite fist-pumper; I look forward to seeing how the two of them take on Caster.

“I tellya, this T-1000 pays for itself!”

As for Lancer’s Master Archibald, he obviously didn’t die in the bombing of his hotel; he surrounded himself in a quicksilver ball he manipulates with magic. After his so-so introduction and the dull hotel-scenes leading up to the blast, Kayneth is in top badass form himself this week, casually reciting orders to his ball and ruthlessly pursuing Kiritsugu, aiming to punish him for his cowardly failed attempt on his life.

At moments, Kiritsugu looks as outmatched as Saber often has early in battles. I mean, bringing a gun to a magic fight…seriously? But Kiritsugu is nothing if not crafty, resourceful, and sneaky as hell, and when he uses magic, you can bet there’s an important reason for it.

He’s not a guy who shows off, preferring the shadows. He turns the tables with time magic, then aims a special-looking pistol at Kayneth with a look that suggests its bullets might pierce the quicksilver shield. So much for a truce…

Fate / Zero – 06

“I may be an ancient king…but I don’t think you should be driving like this!”

And now I’ve come to it: the Fate/Zero equivalent of a meh episode. It had to happen sometime, so better early on than not; also, after last week’s multivector face-off and just-as-rapid standdown, it’s hard for the immediate aftermath episode to not feel a bit…anticlimactic.

And while I’ve enjoyed the moments of levity Zero has managed to weave into the action and drama, Iri’s crazy drive along a twisty mountain road kinda fell flat for me. I totally get the joy she feels from being ‘let out of the birdcage’, so to speak, and perhaps it was the animation, but the drive felt way too reckless for no reason.

“We can’t exchange insurance info if you’re all the way over there!”

It’s a good thing Caster seems to be standing in the middle of a straight and not on the other side of a blind turn; otherwise Iri would have hit him (and what a shame that would have been); instead, they get out and have a deeply unpleasant exchange with him.

Since taking out that kid after letting him think he was home free with his dark tentacles, Caster has not endeared himself to me, and his ranting about Saber being Jeanne d’Arc reincarnate does him no favors. I’m totally with Saber that I dislike opponents who you can’t reason with because they lack reason.

Thats…not…good…

In addition to being illogical and maddening to deal with, Caster is also a despicable monster, like his Master Uryuu, crucifying kids while still alive. They’ve abducted fifteen from a couple of towns, which just seems like a lot, though to be honest I’m not sure how much time they’ve had to do it.

In any case, Caster insists they must sacrifice all the children they have as soon as possible, then go out and get more, which, sure, fantastic. Even Uryuu is like, ‘I guess we’re just different kinds of serial killers.’

“Why do I have two Masters…and why are they so lame?”

Archie sits in his hotel room, scolding a brooding Lancer, until his companion Sola-Ui, who despite Archie’s Command Seals, is the Mana behind the Master. She’s not afraid to speak her mind to Archie about his hiding in the shadows, but Lancer then scolds her for badmouthing his Master. Even though technically, the two of them are more like Co-Masters.

In any case, Archie belives (rightly) that Saber will try to attempt a rematch with Lancer before fighting anyone else, to undo her cursed wound. So he’s laid a trap, filling an entire floor of the hotel with magical booby traps, and is very excited to see how everything works out.

“Look, that building had all kinds of code violations anyway.”

And then Kiritsugu just burns the whole mother down. I’ll admit, it’s a fine fake-out, and yet another stealthily bad-ass move from Kiritsugu, who approaches his work in a very deliberate, disciplined, military fashion.

I also appreciated that he’s aware that he has disrupted and possibly ruined more than a few lives by blowing up the building, but he’s going to defeat the other mages by any means necessary—but not by killing innocent people.

Kirei manages to briefly corner Maiya in an adjacent structure, but Kiritsugu bails her out with a well-timed smoke bomb. As for Archie, Sola-Ui and Lancer…I’m sure they’re just fine.

“Hey God Boy—run out and get me some more libations!”

Later, Kirei’s Assassins inform him, Risei and Tokiomi of Caster and his Master’s horrific crimes, which threaten the secrecy of the War. As observer, Risei stands ready to exercise his power to make minor rule changes; in this case, ordering all Masters to take out Caster ASAP. He’s a rogue element, and clearly Saber and Iri (and I) aren’t the only ones who’d rather he went away as soon as possible.

After a long day of morally ambiguous activity, Kirei encounters Archer getting drunk (or attempting/failing to do so) on a couch, who not only voices his disappointment in his Master, but also tries to pry out of Kirei what he’s getting out of this; what he desires. If Kirei doesn’t know, Gil figures he should use his Assassins to determine what motivates the others, so he might gain insight into his own motives.

So while Kiritsugu and Maiya’s special ops exploits were pretty cool and I dug the potential realignment of the War to focus on taking out the most irredeemably loathsome Master-Servant pair, I wasn’t as enamored with Lancer’s Co-Masters (indeed, I kinda just feel sorry for him), Saber and Iri only showed up for two minutes, and Waiver, Rider, Kariya and Berserker took the week off—and at least two of them were missed. So yeah, a 7 seems about right.

Fate / Zero – 05

This episode just wouldn’t quit. It shouldn’t work as well as it does: piling character after character into what was, at least on the battlefield, a one-on-one duel between Saber and Caster, but because of the build-up in the previous episodes, each and every time someone new takes the stage, it adds a new glorious layer to the conflict.

And even if this battle only turns out to be a big tease, now six of the seven Servants have met one another, and have at least a cursory idea of what to expect form each other. We also learn that if there’s one Servant who’s going to keep a kind of noble order and balance in this War, it’s Rider.

When Lancer declines out of obligation to his Master and Saber is insulted by Rider’s offer to make them his retainers, the Master who originally meant to command Rider appears, at least in voice-form; Archibald is tickled that Velvet would actually become a combatant in the Holy Grail War, and intends to teach him a lesson.

\Rider isn’t having that. Whoever this Archie guy is, he won’t let him torment his Master (that’s his job), who is at least by his side. He calls out Archibald for hiding like a coward, and calls out any other Servants who were drawn to Saber and Lancer’s excellent duel (though if he found it so excellent, why not let it unfold rather than interrupt?)

And so two more Servants appear in quick succession: first Gilgamesh / Archer, then Berserker (true identity unknown). Gil, as is his wont, deems all other kings in his presence to be pretenders (and he has a point, he is the first of them, historically speaking). But Matou decides that now is the time to test Berserker—as well as his own tolerance as a Master.

Archer takes Matou’s bait and exposes his Noble Phantasm for all the other Servants and Masters to see, but ends up with nothing to show for it, since Berserker is not only crazy, but an extremely tough customer, turning every blade Gil sends his way into his own NP. Ultimately Tokiomi has to spend a Command Seal to reign Gil in.

I love how powerful, frightening, and unpredictable Berserker is depicted; he’s a very cool design that seems to shudder in and out of solidity, as if he’s just barely being kept together.

But what I loved even more was Gil’s attempt to save face by basically saying “You’re all beneath me; kill each other off until there’s one left and then come at me.” He’s an arrogant prick as always, but he’s surprisingly likable in this version—perhaps because he was thrown off his game so effortlessly by Berserker.

With Archer gone, Berserker turns his attention (such as it is) to Saber, whose injured hand quickly puts her at a disadvantage, forcing Lancer to save her from a potentially vicious blow. He doesn’t do it because they’re friends, or allies, but because she’s his opponent. If Berserker wants to fight her, he’ll have to get past Lancer first.

That’s Lancer’s will, but unfortunately for him, Archie has Command Seals, and uses one to override that will, ordering him to team up with Berserker to eliminate Saber.  In the ensuing one-on-one (after Lancer apologizes to Saber), Kiritsugu and Maiya have their weapons trained on Archie and Assassin, respectively.

Their careful work is ruined, however, by Rider (again), jumping between Saber and Lancer and driving Berserker into the ground, forcing him to retreat, then telling Archie to order Lancer’s retreat as well. Rider has decided that no one is going to die tonight, and nobody challenges him.

I have no doubt that Saber would have gladly fought Berserker and Lancer at once, bad hand and all. But she’s clearly grateful to Rider for his intervention this time. The primary reason for that is Irisviel: if Saber falls here, she’ll be on her own, surrounded by enemies. Rider also decides to stay out of Saber and Lancer’s fight from now own; he’ll face whoever prevails.

That’s fine with Saber; she can’t fight anyone else at 100% until she defeats Lancer and lifts the curse on her hand. It’s just as well that Berserker withdrew when he did, as a longer confrontation might have killed Matou, who vomits blood and worms in a dark alley, but remains as committed as ever to protecting Sakura by winning the war.

What of Uryuu and Caster, the only Servant who wasn’t on the field? Bluebeard observed everything from a crystal ball, and has taken a particular—and worrying—interest in Saber.

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.

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.