Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 08 – A Dark Day for Humanity

Tiamat is by far the toughest boss Ritsuka and Mash have had to face, and they don’t even try to fight her themselves. Ushiwakamaru manages to make it in time and delivers one hell of a fight—with nary a wardrobe malfunction—in the most exciting, best-looking and sounding sustained battles in a show that’s been packed with them. Ushiwaka is utterly devoted not just to protecting humanity, but her friend—not master—Ritsuka, a boy who remembers her tale a thousand years after she left the mortal plane.

Her own history and legacy is also at stake, so she fights like there’s no tomorrow, giving absolutely everything she has, including her Noble Phantasm. It isn’t enough. Tiamat regenerates all of the severed snake heads and holes Ushiwaka’s attacks made, and she ends up in a heap, spent and exhausted.

King Leonidas sallies forth with his 300 Spartan warriors to spell Ushiwaka, but despite more impressive fireworks and hyper-masculine posturing, he lasts an even briefer time than her, as all of his defenses gradually fall and he is turned to stone by Tiamat’s Mystic Eyes, eventually crumbling to dust.

Ushiwaka gets her second wind after Leonidas, but it’s to no avail. Ultimately it’s “Enkidu”, who reveals himself to actually be Kingu, who stops his mother and gets her to withdraw. If she were to take Uruk, the alliance with the other two goddesses would fall, and she’d have to fight them, draining valuable time and effort. Instead, Kingu is content to leave Ritsuka, Mash, and Merlin alone for the time being.

His big-picture plans include the release of the second generation of Demonic Beasts, which we learn are being grown in Tiamat’s lair. It is where a beaten Ushiwaikamaru finds herself, and because she cannot hold her “cheeky tongue”, Kingu decides to bestow upon her a fate worse than becoming just another run-of-the-mill beast, but a monster born in the primoridal “mud of the holy grail.”

Needless to say, this is awful news for humanity. Leonidas is beaten, Ushiwaka is in the hands of the enemy (and her friends believe her to be gone), and Benkei peaces out. As Lord Elrond once said: “our list of allies grows thin.” How in Babylon are the good guys going to turn this around?

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 07 – Deep Breaths

After dreaming about the Mage King Solomon, whom he and Mash were unable to defeat in London, Ritsuka and Mash head to Uruk’s Northern Wall, under the defense of Leonidas of Sparta. Contact has been lost in the still further-north city of Nippur, and the mission is to find and rescue any survivors.

The night before setting out, two Servants have a heart-to-heart, with Ana wondering if it’s time to tell the others about her true identity, and Merlin recommending she postpone that announcement. As a servant who feeds off of human dreams, he understands human emotions, and knows it would be a shock even to any human even Ritsuka.

Upon setting out at the head of a column of soldiers, the party encounters hordes of Demonic Beasts that are larger than expected. Ushiwakamaru and Benkei stay behind to keep the beasts occupied while Ritsuka, Mash, Ana and Merlin head to Nippur. But Ushiwaka senses something unusual about the situation, realizing it is they, not the beasts, who have fallen for a diversionary attack.

Ritsuka & Co. find Nippur already devoid of all life, with a wide and grisly blood trail leading to the highest structure, where Fake Enkidu awaits. When he notices Ana’s ability to slay immortals, he makes her elimination a priority, summoning the lion demon Ugallu. Merlin uses his magic to buff Ana, and she’s able to bisect the beast.

But Ugallu was just more bait. Ana is restrained by the chain of heaven and stabbed by Enkidu. Merlin sends Fou to do what Fou does, teleporting Ana to safety. However, the disturbance causes the awakening of Enkidu (and Ugallu’s) mother, the Goddess of Demonic Beasts, Tiamat. Massive and terrifying, the ordinary soldiers flee before her.

Even Ritsuka and Mash are briefly paralyzed, but Ritsu remembers Leonida’s advice for when you’re scared (which is always the case in battle, or should be): take a deep breath and the muscles will loosen. Tiamat presents the largest threat yet to the last champions of humanity, but for the moment they’re still standing—and a few avenues of victory yet remain.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 04 – What the World Makes of You

“You are what the world makes of you,” not the other way around, is a bit of advice Amadeus (Mozart I assume) once gave Mash, which she shares with Ritsuka during a little pep talk in which she assures him she has faith in the choices he’s made and will always be by his side come what may.

I like the sentiment, and Mash and Ritsuka are cute together, but it’s one of those scenes between the two that would have more emotional impact if a.) we’d seen any of the adventures they’d had to this point and b.) Rituska wasn’t just a cipher, which is all he’s ever supposed to be.

In any case, their month of menial labor pays off, as Gilgamesh summons them back to court with a real mission: investigate the city of Ur. He holds his Holy Grail in his left hand, but both Ritsuka and Merlin notice something odd about it, and conclude that it’s not the grail keeping the seventh singularity open. That grail lies…elsewhere.

The journey to Ur requires traversing lands filled with demonic beasts, which Ana disposes of without any issue. But once they hit the dense, sweltering jungle Merlin even equates to a Reality Marble, the beasts are nowhere to be found.

Instead, they encounter what seems at first like a character in another show: a lively woman in a bulky cat mascot costume and sneakers calling herself Jaguarman, whom Ana isn’t fast enough to catch. She vanishes as soon as she appears, but it’s clear it won’t be their only encounter.

Once they reach Ur, the people seem to be safe, but the jungle is encroaching the city blocks, and once all the townfolk are gathered in the central plaza, Merlin notices the dearth of men and deduces that they’ve made a deal with a goddess to sacrifice a man a day in exchange for safety.

It’s a raw deal, one that is particularly offensive to Ritsuka, but it’s a deal they can’t break when Jaguarman arrives, because despite her goofy appearance and demeanor is a legit Divine Spirit neither Ana nor Mash have a hope of defeating without divine help of their own. The only upside is that she hasn’t killed Ur’s men; but she is using them for hard labor.

Instead, Jaguarman thrashes both of the Servants without breaking a sweat in a scintillatingly fast-paced battle, and Ritsuka must reluctantly call for Merlin to transport them back to the outskirts of Uruk to make their report to the king. Ana asks Ritsuka why he’s not accustomed to such sacrifice by now when he’s sacrificed plenty already (including Olga-Marie Animusphere) to the cause of saving human history.

Ritsuka says simply that he’s never gotten accustomed to it, nor will he ever be, matter how necessary it is. It’s the kind of attitude a hero needs if he’s going to accomplish his ultimate goals. Upon returning to their modest headquarters, the party is shocked when Gilgamesh appears at their doorstep, making a typically unheard-of house call—more of the world trying to make something of the ragtag group of heroes.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 03 – Getting Situated

It doesn’t take long for Gilgamesh to determine that Mash, Ana are a waste of his time, as he easily deflects their attacks. He also reveals that the Holy Grail is already among his treasures, which is why the Three Goddess Alliance is attacking Uruk. But as it’s one of his treasures, Gil is unwilling to give it to anyone; not the goddesses (including Ishtar, who makes a brief appearance) and not to Chaldea.

Merlin suggests they stop asking for now; Gil is a moody man, and leaving him alone could bear fruit later. Gil’s attendant Siduri suggests Mash and Ritsuka gain his favor through achievements not in battle, but simply in soaking up the capital and its people, rhythms, and work. If they play ball and show due deference to the king and his city, maye he’ll be more receptive.

To that end, Siduri shows them their modest but adequate new base of operations, where three additional Servants in Benkei, Ushiwakamaru, and Leonidas come to visit, eat, drink, and be merry with Mash, Ritsuka, Merlin and Ana as part of the larger “Uruk Experience.” Siduri also confirms that Enkidu is indeed dead and has been replaced by a fake who answers to the Alliance; but Gilgamesth has yet to meet him in person.

From there Mash, Ritsuka and Ana make themselves useful performing all manner of tasks that while generally menial and perhaps “above” time travelling warriors, are nevertheless tasks that are crucial to Uruk’s survival.

That means not just making mud bricks, harvesting wheat, shearing sheep, and tending to the children and the sick, but also joining Ana in the caverns below Uruk to dispose of evil spirits she believes are contributing to a wasting epidemic among the populace.

Ana doesn’t initially get why Ritsuka and Mash are interacting so closely with that populace, but Ritsuka very logically explains that getting to actually know the human beings he seeks to save helps to motivate him, as well as to more fully empathize with their fate should they fail. And Fake Enkidu and his goddess mother very much want them to fail.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 02 – He’s Not That Bad?

With the placid Enkidu as their guide, Ritsuka and Mash would seem to be on easy street, but even after several previous excursions to singularities across time, the duo isn’t above someone getting one over on them. Fortunately for them, you can’t kid a kidder—in this case, Grand Caster Merlin, whom they meet in a forest.

Merlin tells Ritsuka and Mash that King Gilgamesh just returned from a quest to attain the herb of immortality—a quest he didn’t begin until after Enkidu died. Exposed as an impostor working against Chaldea, “Enkidu” attacks Ritsuka and Mash, but Merlin’s companion Ana protects them while Merlin creates an illusion to force him to withdraw for the time being.

Like last week’s tilt with the demonic beasts, Ana and Mash’s fight with Enkidu provides the action highlight of an otherwise talky episode, with the dense forest providing a new venue for the lightning-fast kinetic combat.

While back at Chaldea Romani is perplexed to find Merlin in Mesopotamia considering he’s supposed to still be alive in Avalon, the fact that the current time period precedes his birth meant he could be summoned there.

Merlin also sports almost zero offensive power, so even Fou—who apparently hates his guts—can fight him on even footing. Merlin claims to have a Master, while Ana is a rogue Servant. They’re there to assist Chaldea in saving humanity.

Merlin and Ana escort Ritsuka and Mash to Uruk without further incident. Ana has a cute human moment with one of the sentries, and they pass through the gates with ease and head to the massive central ziggurat. The size and grandeur of the city surprise the pair from Chaldea, which is saying something considering all the places they’ve seen.

Once in Gilgamesh’s throne room, Ritsuka is equally impressed by how level-headed, detail-oriented, and downright on top of things the king seems to be; far cry from the arrogant tyrant of legend. However, when Merlin interrupts normal business to introduce Ritsuka and Mash, Gilgamesh is done talking, and immediately challenges them to a duel.

It’s just as well. If the two are going to easily fall to the king right then and there, they weren’t going to be of any use to him in the first place—nor could they ever be the true saviors of humanity.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia – 01 – Humanity’s Last Hope

Six times Master Fujimaru Ritsuka and Demi-Servant Mash Kyrielight have Rayshifted to humanity-threatening singularities throughout history and corrected them. In light of their accomplishments, they have every right to be confident, but it’s clear this isn’t just another day at the office.

The seventh and final singularity is all the way back in 2600 BC, the time of the first king, Gilgamesh, and the beginning of the end of the Gods’ rule over humanity. It’s only fitting that in order to secure the future of civilization, Ritsuka and Mash must return to its cradle.

Employing no small amount of of clinical wizardry, Dr. Romani and da Vinci Rayshift the Ritsuka and Mash to the distant past, but the pair are unexpectedly diverted from their geographic target of the city of Uruk by a bounded field, and instead materialize several thousand feet in mid-air.

Fortunately, Mash has the powers of Sir Galahad at her disposal, and uses a shield to cushion their fall near some ruins. Ritsuka ends up on top of Mash, and lingers there clinging to her just a little longer than she expected, demonstrating at least a modicum of sexual tension between the two.

It’s not long before their presence is detected by numerous demonic beasts in the form of saber-toothed lions, just like a random encounter during a JRPG overworld stroll. Again Mash proves her worth as a Demi-Servant, dispatching the beasts with ease and panache.

But beasts aren’t all the pair attract: a scantily clad woman falls from the sky right on top of Ritsuka, then admonishes him for touching her without her leave. This woman looks a lot like Tohsaka Rin (surely no accident) but when she demonstrates her combat ability, it’s clear that here she plays the role of Archer, though she doesn’t reveal her name to them.

The Archer-esque servant withdraws, quite rightly arguing that if the pair can’t handle a few beasts, they have no chance of saving humanity. The beasts surround Ritsuka and Mash, but they are saved once again, this time by Enkidu, historically Gilgamesh’s BFF and apparently Lancer in this particular scenario.

Enkidu has also been expecting Ritsuka and Mash, and gives them the skinny: the civilization of Mesopotamia is currently on the brink thanks to the Three Goddess Alliance. But he takes the two up a mountain to show them humanity’s hope: the titular Absolute Demonic Front, Babylonia.

Was the Rin-like Archer one of the three goddesses plotting humanity’s destruction? Can Enkidu be trusted? Will Ritsuka and Mash be able to get the job done and get home? All good questions I’ll ponder as I eagerly await the next episode.

Until then, this was a very steady, solid introduction that established most of the main players, and set some very high stakes while remaining grounded and keeping the heroes honest. Cloverworks’ work here is no ufotable, but it’s nonetheless very good.

Fate / Zero – 25 (Fin)

Did the Holy Grail know Kiritsugu would reject it? Who can say? But even if it initially chose him to be its bearer, his order to Saber to destroy it flipped the script. It also flipped the cup, as the Grail’s destruction means the black ooze it contained falls upon Fuyuki, destroying everything in sight, to Kiritsugu’s great despair. Even trying to do the right thing at the right time would seem to have backfired on this exceedingly unlucky and tortured soul.

Speaking of tortured souls, Kariya is still barely alive when he returns to the Matou basement, but while his senses tell him he is reuniting Sakura with Rin and Aoi, in reality Sakura is abandoning him to the Crest Worms and accepting the fate he tried in vain to keep her from.

Perhaps it was the contents of the Grail, not the Grail itself, that mattered most, as those contents fell on Archer, but rather than destroy him along with everything else, it gave him physical form (though not clothes). And because Gilgamesh still had a pact with Kirei, it resurrected him, albeit with no heartbeat.

That literal lack of a beating heart is indicative of his departure from humanity, as is his apparently Grail-fulfilled wish for death and destruction around him, and a hunger to “learn more” and explore the depths of his inhumanity. But as I said, the Grail will never fully satiate; at best it can only lock people—Servants and Masters alike—in a perpetual state of searching.

As for Kiritsugu, he’s done searching. Indeed, he seems to be just about done with everything, owing to the curse bestowed on him by a scorned Grail and his entire life’s work burning before him. The last thing he searches for—a single survivor among the scorched rubble—is something he ironically finds immediately.

By saving that single life—a young Shirou—Kiritsugu himself is saved. It’s a concept a sneering Kirei can’t possibly comprehend enough even to envy.

With that, the clock on the Fourth Holy Grail War reaches…Zero and comes to an end, with the official winner in doubt, though more-or-less claimed by Kirei, since the Grail seemingly brought him back.

Back at his “grandparents”, Waver announces he’s going to set aside his magical studies for a bit, get a part-time job, live with them, and save up enough to travel the world his king once conquered a good chunk of.

Kirei has upheld his promise to his master to look after Rin after he’s gone, likely so that he can observe and absorb all of the grief, pain and suffering Rin is likely to experience on the long, hard road all heads of great families must walk.

Rin maintains a stoicsm beyond her years at her father’s futural, even as she wheels her brain-damaged, delusional mom around. What gets her to crack and shed tears is the Azoth dagger; Kiritsugu twisting the blade like the piece of work he is.

And Saber, poor Saber, is back in Britain, on a battlefield strewn with corpses, having led everyone nowhere but to their own deaths. She remembers Lancelot’s last words to her, about how he only ever sought her righteous judgment for betraying her and falling in love win Guinevere.

Arturia considers herself a failed king who never understood anyone, and considering her surroundings it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

As for Saber’s former Master, he is banned from Einzbern Castle forever, having failed to secure the Grail for them, and never sees his daughter Ilya again. So he adopts Shirou, fixes up the old safe house, and spends the next five years raising his adoptive son and living a quiet but happy life.

One night he tells Shirou how he once wanted and tried to be a hero, but ultimately failed. Shirou confidently promises his dad he’ll become a hero in his place. A heavenly light suddenly shines above Saber; a ray of hope.

Clearly contented by his son’s words, Kiritsugu starts to peacefully pass away, with an answer for his friend Shirley’s question about what he wanted to be when he grew up: he wanted, and still wants, to be a hero.

* * * * *

And that’s it for Fate/Zero! Boy, what a ride it’s been these past five weeks. That was a far better show than I could have imagined…which is why it took so long after UBW to watch it. Burned by previous prequels to beloved works, I was worried knowing pretty much how everything would end would make it difficult for the stakes to matter.

Yeah…I was dead wrong about that. Not only was I far more emotionally invested in Zero, it was a lot more approachable, had a lot more heart, and took a lot more risks than the smoother, shinier UBW. It’s not that UBW is bad, it’s simply a matter of Zero kicking ass in virtually every aspect of the game. It wasn’t just a great anime, it was great television; great storytelling, full stop. So thanks to everyone out there who recommended it to me. It was well worth a look back.

Fate / Zero – 24

Ever since the childhood trauma that set him on his path, Emiya Kiritsugu has striven to be a level-headed, efficient, logical man. It’s partly why he kept Saber at arm’s length: an emotional connection with his Servant isn’t necessary and exposure to her illogical honor can only create inefficiencies in his plans.

So as Saber finds herself struggling with the insane anger and hatred of her former most trusted knight, essentially making her the logical one in her fight, and Iri’s body transforms into the Holy Grail, Kiritsugu never would have imagined it would not only toy with his emotions, but use his beloved logic against him.

But first, by god was I not wrong when I said the duel between Kiritsugu and Kirei would be something. It’s quite different and more minimalist than any previous battle in the show, with both participants sizing up their opponents, approaching them with a certain strategy, and switching up tactics on the fly as conditions rapidly change.

Kirei would have surely killed Kiritsugu relatively quickly were it not for Avalon imbuing Kiritsugu with a virtual “Auto-Life” status. In the slight sliver of a moment Kirei’s guard is down, Kiritsugu takes Kirei’s right arm away with Contender, and the odds are evened.

So even is the duel, in fact, that the Grail itself, runnething over with some kind of dark, blood-like ooze directly above the fighters, essentially calls a “timeout” by covering both in that ooze.

That indicates the War is finally at an end, and the Grail has chosen the victor. At the same time, Saber runs Berserker through, killing him, as Kariya also expires; claiming she cannot atone to him without winning the Holy Grail.

In an illusory world created by the Grail, an avatar of Iri representing the will of the Grail names Kiritsugu as the winner, and he need only officially pray for his wish to become reality. The only problem is, the Grail, or at least this Grail, cannot give him the miracle he wants. At least, not in a manner that is acceptable.

The Grail then sets to work taking Kiritsugu’s philosophy to its logical conclusion: killing the smaller percentage of people to save a larger one, thought-experiment style; sacrificing the few to save the many.

But if, like his time-altering battle ability, Kiritsugu would continue to whittle down some humanity in order to save another proportion, before long there will be no one left in the world but him and those he cares about the most, presented to him as Maiya, Iri and Ilya.

To save them, he’ll have to kill everyone else. In other words, “saving the world” means destroying humanity. This is the sum total of Kiritsugu’s wish, according to the Grail.

And the Grail stands ready to grant that wish, even though it is not at all what Kiritsugu wants. He rejects the Grail, unwilling to sacrifice the world for his own few loved ones, symbolically murdering both Iri and Ilya in a thoroughly upsetting scene in an attempt to subvert of the nightmare scenario the Grail put forward. The Grail curses him and he is cast out.

Back in reality, such as it is, Kiritsugu has the advantage over Kirei, who rages and fumes at him for refusing and wasting the Grail’s wish. But in killing him it seems Kiritsugu is almost doing Kirei a favor.

This Grail is not omnipotent, and thus would be no more able to reveal the nature and meaning of Kirei’s existence than it could grant Kiritsugu a miracle that would end all conflict in the world. In both cases, the one making the wish does not know what it is they seek.

That being said, the Grail is still immensely powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands, and Kiritsugu decides that no one, including him, has the right hands.

So as Saber and Archer descend on the physical Grail, poised to fight the final duel in the War, and Saber rejects Archer’s offer of marriage and servitude, Kiritsugu forsakes Saber once more, hitting her where it hurts most: he uses his two remaining Command Seals to order her to destroy the Grail with Excalibur…and she cannot disobey.

But perhaps Kiritsugu is right that Saber, like Kirei and he himself before, is merely deluding herself into believing the Grail will grant her wish, only offer shallow illusions in exchange for being possessed by someone worthy. The Grail is not an answer.

Fate / Zero – 23

Before their epic duel, Rider and Archer have a drink together and exchange words of respect. Waver quips that they’re friends, and Rider doesn’t argue with the label: how can he be unfriendly with the one who could be the last person he’ll ever see?

Rider doesn’t mess around with anything other than the best he’s got, and whips out Ionian Hetairoi. Archer looks pleased to be facing such a strong and worthy foe, but he also doesn’t look worried in the least.

While the ancient kings’ battle takes place on the vast expanse of sand, Saber ends up fighting Berserker in a relatively cramped underground parking lot. Berserker seems to feed off of Kariya’s suffering and regret, as Sakura shows up in his head, and while reassuring her they’ll all be together again, Sakura inadvertently reminds Kariya that “they” no longer includes her mom.

Berserker’s penchant for ‘turning’ weapons for his use continues when he makes use of some automatic weapons; Saber can barely get near him, and when she does, her sword bounces off his armor, or the blade merely caught in mid-strike by Berserker’s palms.

Once he does that, Saber gets into her head that he reminds her of some knight she once knew, and on cue Berserker’s Pigpen-like cloud of miasma dissipates and he removes his helm to reveal he IS someone she knew…or rather he WAS. That someone is none other than Sir Lancelot, the greatest of the Knights of the Round Table.

That Saber has no idea it was him until now, and has no idea how he came to be this way after they parted ways, gets to the heart of that seed of doubt planted by Rider about her reckless self-destructive path to kingship, which he didn’t see as kingship at all. Lance would seem to be proof of that, and I can’t imagine Saber wants to fight him, except perhaps to put him out of his misery.

Back in the desert, Gilgamesh reveals the reason he’s so calm with a massive legendary army descending on him: his own, thus-far-unused Noble Phantasm, Ea. As soon as he unlocks and activates Enuma Elish (an extremely strange and cool sequence, as befits Gilgamesh), the dunes begin to collapse, the legions plummet to their demise, and the very sky shatters along with the Reality Marble.

His trump card utterly defeated, Rider has no course but to charge Archer on his own. Even after his horse goes down, he runs at him on foot, getting impaled several times, before being restrained by great chains, his blade inches from Gil’s face. Before he fades away, Iskandar wonders if the lapping waves of Oceanus, the Ocean at the End of the World, was actually merely the dancing of his own heart.

It’s a legendary ending for a truly legendary Servant with whom there was never a dull moment. He was simply outmatched here. And to his credit, Archer is not cruel in his treatment of Waver. On the contrary, when he asks if as his sworn retainer, Waver should not avenge his fallen king, and Waver replies that he was ordered to survive, Gilgamesh salutes his “splendid loyalty” and spares his life, urging him to never let that loyalty tarnish.

Time for Waver to go home; he got far further in the Holy Grail War than most would expect a mage from a “lesser” family to get. While this fight is over and Rider is gone, the stage is set—literally, Iri’s body is on a stage—for the duel between Kiritsugu and Kirei. Will their fight be as bold and flashy as Archer and Rider’s, or Saber and Berserker’s below them? Perhaps not, but it should still be…theatrical.

Fate / Zero – 22

For an episode preceded by such disturbing spectacle as a broken man murdering his best friend and making Rin an orphan, and followed by the casual malice of a born-again nihilist discarding his hostage before setting a foreboding trap, this episode has the most charming, heartwarming opening: an exhausted Waver finally arrives back home just before daybreak.

We know it’s not really his home, and he hypnotized its occupants into thinking he’s their grandson. But when his “grandpa” beckons for him to join him on the roof for a truly spectacular sunrise, something else dawned on me: Waver is Me. He’s the most normal, decent, well-adjusted participant in a war stocked with utter weirdos on all sides.

He seeks only simple glory and acknowledgement; the underdog raised high; his doubters and haters silenced. Sure, hypnotizing the couple was wrong, but how can I judge when even after the hypnosis wears off, the grandpa is not only forgiving, but wants Waver to stay. He’s a better grandson than they ever had.

On to the weirdos. While I more easily related to him early as a young kid having fun before all hell broke loose, and continue to recognize the emotions in his heart, support his goals (as laid out by Iri) and feel for his many losses, I simply haven’t lived a life as intense as Kiritsugu, so while I’m rooting for him, I’m on the outside looking in with Kiritsugu.

And Kiritsugu is alone again. It’s not ideal, but he’s not going to slow down or stop, even though he’s gone forty hours without sleep. He says “alone again” because, like Natalia, Maiya has left him. He doesn’t seem to count Saber as a person he can work with or trust, let alone a person at all; instead, she’s a tool to win the war, and he treats her as coldly as ever as she makes her report.

Kiritsugu probably also feels alone because Iri has been taken by the enemy, and he no doubt fears he won’t see her alive again. But a defiant Iri makes use of her captivity by Kirei to get in a number of barbs that cut the priest to the quick. Notably, that Kiritsugu isn’t an “empty man” like him; he seeks nothing less than the salvation of the world through the elimination of all violence and conflict.

Unsurprisingly, Kirei hears nothing but the naive utterings of a child in these words, but Iri does manage to give him something he didn’t have before he kidnapped her: Kiritsugu’s dream, which he will now proceed to destroy, along with the Holy Grail itself, which he can think of no use for. And since he gets all he needs out of Iri, he snaps her neck, seemingly killing her.

That I’m a bit fuzzy on how this whole Einzbern homonculus system works—and thus unclear whether Iri is dead dead or even ever alive—is irrelevant; it’s still absolutely gutting to see such a gentle, loving person treated with such contempt. Kirei is one hell of a villain, and his frustration and resentment for lacking something fundamental Kiritsugu seems to possess is palpable; he’s an almost pitiable wretch.

After that unpleasantness, what sure feels like the final day of the War transitions into the final night, and Waver awakes to find Rider in no particular hurry. Mage signals in the sky indicate that someone wishes to challenge them—Kirei arrranges for Archer to fight Rider while Berserker will keep Saber company—and Rider summons a horse, the backup to his chariot.

Waver has no intention of going along. As Rider said, only the strong remain, and Waver doesn’t consider himself strong. He’s Just A Guy, after all, the Everyman of Fate/Zero, with no business in the final battles. He even expends all of his Command Seals at once so he can say with certitude he is no longer Rider’s Master.

And yet Rider still picks him up by the scruff and dumps him in front of him on his horse. He wants Waver to accompany him as he has on all of their great battles thus far, not because he’s his Master, but because they’re friends and equals.

Having gone from gut-punch to heartwarm, the episode closes with a bit of a mindblower, as Iri, apparently not quite dead (or…whatever) after all, goes Beyond the Infinite.

In a surreal, bizarre and thoroughly unsettling sequence that calls to mind Akira, Evangelion, and Dalí, Iri sees hundreds of naked doll bodies piled up before her, one of which cracks a way-too-wide evil grin; then she has a touching scene with her daughter Ilya before an oozing black darkness encroaches upon them, and dozens of tiny arms grab at her and pull her down into the goo.

When she emerges, she realizes what’s happening: she’s in the Holy Grail. What exactly that means, and whether and how she can aid her beloved from there, remains to be seen. But I have to say I’m digging the extra metaphysical layer the show has revealed.

Fate/Grand Order: First Order

fgo11
“Who are you callin’ a foo?”
What do we have here? A Fate/stay night spin-off involving a time-travelling, future-saving organization. The first fifteen minutes are full of interminably dull introductions and info-dumping, including those of the supposed two leads, Fujimaru and Mash, who are also dull.

There’s also Fou, a weird white squirrel thingy that wears clothes, makes awful high-pitched sounds, and generally doesn’t need to exist, and Director Olga Aminusphere, who aside from having an obnoxious name, seems like a low-rent Tousaka Rin.

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When the doctor’s the highest-ranked officer left in your compound, time to start worrying
First Order essentially blows up that dull beginning by putting Fujimaru and Mash in an emergency situation that has them travelling back to 2004 where the outcome of a standard Fate-style Holy Grail War has ended up suspended for some reason.

Mash becomes a demi-servant prior to dying, with the inexperienced “commoner” Fujimaru becoming her master, to the chagrin of the aristocratic Olga.

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Dark Saber – Almost worth the price of admission
The two dull protagonists must, with the limited help of Olga and a lot of help from a particularly helpful (and badass) Caster, take out the remaining “dark” versions of Archer and Saber, in order to end the Holy Grail War and correct the singularity that is dooming humanity’s future.

If that sounds a bit vague, it is. And while there’s a bit of a thrill seeing the heroic spirits back in action, albeit on different sides, it’s all a bit bloodless. No, not literally; there’s plenty of blood, but the dead, empty city isn’t the most exciting stage for otherwise cool-looking battles.

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“Look Mash, I’m helping!”
Mash’s transformation into demi-servant may have been a sign of her inner courage and toughness, and her new dominatrixy outfit is pretty boss, but neither she nor Fujimaru manage to ever make me care all that much about them or their sudden newfound friendship, as they’re less actual characters and more combinations of character traits. Takahashi Rie and Shimazaki Nobunaga try their best, but simply don’t have enough to work with here.

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And aside from a few nice images and some competent action, the most striking thing about this Fate spin-off is its lack of the same distinct visual sumptuousness of Unlimited Blade Works (to date the only other Fate property I’ve watched), due to this not being a ufotable series, and clearly having a smaller budget to work with.

Placing the fate of humanity’s future on the shoulders of two barely-there, uninspiring characters we barely got to know in over an hour-long special just doesn’t provide the gravity or stakes it should. As we’re between seasons, I had time to check this out, so I did. And it was…okay. In all, it feels like a superfluous wade into the shallow end of the Fate franchise pool, rather than a deep or meaningful dive.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 25 (Fin)

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UBW’s epilogue drops us in London two years after the end of the Holy Grail War, with Shirou tagging alongside Rin as her pupil at a Hogwarts-like magical college. It would also seem they’re living together, and are quite happy about it.

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After we’re shown some glimpses of their new life—home-cooked breakfast for Rin (still not a fan of the morning), an English love rival who spars with Rin in a kind of magical MMA bout; Shirou nursing Rin’s wounds after her defeat.

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The couple takes a day trip to Glastonbury to visit King Arthur’s tomb, a trip Rin plans so Shirou can properly say goodbye to Saber. It’s a nice touch, and the English countryside and ruins are lushly rendered.

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While on the bus ride home, with Rin asleep on his shoulder, Shirou reflects on the events that got him here to this point, by her side. A month after the war, Rin tells him of her plans to move to London and attend the mage’s university, inviting him to come along; an invitation he gladly accepts. Rin’s primary postwar goal is to make the man she loves happy, which means keeping him by her side.

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Back in the present, in an encounter I’m sure had more resonance for those more familiar with the franchise, a tall, stern man questions why Shirou is there, and remarks that it’s a “small world” when he hears of Shirou’s desire to be a HoJ. My guess is this guy knew Kiritsugu.

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Shirou has been invited to join the Mages Association and eventually Clock Tower, but he declines. Rin isn’t particularly surprised, but is more than willing to follow him as they see the world they saved. Lots of great loving smiles from Rin in this epilogue.

Shirou and Rin’s indications, along with the post-credits sequence, suggest Shirou will never be able to escape the same path as Archer, but until then, he and Rin are going to have as many good times as they can. When the time comes, she hopes her positive influence in his life will enable him to move a little further forward and get “the right ending.”

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 24

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UBW really kicked into high gear as expected, delivering a powerhouse finale to the battle to save the world from Gilgamesh. From the moment Shirou got back to his feet, to Rin’s beautifully dorky victorious thumbs-up, it was an intense ride, with some of the best action sequences yet delivered on a show that specializes in such things.

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As Gilgamesh and Shirou continue to bandy words, the latter begins to understand what his magic is all about, and why he’ll be able to defeat Gil without Saber’s help, a laughable proposition to the king. But it’s because he’s a king that Shirou, a warrior who’s very body is made of infinite swords, will always be able to stay one step ahead of GIlgamesh one-on-one in the reality marble of his making.

 

Gilgamesh owns swords, i.e. Noble Phantasms, and stores them in his treasury. But it’s still a finite number, and he’s mastered none of them, just like Shirou. If any other servant was the last one standing, he or she would easily defeat Shirou with their mastered Noble Phantasm.

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That…actually makes a lot of sense, at least relative to the show’s mythology. Speaking of warriors, Saber comes to Rin’s aid, but is a bit too late and Rin and Shinji are consumed by the Holy Grail goop. Rin’s about to give up and Saber is about to obey her command seals and blow the whole thing up, but a brace of arrows from the sky cut Rin free. Turns out Archer, our Archer, is still around, which makes sense, since he made it clear he remains irrevocably trapped between life and death.

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With Rin out of harm’s way, Saber gives in to her command seal and unleashes Excalibur on the Grail/Servant Monster, blowing it to bits in an awesome display of light and power. But using the Holy Sword means the end of Saber, who wishes she could stick around, but is content in knowing Rin is around to take care of Shirou. (She also probably realizes that if she stayed, the love triangle that would persist would be a pain in the ass ;)

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Saber’s exit is quick, but not unexpected, because the show had foreshadowed quite a bit up to now that she’d be the sacrifice necessary to save Shirou and Rin and end the war. With the grail destroyed, it’s left to Shirou to continue hacking away at Gilgamesh, who is forced to “go all out.” Even so, Shirou slashes his arm off before Ea can touch him.

The reality marble vanishes as Shirou runs out of mana, but Gil can’t kill him because a remnant of the grail attempts to make him its new vessel. Gil, not wanting to die, tries to tether himself to Shirou with a chain, but Archer helps Shirou out one last time by delivering an arrow to Gil’s head. He’s sucked into oblivion. And just like that, it’s over. Cue victory fanfare and calculation of loot and EXP.

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Archer visits Rin one last time to say goodbye and laugh at the “state” both of them are in. His usual scowl and tough-guy talk gone, he looks and sounds more like the Shirou. He urges her, as Saber did, to take care of Shirou so he won’t end up like him, before vanishing before a gorgeous sunrise.

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With Saber and Archer gone, we’re left with two humans (three, if you count Shinji, which I don’t). There’s a big exhale and feeling of heady relief as Shirou suggest to Rin they go home, clean up, get some food in them, and get some rest. Having wrapped up all the big stuff here, UBW can give the entire last episode over to epilogue, an arrangement I can get behind. Let’s see what all this fighting and sacrifice wrought.

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