When we last saw Kirito and Alice, Eugeo had just died, Administrator was defeated but not killed, and Kirito had lost his right arm and his fluctlight fried by some kind of power surge. This exemplary episode is all about the aftermath of those events, both immediately following them and some months later.
Aside from Rintarou Okabe or Natsuki Subaru, I can’t think of a protagonist in recent anime memory who has suffered as much or fallen quite as low as Kirigaya Kazuto. He was being kept alive in Underworld, devoid of memories, but after saving that world from a tyrant, he lost even more. In the present, autumn is falling on Underworld, and Kirito is a mute, emotionless husk under Alice’s care—with frequent visits from her sister Selka.
Alice is no slouch in the loss department either. She may have regained a sister and, incidentally, her freedom from the Axiom Church and Order of Integrity Knights, but she lost Eugeo, one of the best friends whom she’d forgotten, while the other of those friends in Kirito is the aforementioned husk. It’s ultimately Alice’s episode, and it’s an unyielding portrait of anguish.
Alice scratches out a meager wage felling trees with her sword skills, incomparable to anyone else in the village. The villagers need her help to make progress, but suck their teeth behind her back and even mess with the minimally-responsive Kirito and the Blue Rose Sword he inherited from Eugeo. It doesn’t matter that Alice, Kirito, and Eugeo saved them from Administrator’s evil plans; they just don’t like them.
Knowing Kirito wouldn’t be safe anywhere near the Cathedral, she tried to return to Rulid Village, but her own father shunned her, so she settled in a cabin on the town’s outskirts with Kirito and her loyal (and adorable) dragon Amayori. It would be a happy life—were it not for Kirito’s condition and the still-looming Dark Territory situation.
The tranquil, picturesque surroundings call to mind Kirito and Asuna’s cabin, once the site of so much joy. But while Alice and Selka try to make the best of things, there’s no escaping the fact this is an extremely dismal situation, with no immediate sign that things will get any better.
Quite the contrary: with Administrator off in some other dimension, the world of men has never been more vulnerable to incursions of orcs and goblins from the Dark Territory. Bercouli musters his fellow Integrity Knights and starts re-training lower-ranked forces Admin had banished, but the time of the titular War of Underworld is just over the silver mountain horizons in the background of those gorgeous vistas.
Eldrie is on a mission to confirm the various tunnels into their lands have been blasted to slow the enemy’s advance, but his dragon senses his younger sibling Amayori and thus Alice. Eldrie begs her to rejoin the knights and join the fight. Alice doesn’t tell him she won’t, but that she can’t. Even if she didn’t have to care for Kirito, she can no longer wield her sword. Eldrie reluctantly accepts this and the two part ways cordially.
As Alice turns in with Kirito, sharing his bed to keep him warm or just so she can have human contact, her remaining eye fills with tears as she asks Kirito just what the hell she should do. After all these months with no progress, I imagine she’s starting to lose hope he’ll ever recover, and in the meantime has been coping, enduring, and operating on inertia.
When Kirito suddenly moves as if reacting to something, there’s a sudden glimmer of hope that’s just as quickly snatched away—he’s only reacting reflexively, as Amayori does. You see, fires are blazing in the direction of the town and there are sounds of fighting—no doubt a Dark Territory raid. So yeah, no hope, just more awful shit to deal with.
As all this is happening in Underworld, we have no idea what is transpiring in the real world with Asuna on the Ocean Turtle. While I’m no sucker for punishment, I do appreciate the bleak depths to which our heroes have fallen, because it will make it that much more compelling if and when they manage to claw themselves out. That’s why we must watch.