Classroom of the Elite – S2 06 – The Mask Drops

The title of this episode comes from Lord Byron, but one could quote Yoda too: failure is the greatest teacher. Suzune was too busy trying to be accomplished and exceptional enough for her brother to look her way to realize that sometimes failing is the point.

While at first I thought Kiyotaka was throwing out random rumors about Kikyou being the Class D traitor, when pressed, she happily owns up to it. Without dropping her outward syrupy demeanor, she admits her primary goal right now is to get Suzune expelled.

She also offers Kiyotaka a friendly reminder that she still has evidence of him groping her if he ever tried to expose her. Not only that, she’s decided on the spot that before she can think about helping Class A, she’ll want him expelled along with Suzune.

Sudou is still angry from how things went down thus far when Suzune first approaches him, but she remains standing near the elevator when he decides to return. Suzune realize the two are alike in their obsession with seeking acknowledgment, but now she knows that going it alone won’t be enough. She asks Sudou to help her, and when he agrees, she flashes an exceedingly rare Horikita smile.

Sudou returns to the class, bows, and apologizes for being a dick, showing growth, while Suzune bows out of the final relay, meaning Kikyou will run in her place. When another student bows out, Kiyotaka takes his place, and Suzune’s brother happens to be beside him in the relay.

Manabu is impressed with Class D’s sudden turnaround after they seemed to be circling the drain, and Kiyotaka tells him whatever happened to get them back on track, it was Suzune’s doing. Manabu acknowledges that, then accepts Kiyotaka’s offer to race him.

The other two runners in their row start off before them, but it doesn’t matter: Kiyotaka and Manabu are running their own race. Not only that, they’re both so freakishly fast it doesn’t matter how big a head start the other runners had.

In the end, Team Red won while Class 1-D ranked dead last in class points. That said the results of the sports festival don’t cause a dramatic shift in the status quo. But it wasn’t a wasted opportunity for Class D, because Suzune was able to learn from her failures and grow, just as Sudou was. Suzune also now has the “weapon” in Sudou that Kiyotaka insisted she procure.

That leaves the post-festival groveling, which an honorable person like Suzune would never back out of. When she arrives before Ryuen, Kikyou is also there. Suzune, who knows she’s the Class D traitor, asks her to drop the cutesy act…and what to you know, she does! Dark Kikyou is a lot of fun, and makes no bones about her only immediate goal being to eliminate anyone who knew the “old her”—even her current ally Ryuen, someday.

Suzune gets Ryuen to discuss how he and Kikyou manipulated the sports festival from the get-go and even got Saki to pretend her injury was worse than it was. Suzune reveals she’s recording all of this on her phone, but Ryuen points out that he prefaced his explanation as “indulging her fantasy”, meaning there’s reasonable doubt he was being serious. Also, he recorded everything too, in case Suzune tried to edit hers.

Just when Suzune is ready to eat crow and grovel as instructed, Ryuen gets a text message with a third audio file: one in which he’s heard instructing Saki to intentionally injure Suzune. He claims not to know who recorded or sent him this, but he can only tip his hat to that person, as it creates a stalemate from which he and Kikyou withdraw for the time being.

Why he wouldn’t suspect Kiyotaka of being behind this move, I do not know, but that’s who I assume did it, perhaps with Kei obtaining the actual recording for her new “handler”. In any case, the triple-twist, combined with an always welcome appearance of Dark Kikyou, made for a surprisingly entertaining finish to the outing.

Considering the modest gains Class C enjoyed from the festival, I’d say this is a net win for Team Kiyotaka/Suzune, due to the aforementioned emotional growth of the latter and the former at least knowing the score vis-a-vis Kikyou’s goals.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Classroom of the Elite – S2 05 – Losing Streak

Kiyotaka suggests that Kikyou may have sold out Class D for private points from another class, and if Suzune ever wants to lead the class, having a traitor among them is an intolerable threat. When Kikyou joins them to scout Team White, Suzune comes right out and asks if Kikyou betrayed the class, and of course Kikyou denies it, asking that they trust her.

The day of the sports festival, Sudou is full of vim, vinegar, and confidence that he’ll be able to lead Class D to victory, aiming for a clean sweep. Arisu quietly observes under a tent, paying particular attention to Kiyotaka, whom she no doubt understands is D’s true mastermind.

After getting out to a comfortable lead, things start going all Scuderia Ferrari on Class D. Sudou is beaten down by a cheating Ryuen outside of the watch of any teachers. Suzune collides with a Class-C girl and injures her ankle, suspecting it was intentional. The ace of the boys is increasingly pissed off, while the ace of the girls is hurt.

When the girls lose the Piggyback Joust, Sudou vows to Hiyotaka (on whom he has a crush) that he’ll win enough for the both of them, but he loses too. Hiyotaka rattles Suzune’s cage, telling her to “be useful” for once as she’s the only one who can bring back Sudou after he flips out and quits. Kei asks Kioyotaka if there’s any chance they can come back from their deficit; Kiyotaka says he never had any intention of winning.

No, his goal is to lose as much as possible. As for why their participation list was submitted when he knew there’d be a leak, he says it was Suzune’s idea. Finally, just as Kiyotaka is trying to track down Sudou, Kikyou tells her she’s wanted in the nurse’s office, where she not only finds a severely injured Class-C girl she collided with, but Ryuen as well.

The girl, no doubt manipulated by Ryuen (her injury might not even be real, but if it is, that makes him that much more of a jerk), accuses Suzune of intentionally injuring her. Not wanting to cause trouble for her StuCo president brother, Suzune asks what she can do for the complaint to be dropped. Ryuen says he needs a million private points…and to grovel before her after the festival.

So yeah, Class D and Suzune in particular are going through some shit. When she crosses paths with her brother, she’s happy he even bothered to stop to hear her say she realizes how incompetent she is, but she’s resolved not to cause trouble for him. And all of this shit she’s enduring is being either passively or actively endorsed and/or caused by Kiyotaka.

To what end? The title of the episode is the clue: Every failure is a step to success. Kiyotaka isn’t interested in fun or easy victories. They won’t become Class A that way. No, they have to fail and suffer again and again and again, harden themselves, and use what they’ve learned from those failures to succeed when it matters most.

Classroom of the Elite – S2 04 – Three-Willed Race

With the class back on school grounds, Suzune reveals the method by which Ryuuen was able to win: the planet names of the teams were a major hint. When placing the members in alphabetical order, whoever is the number of the planet’s order in the system was the VIP: Kei fourth in Mars, Kushida third in Earth, etc cetera. That said, as long as Ryuuen tries to rule like a dictator, Class C won’t be fully united.

The class’s seats aren’t even warm when Chabashira-sensei announces the next test will be the Sports Festival, where Class D will be paired with Class A and C with B. As you’d expect, there’s a whole big list of rrrrrrrules, and Kiyotaka believes that using orthodox rather than underhanded tactics will win the day.

The class itself has full control over who participates in what events, and Suzune wants to pair the most athletically skilled with the least so that they can spread their talent the most widely to the benefit of the classs. Kei stands up to disagree, saying Suzune’s way is cynical and even cruel. She also asks Kushida’s opinion, who says they should try a hybrid approach.

The class puts it to a vote, and Suzune’s way narrowly wins even with Kiyotaka abstaining. After class Kei meets with Kiyotaka on the stairs, asking him why he emailed her to oppose Suzune. He’s not interested in explaining himself to her, only in her carrying out her orders, and he admits she did well.

I bet it was also an opportunity for him to test out the “newest tool in his box,” so to speak, as Kei proves capable of bringing others to her cause simply by the power of her personality, which at least outwardly is a lot more pleasant than sourpuss Suzune. In short, Kiyotaka’s hand is stronger with Kei working for him, even if he and Suzune are still ostensibly allies.

At the strength and aptitude tests that precede event practice, Kiyotaka is oddly ignorant of what constitutes an “average” grip strength, and makes the mistake of listening to the burliest classmate who says it’s 60 kg, when it’s really more 45-50. It’s clear Kiyotaka could probably grip harder than anyone, but intentionally stops at 60.

As for Suzune, she’s faster than most, but in the three-legged race refuses to match the pace of her slower partner, instead insisting she try harder to match hers. Kiyotaka shows Suzune the error of her inflexibility by putting her in the other girl’s shoes and running faster than Suzune when their legs are tied together.

An aside: it cannot be understated just how utterly miserable these two are as anything resembling a couple. Just completely hopeless. And yet they persist in cooperating most of the time because they want the same thing: Class A. To that end, Kiyotaka wants Suzune to join both him and Kushida in performing recon on the White Team, also mentioning he thinks Kushida was a traitor in the cruise test.

There’s an underlying atmosphere of unpleasantness to this impending sports festival that not even the most chipper of students can cut through. Any educator will tell you that the point of such festivals isn’t just to showcase athletic talent and foster teamwork, but for the participants to have, ya know…fun. Suzune and Kiyotaka aren’t just disinterested in that aspect, but are likely incapable of it.

Classroom of the Elite – S2 03 – Slap in the Face

When Yukimura simply can’t watch anymore, he steps out from his hiding spot to put a stop to Shiho and her cohorts’ abuse of Kei. But if he’s expecting gratitude from Kei, he doesn’t get it, and Kiyotaka probably assumed that would be the result of getting involved. When Venus group’s test concludes early, Kiyotaka deduces that Class C is the favorite to win, and starts making some moves.

Those moves involve arranging so both Kei and Chiho’s gang meet in the bowels of the ship, and this time Chiho brings Rika, the girl she demands Kei apologize to. The girls rough Kei up some more, culminating in Chiho realizing that Kei has been traumatized by bullying, and even gets Rika to start slapping Kei silly. All of this is to get Kei to “rock bottom” so he can recruit her for his purposes.

After Chiho leaves, Kiyotaka approaches Kei, who is an absolute wreck, and twists the knife like the true piece of work he is. He tells her he knows what she truly is, and that she and Hirata were never actually dating, and she assumes he’s blackmailing her for her body or something to that extent.

Of course, we know that’s not Kiyotaka’s style, but it’s still a dark and unsettling scene between the two. Kiyotaka would argue, however, that it is all necessary to send Kei to the absolute brink so she’ll take him seriously as an ally. He shows her video of Shiho’s crimes, and offers to protect her from now on in a way the previous guys couldn’t. Because for all the wounds Kei bears—emotional and physical—he still believes she and not Suzune is the best chance of Class D uniting and rising.

Before the final discussion on the last day of the test, Kiyotaka finds Ichinose dozing on the couch, and the two talk about their mutual desire to graduate in Class A (and how she knows he knows how many points she has, but she’s not going to say anything more about that). When the discussion begins, Hamaguchi proposes that everyone should show the rest of the group their phones to reach a better outcome.

Kiyotaka knows that while Hamaguchi presents this option, Ichinose is behind it, and it fits the gambit he already prepared. One by one, Mars Group is convinced to reveal their phones until the VIP is exposed: Yukimura. We then cut to a flashback of Kiyotaka and Yukimura switching phones. Even so, Ichinose calls Kiyotaka and exposes Kiyotaka and Yukimura’s scheme.

But that’s fine, because Kiyotaka isn’t the VIP either…Kei is, and always was. Not only did he switch phones with her before switching with Yukimura, but he also used his personal points to buy the means to switch out the SIM cards, so if someone called his phone, her phone (in Yukimura’s hands) would ring. It’s a great double-switcheroo trap that Mars Group falls for…except for Ichinose, who figured it out, but didn’t stop it because of her rapport with Kiyotaka.

So Class D is the victor, right? Wrong. Class A loses the most points while Class B breaks even, but in a gut punch of an ending Class C is revealed as the ultimate winner. Ryuuen, of whom I am getting thoroughly tired, was able to learn from a Class D student that Kikyou was a VIP. He once again confronts Suzune to gloat and continue to act like a skeevy prick around her. Kiyotaka shows no emotion, but can tell that as this cruise test ends, it’s not going to be smooth sailing for Class D.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Classroom of the Elite – S2 02 – Kei the Lamprey

Unsurprisingly, Koenji makes the biggest splash of the test by apparently discovering the true VIP, resulting in Jupiter Group’s test concluding. Hirata gets a rumor that Kushida is a VIP. Horikita and Ayanokouji meet in an area of the ship heavy with lovey-dovey couples. Ryuuen proposes the other three classes ally against A, but Horikita isn’t having it.

They determine that uniting Class D is the best move they’ve got, using Kei and her “powerful sense of presence”. Kei is still recovering from her shower breakdown, calling herself a “parasite”, while Ayanokouji gets unexpectedly hugged by Kushida, who is feelingly lonely due to all being around all of the couples.

As the teachers drink in a private bar, Hoshinomiya-sensei asks Chabashira-sensei how Ayanokouji ended up the leader at the end of the Island test, but Chibashira is tight-lipped. Ayanokouji happens to be in the vicinity when Karuizawa meets with Hirata, who tells her that there are limits to what he can do to help her.

This angers Karuizawa, but Hirata tells her this is the way it’s always been since they started fake-dating. Karuizawa got a boost in popularity and a degree of protection, but Hirata won’t help her settle grudges, even as he later tells Ayanokouji he sympathizes with the perennially bullied Karuizawa.

Mars Group’s third and fourth discussions come and go without much of any progress being made, with Karuizawa hanging out with the first-years and flirting with Machida. After the fourth discussion, Karuizawa  is followed out by Shiho and her two cronies, who corner her in a hallway. Yukimura and Ayanokouji follow just in case.

When Shiho & Co. start getting nasty with a Kei who is increasingly breaking down, Ayanokouji tells Yukimura not to intervene too soon; he wants to gather as much research as he can on Kei before “tainting the experiment”, so to speak.

Two episodes in, and I must admit I’m respecting CoE more than I’m actually enjoying it. There’s definitely something clever in the works, but I can’t deny that there are some pretty dull stretches—even those possibly containing key clues. It doesn’t help that the show simply doesn’t look that good, though the soundtrack makes up for that a bit.

The Genius Prince’s Guide – 12 (Fin) – Exception to the Rule(r)

With Soljest marching on Marden at Delunio’s behest, Wein is facing his toughest challenge yet. Of course, there was never much doubt this season would end with another brilliant victory. It just takes a bit for it to come together. King Soljest simply wants a good fight, so Wein gives him one in the form of ambushes from small groups of Natran cavalry.

He plans for the battle to unfold in such a way that the earliest reports back to Delunio will arrive stating that the Natran army has been routed, which exactly what he needs Sirgis to hear when he needs him to hear it for his crazy negotiations to have actual teeth.

It’s a complicated gambit, but basically he gets Sirgis to believe it’s possible the yellow dye used in the clothes popular with his people is actually poison, and that he’ll unleash 800,000 Natran refugees into Delunio at the worst possible time, throwing the kingdom into chaos and allowing Soljest to swoop in.

It’s not clear whether Wein is aware that Sirgis’ true goal isn’t necessarily to regain lost Delunian territory within Marden—that’s just icing—but that he wants to become a Holy Elite. But if even half of what Wein tells Sirgis comes to pass, he can kiss a future where Delunio is the shining beacon of the continent goodbye.

The coup-de-grace of Wein’s diabolical bluff is that he has the “antidote” to the poison yellow dye, but will only offer it if Sirgis attacks Soljests’ army from the rear. By overwhelming Sirgis with a bevy of undesirable and downright nightmarish scenarios, he gets him to turn against Soljest.

King Gruyere, being an exceedingly experienced head of state, knows Sirgis’ betrayal was a possibility, and isn’t the slightest bit worried when his army is suddenly caught in a Natran-Delunian pincer. In fact, he was bored when his army was slowly pushing the Natrans back and threatening to take the Mardenian fortress.

What ultimately dooms Gruyere is his desire to blast through the Delunian lines, let the Natran forces merge with them and get embroiled in chaos, then circle around an eliminate both. His underlings’ first instinct is to beat a hasty retreat now that they’ve lost the advantage, but Gruyere needs to feed that Beast Within.

That proves to be his downfall when he finds himself distracted by Wein standing atop a high cliff. Wein’s top general and soldier then charge Soljest, but even they are merely a distraction for the much quicker and more nimble Ninym, who manages to gravely wound him.

Notably, however, Ninym doesn’t kill the good king, and he ends up convalescing at Castle Natra, during which time he slims down to a far more normal size. It’s here where he and Wein spar once more, with Gruyere threatening to let himself die in Wein’s custody rather than let him have his way, thus plunging Natra into all-out war against Levetian religion.

Wein is only saved thanks to Gruyere’s insatiable curiosity about the beast within Wein, saying he’ll go along with three-party talks if he tells him what that beast desires. We don’t hear Wein’s answer, but we already know it: just as it was in the beginning, he wishes to drag Natra out of debt enough so he can sell it off and live the slow life (no doubt with Ninym by his side).

The opportunity to see if Wein will get what he wants is enough to entice Gruyere to surrender. However, it’s not a perfect victory for Wein. While he avoided all-out war, by wounding and capturing the Holy Elite Gruyere, the influx of Levetian pilgrims has plummeted and the Mardenian-Natran economic bubble has burst.

While that means Marden won’t be a threat for independence anytime soon, it also means that Wein won’t be in a position to sell his kingdom anytime soon. Instead, it’s back to work negotiating, planning, and strategizing … with Ninym by his side.

What this show lacked in technical execution of battles (or any animation involving large groups) it made up for it with its thoroughly likeable core of characters and wonderfully cerebral plots. Whether we’ll get to see more of that in a second season, I don’t know…but I wouldn’t hate it!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Tower of God – 09 – Forgetting the Taste of Stale Bread

Endorsi prefaces her betrayal of her fellow Team B Fisherman by telling a little story in earshot of Bam, about how she was one of at least a dozen adopted daughters forced to fight each other for the right not just to become a Princess of Jahad, but to eat.

At first, Endorsi only ate stale bread, but she ate it all the same, maintained her strength, and defeated her competitors one after another until she could enjoy a delicious rare steak at the head of the table. She was quite literally forged in a crucible of blood.

While we know little of Bam, it’s clear he hasn’t had to betray or kill anyone to get here, so it tracks that he considers Endorsi’s treacherous methods “wrong.” But would it have been more “right” if Endorsi had let her adoptive sisters kill her? Endorsi (and surely many other competitors) didn’t enjoy the luxury of morality prior to these proceedings.

As she takes down the other Fisherman, Endorsi wants Bam to understand what is required in order to climb the Tower. Bams asks her why she mocks the fishermen for trying to fight her when she’s been where they are—the weak trying to become strong. But the past is past for her: she no longer remembers the taste of that stale bread.

In order to get what you want, Endorsi asserts, sometimes you have to do things you know are wrong. It’s what Bam must do if he wants to climb with Rachel. Still, Bam puts his foot down: he’s going to climb his way: no betrayals, no tricks. And even if Rachel hates him for it, he’ll protect her.

Rachel is actually in some need of protecting, as Hoh, overcome by the need to get Bam out of the picture, takes her hostage at knifepoint. Quant, having beaten up Hatz (whose comrades betrayed him), tries to de-escalate, but matters are complicated when Bam shows up.

In the ensuing standoff, Bam learns a shinsu paralysis trick from Quant, Rachel struggles, and Hoh accidentally stabs her in the back. Bam paralyzes him and tries to slow Rachel’s bleeding as she asks him why he followed her. Serena shows up just as Hoh stabs himself in the chest, resigning himself to “have-not” status.

Finally, Endorsi appears to fight with Quant, but gets slapped in her beautiful face by Serena, who like Hoh harbors some bitterness and resignation about being a fellow “have-not”, but doesn’t see offing herself as the solution.

Like Bam with Rachel, Endorsi has decided she wants to climb the Tower with her sister/niece Anaak—whom we see in the waiting room having her hair done in what is without question the most adorable moment of the series so far. So she took steps to make sure she and Anaak wouldn’t drop out.

But as someone who tasted as much pain as she did stale bread getting to this point, Endorsi warns Bam that he’ll have to keep tasting pain too if he keeps passing tests, whether he does it his “right way” or not. No one can have it all; everyone loses something in this game.

Endorsi shows Quant the red badge inside her vest and the two duel, with Bam deciding to back her up (they are still teammates, after all). Quant dodges Bam’s paralysis attack, swoops in, and snatches Endorsi’s vest, seemingly ending the game.

But it isn’t quite the end, as the red thing in her vest wasn’t the badge, but her red boy shorts! Endorsi shows her her real badge in one hand, and produces his badge in the other. So Team B wins and scores a heap of points.

The Tag Game turned out to be an intricately thrilling tapestry of clashing motivations, twists and tricks, and while Hoh seems to be dead, he’s still carted off by medics, so perhaps they can save him. Rachel is stabilized and rests Bam stands beside her bed. Khun’s gambit worked out and their core trio moves on to the next rounds of testing.

I appreciated the exploration of the kinship of “have-nots” like Hoh and Serena and “haves” like Endorsi and Bam, as well as how they gained those statuses. Serena led her friends to their doom because she wasn’t strong enough; everyone Hoh cared about died for the same reason. Endorsi became a Princess by killing all of her sisters while Bam largely stumbled into his good fortune.

Compelling characters, impressive action sequences, balanced pacing, and a badass soundtrack—Tower of God is truly firing on all cylinders.

Tower of God – 08 – Getting “It” Twisted

Even as Quant makes quick work of the Team A members trying to slow him down, Khun maintains an air of confidence. The show also wants to make it clear that the fiery Quant has a temper and can be very impulsive, which means a Light Bearer as shrewd as Khun can very well play him like a fiddle. But since we just met Quant, we have no way of knowing if his outward behavior, so convenient to Khun’s plans, is just an act, and he’s actually a step or more ahead of Khun. He is a Ranker, after all.

Meanwhile, Bam sits with the rest of Team B, whose mood rises and falls with Team A’s setbacks and progress, respectively. Endorsi sits beside him, giving him a chance to ask about “Michelle”, but Endorsi has little to say; she, Michelle and the giant monster guy were just the last three remaining, so they teamed up. Probably more germane to Endorsi is what does Bam care about that weird little mousey girl anyway?

Khun’s choice to use Anaak and his lighthouse as bait and compel Quant to dive off the bridge with him is both inspired and inventively composed. I love the steep drops in this show. It heightens the pace and excitement of an otherwise elegant, no-frills action scene. I love when Quant passes Anaak on his way down, while Green April arrests a smug Khun’s fall. And as usual, the music rises to the occasion.

But what I like even more is that it was understood that Khun’s line last week about Bam losing was always meant to be followed by the words “if I (Khun) don’t do something about it.” Khun decided he cared more about preventing Bam (and those on Team B on the “friends list”) from being eliminated than winning the tag game.

This tracks since, he, Lauroe, Anaak, etc. were already assured of passing regardless of the game result. So he betrays Team A to keep Bam & Co. in the running, by giving Quant a ride back up to the bridge via his lighthouse. Quant snatches Anaak’s “it” badge, and Team A loses.

Last week often cut to Hoh just barely keeping it together and stewing in resentment for Bam’s relative ease in the Wave Controller tests. This week we get a vulnerable moment from Serena, about whom we know so little. It’s only a nugget about her past, and how she was once a cat burglar whose crew was killed by a Ranker.

She approached the Tower climb with renewed energy and confidence, but now is not so sure about the prospect of eliminating people she’s come to like. Hoh tells her that’s just the way things are. Those who climb the Tower must choose what’s more important: friendships, or reaching the top.

Bam, Serena, and Hoh’s Team B is being led by Endorsi, who took advantage of the fact she’s idolized by one of three other competitors for the spot. Khun may have given Bam & Co. a chance by ensuring Team A’s loss, but Team B still has to win, using what they learned from Team A’s game. That may be difficult depending on what Endorsi’s intentions, as she betrays one of her fellow Fishermen to pursue a plan all her own.

This is, of couse, in keeping with Endorsi’s character so far. She has no connection to her two original teammates, and while may not mind Bam or others on the friend sheet she signed, but she’s not going to let that document rule her actions or dilute her ambitions. Like Hoh, she’s willing to do whatever and backstab whoever it takes to climb the Tower.

You can read Crow’s write-up of episode 8 here.

Vinland Saga – 21 – It Will Never Be Enough

It’s pretty amazing that Askeladd, who only a couple episodes ago was about to be assassinated by his own mutinying men, now finds himself taking a prominent role in maneuvering Prince Canute to the throne of the most powerful kingdom in Europe. Then again, it’s par for the course: Askeladd isn’t a mere pirate, he’s a tremendous diplomat, charmer, and spinner of yarns, all to aid his own interests.

Askeladd knows he’s sending his prince into a veritable hornets nest from which he may never come out…unless he plays his cards right. Sweyn wants Canute out of the picture, but he’s not reckless or bloodthirsty. He must match the king’s wits with his own. When Canute is shot in the chest by a sniper with a crossbow, the person actually shot was merely a slave woman serving as his body double.

Thorfinn goes after the sniper, and ends up in the arms of one Leif Erikson, a man he had probably not thought about in some time. Leif spots Askeladd first, and surely feels he owes Thors a heavy debt for saving them years ago. Leif remembers the cheerful boy on Iceland, and expects that he’s ready to leave the battlefield and go home; that he’s had enough of battle. He sure looks it, after all.

Of course, that’s not the case. Thorfinn betrays a moment or two of surprise upon seeing his old uncle again, but any talk of going home or seeing his mother and sister again, and he immediately puts his shell back up. It hasn’t been enough, and it never will be until Askeladd breathes his last, having been pierced through the heart with the blade of Thors, wielded by his son.

It’s entirely expected for Finn to act this way, but it hardly means he’s gone for good; he’s still so young after all. Just that he has his priorities. If he even considers himself the same person as the boy who has a mother and sister in Iceland, which is itself in doubt, returning comes home is entirely dependant on getting his father the revenge he believes he’s due.

That’s despite him knowing full well his father would have preferred he stop fighting and return home to family years ago, and not even bother with Askeladd.

That night, Askeladd visits an irreparably-wounded Bjorn, who arranges for his boss to fight and kill him tomorrow. Then Askeladd holds council with Canute, Thorkell, and Gunnar, and we learn just how much he’s thought through this York situation. He hired the assassin to attack the double, in hopes of making a big public show for the people of York that King Sweyn was playing dirty.

Indeed, we see rumors of varying degrees of accuracy spread across the city. Askeladd’s elite gut even sniffs out Gunnar’s treachery, and in Gunnar’s presence not only said only what he wanted Sweyn himself to eventually hear (that they’re not interested in a short-term battle, but in buying time), but has Finn follow Gunnar and his spy all the way to Sweyn’s house.

Canute doesn’t like how a woman had to give her life for a charade, but he can’t really complain when it’s put him in a far better position, increasing his available options while limiting those of his father.

The next day, Thorfinn asks Askeladd for yet another duel, and Askeladd once again accepts, with Canute and Thorkell acting as witnesses. But first, Askeladd has “a previous engagement” with Bjorn, who arrives and draws his sword for his last fight.

Before he dies, Bjorn tells his leader how much he looked up to him, but also pitied him for the loneliness he must experience. He paints Askeladd as someone who has risen to his present station (and indeed still breathes and stands, albeit with one so-so-leg) by rejecting everything and anyone.

Still, all Bjorn wanted to be his friend, and before delivering the blow that kills him, Askeladd grants him that wish before he passes. He allows him to hear those words, then turns Thorfinn, who may well succeed him as the next Askeladd. Scoring victories and glory left and right, but with nary a friend, family member, or lover to share it with.

Vinland Saga – 20 – Everything Must Change

Flanked by Askeladd, Thorfinn, and his new follower Thorkell and his army, Canute marches into Gainsborough like at…well, like a Prince—a clueless boy no longer. Floki can clearly tell something has changed just by looking at Canute’s eyes and hearing his tone.

His newfound backbone, charisma, and will conspire to put Floki in his place. It’s a good start, but the prince knows swaying his father won’t be so easy. More likely than not, the king will have to die before Canute’s Paradise on Earth can be realized.

Canute takes only Askeladd and Thorfinn to his meeting with the king, but the three realize almost immediately that they are walking into a potential ambush. Sweyn has packed his hall with hidden soldiers and archers, and his precise commands for where the trio to stand/kneel makes it clear he’s not shy about his intentions to finish what the war in England couldn’t—dispatch the son he no longer needs.

Askeladd demonstrates what an asset he is to Canute by using his silver tongue to beg Sweyn to reconsider what he believes the “will of the crown” to be. Sweyn has certainly seen better days (long ago, he apparently resembled Canute), and he’s not so subtly implying that the crown he wears is largely responsible, as it has a will of its own…much like the One Ring.

All a king can do is hold onto and increase his power. When Askeladd explains how that wouldn’t necessarily happen if he assassinates Canute, the king withdraws from that course of action, and an uneasy truce is reached. They’re to reconvene in York, where he’ll have a “reward” for his son’s service to the crown.

That night, Canute sits and drinks with his men (and a fresh-shaven—and 23-year-old!—Williband), and hears Askeladd’s impression of his father. Bottom line: Sweyn is no slouch, and dealing with him will pose a considerable challenge.

While pissing outside, Atli and his now brain-damaged brother bid their former boss farewell. Askeladd, a good sport, gives Atli some gold and one final order: never pick up a sword again, but take a wife and work the land. Canute’s paradise will need many more men like Atli and less like Askeladd or Thorkell. Because everything has to change.

P.S. Another Leif Erikson sighting, in Northumbria. Will his and Askeladd’s paths cross once more before the curtain falls?

No Guns Life – 07 – You Can’t Put the Bullet Back in the Gun

As Olivier is suspended and replaced as EMS director for failing to take care of Gondry and acting on her own, Juuzou and Kronen battle Gondry, whom the former learns is a tough customer, but one whose extended components use up a huge amount of energy.

When Kronen’s paralysis needles fail due to him being unable to his Gondry’s internal sub-brain, Juuzou engages Gondry in a battle of stamina, constantly wailing on him until his armor finally cracks and his sub-brain overheats. It’s reckless and crude, but effective.

Last week I lamented that so much time was being spent on what I deemed to be a one-dimensional crazy-evil villain, but Gondry proves more than that. Unbeknownst to either Juuzou or Kronen, Gondry was being controlled remotely via Harmony by a pink-haired woman named Pepper, whose partner is a Gun Slave unit like Juuzou. That’s an interesting twist!

It also means when Pepper’s link is severed, Gondry has no idea what’s going on, and sounds like he thinks the war is still going on. That means all of the murders of his old unit might have been done using his body, but without his consent or knowledge. Now I kinda feel bad for the ugly bastard!

Turns out he may not have done any of the murders after all. That’s because once Armed realizes Juuzou and Kronen intend to get intel from Gondry about the old days, he turns on both of them, declaring them collateral victims of the overarching need to protect the Extended industry and the money it brings the nation.

This is good stuff. First you have the wildly popular and esteemed war hero Armed possibly being a big ol’ fraud, who might even have orchestrated the murders himself—if Pepper didn’t do them through Gondry…unless Pepper is working for Armed. There’s a lot of neat angles to this. And Armed even has a good big picture point, even if it boils down to ends justifying the means.

At any rate, there’s no way he’ll succeed in killing Juuzou or Kronen. Aside from the fact they’re tough bastards in their own right, Tetsuro managed to escape protective custody by inhabiting a guard thru Harmony. His goal is to get Juuzou the cigarettes to which he’s so addicted. Mary hints that they don’t just ease the pain of his Extended parts, but could be suppressing…something.

It’s a nice secondary plot thread that continues to fester in the background, and could come to the fore at the worst time for Juuzou, who it must be said doesn’t seem to have the best luck. But hey, at least he’s got good friends, or in the case of Kronen, people he doesn’t like he can trust nevertheless.

Overlord II – 04

The Lizardmen are allowed to bask in their victory over an army of the undead for an evening, while back at Nazarick the Great One Ains Ooal Gown is debriefing Cocytus before his other guardians.

Momonga got what he wanted: Cocytus forms an original thought—that he doesn’t want to exterminate the Lizardmen. But when he can’t come up with a good reason to spare them, Demiurge comes through with an alternative plan: they’ll make the Lizardmen an experiment in rule without fear.

Everything is going according to Ains’ plans, and his guardians think that’s only natural, but privately, Momonga is excited at the prospect of his guardians learning independent thought and gaining experience through defeat…not that he likes defeat.

That much is clear the next day when he shows up with an enormous magically-armored undead army, catching the still celebratory Lizardmen unawares.

Ains himself shows up, and makes quite an entrance, freezing an entire lake, using Gargantua to throw a huge cube of rock into the middle of it, then having his grunts form an undead staircase.

Ains climbs to the top of the rock with his retinue of guardians, proud as you please, and when Zaryusu and his brother meet them in the lake, Demiurge has them prostrate themselves.

Zaryusu knows he and his people are at the mercy of Ains and his forces, and that they don’t have a hope of victory against such power. However, he also presumes the Great One does not intend to utterly exterminate his people, but wants a proper battle to make things interesting.

If that requires a few sacrificial lambs, with him among them, Zaryusu can live with that, even if it distresses the woman he loves. He asks that she put up with his selfishness this once and hold out hope he’ll come back from the battle in one piece. She seems willing to go along with this…IF he impregnates her first. Love: it’s all about give-and-take.

Overlord II – 03

In order to build great things, one must construct a solid foundation. The first two episodes accomplished that. At first, I wondered why all of a sudden we were so immersed in the lives and politics of a bunch of Lizardmen. Then, when I got to know a few of them, I became emotionally invested in their fate, even rooting for their victory against the armies of Cocytus, even though Cocytus is a servant of our ostensible protagonist, Momonga.

What was made clear this week is that not only was it well worth all the table-setting, which I enjoyed far more than I ‘endured’; but that Momonga and his court were given heightened mystique by being pushed into the background, such that every time we cut to them (which wasn’t often, or for a very long duration), it felt like an occasion.

Things start out small, with Zaryusu earning Zenberu’s trust and an alliance after fighting him one-on-one. Crusch heals both, and after returning to Zaryusu’s brother Green Claw, the five assembled tribal leaders have a strategy meeting.

The enemy outnumbers them over three to one. Zenberu is confident every lizard can take out three zombies or skeletons each, but they have to plan carefully to avoid being routed. Zaryusu forms an elite squad with Crusch, Zenberu, and his trusty hydra Rororo, to face the enemy commander when they show themselves.

Cocytus orders his army to advance, and Ains Ooal Gown seems slightly disappointed that things aren’t going the way he hoped, and that’s all we see of him. From here on in, it’s all battle, which means it’s all payoff for the careful preparation of the previous two episodes.

The Lizardmen send out their forces to meet the undead army, while their magical units efficiently keep the foes at bay. Cocytus confides in Demiurge for advice on how to proceed (that is, how to salvage what is starting to resemble a defeat on the field); Demiurge muses that their great lord meant to give Cocytus a weak army and a wide berth in hopes it would promote his awareness.

Cocytus is ready to take his medicine, but first sees how his reserves will fare, led by the Elder Lich Iguva, who launches huge fireballs in Zaryusu’s direction, helpfully revealing to the elite unit the position of the enemy leader.

Zaryusu decides upon a direct frontal assault, using Rororo’s bulk to shield himself, Crusch, and Zenberu. Once close enough, Zenberu starts carving up the reserves while Zaryusu faces off against Iguva, who is a formidable opponent from any range. It’s too bad none of the Lizardmen had Holy magic!

For a moment, Iguva has Zaryusu caught trapped in a Scare spell, but Crusch comes through in the clutch and breaks him out with Lion Heart, in addition to healing Zaryusu’s wounds. Good to see Crusch can hold her own on the battlefield, and indeed plays a vital role keeping Zaryusu up and running.

Iguva is full of hubris until the end, when he wrongfully assumes Zaryusu foolishly unleashed the full power of his Icy Burst against him (as a lich he’s immune to ice). However, the ice was only meant to provide cover for Zaryusu’s attack from above, stabbing Iguva through the eye.

After a struggle, Iguva is vanquished, and the Lizardmen are victorious, in what was a hard-hitting, heart-pounding, perfectly-paced battle. From his base, Cocytus congratulates the Lizardmen; it was a very close victory, but a win’s a win.

Not only that, the battle forced the Lizardmen to give up their tribal squabbles, come together, and sacrifice for the sake of their race’s survival. I would think they would continue in peace the unity that was forged by the threat of annihilation, while Zaryusu and Crusch, having come out of the battle in one piece, are poised to marry.

Overall, this episode was as satisfying, complete victory; a sure-handed execution of an intricately-constructed, multi-layered story in which the lines of heroes and villains are blurred. I’m eager to see what Lord Ains has planned next—and for whom.

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