Recap: Kirito confronts Sword Art Online’s final boss.
Yes, Heathcliff was Kayaba Akihiko all along. Now you know why I was complaining way back when that he was not introduced as early as possible – as it goes, Heathcliff didn’t make an appearance until the end of episode 9, two-thirds through this arc and too late for someone who is supposed to be the Big Bad. Depending on the viewer, the reveal either comes out of nowhere or was incredibly obvious by virtue of him indeed being introduced so late. Introducing Heathcliff earlier, as merely a player with a suspiciously encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, would have been a more elegant way of foreshadowing what is supposed to be a shocking revelation. This also means that Kirito only lost in Episode 10 because Heathcliff had GM privileges, retroactively ensuring that our hero does not lose his status as the best player.
Heathcliff and Kirito duel, a sequence that consists mainly of stock footage of Kirito’s fight against The Gleameyes in episode 9. Heathcliff wins handily, but the dreaded Deus Ex Machina strikes multiple times in a row as:
- Asuna magically defies the game’s paralysis to take a lethal blow in Kirito’s stead,
- Kirito takes a lethal blow in turn but becomes a magic ghost in order to defeat Heathcliff,
- Somehow neither Kirito nor Asuna actually dies from this.
There is no basis for any of these three things happening, especially since the show goes out of its way to repeatedly assert that they are in a video game – a video game with set rules that cannot be broken. Even the player revival item in episode 3 had a 10-second time limit; Asuna was dead for much longer than that, as was Kirito before he turned into a ghost. But established rules of the setting are as nothing in the face of Sword Art Online’s plot. The good guys still win, and they win without making any meaningful sacrifices.
Add that to any number of writing blunders I’ve complained about while covering this show, and the end result is an already tenuous suspension of disbelief being shattered. Main characters should not win (and win by ignoring the hard-coded limitations of their existence as players, at that) solely by virtue of being main characters who must win, and the internal logic and consistency of a show should not be ignored. That’s what is called “bad writing”. The fact that the author repeatedly screws his own rules to have Kirito both steal victory and reunite with his dead internet waifu only further defines our main character as a full-body condom for mental masturbation.
At any rate, Kirito and Asuna proceed to have a chat with Kayaba Akihiko, who justifies murdering 4000 people by saying he wanted to make a fantasy world and then poofs into smoke. The couple finally swap their real names as Aincrad collapses beneath them, at which point Kirito wakes up in a hospital bed, driven to find his internet girlfriend in real life and attempt to get some non-virtual pussy.
Next week we should have Kirito’s real (if you count not-his-actual-sibling-but-lives-with-him-and-calls-him-oniichan as real) little sister added to his harem, instead of just a little-sister-type character like Silica, as well as the start of the Alfheim Online / Fairy Dance arc. Oh boy.
Reki Kawahara is an intriguing writer, both his characters, and his plots are fairly straightforward, but the way he works his twists in ways that can only really come to life because they are inside his universe is an impressive thing. It was an interesting experience to watch this end of Aincrad, and it was the end of the world that left the biggest emotional impact on me.
Asuna stole my heart, and so watching her sacrifice was a saddening blow; however, the reasonable part of me was able to easily deduce that she wouldn’t die right there, and that both the love story, and the adventure would continue somewhere else. It was the experience of watching Kirito and Asuna’s house crumble as the world they had spent the last years in fell apart that really got me; this may sound a bit cheesy, but that was the moment where I found a tear running down my cheek.
I’ve read a lot of talk of how badly this last episode of SAO mangled it’s execution, and how Asuna’s survival was a cop out, but I can honestly say my suspension of disbelief was never broken. SAO’s ending followed a logical structure that I managed to at least partially predict. I assumed both that Heathcliff was cheating, and that the the creator of Aincrad was the big bad at the end of the game; however, I never imagined that they were one in the same. If I had known the ending was coming at episode 14 I may have figured this out, but I did not. The foreshadowing at work here was, in my opinion, fantastic.
The talk with the founder of SAO was an interesting thing, and it really seemed fitting that he had become so apart of the world he created that he could no longer remember why he had done so in the first place. I’m not entirely sure what happened to him in that scene, but it seemed like he died with his world; if I am correct that really helps add to the impact of it all. Sure he killed something like 4000 people, and that is in no way a thing you can justify, but there is something romantic in the way it all ends.
As for the mechanics of the game I assumed from the beginning that will power would trump mechanics at some point. I can understand why people might be upset with this, but I both expected, and am totally okay with how this was handled. In Kirito’s duel with the creator we see that Asuna’s love for Kirito trumped the paralysis state, but should I really be upset by this? As we saw with Yui just a few episodes ago the Cardinal system responsible for the game balance has set Kirito and Asuna up as messianic figures to lead the player base out of Aincrad, and that has had an effect on Aincrad before; I don’t think this was as out of left field as some claim.
Personally I was filled with a sense of wonder at how exactly the game system would come to an end, and really appreciated the scene where Asuna and Kirito were reunited above Aincrad, logic be damned. As I see it there is no reason for me to complain about the way these events went down. It was all very streamlined, and easy to follow; the ‘why is this happening’ was part of the magic, and I do not feel an explanation was owed.
Sure maybe this ending broke the rules of the universe a bit; I would argue that it’s silly to rule out will power when a system is capable of directly interfacing with a human mind, and that certain things should be accepted because we can clearly see they happened, and do not believe an explanation for how it happened is a requirement. In the end SAO nailed the emotional impact it was going for, and that is the mark of a good story.
I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get to see a the reunion of real world Kirito, and real world Asuna inside the hospital; I wanted to see a touching scene where they are united, and look at each others malnourished forms, but hey I can’t win them all can I? I greatly enjoyed the ending of this world, and I can only hope that whatever adventures lay in front of Kirito and Asuna manage to be as enchanting as Aincrad.
Normally I don’t contribute to this show because I’ve never held enough of a vested opinion to really think I’d give a poignant word edgewise, but this episode just got me to rage by the end of it. I was so disappointed by the way this show handled the finale. I loved that floor monster. It was genuinely frightening and brought a great tension to that fight scene. Everything just started going downhill once the truth of Heathcliff was revealed.
I share many of the problems Iro had. For a game that seemed to retain a large level of internal consistency, the pure Deus Ex Machina plot developments that lead to the end really spoil the setting. I would have even thought it much smarter of the show to have Kirito use Asuna’s death to finally beat Akihiko, and have Klein use the revival gem Kirito had given him. It seems the kind of thing that would have made sense and brought a great dramatic moment to the show that didn’t feel cheap. Instead, we got ghost powers and magic not-dying happening.
I’ve been told by Iro how this part of the novel was made before that sidestory with the revival gem, but this is an adaptation! You have that license to change things if it helps the story! I will agree with Life that the scene with Aincrad falling bit by bit was moving in its own way, but with the manner that the rest of the plot in that episode preceded, it really ruined any good impactful moments that can be taken from the conclusion.
I also did have a few minor problems with the hospital scene, which Life argued to me was more for dramatics than realism. Still, if I am in a hospital, and my EKG goes out, I get a response in under a minute. If I don’t, that hospital staff should be fired for malpractice. You can’t just walk out of a room as a coma patient like that. I don’t care if everyone that was playing the game woke up at the same time. If you were a halfway intelligent hospital system you would know to distribute them in a pattern so that if they all woke up they could be cared to simultaneously. With a country that has national healthcare like Japan, that is something that could have been easily coordinated.
All through its run my major issue with Sword Art Online has been that it’s mechanically sound but lacks emotion or human heart. This last episode turns that issue almost entirely on its head – there’s no shortage of stirring moments here, but they’re reached in such a convoluted way that their value is irredeemably cheapened.
I have to agree 100% with everything Iro says about this ending – it’s a cop-out of epic proportions. The reason Sword Art Online has been such an effective setting so far is that it has established rules – and particularly death – as absolutes, unbreakable, unshakeable and inescapable. Yet in this episode the show repeatedly breaks those rules merely in the name of generating more drama, drama which is worthless because the foundations that would have made it tense have been swept out from under our feet. Why is Asuna suddenly able to defeat the paralysis effect? (Hell, even Klein can talk and clearly move his upper body). Why doesn’t anyone die? You can argue heroic willpower, but then I’ll remind you everyone is inside a computer which deals in 1s and 0s, and a computer which fries your brain when the system tells it to. You cannot not die when you are killed. The fact that Kirito and Asuna both do this twice beggars belief really. No explanation is offered either, not even a cursory ‘it’s the power of love!’. It just sort of happens. Sloppy, lazy, cheap storytelling.
In contrast, I was quite surprised at the revelation of Heathcliff as Kayaba Akihiko, and it’s a clever twist that also makes a lot of sense – where better to hide than in plain sight? The problem is, the show itself actually points out how this could have been so much more dramatic. Why suddenly end here, in this drab dungeon on the 75th floor? Why not continue to the top of Aincrad, where Kayaba can reveal himself in a shocking last-minute swerve and a battle royale can take place in the Ruby Palace? It almost feels as if a huge chunk of content had to be cut out, although I’m not sure if that’s the case. Instead we get Kirito Sherlocking something that not even Heathcliff’s closest associates have noticed. What would have happened if he was wrong, and he stabbed Heathcliff right in the head? But of course, that’s not an issue because Kirito is never wrong. The fight is disappointingly crappy as well incidentally.
Where this episode does score some serious points back though is in its closing minutes. Kirito and Asuna’s conversation with Kayaba is actually a very well written little vignette, and there’s something both believable and touchingly tragic about a man who chased his dream so thoroughly he forgot why he was doing it. He’s almost too sympathetic for someone who after all killed over 4000 people, but at least there’s some attempt to humanize him. Seeing Aincrad crumble away into the void alongside his speech was also an impressive moment, both visually and emotionally and there was certainly a twinge of regret as we saw Kirito and Asuna’s house slip away forever. A1 really bring their A-game to this final episode and it shows. Personally, I thought the final scene, where a wan, frail Kirigaya reawakens and immediately struggles to find Asuna, was a powerful and heartfelt note to end on, a slightly shocking reminder of our return to reality, but also a display of how strongly the bond between these two has formed. It would have been an exceptional ending to this entire saga.
As it is, we’ll continue onwards towards a new arc (Really, shouldn’t the rest of the story deal with all the players trapped in extensive PTSD counseling?). Sword Art Online is as it ever was – fascinating but flawed, interesting but infuriating. There’s great value to be found in some of the material here, but also a sloppiness and laziness that makes you want to bang your head against the wall. This episode demonstrated the show has the power to move me, but also that it’s willing to indulge in outrageous Deus Ex Machinas to do so, and that ultimately is not an acceptable tradeoff, especially in the long run. Maybe things will be different in the fairy kingdom…