Sword Art Online: Episode 22

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Recap: Kirito attempts to take on the raid dungeon to reach the top of Yggdrasil.

Iro’s Thoughts:
Remember when we actually cared about this climax? I’ve mentioned this before, but after spending so long on the journey and on detours, all of this seems almost like an afterthought as Kirito fights his way up the trunk of Yggdrasil. He goes at it with as much intensity as we’ve come to expect from the main goal, but the weight is lost since he’s shown as happily chatting his time away as recently as last episode. This might have worked better if he had attempted this dungeon first-thing, failed, and spent the rest of the time gathering allies – a mad rush to find people crazy enough to challenge Yggdrasil with them might be better suited to the ticking-time-bomb nature of the plot.

Once Kirito gets thrashed by the tree guardians, there’s a silly flashback of SAO stock footage as he mulls on the fact that games have limits. Except they don’t in this show – at least, not when the plot dictates it so. I assume we’re supposed to feel for him actually losing a fight after being an unstoppable juggernaut of destruction and wish-fulfillment the entire series, but I found myself just rolling my eyes instead. They try to treat his “death” with as much gravitas as would be in SAO, a permanent end to his life, but he can just respawn so it comes off as plain melodramatic, the drama leeched away from the scene. Leafa’s mad rush to rescue him (complete with lingering shots of her cleavage flying at the camera) at supposed personal risk is the same. On that note, I thought it was explained in the first episode that they don’t feel pain in these games? Why does everyone keep moaning whenever they get hit?

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In any case, the reveal of who is who finally happens, leading to another melodramatic scene where Suguha yells at her brother for a while. It’s essentially a fourteen-year-old girl throwing a tantrum that she wasn’t hugged enough by her brother. Are we supposed to see it as such, or is it supposed to be a truly dramatic confession of love and frustration at being denied? I assume the latter, since it’s treated as the emotional climax of the episode.

Zigg’s Thoughts: This episode is clearly the show’s attempt to build to a big, emotionally weighty climax before the actual plot resolution, the deep breath before the plunge if you will. But it’s not an attempt that carries much weight. The best shows realise this is the moment to cash in all the chips you’ve bet on your individual characters and stories, to try and milk the maximum amount of feeling from your audience. The thing is though, this is contingent on your viewers actually having a relationship with those characters and empathising with them enough to feel as they’re put through the wringer. For better or worse, I don’t have that sort of investment in the SAO characters.

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It’s Kirito who definitely comes off the worst here. His attack directly on the guardians is both foolhardy and arrogant, and while it’s absolutely acceptable that he was blinded by anxiety and a desire to reach Asuna, the fact that he tries to go straight back for a round two sort of invalidates that argument. What’s the definition of doing the same thing over again and expecting different results? While they’re clearly trying for an expression of heroic determination, it doesn’t come off as brave, but stupid instead. The sequence where he ‘dies’ is simply flat out baffling. Are we meant to feel sorry that he finally found a challenge he couldn’t beat? Is the parade of stock footage (a black mark on an otherwise outstanding looking episode) meant to make us feel somehow sorry that he finally died?

While it’s nice to see Kirito bump into an enemy that even he can’t defeat, the entire situation has no drama or tension to it. This is something I’ve been saying all along about the ALO arc, and I’ll restate it here – without the threat of real and permanent death it becomes very difficult to take situations like this seriously.  Any feelings I had upon seeing Kirito fall from the sky were pretty much wiped away when a respawn timer appears on the screen, taking me out of the fantasy in a jarring and obnoxious way. It also renders Leafa’s supposed-to-be-heroic rescue incredibly pointless – he’ll be alive in ten minutes anyway, and at most lose a bunch of gear.

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The Suguha bit which makes up the climax of this episode is better, but not by much. The revelation and dilemma it places her in are actually pretty interesting, and the idea that she fell in love with Kirito partly as a defence mechanism to forget her love for her brother has a certain sad poetry to it. But it’s a poorly handled sequence, as she just dumps tons and tons of angsty dialogue on us, becoming increasingly incoherent as she goes along. ‘Less is more’ is a cliche for a reason and it’s really one they should have applied here. As it is, Suguha’s big moment becomes less of the heartbreaking tragedy it wants to be, and more of a chaotic toddlers tantrum. It unwittingly abandons tragedy for tragicomedy instead. I’m not even going to bother dedicating a paragraph to Asuna, because she does what she’s done for a lot of the time – cry a little and wait for rescue. I thought that her theft of the system card might lead to her doing something cool…yeah, that one didn’t pan out.

One thing that must be said is that this week’s episode looked staggering. There’s a clear and noticeable animation bump as A1 reach the ‘let’s dump all the money we saved for this’ point. Character movement is noticeably better, the aerial battle inside the tree particularly delightful to watch and basically everything looks sharper, smoother and more expensive. Eye candy can’t save what’s ultimately a strangely unfulfilling episode though. It’s clearly one which aimed to land some powerful emotional blows, but I don’t have the investment or attachment to this world to feel much. Failing to endear the characters to me earlier in the run ultimately looks as though it may sabotage SAO‘s attempts at a grand finale.

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