While Rin moves impractically slowly through the spreading fire on the top floor, Shirou and Archer’s head-to-head battle with the literal power of imagination reaches its peak in the Bladeworks downstairs. Borrowed or otherwise, there is nothing wrong with a dream to help people, gosh darn it, and Shirou is not going to stop fighting until he’s defeated the cranky monologue-spouting naysayer in front of him. Not even after we’ve already had a full episode devoted to it.
Does it feel drawn out? A little, to be honest, but the dynamics of the fight are very different now that Shirou has a renewed body and spirit, so much that he can manipulate the Bladeworks itself, in a lovely bit of symbolism where the power of his righteousness blasts the dark clouds from the Reality Marble’s sky. And that wonderful little theme song begins again, for a few great moments where he sprints towards Archer batting away everything he throws at him, including giant swords (go hard or go home, right?)
Archer can’t believe what he’s seeing. He recognises it, though, enough to flash back for a few seconds to a point in his life where he’s physically somewhere between “Archer” and “Shirou”, and emotionally somewhere he regrets. All that hope! All that courage! All that love for people and good will! And where did it get him? Did the world care that he wanted to help? Nope, the world screwed him over, time and again, and led to the man we know as Archer today, full of regret and rage. His teenaged mindset and everything about it that made him cringe is literally running towards him. Hey, I’d be annoyed too. Maybe not murderous, but you know, we’ve all been there.
Even Saber, it turns out, who has another little self-reflective moment as an aside from watching the fight. She had a dream too, and it was not wrong. It just turned out kind of messed up in the end, as these things often do, with a chasm between the cute farm girl she used to be and the battle-worn king standing in that field of suffering and defeat. You get the sense that she harbours regret—essentially, if we believe Archer, it’s the entire reason she’s here—but is kind of re-evaluating herself given what she’s seeing of Archer’s conflict.
There’s always that lingering question: if you could go back, would you do it differently? Would you shake your younger self by the collar and warn them of what the future holds? The parallels between Archer and Saber have sprouted from nothingness to a real point of interest, but I wonder if we’re running out of time to really explore them.
Especially as this arc is overwhelmingly about the Emiyas—as Shirou’s slamming at him with yet more projected swords, looking progressively beaten, bloodied and manic, Archer has another flashback: that repeated, iconic scene of Kiritsugu’s pre-death, looking at the moon, an untouchable but beautiful far away thing, and promising to take up his untouchable but beautiful goal. Struck down by Dad Feelings, the Bladeworks dissipates, and in a snap change we’re back in the Einzbern manor, Shirou with a sword successfully in Archer’s gut.
The young and optimistic won over the jaded and dark, and Archer accepts defeat without a trace of his previous wrath. He’s a sentimental guy at heart, he quietly admits, at which point Rin appears looking very confused by the whole affair. Especially when the camera pans over her and Archer drawls that had she been colder and harsher, he might not have reverted to his former self as much. So, he’s admitting that he still harbours feelings for Rin after all this time, and a remnant of the Shirou that grins like sunshine when he sees her, despite being beaten half to death and on his butt on the floor, remains in Archer? How nice. Why did you tie her up and leave her to be fondled and killed, then?
There’s no time to address this, because Gilgamesh appears and declares that there’s been enough self-exploration for one day and it’s time for the show to be all about him, thanks. Keen to get rid of the “fakers” he sends a rain of swords and spears down, leading Archer to surprise everyone by shoving Shirou out of the way and taking the full brunt of the attack. What a hero!!
But, not before he apparently slows down time enough to give Shirou a meaningful look and tell him it’s up to him to defeat Gilgamesh. Then he is gone, a crater and some mana dust all that remains of our supposed central antagonist. Rin screams and displays the most emotion she has all episode. Gilgamesh is nonplussed. Shirou is baffled. Saber is just pissed that Gil’s back, because it turns out they’ve met before.
In the previous Grail War, Gilgamesh narrates, ten years prior. Saber destroyed the Grail, cleaving it in half with a holy sword, and leaving its contents to spill over him and give him human form as well as a lovely exfoliating mud bath. And yes, what it spilled was mud—and fire, and horror and death and widespread destruction, and generally not things one would consider holy.
Hadn’t you heard, Gilgamesh practically chortles? The Grail is a corrupt vessel that fills up with the mana of dead Servants, created by mages for unknown purposes long ago. At the end of the War it becomes an endless sink of magic and power, ideal for use by a mage but basically useless to a Servant, which renders the whole “the winners get a wish each!” promise a big fat lie. Saber is more shocked and heartbroken than she’ll show at having her entire character motivation trashed at her feet.
Gilgamesh adores the idea though, and is happily planning to activate this dark Grail and use it as a killing machine. If it wiped out half a city last time, orphaning Shirou among many others in the process, there’s a fine chance it could enable world destruction in the right (or in this case, very wrong) hands. Gilgamesh is sick of people, basically—he wants to be a king again and promises to rule over those that remain once the filth has been purged. And if no one’s left? Meh. It seems, in place of Archer’s self-vs-self conflict, we have a megalomaniac bent on world destruction as our main villain now. Which is immediately less interesting, but still a valid concern, though Gil decides to leave Our Heroes to think it over of killing them when the house begins to cave and he doesn’t want to get soot on his clothes.
So, Archer’s dead, the Grail is corrupt, Gilgamesh and Saber are Servants from the previous War (in that flashback we also caught a glimpse of what is becoming a very familiar long black coat, so that’s especially interesting), and an ancient Mesopotamian king who is inexplicably blonde is planning on wiping out life as we know it on earth and enslaving anyone who’s left. Anything else?!
Why, yes, actually. We still have Shinji to contend with, who’s waiting outside ready to spit fire at Gilgamesh for abandoning him. Gil’s empathetic response to Shinji’s angry complaining is to materialise Ilya’s strange heart and shove it inside Shinji’s torso with all the precision of Surgeon Simulator, and walk off as whatever weird magic is encased within latches onto the boy’s body and warps it into a horrifying bulbous multi-limbed monstrosity.
Whatever the Holy Grail War was intended to be by those initial mages who dreamed it up, I think it’s pretty safe to declare this one FUBAR and head for the hills.
- This previous War is becoming more and more relevant—Kirei fought and killed Rin’s dad, Gilgamesh and Saber faced off, Ilya’s mother was involved somehow as, it’s highly implied, was Kiritsugu himself… someone should make a show about—oh, wait.
- Love me this EMIYA theme. We’ve only gotten snippets, but its use has been cleverly placed enough to add a sense of epic and emotional proportion to the scenes. Perhaps we’ll get a full background track yet, but I’m really enjoying what it signifies so far
- The ceiling caving in and Gilgamesh dropping his weapons and hopping away from his impending sootiness is possibly the most awkward and stilted character transition in this show so far
- I hunger for more Archer backstory. The flashes we’ve seen have been fascinating, both of him as a Counter Guardian shooting his way through history and whatever earth-bound form of heroism we glimpsed this episode. If only to know exactly when and how his entire colour palette changed
- Gilgamesh is strangely unmoved by Kirei’s death. You have to wonder exactly what the state of their relationship was, at which point you notice that they don’t actually interact all that much in Fate/Stay Night itself, and like a good fanfic writer Urobochi took it upon himself to answer these questions in his own work
- Sakura was not… you know what, I don’t even know why I bother.