Can a pair of teenagers really dismantle Pure Evil in Physical Form and fight off the infinitely more powerful ancient spirit bent on using it to destroy life on earth? We shall see.
Cards on the table, I was not nearly as excited for this fight as I was for Shirou vs. Archer. Call me boring, but I tend to be much more invested in standoffs that have some kind of roots in character conflict, and are less about a black-and-white good-and-evil model. Still, this is the final stage in Shirou’s Quest Narrative, and the innocent farm boy must take what he has gained and learned and defeat a greater force of darkness in order to return home with the Great Prize. Said Prize is going to have to be metaphorical and emotional, in this case, since the Holy Grail everyone’s been fighting over is looking decidedly unlike a trophy and more like a horrifying mass of diseased flesh.
Not to mention the fact that it’s curses in physical form, according to Rin, who still wades into the lake and towards the great pile of mushy terror to rescue Shinji, apparently immune to its effects after swallowing a gem from the seemingly endless collection of them she has in her coat pockets. Even if he has repeatedly tried to harm Our Heroes and was dead set on outright molesting Rin, it would be nothing short of petty to complain that she’s choosing to help Shinji rather than letting the little creep get torn apart. The goal is clearly bigger than either of their prejudices against him: he’s the vessel, the anchor, a crucial ingredient in the summoning, and without him the Grail can’t form. We can deal with the baggage later (and I’d imagine the experience would have humbled him a touch, to say the least).
Gilgamesh, ever the haughty villain, is not happy that these two young punks are on his lawn, and are trying to stop him from purging humanity from the earth. We are creatures of excess, he sighs—back in his day, everyone had a purpose, even slaves (oh, and I bet they loved it, Gil); now, humans are a directionless rabble. Compelling as he could be as an antagonist, I found myself yawning through this entire display.
I mean, he’s Gilgamesh, for heaven’s sake—a complex, rich and deeply flawed literary hero who had adventures on a Biblical scale (literally: some of the events even match up, like the great flood that Noah made the Ark for, which is a fascinating academic discussion for another time). If not only from a historical standpoint, he is the most epic of epic heroes you can possibly imagine. Yet here he feels like, at best, a diabolical mouthpiece for the follies of man (no doubt setting the stage for a hope-filled rebuttal from our ever-optimistic Shirou) and at worst, a disgruntled old man tutting about how Gen Y is destroying civilisation (Gil, I feel, would absolutely rally against selfie culture. No one should be permitted to have that kind of pride and confidence except him).
Perhaps it’s merely because we don’t know him that well, as he is The Bad Guy and we haven’t had much opportunity to see his side of things (again, I point those scratching their heads towards the prequel, where he actually has a role outside of Harbinger of Doom and some quite interesting philosophical dialogue). The same could be said of the episode’s other antagonist, Assassin, who’s still guarding the gate to the Temple even in Medea’s absence. Impossible, you say? Well, he admits, he was a fake Servant from the start, merely a shade with the skills attributed to Sasaki Kojiro in life, and summoned to fill this place in death. Saber is quite shocked to see him, which is understandable since the show has given us no reason to remember he exists all season.
The implication is that an honest duel gives his half-life some meaning and purpose, so instead of stepping aside like a gentleman and letting Saber run forward to fulfil her team’s plan of preventing the end of life as we know it, he blocks and engages her in combat. It’s nowhere near as entrancing as their previous duels, but I think this was deliberate: this is a standoff between two swordfighters who both have a countdown looming over their shoulder. Saber is fully aware—as is the audience, thanks to Rin— that once she uses her Noble Phantasm, she won’t have enough mana to continue on. Sasaki, as her foil, is literally fading away.
There’s a decidedly sombre, personal air to this little confrontation, in contrast to the oh my God, impending doooom situation of the half-baked Grail outside. Again, we know bugger-all about Sasaki and can only feel the slightest sympathy for him having had the truth of his sad existence thrust upon us in the last five minutes, in a flashback that someone seems to have overlaid too many Photoshop filters over. But there’s a genuine melancholy to him as Saber dodges his signature move, slices him down the middle, and with his blessing runs up the stairs to her duty.
She leaves him sitting on the stairs watching the leaves fall, as I’m sure he must have in life in a backstory that’s probably very poetic and nuanced and that we will never know. Sasaki makes a final weirdly placed comment about never really understanding women and dissipates into dust, joining the other fallen Servants. Rest in peace, underdeveloped swordy man. I wish I could say I’m going to miss you, but I knew you for what feels like about 30 seconds.
Perhaps the antagonists aren’t the important thing here so much as Shirou’s attempts to project Gilgamesh’s weapons in rapid-fire, and the most important and spectacular ‘antagonist’ which is of course the Grail itself. Its gelatinous, disgusting limb-filled form is only half as horrifying as the concept that we made this thing: lights begin appearing in the sky as Rin is hauling Shinji out and Shirou is squaring off against Gil’s attacks, flowing towards the strange ring that’s belching out curses. They’re wishes, Gil happily explains, wants and desires of humans. That was what we created the Grail for, after all: to grant any and all wishes, no matter how impossible. But what’s stronger than a wish? A curse, a malevolent desire, which are pouring into the Grail and giving it power. It’s soaking up all the ill will of the world and loving it.
And yes, it is a sentient thing, or at least displays some signs of it when it forms itself into a massive arm and reaches straight for Gilgamesh. In the absence of Shinji, who has been successfully unstuck by Rin and seems to be taking a content nap, it wants another vessel. Gil, of course, is having none of this, and barely raising an eyebrow (oh, what is duller than a non-expressive villain?) summons a weapon so out-there Shirou can’t even get a read on it. He certainly doesn’t have a hope of Tracing and reproducing it, like he has some of the other swords. This one is big and geometric and weird and apparently called Ea, and it blows away the Grail’s arm—and half the Temple—with one twitch of Gil’s wrist.
Gosh darn, he was already a stupidly overpowered foe; just when Shirou was starting to stand a chance of levelling with him, he pulls out this thing. It looks like the plan for Shirou to defeat him has gone totally belly up. It doesn’t seem like there’d be much that could compete with that.
And yet, we see our fallen hero twitch and come to in the rubble. Whether it’s Saber’s healing sheath or the power of pure resolve and anger that’s brought him back to consciousness after being nearly destroyed remains unclear, but the point is crystal: Shirou is not done. Oh, you have not beaten this boy and won just yet, hammy villain. Not on his watch.
- Yes, the title is a shameless Winter Soldier reference. I knew I’d get one in there somewhere.
- I talked about use of colour to visualise different atmospheres and different magics a while back, and this episode used it brilliantly. The Grail scenes are all in bloody, glowing red, Rin’s house colours—see, Tohsaka family? This was your goal. How much does it suck? Perhaps Rin was never destined to be as comfortable in her legacy as she wanted to be. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. The gold vs blue for Gilgamesh and Shirou respectively was beautiful to watch, though.
- I hate to break it to you Rin, but the absence of Shinji might actually be a positive thing in Sakura’s life… though of course, how could she know? How could anyone know? There’s been no interaction between the Matou siblings, and Sakura, as I have been noting, is nowhere to be seen. At least Rin remembers she exists.