There is no hope on the battlefield.
But there is a familiar little boy with ginger hair.
Picking up right where last episode left off, things waste no time going straight to Hell. Saber, powerless against the Command Spells used on her (Command Spells continue to be awful in 99% of cases), blasts the Grail with Excalibur, and wonders if her being forced to rend apart her one salvation is punishment for being a bad king. She disappears, mana spent and no tie to this world left, leaving Gilgamesh and Kiritsugu staring up at the giant wound-like black hole in the sky. Which promptly belches unholy muck on them.
Gilgamesh gets splattered and the rest pours through the theatre and the surrounding town, setting fire and laying waste to everything in its path. It’s a horrifying sight and it’s all too much for Kiritsugu, who just symbolically destroyed his family so he could stop people from dying. People are definitely dying, in fire and brimstone, and Kiritsugu’s attempts to help look horribly fruitless. The place is a wreck, and it only gets worse when the flames die down and Kirei wakes up in the ruins, surprised to find he has no heartbeat.
He’s even more surprised (weren’t we all?) to find a naked, floppy-haired Gilgamesh beaming down at him from where he’s daintily perched on the rubble. The Grail spat them both back out, it seems, giving Gil solid form and Kirei… immortality? In any case, the omnipotent force that wanted to kill the entire world seems to have something of a soft spot for these two once again, and Kirei can only break down laughing. He reached the Grail, and this is what he got? Maybe this horror and death and destruction is what he wished for all along. Gil just watches his fledgling sadist come into full bloom with a fond smile.
They halt when they see Kiritsugu, who looks like he’s been hit by a truck emotionally and physically. Kirei is quite disappointed when his nemesis doesn’t want to fight, just dead-facedly digs through rubble looking for survivors. You get the sense that he’s on autopilot and has lost all hope. Kirei can’t even be happy with that, and leaves him be with a tsk, taking the curtain-wrapped Gilgamesh to wreak havoc somewhere else.
Meanwhile, Kariya is still alive somehow, despite the strain of supporting Berserkerlot through his fight with Saber, and can be seen hobbling towards dear little Sakura. There’s a heartwarming scene where he reunites her with her sister and they all agree to be a family, and part of you just knows it’s bull even before the very much strangled Aoi shows up looking dotingly at her attacker. Harbouring this heroic, squishy happy fantasy ‘til the last moment, Kariya slides into the seething mess of magic insects, presumably to become compost. Sakura looks on in a sort of “we told you so” way.
Fair enough, really—while it contains some interesting (unrealised) potential for playing with Good Guy tropes that fit nicely in with the theme of flawed heroism and ideology in the series, Kariya’s arc has always been one of the most boring and unsatisfactory to me. Mostly because it’s not an arc: it’s a diagonal line plummeting to unhappy doom. If you know Fate/Stay Night you know he can’t be successful because Sakura’s a major character and has very much not been rescued, and even if you don’t, there’s no ups and downs and it’s plain to see his storyline is just a conga line of suffering and awfulness. There’s never any hope for Kariya. It had to end badly either way. And instead of being an engaging tragedy, it’s just a flinch-worthy process of watching him tumble down a hill towards insanity and death breaking his bones along the way.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some characters actually have variance in their stories, and mercifully something comes along to sweep this up from being a complete downer ending: Kiritsugu finds someone in the ruins. If you know Fate/Stay Night, again, you will recognise him as Shirou, and you will recognise his monologue about the man that saved him when the world was burning—and will delight in seeing it from Kiritsugu’s perspective with full context, weeping from sheer relief and happiness that he managed to save at least one person.
“There is no hope on the battlefield”. No, that’s incorrect, and if you relish that idea you’re probably Kirei and you’re probably having a great time. There’s always hope. That’s Shirou’s whole thing, from this moment to his climactic battles to his future. With this beginning, and what he means to Kiritsugu and to the overall story of Fate, he’s almost the human embodiment of not giving up.
Pan back from the two protagonists, and… tick. And the clock that we’ve been watching all series finally counts down to zero.
It’s not over yet, though—we have to see where the few survivors have been left. Waver is, against all odds, among them, and seems to be healing alright in the care of Glen and Martha, who seem to be on their way to becoming his adoptive grandparents rather than his stolen ones. Rin is attending her father’s funeral, watched over by the undead sadist who is now her legal guardian. Kirei happily gifts her the dagger that he used to murder Tokiomi and looks delighted as she bursts into tears, even more so when she has to go take care of her mother who is not in fact dead, but rendered apparently brain damaged, amnesiac, and confined to a wheelchair.
Which is in many ways worse, and I can only imagine added in for Extra Suffering. Which is all kinds of awkward since it basically tells you that disability is worse than death, and mostly sticks out as an inflammatory final jab for tragedy’s sake because it never appears again. In her storyline we get one flash of image that tells us Rin even had a mother, and absolutely no indication of what happened to Aoi or what effect it had on her daughter between now and the beginning of the sequel. If you’re going to make things deliberately worse to make Rin suffer and grow up, at least put some continuity to it instead of making it a one-note shock moment. Aoi, of course, has even less agency than before, and is reduced to a cloudcuckoolander babbling sweetly about the happy family life Rin will never have because everything is terrible! Take a day off from destroying the lives of women for the pain of more important characters, please.
Ilya, too, is sitting in the ruins of a once-stable magical family, waiting patiently for her father to return and addressed by her mother’s disembodied voice. It’s all haunting enough, but then there’s the final blow: Kiritsugu’s narration that he tried to get to her but the Einzberns wouldn’t let him through the magic barrier, and he never saw her again. Few things hit me in the gut like that line, whether or not I knew how horrible things would be for Ilya at the time I first heard it.
Kiritsugu will not have to suffer the knowledge that he lost everyone he’s ever loved or cared about and had his one life goal dashed on the rocks alone, though. He adopted the boy he rescued, and can be seen sitting watching as the Japanese-style house is repaired and made fit to live in. He’s lost so much, but is soldiering on, making life good for one person instead of trying to save the world. Can the world be saved at all? We just don’t know. Not with the Grail, anyway.
He says as much (but without the Grail-y details) to young Shirou one night, warning him off trying to be a hero. Shirou responds in flawless child-logic that if Kiritsugu’s dream to be a hero didn’t work out, he’ll simply have to take it up instead. Shirou grins, telling him to “leave your dream to me”. It soothes not only the ailing Kiritsugu, but faraway in time and space, seems to open a shaft of golden hopeful light onto the depressed Saber where she sits on a battlefield wasteland lamenting that she destroyed everyone’s lives.
Someone else will take up the dream and help her. Someone else will strive to do good. There is hope on the battlefield, and Shirou is at his heart its personification for both Kiritsugu and Saber, and the one thing that makes this necessarily awful prequel ending sweet over bitter. Because God this is an awful ending—if we didn’t have Fate/Stay Night already in the canon bedrock, I think I would have dropped this series in tears.
It’s crushing. It tells you that overall the bad guys will win and the world cannot be saved and even miracles will find a way to be warped, and you are wrong and foolish to believe in honour and loyalty and good things. Apart from key elements like Waver’s arc and Shirou’s appearance, the entire thing is oppressively negative. It’s any wonder people who came to Stay Night straight after this weren’t shocked to death by the positivity inherent in its story.
Thanks to his son, Kiritsugu can finally be at peace, and the last thing we see is him closing his eyes, again implying but never stating that this is his last moment alive (it’s also implied but never stated that he dies because Iris-Grail’s curse slowly shredded him from the inside out, which means one of the cutest couples in the show effectively murdered each other. Yay! In any case, having had this not made clear in the show, L.I. confessed “I thought he died of a broken heart” which, to this day, I’m not sure is any better). As it’s such a pivotal moment, and effectively the bridge between the arcs of the two heroes of Zero and Stay Night, it would have been pretty good, nay, essential, to make it clear in at least one adaptation that he’s dying, but we can’t have everything.
Oh, what a wild ride this has been. We’ve had magic duels, explosions, virgin fetishes, philosophy, women in refrigerators, zombie-virus-carrying wasps, ambiguous deaths and poor characterisation. As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve read these reviews, my tolerance of the silly crap this series pulls is low, but it still holds a profoundly special place in my heart for all sorts of reasons. The fact that I’m still thinking about it in depth and have been willing to write a novel’s worth of episode commentary two years after first viewing it should speak for its staying power. Maybe in part because of all the things it leaves unanswered—it’s gotten me to speculate and think and demand more, pursuing the mysteries it leaves in its wake. Which… well, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.
Fate/Zero, you are a beautiful monster. Stay golden, you edgy, fascinating, ideological magical mess.