There is an opportunity cost to every decision we ever make, whether we like it or not. Choosing one action over another will always result in us forgoing the consequences of the action ignored in favour of the action chosen. It is a simple concept, really, but humans are intrinsically greedy creatures and despite the irrationality of it, we often find ourselves wanting the best of both choices. It was this very same, simple but unavoidable, lesson that Emiya Kiritsugu tried to teach his son long ago. “You can’t save everyone”, he said but simple as it is, it is not a lesson that can be taught but rather one that must be learned. Shirou learns this lesson rather painfully in this mid-season finale of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. After a solid fifteen minutes of the gang having a blissfully idyllic day out, an ambush by Caster leaves Shirou with choices to make and not a single one appealing. For an episode that felt comfortable devoting that much time to Shirou and Rin letting their hair down, the latter half of the episode seems relatively rushed, with major revelations being thrown around offhandedly. Caster’s identity and Noble Phantasm are finally revealed and the final clue to Archer’s identity and connection to Shirou is provided (or is it?) but the half-season ends on a grim note as Shirou is forced to sacrifice Saber and bow out of the Holy Grail War.
The surprise date that Rin asks Shirou (and Saber, for reasons unclear to everyone, including Rin) out on is a rather strange opening to an otherwise serious episode but it does give us a final opportunity to see how Shirou and Rin have changed. As mentioned last week, Shirou’s survivor’s guilt is still very much a large part of his personality – even after all this time, he still feels like he didn’t deserve to be saved and doesn’t understand why he was chosen to survive when so many others died. It actively interferes with his ability to just kick back and enjoy the small things in life, a characteristic that has been noted multiple times over the course of the season. For her part, Rin has identified that something is clouding Shirou’s mind, and while she doesn’t know just what happened in the past, she seems determined to convince him that he deserves happiness just as much as anyone else. It’s a sweet gesture really, but it does seem like resolving matters with the Holy Grail will provide him with more closure than Rin can provide. Apart from that, their little excursion gives all three characters a chance to really just enjoy being alive without worrying about Masters and Servants and saving all of mankind. It seems almost a shame that Rin seems to get the lion’s share of the screen time – the few occasions where Saber lets herself stop being the quintessential Servant show an adorably human side of her personality. Watching her and Rin crack up over how ridiculous Shirou looks in glasses is enough to make you wonder how pleasant all of their lives would be if the Grail War wasn’t constantly hanging over their heads.
For better or worse though, the Grail War is hanging over their heads; Caster, now stronger than ever with an entire city feeding her, had created an enormous Bounded Field over the bridge and traps our happily content protagonists within. Three important events occur within this Bounded Field. The first of these and the least important really, is that Rin finally learns of Shirou’s past. Before this point, she isn’t aware of Shirou’s connection to the Holy Grail War and while it definitely doesn’t radically change anything, it does mean that she can stop giving him such a hard time for brooding all the time. The second, and significantly more important revelation, is the nature of Caster’s Noble Phantasm, Rule Breaker. From the little I understand of it, it’s exactly what it sounds like; she is able to break ‘rules’, though it would seem that that’s limited to magical ‘rules’. This definitely explains how she is able to command Servants despite being one and how she was able to mimic True Magic earlier in the season. The exact limits and boundaries of Rule Breaker aren’t explained just yet but it has potentially gigantic ramifications for the end-game; based on her brief confrontation with Kirei at the episode’s end, it would appear that she is able to break the rule that the Holy Grail requires only one Servant left in order to be summoned though the exact difference between the Lesser and Greater Holy Grails isn’t clear just yet. The last and most important event, of course, was Shirou being forced to choose between Taiga and Saber. The choice is a brilliant move, narratively speaking. It forces Shirou, who has thus far insisted that he will save ‘everyone’ (in a figurative sense), to face reality; as he is, he is in no position to do so. It’s a cruel way to learn an unpleasant lesson but speaking from a character development standpoint, it’s something that he will have had to confront at some point in the story in order for his character to mature and grow. Yet, for all that, it isn’t that this particular episode has made him give up his dream – he is down, and understandably so, but far from out. Grandiose claims like saving everyone cannot be made by the weak, however; only the strong are able to make good on such statements of benevolence. It’s something that feels vaguely in line with what Archer would say, interestingly. Regardless, it would make sense for Shirou to spend some time thinking seriously about how he can use what limited weapons he has in his arsenal to save the day.
Speaking of Archer, his timely breach of the Bounded Field seemed awfully convenient – he swoops in to save the day just as Shirou effectively throws Saber under the bus. His dislike of Shirou has been plain since the beginning – he has not wanted him participating in the War, ostensibly because Archer didn’t want Shirou dragging Rin down along with him. His true motivations might be considerably more complex, especially in light of the stunning revelations of the episode’s final section. Let us consider what little we know of Archer. He seems to be a hero from the past, judging by the flashbacks Rin saw in her dream. He didn’t have a particularly pleasant life from the looks of it, either. He uses projection magic, like Shirou, and understands his (Shirou’s) outlook on life surprisingly well, despite vehemently opposing it. Add in Archer’s admissions that he does know Saber from his previous life and we might just finally have enough to formulate a vaguely plausible theory of who Archer is. We know that Saber was summoned in this period before and that the last Holy Grail War was about ten years ago. We know from Rin that Saber was one of the last War’s ‘finalists’, which means she was summoned in the previous war. Next, it’s almost guaranteed that Kiritsugu was involved in the war as well, based Kirei’s dislike for him. The speculative part is thus: Archer was Kiritsugu’s Servant and thus, based on his own knowledge of Kiritsugu’s philosophies, has some understanding of where Shirou is coming from. It would explain how Archer knows this particular Saber (though, not why she doesn’t know him nor why that would lead him to go easy on her) and most importantly, it would explain why Archer specifically asks about Taiga. The theory is far from perfect but it’s all I got for now. The reveal is coming soon surely, and I’ll have to hold out till then. It would seem however, that Rin knows more than she is letting on – there was wary look in her eye as she asked Archer if he remember who he was and Archer’s reply wasn’t particularly convincing. It’ll be interesting to see how this particular angle plays out.
There is one final, major talking point before we can wrap this episode and season up. Since the first episode, I had assumed that the show had goofed on the pendant in the prologue and that the subsequent episode corrected it by having Shirou take it with him instead. However, in this episode, when Shirou finds it in Rin’s house, he recognizes it. This is curious because the only reason it is in Rin’s house is because Archer retrieved it for her from…where exactly? If Shirou woke up and took it with him, where did Archer get it from? Are there two pendants then? Assuming that this isn’t a massive plot hole on the writer’s part, there is something very seriously amiss here. The pendant makes its reappearance at an appropriate time, however. It is a mark of Shirou’s deep debt towards Rin, a debt that he hadn’t even realized he owed until this episode. Clearly, this will be his primary motivation going forward – he has a debt to pay and he is far too noble and proud to forget the debt and leave Rin to fight Caster, Assassin, Kuzuki and Saber all on her own. Yet, Rin is adamant that Shirou stay out of it – it would seem that now that he is no longer a Master, their temporary alliance has ended and Shirou’s continued interference will lead to her considering him an enemy. It’s unlike that she is ruthless enough to kill him in cold blood but it won’t matter – in his current state, it is virtually impossible for him to offer the like of Caster any real resistance. However, there are wildcards hanging in the background ready to make their move; with Caster’s attack on Kirei, it’s clear that all rules are off and that might just provide enough of an incentive to prompt Team Berserker, Team Lancer and Team Shinji to make their moves.