After flexing her magical muscles last week, Caster finally gets her fifteen minutes (almost literally) in the spotlight as we explore her history and backstory. The episode doesn’t focus on her historical origins, which is fine since Medea is a famous enough figure that there is no real shortage of information out there, but instead reveals her actions at the very start of the Holy Grail War. This leads to some fairly intriguing revelations – Kuzuki not being Caster’s first Master and Kirei’s shady backroom dealings, being chief among them – but it doesn’t seem like either will impact the story too much at this stage. The first half of the episode, filled with exposition as it is, feels a little sluggish but the rest of the episode more than makes up for it. Shinji and his new Servant crash a party intended for Shirou and Rin, ensuring a four Master meet-up in the very near future. The meeting hasn’t gotten off to the best start however, though we do finally learn Illya’s Servant’s name.
Caster is a character that greatly benefits from the added depth that this episode provides her with. It gives her a complexity that the other Servants have lacked – apart from Archer, and perhaps Saber if we’re being generous, the other Servants so far, have not really been fleshed out. Caster has not felt evil in the same way that traditional villains do – while her willingness to use human life to sustain herself is seen as abhorrent within the series, it feels like it is counterbalanced by her concern from her Master and somewhat justified by her decidedly different moral compass. This aptly titled episode, ‘The Princess of Colchis’, takes care to establish her motivations and frame of mind and does a fairly good job of humanizing her character further. The revelation that Caster had a Master prior to Kuzuki is shocking not just because it implies how much has been going on behind the scenes, but also because it questions some of our assumptions regarding the fundamental rules of this War. While rules have a more fluid meaning than usual when Caster’s Noble Phantasm is in play, it is still surprising that Kuzuki could ‘replace’ Caster’s prior Master. Weren’t there only supposed to be seven Masters? Would that make Kuzuki the eighth? These questions are secondary for now, however, since this episode forces us to ask better ones.
The short sequence introducing and eliminating Caster’s first Master serves two major purposes – first, it tells us that Caster doesn’t have as great a disregard for human life as we had been led to believe (though, this is tricky to reconcile this with her actions at the temple) and second, it tells us that Caster is every bit as peerless as we have been told. If there was ever such a thing as a natural magician, it would seem Medea is one. Both points seem designed to improve our opinion of Caster; it is easy to sympathize with someone who is hated for being better. Furthermore, not only was she cursed with a difficult, immature Master, we are also told that she was reviled in her past, betrayed and abandoned and only wants to return to her homeland. That is all well and good, but given her historical counterpart’s actions, it begs the question: how sympathetic can someone who kills her own kids to get back at her husband really be?
At the beginning of the series, the Holy Grail War was portrayed as this divine phenomenon, an event that would culminate in this immeasurably powerful holy artefact bestowing upon worthy individuals their greatest desire. Over the course of the last season however, that perception has been gradually broken down and this episode represents the latest step in that deconstruction process. The Holy Grail War went from being this natural ‘miracle’ with unbreakable, immutable rules to something as pedestrian as tournament organized by a some people. Kirei’s actions have been central to this change; his actions have clearly not been performed with the War’s integrity in mind but instead have served to further his own, unknown interests. This episode is an excellent example; the summoning of a Servant, something that is otherwise seen as an extraordinary event, was reduced to a mere marketplace transaction. It’s still not entirely clear what this transaction involved. At first, it seemed that Caster’s Master was suggesting a Servant swap – he gets Lancer, and she gets Caster. However, we later see him try to kill Caster so either that deal didn’t go through or the idea was that he would kill Caster and re-summon a new Servant (I believe both Archer and Saber were still available at that point). Lancer’s appearance after Caster’s Master’s death would suggest that Lancer was in fact a part of the transaction since the Master’s death was not a part of the plan. Was Lancer the one responsible for Caster’s wounded state in the forest, then? Regardless, it seems abundantly clear at this point that Kirei is up to no good; his dealings with these Masters and Servants reek of corruption and self-serving greed but from the little we’ve seen of him, he doesn’t seem like the kind of villain to be motivated by money or power. We also haven’t seen or heard from Lancer’s Master though this episode did drop some clues – she is affiliated with the Mage’s Association and it seems that Caster’s first Master knew her.
Back in the present, the situation in the Einzbern hideout is tense as Illya makes her first substantial appearance in over twelve episodes. It seems that there is more to Illya than meets the eye – she isn’t just a precocious child prodigy, she appears to be a mixture between a human and a homunculus, which are traditionally human shaped shells that lack souls. It is a little late in the series to be introducing this new race but depending on how much detail we go into, it could just be a bit more world-building without really distracting from the main storyline. It would certainly explain the odd appearance of Team Illya. In any case, it would seem that the last twelve or so episodes since Illya’s previous appearance have robbed her of all her menace – watching her pout and sulk makes her seem like much less of a threat than she did before. It also seems to be the series’ way of signalling that she is no longer an antagonist, or at least, is no longer as antagonistic as she was during her first appearance, which in turn is as good a way as any for paving a path to an alliance between Shirou, Rin and her. It’s unclear what Shirou and Rin can offer her at this point but given that Illya seems to know and remember Kiritsugu and Shirou, it would seem that they have some catching up to do. Shiniji’s Servant has other ideas though – it would seem that they arrive at the hideout at the same time purely by coincidence. The confrontation scene had a rather strange atmosphere to it; we begin the whole sequence light-heartedly enough with Rin flying off and flaming Illya who in turn is getting her princess complex on. Shinji’s reappearance and continued cowardice only helps with the comedy until his Servant appears. The Servant’s appearance is serious business and all of a sudden, limbs are falling off and Homunculi are getting beheaded. Shinji’s comical reactions and pitiful appearance might be an attempt by the show to get the audience to accept him as a possible member of this four Master alliance but I dearly hope not. Shinji’s sins were far enough in the past that I don’t think most members of the audience care anymore, but I still don’t think he deserves a shot at redemption. That said, he did flinch when his Servant beheaded the maid and if nothing else, it’s a sign that although Shinji talks about killing everyone and winning the War, he’s just a kid who’s talking a bigger game than he can play.
His nameless Servant, on the other hand, is playing for keeps. The revelation that Berserker is Hercules was disappointing in how offhanded it was but came just in time for the audience to appreciate just how gutsy Shinji’s Servant has to be to face him unflinchingly. Hercules’ twelve feats are some of the most famous mythological stories ever told – he is not a Servant you just casually challenge. Unless, of course, you’re someone just as powerful, though at this point, I’m drawing a blank as to who that could even be. Interestingly, this particular Servant knows a lot about the Grail and even calls Illya the Grail’s vessel. Is that the reason that Caster couldn’t find the Grail despite searching so desperately for it? Did Illya just outwit everyone by sneaking into Kirei’s church and somehow merging with the Grail when no one noticed it? I wouldn’t put it past Kirei to have let that happen just to see how the other Masters would react and given the blonde Servant’s close association with Kirei, of course he would know all about it. It’s a little ambiguous at this point, but the blonde Servant does seem to know Hercules personally given the way he refers to a battle of legend in the episode’s final shot. How cool would it be if Medea, Hercules and some other Greek dude all duked it out? We know that it’s not impossible for Heroic Spirits from the same era to be summoned together – it’s probably happened with Archer and Saber, in fact. It might stretch credibility a little for all three of those heroes to be interrelated but at the same time it could be a neat way of resolving Caster’s own character issues. On a final note (there was nowhere else to mention it), the blonde Servant has a really kickass musical theme. It’s not relevant to the rest of this discussion, but I had to mention it.