What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, one of them is in for a rude awakening. The confrontation between the dreaded Berserker Heracles and Shinji’s enigmatic blonde Servant is the focus of this week’s aptly named episode ‘A Mythical Showdown’ though the episode also spends a good amount of time exploring Illya’s twisted and tragic past as well as her reasons for getting involved in this increasingly bloody conflict. Illya and Berserker have been largely absent since their first appearance in the previous season but anyone hoping that their recent return to the center stage is a sign that they will be returning to the story permanently, is going to have those hopes violently and tragically dashed. The episode does an impressive job of getting the audience invested in Illya’s story and reworking Berserker’s image from a terrifying, relentless monster to that of an equally terrifying but nobler, more protective figure. It also provides the audience with some additional background on the history of the Holy Grail and the Einzbern family, though with Illya’s death and defeat, it is unclear just how useful that information will be going forward.
Since the first season, Berserker and Illya have been built up as the team to beat. We would hear Servants like Caster and Archer remark on just how powerful Berserker is and even consider uniting to defeat him. It makes his defeat in this episode surprising but makes the manner of his defeat downright shocking. Throughout the fight with Shinji’s nameless Servant, Berserker doesn’t even manage to land a single blow, and not for a lack of trying. The fight scenes, interspersed with backstory exposition as they are, repeatedly show Berserker’s fury as he and Illya try their very best to get past the blonde Servant’s seemingly limitless armoury but to no avail. Still, at first it would seem that at worst, the fight would reach a stalemate – after all, a bottomless armoury, despite being composed of Noble Phantasms (seriously, who is this guy?), can’t do a whole lot against someone who’s immortal. However, Berserker’s ‘immortality’, which would seem to be his Noble Phantasm, comes with a caveat; he gets twelves lives, presumably one for each of his labours. The blonde Servant somehow knows this and, to use a gaming term, is able to effectively kite Berserker without taking any damage himself. In fairness, the blonde Servant had to bring out his A-grade weaponry to get the job done, and still has a moment of genuine fear when Berserker makes a final stand while Berserker himself was a little hamstrung by Illya’s presence at his side. The fight scenes are absolutely brutal as Berserker is finally, stabbed repeatedly, subdued by divine chains and then summarily executed. It’s strange that Illya didn’t go after Shinji – clearly, she wasn’t going to be able to even scratch the enemy Servant but she could have forced him on the defensive by going after Shinji, who’s pretty much defenseless on his own. After watching Illya boss Rin around in their first fight, it seems a little unfortunate that Illya herself goes out so passively.
If there is one department in which Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works seems to lack in, it’s that the Servants themselves don’t really feel like characters so much as objects. With the exception of Archer, who is easily the best developed character among the Servants, the other Servants seem to lack agency and are essentially extensions of their Masters’ wills. This second season has taken some promising steps in correcting that; we got a glimpse of Caster’s past and her motivations in the previous episode, and this week we learn a little more about Heracles as a character instead of as a Servant, if that makes sense. It’s always difficult to really develop a character who doesn’t talk and only appears for such a limited time but the episode does a fairly good job of helping the audience understand Heracles a little better. Specifically, it focuses on the relationship between Illya and Berserker which extends beyond the usual Master-Servant bond to something warmer and almost familial. This isn’t stated explicitly but it would seem that Illya freed Berserker from his feral, mindless state at the point of his summoning by essentially mentally breaking through his anger. It seems like it weakened Illya considerably but also won her Berserker’s respect. As was the case with Kuzuki and Caster, this very human connection between these two barely human (or really, outright non-human) characters makes them much more sympathetic, even though they are strictly speaking our protagonists’ enemies. More importantly, it ensures that the audience has an emotional investment in the characters and feels some sense of loss upon their deaths. Of the two deaths, Illya’s was clearly the more gut-wrenching but there is also something incredibly saddening about watching this great warrior chained and put down like a rabid animal. Berserker’s final attempt at avenging Illya seals the audience’s respect for the character, despite his rather ineffectual showing, and is even acknowledged by his opponent.
It’s difficult to say what makes Illya’s death so tragic. Is it her age? Is it that she has suffered for this war since she was an infant but died without seeing it through to the end? Or is the violence with which she died? Clearly, it’s a little bit of all of that, and more. It’s frankly surprising, given her traumatic childhood and life in general, that Illya didn’t die totally unhinged. Her backstory is full of information about the War and finally gives us enough information to form a working picture of the last Holy Grail War. Illya’s mother, or at least her spectre, said that she ‘became the Grail’ which is not too unbelievable given that last episode, Illya was implied to have a Holy Grail within her as well. We are then told, again by the spectre which may or may not be reliable, that Kiritsugu murdered Illya’s mother. This, and him subsequently abandoning Illya, clashes violently with the Kiritsugu that Shirou knew and reveres. There is an explanation that can reconcile this, at least partially. Kirei’s enmity with Kiritsugu involves the latter ‘rejecting’ the Holy Grail. If this rejection involved his wife’s death, then perhaps it’s possible that Kiritsugu destroyed the Grail not realizing it was his wife. The grief of the act basically broke him and he decided to start life anew with Shirou. If true, this doesn’t excuse him abandoning Illya but does prove a point – even the most saintly heroes have blemishes on their records and more importantly, you can’t save everyone. With Illya’s death, Shirou might be spared knowing that he had an adoptive sister but it might be healthier for him to know that Kiritsugu wasn’t perfect.
Coming back to Illya, however, it’s unclear whether the visions she had of her mother were real or figments of her imagination or a little of both. Either way, it doesn’t matter since Illya believes them to be true and as a result holds a grudge against Kiritsugu and by extension, Shirou. A part of me thinks that it’s tragic that the true never got a chance to talk things out, especially with Shirou being so very close at hand, but at the same time, it’s likely that a meeting between Illya and Shirou wouldn’t have ended well for the latter. Illya’s death scene was particularly upsetting because of how the Servant blinded her before killing her. Watching a tiny little girl pitifully search for her protector while her killer watched on impassively, made for a surprisingly heavy scene, especially coming from an episode that not fifteen minutes prior had Shinji prancing around celebrating a victory that he had no part in. I wonder if the Servant blinding her had some symbolic meaning because if not, that was just a sadistic thing to do – you can’t tell me that a Servant capable of taking out Berserker couldn’t kill a little girl without blinding her first. The Servant, who I’m going to assume is from the Archer class based on this episode, walking up to Illya and actually stabbing her instead of shooting a sword (is this a Fate/Stay Night thing? Does everyone just shoot swords instead of arrows?) at her felt like an almost tender move, like he acknowledged her resistance enough to actually give the death a personal touch. That would clash with the blinding but it did seem throughout it that the Servant took no pleasure in Illya’s death, though he clearly greatly enjoyed defeating Heracles.
We end the episode with the status quo now in total shambles. With Illya and Berserker defeated, it seems that it is up to the blonde Servant to defeat Team Caster and it’s pretty clear that he wouldn’t want or need Shirou and Rin’s help in doing so. Speaking of which, Shirou was able to hold himself back admirably for most of the episode, but just when you thought he was done jumping into fights he knew he couldn’t win, it looks like he got himself noticed by calling the demigod a bastard, something I’m pretty sure Rin advised him against. The blonde Servant’s victory here is going put Shinji, of all people, in pole position to win this War and it seems unlikely that he would be willing to forgive Rin and Shirou for insulting him and showing him up respectively. I know that we haven’t really talked about the blonde Servant’s status as a demigod and what his infinite armoury could mean but an armoury of infinite swords does bring to mind a certain phrase: ‘Unlimited Blade Works’. The blonde Servant could very well be the antagonist that this story deserves. The next few episodes should make it abundantly clear which side, if any, he is on.