[Anime] Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – The Dark Sword Bares Its Fangs (S2E5)


UBW Season 2

This week in Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, the once fearsome Caster Coalition is permanently disbanded as Rin executes her master plan and receives unexpected and, perhaps, unwelcome assistance from Archer. There is undoubtedly a certain symmetry to Caster’s death; for a Servant who rose to power and prominence on the back of betrayal, whether voluntary (Archer) or not (Saber), it is only fitting that she be undone by it. Yet again this series gives us the sense that nothing is sacred and even less is set in stone – just last episode, it seemed that Caster’s position was nigh unassailable, what with her veritable army of Servants and her vast stores of power. It would be facetious to say that she was defeated by a pair of high school children, but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either. In some sense, her defeat seemed inevitable; by gathering these Servants so visibly, by assaulting Kirei and the church, she was essentially painting a target on her back and it was only a matter of time before someone took her out. In hindsight, it seems highly unlikely that she could have realistically posed a threat to someone like Gilgamesh when a Lite/Diet version of him, Archer, was the one who hammered the final nail in her coffin. We will discuss Archer, of course, revisit and rethink some old theories but more importantly, reconsider what Archer’s motivations truly are.

This week’s episode, ‘The Dark Sword Bares Its Fang’, continues where last week’s left off. Archer and Lancer go right at it and the result is nothing less than animation eye candy, soul food for the hyped heart. A great deal has been said about the quality of the action sequences in this adaptation and based on the admittedly limited responses that I’ve seen, it would seem that the animation is the only aspect of this adaptation that remains beyond reproach. Both the action sequences in this episode were excellently done, with fluid, clear animation and overall great visual impact but one can’t help but wonder if they went a little overboard with the explosions. Of course, the impact of two Noble Phantasms colliding is clearly not to be underestimated, but the resulting explosion seemed like it ought to have levelled the city while, not a hundred feet away, Shirou barely felt a tremor. The battle between Archer and Lancer can be seen as something more than two men duking it out for plot purposes. Lancer, based on his actions and legend, is one of the more honourable characters in the story – it is why he takes such a fast liking to Shirou and it is why he seems so happily willing to help Rin and Shirou out. In more sense than one, he feels like the classical hero; a genuinely good guy, willing to do what he thinks is right. It would explain his reluctance to kill Shirou in the series’ opening episodes and his resentment towards his Master for it. This is relevant at this juncture because it contrasts so sharply with Archer, who is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of a conventional hero. Archer is unconcerned with moral boundaries and is instead a ruthless pragmatist. This isn’t to say that he is evil – he clearly isn’t – but rather that his moral perspective goes firmly in the face of what the more straight laced characters like Saber, Shirou and (to an extent) Lancer follow. I don’t want to go too deep down this particular rabbit hole and read too much into what Lancer’s defeat of Archer implies going forward but I will instead say that conflicts like these feel like the backbone of the series, the elements that elevate it above the pretty sword-fighting and the mini-nuclear explosions. On a final note, along with the recent Gilgamesh vs. Berserker fight, it finally feels like we are seeing legendary battles – watching this mythical spear try to pierce an equally renowned shield takes you away from the modern day setting of a small, quiet city and momentarily gives the battle a much bigger scale. It’s something that the first season understandably lacked and a very welcome addition.

The episode’s second fight, however, was fought on a much smaller scale with Rin and Caster taking shots at each other in the church basement. For better or worse, Caster’s death didn’t have much of an emotional impact – on one hand, it wasn’t particularly shocking (especially when Archer effectively announced his double betrayal beforehand), nor was it all that tragic but on the other hand, neither did it feel disappointing or underwhelming. Caster and Kuzuki, unlike Berserker and Ilya, actually got a chance to fight and show the audience what they had before losing and dying. They had their chance, clearly tried to make the most of it, couldn’t, and as a result were taken out. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that Rin’s victory was undeserved since Archer backstabbed Caster but it’s hard to feel sympathy for the witch when the only reason Archer was even on her side was because of his uncertain allegiances and the reason he was able to attack her was because she let her guard down. Somewhere in the middle of the episode, Caster’s defeat went from highly unlikely to a foregone conclusion and I’m not sure how I feel about that. While it does keeps things unpredictable and implies that even mere mortals have a fighting chance against these mighty Servants, it does feel that any hype surrounding the Servants is less than deserved. Caster was supposed to be this larger-than-life witch, someone so talented and terrifying that her first Master was intimidated into getting rid of her but watching Rin take her out, cuts her down to size in a way that I feel diminishes the character a little. Of course, Rin’s method of switching tack and going for a physical attack instead of a magical one was brilliant and exactly what you would expect from a pragmatist like Rin, but you would think that Caster, with her knowledge of ancient, arcane magic would be able to handle a situation like that, especially after the element of surprise wears off. Even with all that, try as I might, I struggle to give Rin the credit she deserves for that fight because had Caster played the Saber card, things would have turned very nasty, very fast. It gains us nothing to think about could haves and should haves, of course, and on the whole, the scene benefitted from Rin’s surprise attack and takedown of Caster. On a less positive note however, I find myself growing increasingly suspicious of the way the series is shoehorning backstory into the episodes. This week we are given Kuzuki’s story but it feels like far too little and far too late. Where Ilya’s backstory had, at least ostensibly, some plot relevance, Kuzuki’s felt like a barefaced attempt at drumming up some final sympathy for a character that doesn’t really deserve any. Kuzuki isn’t inherently unlikable – he isn’t Shinji, for example – but neither does anything he has done warrant the audience’s sympathy and emotional attachment. He lived, he fought and he died – that should be enough information on his character, especially when the backstory itself didn’t particularly add anything of value. In contrast, Caster’s story, being better paced and better explained did create some sense of loss at her death, despite the circumstances. It is also becoming a little obvious that a backstory will imply a death and I want to believe that Ufotable is better than cheap death flags.

Let’s close this week’s discussion by re-visiting everyone’s favourite Servant. Since his betrayal in the season’s first episode, it has felt like Archer has become rather distant from us, the audience. Until the last episode, we barely saw or heard of him, but this week he returns to main stage, with a bang (that Shirou barely felt). I feel like I could talk for a good two pages about Archer’s identity and my crackpot theories surrounding them but I’ll spare you the agony, especially since I sense it’s going to be carefully spelled out for idiots like me soon enough. Instead, I’ll ask some general questions so you get a sense of where my tinfoil theories are going and more importantly, I want to explore the question of Archer’s motivations as a character. Archer’s identity seems so scattered to me: on one hand, his entire character seems centred on Shirou – he uses the exact same magic Shirou does (note the ‘Trace On’, he says), Shirou seems to be the entire focus of Archer’s character conflict and we know there’s something fishy going on with Archer, Shirou and the all-powerful pendant. However, on the other hand, we have seen his backstory involve vaguely medieval times and in this episode, he establishes himself as not only being able to fire Noble Phantasm level swords like we’ve seen in the past but also summon other Noble Phantasms, ala Gilgamesh, like a shield and who knows what else. It makes theory-crafting very difficult because centring a theory on Shirou and Archer’s intimate knowledge of his powers and philosophy doesn’t explain what we know of Archer’s backstory but vice versa, if Archer is just some hero from history, then he has no business knowing so much about Shirou, even with the theory that he was Kiritsugu’s Servant, because remember, Kiritsugu found Shirou after the War, when Archer was dead or defeated or whatever. I had assumed that the advice Archer gave Shirou last season to help him recover from his magical exertion soreness was generic advice that all those who use projection magic (which Archer clearly does) would know. However, it seems that Archer knows Shirou’s magic much more intimately than that – their magic is literally the same. Since magic is generally passed done through bloodline though, I wonder if Shirou and Archer aren’t somehow part of the same family tree. It’s ludicrous, of course, and we’ll all have a good laugh about it when the truth is finally revealed but I’m sticking with it for now.

More than his identity, believe it or not, it is Archer’s motivations that interest me. So often, his actions seem conflicted – at one point, he seems to want Shirou dead more than anything else but then he turns around and offers him advice and even saves him. Shirou’s death seems to mean more to Archer than anything else; it is more important to him than the Holy Grail, which he has made clear time and time again; it is more important to him than his loyalty to Rin, which is pretty important to him (even this episode, he specifically keeps her alive instead of just killing her off), and it is more important to him that his own personal honour, which he would have us believe he lacks entirely, despite certain statements he made contradicting that. In the first season, it was established that Archer was an extreme utilitarian of sorts; he was in favour of Caster killing off most of the city if it meant keeping the Grail away from evil hands. Following that logic, it feels like he believes that Shirou’s death will have an ultimate payoff that is worth him sacrificing all these things (the Grail, his honour, etc.) and so the question is, what does Shirou have to do with the greater good? One explanation, and I would hate if this were true, is that Archer foresees (somehow) that Shirou winning the Grail leads to a worse world; it wouldn’t be the first time that a well-meaning person has ruined the world by trying to enforce peace. I dislike this possibility though; it’s clichéd and wouldn’t fit the story at all. The alternative is that it’s personal – Archer, for reasons unknown, has a deeply personal grudge against this one kid. Maybe it’s because he is a survivor of the fire, a fire that was supposed to kill everyone in it and as a Counter Guardian, it is Archer’s duty to finish the job. That doesn’t feel right either, but it would explain why Archer never seems to want others to kill Shirou – he has intervened on Shirou’s behalf multiple times, saving him from Caster three times! Even in this episode, he could have just sat back and watched as Saber chopped Shirou down but he didn’t, which leads me to think that he needs to do the job himself. We don’t know enough just yet to draw a clear map of Archer’s mind but I will say this though: regardless of Archer’s identity and motivations, I appreciate the fact that personal philosophies don’t dictate allegiances in this series. Kuzuki and Shirou are both honourable in their own respective ways and Archer and Rin both put practicality firmly above idealism but these differences don’t determine where the character falls on the good-bad spectrum. It’s a sign of complex characters and solid writing; and it’s something that writers are often too lazy to fix, if they even notice it at all.

So, with all that said, where does this episode leave us? Now that Caster dead, is Shirou a Master again? Clearly not, since Rin didn’t regain her Command Seals. Does this mean that Saber is going to disappear, since she is not connected to an energy source? Technically, that should also mean that Archer’s time is limited too and I wonder if this means that the conclusion of this Archer/Shirou storyline is just around the corner. I’m looking forward to it, but at the same time, it would suck to lose a character as fascinating as Archer.

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27 thoughts on “[Anime] Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – The Dark Sword Bares Its Fangs (S2E5)

    • It was in the one of the episodes in the first season. I think it was maybe episode 6? Rin has a dream about Archer’s history.

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      • Umm? A noose AND spears? Did they decide to hang him after stabbing him a while? The other way round wouldn’t work, or at least he wouldn’t remember it. I don’t get the logistics behind these snapshots.

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  1. In regards to Kuzuki’s backstory that actually isn’t touched on at all in the VN. It isn’t until the sequel, Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, that we learn about his past. So getting a very shallow look into his past was quite a surprise.

    I’d like to comment on some of the other observations you made but I’ll restrain myself in case I accidentally step into spoiler territory.

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  2. Okay, let’s go through the topics one by one!
    -A large part of Caster’s strategy and her character is, IMO, recognizing she’s mostly a paper tiger. This kinda gets more emphasis in the VN because of Shirou’s monologue and amount of exposition there is, but in the anime when Archer and Caster first meet, Caster justifies her immoral behavior by claiming she herself is weak and needs to resort to treacherous measures to win. I mean, having a Master that’s stood up to Saber is awesome, but also shows how weak she is. The Caster Class itself is noted in the VN to be one of the weaker class because the knight classes posses natural magic resistance. Remember how ineffective Caster’s magic was at damaging Saber? I was waiting for you to realize that in hindsight, Caster wasn’t as threatening as she appears to be on the outside, because I think that’s key to her character. You could even say her death represents that, she doesn’t look mysterious or menacing as before, but dies rather pitifully.
    -Kuzuki is an interesting character. And by interesting character, I mean he has no backstory or motivation at all in the VN. It’s one of the weirdest parts of FSN, Kuzuki just showed up, beat up Saber, trounced Shirou, then died to Archer. In Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, the sequel, he’s actually given a proper background and personality, some of it included in the anime. So if his background felt a little out of place, that’s why.
    -Lancer continues to be godlike and I’m so happy so many people are liking him.
    -Archer… Well, your questions should be answered in the next 2-3 episodes. But to hopefully clear up some things, Archer initially tried to kill Shirou at the temple, next day Rin put a command seal on Archer to prevent him from attacking Shirou. He was basically forced to help him at that point. Also, straight from the VN, all servants from the Archer class have an ability called Independent Action. Besides allowing them to be more independent from their Masters, it also lets them live longer when they don’t have a Master. So think of all servants having a mana battery and Independent Action is an emergency source. Archer has a B rank so he can live for 2-3 days while Gilgamesh has A+ which technically means he can survive indefinitely so long as he doesn’t use Noble Phantasm. Yes Gilgamesh is so overpowered, he’s overpowered at BEING.

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    • > Caster justifies her immoral behavior by claiming she herself is weak and needs to resort to treacherous measures to win.

      I didn’t remember that, but even if I had, I would have brushed it off as her making excuses to defend her immoral behaviour more than the alternative explanation.

      Regarding Archer, that’s kind of my point though: Rin’s Command Seal forbade him from killing Shirou right, but it said nothing of actively helping him. Even that aside, it doesn’t explain why he intervened in this episode or in the last Caster fight – he could have just let Caster kill Shirou and perhaps saved Rin, if he really wanted to.

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  3. On an animation note, I really liked the shot of Lancer just after he deflected Archer’s arrows, with the explosion in the background. Speaking of explosions… well, Lancer last attack is supposed to be effective against armies, but it’s true it seemed like it was unusually stealthy (seriously, bounded field or not, you’d think someone in Fuyuki would notice the nukes going off. I wonder if the town wasn’t chosen for it’s citizens natural apathy.)

    And yeah, Kuzuki is… there. He shows up of nowhere, and dies without anything being explained. And it’s the Route with him having the most screentime.

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  4. This comment is going to be mostly useless, but I’ll do it anyway because it seems like fun.

    I want to focus on Lancers Gae Bolg and why they decided to show it like this(that huge explosion that makes you wonder where is everyone in that town), first we’ll talk about the properties of the spear because I’m uncertain how much you know/understood from the first time it was used many episodes ago.

    The spear is supposed to be a “barbed spear”, once used it’s many thorns guarantee the heart to be pierced. In the context of F/SN and the conceptual weapons that are showed, Gae Bolg has space-time altering properties, to put it simply.

    It has 2 uses, a melee and a ranged one, both being two very similar but slightly different phenomenon.

    The melee reverses cause and effect, meaning that the result(a pierced heart) happens first and then the events that lead up to it are only consequence of the result. Time obviously still flows normally.

    The ranged attack causes a refraction in space time, meaning that multiple spears happen at a time over a large area but then the one that hits the target is the one that really exists, the other ones never actually happen. You could say reality collapses on the one that hit the target.

    Both of this bend reality to its will so that the result is guaranteed but the differences are crucial under the right circumstances. Like this episode.

    What is important here is that many viewers would ask: “why doesn’t he move once the spear is blocked” and given that actually explaining the spear would result in many a confused viewer, Ufotable just went with huge explosion. They tried to explain it anyway by having Archer say that it takes careful aim so the best way is facing it “head on” but the actual explanation is a bit more complex as you can see.

    They can also justify it because there’s the church and the Magic association who have their own version of MiB and just go around making sure the secrets are never leaked no matter what happens.

    And let’s be honest here, why the fuck not? it’s anime, let’s just go with the crazy ass explosion, plus they have motherfucking Nozomu Abe(http://sakuga.yshi.org/post?tags=nozomu_abe) animating it, anything less than a nuke is just a waste really.

    Disclaimer: The concepts behind both the skills and the lore have been heavily simplified for the sake of clarity.

    BTW I love your approach, who Archer is doesn’t matter as much as why he does it, even if we told you who he is, without asking why he does what he does you’d come out just as confused from this episodes. Knowing both is really best case senario though.

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  5. Medea’s death scene isn’t really meant to be tragic at this stage. Melancholic sure. She wins some sympathy for her loyalty but by this point she’s already lost the rights to a tearjerker ending by setting herself against the protagonists- rather ruthlessly at that.
    What does happen is that it becomes sadder in hindsight. In the visual novel we are allowed to explore every alternative retelling of this story. This is the happiest outcome she can hope for and she suspects as much.
    Medea with all the fatalism of a character from a greek tragedy or perhaps someone who has been steped on her entier life expects this outcome from the beginning. She isn’t surprised by it, even when she has every reason to believe shes winning she is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everything she does she does while on a bone deep level believing that nothing will truly change her fate. Eventually we lean that she’s right.

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  6. No comment on “suddenly, inner monologues!”? I expected that to be noticable. That should’ve been happening from like episode 1, because you seriously need to explain all the weird magic crap going on and inserting awkward expository inner thoughts as action freezes is a time honored anime method that should’ve been used from start (nobody has invented a better way yet).

    This was the first really good episode of second part. Pacing didn’t get ruined by misbegotten flashbacks (the flashback *was* misbegotten but it didn’t ruin the pacing) and they *finally* managed to get that epic battle feeling with Lancer’s rematch. The only other time this epicness happened was Berserker’s debut, all the other action scenes were lacking.

    Kuzuki: He wasn’t even a character originally. Just a piece of wood that punches. Anime actually gave him a bit of personality, which is kinda nice, but it’s still too litte and he still doesn’t matter at all beyond his ability to punch things.
    Also, *again* with the flashbacks moments before enemy’s death thing. At least this time they were trying for exposition instead of forced cheap emotion.
    The narrative effort wasted on Kuzuki would’ve been much better spent on *anyone* else because he’s still just a bundle of punches in the end.

    Caster: Her defeat doesn’t work nearly as well when animated. It’s one of the best action scenes of novels but visually it’s just her getting beaten up by a highschooler. It’s not a battle suitable to a visual medium and ufo’s attempts to liven it up botches it. Caster doesn’t float high up in the air only to come down conveniently in time to get punched and Rin’s actual surprise attack is more complicated (and visually unexplainable) than a mere magic flashbang. While those are just minor gripes, they decrease overall awesome quotient of Rin’s victory.
    Her sacrifice to save Kuzuki is also one of the dumber things in novels, you wouldn’t be far off if you accused Kuzuki of being a ridiculous Achilles’ heel for offing the otherwise unbeatable Caster, seeing how there’d be absolutely no changes until now if he was replaced with a golem or something. But that couldn’t have been salvaged without drastically changing things.
    Sure, Medea losing by betrayal is extremely fitting but the execution leaves something to be desired.

    Lancer: Yep, he’s the best. Criminally underutilized in whole of FSN too, just like Assassin. The explosion was quite overdone though, just like the last time Lancer unleashed his spear. They’re embellishing NPs a bit too much but it’s for looking cool, which is a lot more important.

    Archer: All the clues are there to solve this puzzle. The answer should become really obvious next episode if you haven’t connected all the dots.

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    • I didn’t realise that the inner monologues were new! In fact, I’ still not convinced they are, but I’ll. Take your word for it haha

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      • They’re not new. They’re all from novel, like all the other inner thoughts that they’ve cut from every scene so far. I don’t know what the director was trying to accomplish here.

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      • They’re not new, we got them before sporadically. As someone who stands firmly on the side of “show don’t tell” I prefer the way the anime has been doing things. A couple more inner monologues would help but this is better than just flat out saying everything the characters are thinking. It’s not really needed.

        I’ve read almost everything you’ve written regarding the show and you got pretty much all that matters. Yes, Shirou doesn’t actually have survivor’s guilt, but his issues are close enough that the mistake shouldn’t take anything away and by the time the anime ends you’ll have a good grasp anyway.

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      • The issues Shirou have and survivors guilt aren’t really close at all tbh.

        Show don’t tell can be good but ufotable hasn’t done the greatest job and there are things they do need to tell (like how the fuck projection works)

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    • Hmm, you might want to use conditionnal form in your statements, like “I think this was the first good episode of the second part”, otherwise, you’re bound to have people disagreeing with your opinion. Here, let me be the first. 🙂

      While I do agree on some points (weird flashback pacing is becoming an habit, even if in this episode, it was much more reasonable), I definitely disagree on others (for instance, on action scenes. Interestingly, the other one you liked, Berserker’s debuts, is so far the only one who disappointed me).

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  7. – “I feel like I could talk for a good two pages about Archer’s identity and my crackpot theories surrounding them but I’ll spare you the agony…”

    I totally wouldn’t mind a post on what you think about archer and some identity theories. Having read all your past blog posts on UBW, I’ve been impressed by how much you were able to figure out yourself without needing the show to spell it out for you. A post dedicated to archer identity theories would be really interesting to read, I feel.

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  8. “In the first season, it was established that Archer was an extreme utilitarian of sorts; he was in favour of Caster killing off most of the city if it meant keeping the Grail away from evil hands.”

    I’ll just say that what Archer tells Shirou isn’t always a reflection of what he believes. Also, there’s a small detail about his past in Rin’s monologue from ep 13 that sheds a little light about his flashbacks.

    Absolutely love your reviews by the way. The amount of attention to details is just amazing and really fun to read. Hope you have fun with the rest of UBW, the ride has just started.

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      • First episode of this season there is a dream about Archer. Replace the word Protector with Guardian (they got the lore right this time even though I think the literal translation is Protector). Dream is around 5:50~ I think.

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  9. I think Kuzuki’s backstory is useful as an analogy to Shirou in a contrasting way, especially if you look at the whole mechanical life aspect.

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