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.