One of the tell-tale signs of a series approaching its climax is when its story begins to get increasingly turbulent. It feels like it wasn’t all that long ago that things in Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works were nice and easy to understand – Saber was Shirou’s Servant, Archer was Rin’s and everyone else was an enemy that needed to their respective asses handed to them. That the story has gotten more chaotic is not a criticism by any means however; in fact, this week’s episode, titled ‘The Beginning of the Circle’ is possibly one of the most holistic episodes of the season, if not the whole series. It has a little of everything that makes this show so absorbing – the beautiful visuals, the mystery behind several of the characters and the probing questions on what a meaningful life really is. The show’s title has been dropped a few times previously but it feels like this episode is very much our introduction to what exactly ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ really is and why it was deemed important enough to warrant a place in the title. Along with the long-awaited reveal of Archer’s identity (I was so wrong, it’s honestly embarrassing to think about) and the congregation of various villains, the episode keeps the plot moving and the tempo up as show prepares to begin its ascent towards its crescendo.
There are three elements that this episode focuses on: Shirou, Archer and his Noble Phantasm, Unlimited Blade Works. The three are closely intertwined but each deserves to be examined in isolation from the other two. Archer’s identity is pivotal to this discussion, so we will begin there. Basically, to anyone who didn’t piece it together based on this episode, Archer is Shirou. It’s not entirely clear whether Archer is an alternative version of Shirou, like from a different timeline or from a possible future, or if it’s set in stone that Archer is basically who Shirou becomes but it’s crystal clear that they are the same person. It is a simpler explanation that anything I cooked up before and it lines up perfectly with everything we’ve been told about Archer so far – it explains how he knows so much about Shirou, it explains how he knows Saber and Fujimura, it even explains the pendant. Looking back, there were plenty of signs but it’s one of those things where it’s unlikely anyone who wasn’t looking would find it. From a purely literary standpoint, Archer being none other than Shirou is actually brilliant; it gives this amazing symmetry to both characters’ conflicts and in some ways, it’s the perfect embodiment of Shirou own struggles. Shirou’s dream since the fire has been, to put it simplistically, to save everyone. He doesn’t just want to save the murdered – he wants to save the murderer too. It’s wildly optimistic, as several characters have noted, and likely not something a mere human can accomplish. It’s not too wild to think that Shirou might have jumped at the opportunity to become a Guardian, even if it meant giving up the peace of his afterlife for it, if it meant that he could achieve the power and ability to make his dream a reality. There’s something to be said at this juncture about why Shirou thinks that he is undeserving of something like peace after his death and it’s likely to be the same reason he doesn’t feel like he deserves to have fun. Rin, in particular, has touched on this in the past and we can fully expect it to come up in the future as well – along with why exactly Shirou feels such a compulsion to justify his own existence and go above and beyond for every person he meets. The fire incident explains a good deal of it, but I suspect the promise he made his father is another major part of it. Still, once he became a Guardian, surely things would have worked out, right? Well, the answer to that goes back to something Kiritsugu once told Shirou, to something Shirou was forced to learn on a certain bridge not too long ago – sometimes, or even often, saving one person means sacrificing another. The imagery the show uses to convey this is perfect – we see Shirou/Archer, in a pose of mental anguish, on a veritable mountain of corpses. Imagine how devastating it must be for someone like Shirou, who sacrificed everything he could to save everyone, to have to continually have to forsake the few for the sake of the many. It’s a perversion of everything Shirou thought he could accomplish and it’s precisely why Archer feels like he was betrayed by his ideals. All of this leads to strange juxtaposition between the two characters – on one hand, we have Shirou, who is still determined to some everyone and be the superhero he promised his dad he would be, trying to his very hardest to stay true to the purity of his dream despite now having actual evidence that things won’t work out if he takes that route while on the other hand, you have Archer who is so thoroughly disgusted by the way things have turned out that he wants to presumably eliminate the problem at its root – if Shirou died before becoming a Guardian, the laws of time will ostensibly ensure that Archer never comes into being. The ominous likelihood of a time paradox lurking aside, the beauty of the contrast is that one character is so determined to stay true to his dream that he will give a 100% of himself and then some in order to achieve it while the other character has become so disillusioned that he is also willing to go well beyond what most would consider reasonable measures in order to ensure that he never even exists. The best part? They’re both the same person. In fact, that’s perhaps, symbolically speaking, the best part of the Archer-Shirou conflict: it’s essentially Shirou fighting himself, which, if you think about it, is sort of the point of this whole affair. Sure, there’s a Grail and a War and all that but at its centre, the story here is really about Shirou overcoming his various issues and, in effect, overcoming himself. Of course, the conflict with Archer makes it a lot more literal but given the kind of viewpoints that Archer holds, and specifically that he holds them as a result of starting out the same way as Shirou, makes the conflict feel much more meaningful.
So, with all that said, is there really hope for either Archer or Shirou? It’s an odd question to ask really, because if you think of it, Archer’s fate is pretty much set at this point. Even if the story takes an unexpected turn and Archer kills Shirou, it would be hard to say that he found salvation of any kind, especially in the context that the characters use the term. In fact, the presentation of the Unlimited Blade Works reality marble, which was absolutely gorgeous, seems to imply that Archer is really past saving at this point. If had the chance to create your own reality, where things could be exactly as you want them to be, what does it say when you go with a barren, desolate wasteland instead of something a little more optimistic? You could argue that the world in the reality marble is meant to intimidate or that it appears differently to outsiders than to Archer but neither explanation feels right. The desolation and lifelessness of that wasteland is a fittingly bleak setting for a character who seems defined and motivated by his disillusionment and cynicism. That said, it was hard not to impressed by it – the massive gears in the sky, the seemingly endless collection of swords stuck into the ground, the awe-struck music that accompanied it. The scene didn’t last long and in fact ended rather abruptly but there were a few highlights – firstly, Shirou was having visions of that world before Archer even cast it, which would indicate that on some fundamental level, Shirou feels some sort of connection to that place. We have seen him dream of it before but neither we nor the characters knew what it was at the time. Shirou seems much more proficient at his sword projection while inside that marble and justifiably so – after all, it’s not hard to imagine that what works for Archer will work for Shirou too. Equally unsurprising is that Archer knows a great deal about Saber – he calls her the King of Knights (which is a weird thing to call a young girl), seems to know that she wields a ‘holy sword’, a sword that he capable of mimicking or recreating and also knows a good deal about his circumstances and life. He has a soft spot for Saber, regardless of what he says and even does and yet again, it’s not hard to see why; just in this episode alone, Saber is incredibly supportive and clearly cares a great deal about Shirou. We don’t see it directly but you have to wonder what her thoughts are about seeing the boy in front of her grow into such a cold and distant man. Yet, the frostiness might not tell the full story either – there was a moment, barely a second long in which Archer seems like he dropped the act and gave Saber an honest, no-bullshit answer: “I should never have become a hero”. The face he makes isn’t one filled with duplicity – he’s not trying to fake her out or to call her bluff or even just annoy her. There’s regret on that face and a heaviness in those tones and in that moment, you really feel for what Archer could have been and what he became instead.
Of course, this fight isn’t just about Shirou and Archer, at least not literally. Rin has been taken ‘hostage’ but somehow that feels almost secondary. On more than one occasion, Archer has shown a softer side to Rin and for her own part, she seems genuinely upset that Archer turned out the way he did. To some extent, it would seem that she feels responsible for it; she mentions not understanding why no one in Shirou/Archer’s life ever helped straighten him out or at least asked him to seek professional help. It’s sweet that she is so concerned but her concern is also heavily tinged with helplessness – it’s the same sort of helplessness she felt when confronting Shirou about his attitude towards life. Of all the characters, it seems like Rin understands Archer the best (arguably better than Shirou, though that’s really up for debate) though that might just be because she has to most information about him but it might also be because she has had access both versions of the character – when he was just Shirou and when he became Archer. Her frustration and disappointment that neither Shirou nor Archer can be saved is touching but perhaps a little premature; Gilgamesh’s return, presumably sans Ilya’s heart, might just offer Archer a means of redemption. It brings up an odd quandary – we need Shirou to face off against Archer; it is the crucial confrontation that both their characters require, but it would also be a great turn of events if Archer decided that he has some heroics left him in after all and decides to fight Gilgamesh off of Rin. The last option would be to just kill Shinji – it might not change the outcome of the plot significantly, but it would win him a good many popularity contests. There is already tension between Gilgamesh and Archer – Gilgamesh calls him out as a ‘Faker’, presumably because while the former uses authentic Noble Phantasm swords that he’s stolen from the corpses of his enemies, Archer’s are self-made knockoffs. The episode ends with another massive confrontation looming on the horizon – Lancer, being an all-round nice guy, returns to back Shirou and Saber up and it’s looking like it’s going to be Gilgamesh versus Lancer and Saber while Shirou faces off against Archer all while trouble is brewing in Caster’s former home now that her Servant is Master-less and looking for a way to survive; next week should be fun.
On a final, totally unrelated note: I have begun my VN journey! I can’t say I’ve gotten used to the writing style just yet (it feels really long-winded and the pace is so slow) but I’m not going to make the mistake I did last time and try to rush through it.