There is betrayal all around as Kotomine Kirei, the false priest no one believed to be dead, finally reveals the extent of his duplicity. This week’s episode of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, ‘Idealism’s End (The Answer)’, is split between Rin and her increasingly dire situation and the long-awaited confrontation between Emiya Shirou and his future self, Archer, now officially revealed to the Heroic Spirit Emiya. The fight between these longstanding enemies has only barely begun as of this episode but more importantly, the episode spends almost all its time carefully spelling out just why Archer turned out the way he did and why, despite all that they have in common, Shirou and Archer just can’t see eye to eye. Meanwhile, Rin is in trouble as the series’ final Master, Kotomine Kirei, reveals himself and makes his move. Kirei was introduced as an unlikable, fairly unpleasant man and as the series progressed, we saw elements of his corrupt and manipulative nature but this episode makes it clear that we only scratched the surface in those prior episodes. The episode has a good deal of exposition but it also serves to set up the upcoming confrontations that the series has been driving towards for some time now. This set up is not just for the actual fights between the characters; rather, it seems to be setting characters like Kirei, Shinji and most likely Gilgamesh, as the series’ final antagonists.
Most of the topics that Archer and Shirou covered in their long conversation were not particularly surprising or shocking; in fact, they were things that the audience might have subconsciously (or even consciously) pieced together prior to this episode. For instance, Archer’s being betrayed by his ideals was covered in last week’s episode but the additional clarity that this week’s episode provided was very welcome. It was interesting that the show has set Archer up as the direct consequence of Shirou’s idealism – Archer is, quite literally, an living, breathing representation of how Shirou’s idealism will leave him burned out and deeply unhappy in the long run. Despite Archer’s actions so far, it’s hard not to sympathize with him just a little. You could argue that it is a little naïve of him to think that he would ever have to stop killing or that there would ever be any end to the bloodshed but that’s not really what Archer/Shirou want – they admit freely that they aren’t looking for world peace or anything on that scale but instead, they simply wanted to know that their actions made things better. This is what makes Archer’s situation so miserable – Shirou has always hated killing but as Archer, he kills over and over again with the hopes that things will change for the better but they never seem to and in the end; it must absolutely suck knowing that all your suffering accomplishes nothing. The episode also establishes why Shirou and Archer, despite understanding each other so well, cannot reach some sort of agreement or a peaceful compromise – they are fundamentally different and, one might even say, polar opposites in some critical ways.
One of the more striking things about Archer’s current state of mind is his desperation. He doesn’t know for sure whether killing Shirou will give him any peace or if it will even solve anything but he is so utterly sick of, in his words, having to ‘clean up after mankind’ that he is willing to try something that only has an outside chance of success. It’s all the more striking when you remember just how deplorable unnecessary death is to someone like Shirou, and even if Archer no long shares a moral compass with Shirou, you have to wonder if somewhere deep inside he doesn’t still feel some sense of regret at what he has done so far. This all circles back to two very important ideas introduced earlier in the series: the concept of redemption and salvation, and the idea that you can’t save everyone. It’s almost amusing, in a warped sort of way, that it takes everything that Archer has been through for him to realize the truth behind his father’s words. It’s a sign of Shirou’s obstinacy that it takes him all his life and all his after-life for him to finally admit that no matter what he does, he will never be able to save everyone. Where does this leave Archer? Archer’s defeat seems imminent but is his redemption impossible now? If and, more likely, when Shirou defeats him, does that mean Archer is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in misery, having to performing acts that are essentially anathema to him? On one hand, no one wants to see Archer cut Shirou down in a fight but on the other hand, an ending with Archer defeated and returned to his sorry state would be deeply unsatisfying. Unlike Shinji and Kirei, Archer is not an inherently evil character and despite all that he has done, you almost feel like he deserves better. In addition, Shirou defeating Archer without somehow fixing his attitude would really just mean that Shirou would have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t save everyone, which could either be the turning point that prevents him from becoming Archer or could be the catalyst that sets him off on that path. For his own part, Shirou is adamant that he will not end up like his counterpart from the future but without any evidence, those words are hollow. Is he simply stating a promise that he will not succumb the way Archer did? Or has something changed within him that gives him the confidence to make a statement like that? I would absolutely love it if Shirou’s experience in this War convinces him to re-evaluate his ideals so that he ends up with a happier and healthier view of the world. In fact, if the confrontation with Archer could fix that then there is a chance that both characters could get the happiness they deserve.
If Shirou is going to change, there is very good chance that it will be the people around him who will save him. Rin has done exactly what Kiritsugu did all those years ago – she saved someone who couldn’t save himself and asked for nothing in return. It makes the fact that Rin’s father’s pendant becomes the Heroic Spirit Emiya’s symbol a sweet, touching one. It’s clear that by using the pendant, Rin would never have been able to summon anyone but Archer since not only is the pendant his symbol, it is also the exact same pendant that saves/saved him. Still, Archer claims that no Servant is summoned by chance which makes you wonder – what about Shirou and Saber? Shirou clearly had no idea that he was summoning anyone, let alone Saber but clearly there is something about him that picked Saber from the virtually limitless pool of Heroic Spirits. Was it his nobility and his moral character? Perhaps, but it might also be that Saber, as a knight (the King (Queen?) of Knights, no less) responded to Shirou’s distress and defended him. In the very first episode of the series, there was a summoning circle in Shirou’s shed, presumably a leftover from Kiritsugu’s days as a Master, but whether that circle was designed specifically to summon Saber or not is left unclear. We also finally learn Saber’s identity – she/he is King/Queen Arthur, of Round Table, Lady of the Lake, Merlin and Excalibur fame. While I’m fairly sure that it’s been established in our world that King Arthur, was, in fact a man, apparently things are different in the Fate-verse, where Saber is both a woman and ‘King’. There isn’t much to say about her identity but there are some interesting parallels between Shirou/Archer and Saber – not least that both started from humble beginnings before becoming Heroic Spirits, albeit via very different routes. That both characters found no happiness in their ideals despite the sacrifices they made is another shared attribute, one that would indicate that Saber is one who rescues Shirou from himself in the ‘Fate’ part of this story. Her role in this particular episode was interesting too – it was almost as though she was facilitating the conversation between Shirou and Archer, trying to get the two of them to set their differences aside or reach some sort of compromise. Could this be in part because she sees some reflection of herself in Archer’s cynicism? Saber clearly isn’t as far gone as he is, not even close, but it’s possible that she is able to empathize with him, being a Heroic Spirit as well. The parallels between the two characters might also explain why Saber was summoned to Shirou’s side, especially since there was no catalyst involved. There are, of course, a good many more questions to be asked of Saber and her story, but since her story is not this one, I don’t think we will find any answers here.
With Saber’s identity exposed, the final question was just who was the man behind the man with lance. Right since his introduction, Kotomine Kirei has been a greasy, highly suspicious looking man but until his three betrayals this episode, we never had any real reason to believe that he was anything more than appeared: a corrupt official with a past more exciting than his present. That Kirei was somehow involved in the Grail War shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, but it was. Despite him hanging around Gilgamesh and despite Lancer’s Master being unknown, it felt as though the extent of Kirei’s hand in this War would be more discreet tinkering instead of outright participation. There are questions of whether the Church and the Mage’s Association are aware of his involvement and whether there will be consequences for Kirei’s actions but those questions are secondary for now. Given his mysterious disappearance after Caster allegedly killed him, it was only a matter of time before he re-emerged. The second of his betrayals, him stabbing Rin’s father in the back, is a somewhat more surprising one. It implies that not only did Kirei kill his own teacher, someone who he presumably knew and thought highly of, but he was also able to do it in such a way that no one suspected him. Think how twisted it is that Kirei would kill Rin’s father and then proceed to become her teacher as if he was perfectly innocent; it’s the stuff serial killers are made of. We are not told the circumstances behind Kirei turning on Rin’s dad, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that Kirei saw an opportunity for advancement when Rin’s father was vulnerable, and pounced. It says something that Kirei’s final betrayal, his dismissal of Lancer, trumps even the murder of his student’s father. Since Lancer’s return to prominence in the last couple of episodes, he has been a friendly and mildly light-hearted presence in the story but it doesn’t feel like we really knew him very well at all. We learn in this episode that his orders were to defeat Archer and protect Rin, who Kirei plans on transforming into (a vessel for) the Grail, which meant that for most of the last couple of episodes, his orders aligned with Shirou’s and Rin’s objectives. To some, that might cheapen his friendliness and cooperation but it shouldn’t really – his decision to not carry out Kirei’s orders to murder Rin indicate that regardless of his reasons, he wasn’t just all talk; he genuinely did have a strong sense of right and wrong (stronger than Kirei’s anyway, like that’s worth anything). What makes his death feel so dirty and tragic is that, under normal circumstances, you would hope that a character with some shred of honour, like Lancer, gets to go out swinging rather than by being forced to commit suicide. It’s a truly despicable thing to make someone kill themselves for refusing to do as you tell them and I think it’s that command more than anything else that sets Kirei apart from the other intermediary antagonists we’ve seen so far. Past opponents like Ilya/Berserker and Kuzuki/Caster could have been construed as mean or cruel, depending on how strict or generous you were being, but you wouldn’t really call them evil, not in the same way that Kirei showed himself to be in this episode. They were antagonists without really being villains, if that makes sense. Likewise, it seems that Shinji, and by extension, Gilgamesh will be joining Kirei’s side even though Shinji, even in all his lusted filled rape-y glory, thought that Kirei’s actions this week were a little much. I’m still not sold on Gilgamesh being Shinji’s Master since he has no Command Seals that we’ve seen but then again, it looks Kirei has a whole bunch of them stored away for a rainy day. If there’s a story behind those, I’d love to hear it.
In closing, it seems like we’re very much heading for an action packed episode 20, with Archer and Shirou finally settling their differences. It looks like Rin might need to wait a little while as there is literally no one left to help her out. It’s not clear whether or not they’ll actually go ahead and kill her but I’m going to put my money on not – the show has some sinister undertones to it, but no one would kill such a well-developed character offhandedly without justifying it properly. If she does go out next week, you can be sure that she’ll have a chance to go out memorably.