The conflict between Archer and Shirou reaches its climax on both an ideological level and physical level as Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works takes its first steps to concluding its protagonist’s character arc. The episode goes from strength to strength as we see Shirou reel not just from Archer hammering away at him but also from the uncomfortable, hard truths that Archer presents. Shirou’s response, a thoroughly believable mixture of acceptance and defiance, is delivered wonderfully with a great soundtrack and some fantastic storytelling. In almost every way, this episode feels like what the series has been building toward for the longest time, with scenes that allow the external conflicts between the characters to mirror the internal conflicts that the characters are struggling with. Ostensibly, the external conflicts should matter more – after all, it doesn’t matter if Shirou makes peace with himself if he gets his head chopped off – but, intuitively speaking, the episode seems to make it very clear that it is his internal struggle that is the more important of the two. We haven’t gotten the entirety of Shirou’s response to Archer’s cynical criticism of his idealism, but we can see the essence of it, what Shirou considers the central flaw in his future self’s philosophy. Meanwhile, things are continuing to happen in the bigger picture as Lancer steps up and demonstrates the sort of larger-than-life heroism that you’d expect from a Servant of his stature. There are some absolutely fascinating ramifications in the information revealed in this week’s episode too – from the parallels between Saber and Shirou as well as how Kiritsugu is the string that ties these various characters’ tales together.
The fight between Shirou and Archer is the cornerstone of not just this episode but also the series as a whole. If the previous weeks’ episodes were lectures explaining Archer’s motivations and how Shirou’s idealism soured into Archer’s cynicism, this week’s episode is more of a debate between the two. Archer essential rips Shirou’s philosophy apart and it seems for a while that Shirou can’t handle the truth in Archer’s words but by the episode’s end, Shirou reaches an important conclusion and reaffirms his faith in his ideals. These things are easy enough to understand and even relate to on a purely emotional and intuitive level but are much, much harder to define in concrete terms. It is critical to understand just what the crux of Archer’s point is at this juncture, not just because it helps us understand him better but also because it will put Shirou’s answer next week in its proper context. Archer brings up a few points but it seems that the heart of the matter is that he has realized that Shirou’s dream is not something that Shirou has come up with himself, but instead that it is something that has come to him second-hand from Kiritsugu and that Shirou’s entire motivation in pursuing these goals don’t come from himself but instead stems from Kiritsugu’s inability to achieve them. In a nutshell, Archer seems to be suggesting that Shirou doesn’t have a reason for saving anyone beyond the fact that Kiritsugu wanted the same thing. In Archer’s eyes, that cheapens Shirou’s ideals immensely and turns Shirou from a (would-be) hero to a blind follower who doesn’t know why he is doing what he is. These accusations are neither new nor unfounded – Rin has twice before brought this issue up but on both occasions it feels like Shirou has side-stepped the question. There is some truth to Archer’s assertions; it’s one thing if Shirou just respected Kiritsugu’s ideals but in taking his father’s burdens upon his own shoulders, Shirou was essentially championing a cause that wasn’t his. This episode makes it clear that Shirou’s pursuit of his dream was not, as Archer thought, motivated purely by his admiration for Kiritsugu and his desire to fulfil his father’s wishes but in fact by but what he thought was the inherent ‘goodness’ of the act of salvation. Right since the beginning, Shirou has been fully aware of the fact that his ideals can never become reality – contrary to what I believed at the beginning, he is not a delusional idiot. However, in this episode it seems that he has made peace with the fact that his dreams will never become a reality. This is immense; this is precisely what will keep him from becoming Archer. Archer, from what we have seen, took up the role of a Guardian willingly, believing that it would give him the power to make his impossible dreams a reality. He was unwilling to accept that the harsh truth that sometimes your dreams cannot be reconciled with the realities of life, or as he himself puts it here, he was unwilling to accept loss. Shirou, on the other hand, has already accepted that the impossibility of his dreams and thus will, ostensibly at least, never experience the betrayal that Archer did. There was an idea presented in this episode that each of Shirou’s attempts at saving someone resulted in a ‘hell’. At first glance, it seems that those glimpses only serve to prove Archer right, that Shirou’s attempts won’t change anything and it would all circle back to the discussion of their ideals betraying them. However, when Shirou walks into the last ‘hell’, the scene from the fire, he does so knowing fully well that he cannot change the outcome, but does so because he has realized that the pleasure he derives is from the process rather than just the outcome. That scene was an incredibly powerful and compelling way of describing the difference between the two characters – Archer would have seen each scene of failure and felt grief at being unable to achieve anything but Shirou, despite the vision of Archer telling him he is about to enter hell, carries on despite that, because he wants to at least try. It is the same reason why (and it’s likely Shirou himself never realized this), he is willing to fix other people’s stuff without ever being thanked for it, why he goes so far out of his way to help. In previous episodes, I got the sense that Shirou’s urge to help comes from his need to justify his existence after surviving the fire, but the picture this episode paints is simpler and a little more elegant; he helps because he wants to and he wants to because the man he admired so much wanted to.
We don’t know all the details of Saber’s story but the episode gave her an odd amount of emphasis for a character who was little more than a spectator to the fight. There were moments in which Archer explains just how Shirou is phony, but the focus is on Saber. The last episode did bring up the question of the parallels between Saber and Shirou, and while the theory that those parallels led to her summoning (as opposed to another hero) was proven wrong in this episode, the parallels continued, especially with Shirou pulling a sword out of a stone while declaring his willingness to accept the consequences of what comes after. I am not familiar enough with Arthurian legend to know if there are any special myths attributed to Excalibur’s scabbard but from the little we see here, Shirou didn’t just survive the fire because he was lucky – Kiritsugu, who had the scabbard, implanted it in Shirou in order to help him survive the fire and, though the episode doesn’t state this outright, it is what has been helping Shirou survive the numerous mortal wounds he has received throughout the course of this Holy Grail War. Let’s not ignore what the implication of Kiritsugu having Saber’s scabbard means either – he was Saber’s Master in the previous war or he stole the scabbard, but my gut tells me it’s the former (it’s just cleaner and allows for an interesting comparison between father and son). It’s odd that Saber neither mentions knowing the man that Shirou thought of as a father nor seems to feel one way or another about Shirou being her previous Master’s son. Of course, Shirou having the scabbard embedded in him would explain why Saber was summoned since the scabbard could easily be the catalyst needed. The fascinating common thread here, as you might have noticed, is Kiritsugu himself. The man is an enigma for the most part – everything we know about him is through other character who have known him – but, when you think about it, he is the character who connected Archer, Saber and Shirou. From the little we know, his outlook on things was that he wanted to save as many as he could but accepted that he couldn’t save everyone. In comparison, it’s interesting to see that Shirou’s attitude is similar but with the additional clause that even knowing that not everyone can be saved, there is still some value in trying.
In the other half of the story, Lancer decides that he is sick of being forced to commit unheroic acts and that he is not going to go down without a fight. We should have guessed after watching Berserker almost killed Gilgamesh ‘posthumously’, but if the body hasn’t disintegrated, the Servant isn’t dead. It was a surprise to see Lancer take Kirei out. Of course, it was satisfying as well but given how sure I was that Kirei was going to be the final antagonist of the story, it is a little confusing as well. Kirei is one of those characters that garners absolutely zero sympathy – unlike characters like Archer and Caster whose motivations and points of view can at least be somewhat understood, Kirei’s motivations (and it’s not clear what they even really were) felt crude and corrupt. The reason that Kirei’s death is disorienting is not that his death leaves a void but rather that he had a plan concerning the Grail, one that seems to have been brewing for a while now, but does his death mean that the plan was shut down before even being disclosed? Of course, it’s possible, even likely that Gilgamesh is moving things forward –it would explain his absence, even with his Master (who continues to be repulsive) in grave danger. It’s perfectly fitting that Kirei die at his own Servant’s hand, especially after ordering said Servant to commit suicide but his death leaves a good many unanswered questions; what was up with the whole bunch of Command Seals on his hand? What exactly was his plan in getting Shinji involved in all of this? What is his connection to Gilgamesh? It would seem that if we’re going to get answers at all, they will be coming from Gilgamesh himself. Meanwhile, if seems like we have seen the last of Lancer for real this week but his death this time was many, many times more satisfying than it was last week – he got to exact his revenge while still fulfilling the promise he made to Shirou to keep Rin safe.
A few final notes in closing: the music this episode was absolutely amazing. Combined with our second look at the Unlimited Blade Works reality marble, it got the hype flowing freely. Watching Shirou make his decision and firm up his resolve after the battering it took instilled a respect in his character that I just didn’t have in the first part of this story. He says a line that sounded familiar – ‘Steel is my body’ – and I remember, Archer’s own version being something ‘My body is made of swords’ but I’m not sure if the difference is intentional or not and don’t want to read too much into it till I’m sure. The next episode, ‘Answer’ will obviously feature Shirou’s retort to Archer, but I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about just what Shirou’s answer was and boiling the episode long conversation into its salient components. What I came up with feels extremely insubstantial, to me at least; it’s frustrating to understand a character but not be able to verbalize it. It’s possibly something that might become easier if I were to re-watch the series, just to remind myself of what kind of character Shirou was before and compare him to the character he is now.