It is the calm before the storm as we approach the tail end of the second and final season of Fate/ Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. This is an episode of anticipation more than anything else – there are no jaw-dropping revelations, no slick actions sequences and no philosophical musings. Instead, there’s an almost nostalgic throwback to what the audience might consider the good ol’ days when Shirou, Rin and Saber were less allies in a war and more just a bunch of kids hanging out and being young. The episode isn’t quite that idyllic, but it is a quiet episode nonetheless, easily one of the most uneventful in this season but not necessarily in a bad way. This prelude to the series’ finale spends a good amount of time on Shirou, Rin and their relationship as well as giving some sort of half-hearted closure to Saber’s character. Shirou gets the equivalent of a level-up from Rin which requires an intimate, somewhat awkward ritual between them while Gilgamesh continues his preparations for the Grail’s summoning. Since there isn’t a whole lot to talk about, we’ll spend some time this week talking about how the dynamic between Shirou and Rin has (or has not) changed over the course of the series and just what we can expect from the last two episodes of the series.
Before we jump into either point though, let’s talk about one of the most underutilized characters of the series – Saber. Now, I am aware of just why she has remained on the margins of this particular adaptation but if this series is to be considered on its own merits, then, to some extent at least, the deficiencies in the source material need to be addressed as well. Thus far, Saber has not received nearly the level of detailed characterization that Shirou, Archer or even Rin have – in fact, for the most part, it feels that her role in this particular arm of the story has been to swing her sword and support Shirou. In itself, that isn’t particularly problematic – after all, that is the essence of a Servant’s role. However, when Servants like Caster, Assassin and even Lancer receive better characterization than someone who has been on the protagonist’s side since the first episode, the distinction becomes particularly glaring. This is not to say that Saber has been totally passive in this series – she has had her own, occasionally differing opinion on numerous occasions and even if it hasn’t particularly emphasized, she does have a personality of her own. However, it’s abundantly clear that Saber and her views have not received nearly the kind of elaborate explanation that Archer and his received, and again, I do understand the reasons for it, but I would be remiss in not mentioning it as a weakness of the adaptation. On the whole, it feels like Ufotable has been uncertain about just what Saber’s role in this part of the story is; do they follow the visual novel entirely and abandon her or do they try to salvage what they can? Honestly, either alternative would have been acceptable but by trying to do both, the director and the studio have left their audience in an odd limbo. On one hand, we heard literally nothing of Saber’s story for the majority of the first half of the series. There were no allusions to any deeper character tensions within her, for example, and while it was clearly established that she had a colourful history of her own, it wasn’t until very recently that the series decided that that story was worth getting into. By suddenly cramming her story, or a Cliffnotes version of it at least, into the last few episodes, it feels like her story isn’t getting the attention it deserves and as a direct result, her thanking Shirou this episode for helping her find her answer feels rather hollow and out of place. She does seem more content than she was before, true – we get a moment where she looks at the shed she was summoned in and smiles, perhaps an indication of her gratitude to Shirou for helping her make peace with herself. It’s just that it’s a moment that would have been better if we knew more of what exactly troubled her.
Of course, the meat of this week’s episode is Shirou and Rin. It’s a little nostalgic thinking about their dynamic in the first season, from Rin’s incredulity at Shirou’s ignorance to the increasingly the belligerent sexual tension between them. Both aspects of that dynamic pretty much come to a head here – Rin is still annoyed by what she considers Shirou’s stupidity but there is a much more obvious fondness to her words now than before. It’s been pretty clear over the course of the series in general and this season in particular, that Rin’s come to realize what kind of person Shirou is and has developed a respect for him that she didn’t have before. All of that culminates in their odd, vaguely sexual ritual in which Rin transfers a portion of her magic crest to Shirou, all in an effort to prepare him for the fight of his life. That Rin, who we know is proud of her magical heritage, is willing to share that heritage with an amateur like Shirou isn’t just a sign of her affection for him; it’s also a tangible indication of her faith in him and the respect she has for him. Look at it like this – Saber’s qualifications to face Gilgamesh alone were questioned (and her outrage was adorable), despite her facing him before, but Shirou’s were not, at least not to nearly the same extent that should have been, proportionally speaking. It’s likely that Rin has some reservations about betting on Shirou but the fact that she wagered on him at all is a clear sign of just how far they have come as a couple even if they don’t realize that they are one. To be specific, they both seem to be aware of their feelings for each other but, for now, only Shirou is comfortable verbalizing it – Rin still insists on maintaining plausible deniability even though her own memories prove that she has at least been aware of Shirou’s existence for a while. In the end however, there is no clearer sign of the strength of their bond than the fact that their little ritual, which depended in part at least, on the strength of the bond between them, went off absolutely perfectly.
So, where does that leave us? It comes as absolutely no surprise that Shirou is the one who everyone is relying on to beat Gilgamesh – Archer pretty much explicitly said so last week and thematically speaking, it makes perfect sense too. Gilgamesh, a Servant who has proven that he can walk the talk, facing off against someone who has struggled to find just how he turn his dreams into reality, sets up this great contrast between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fake’. However, all of that aside, this episode does raise some questions. The first is Rin and Shirou’s short ode to Archer. It is somewhat understandable that Shirou sympathizes with the man – apart from their shared history, Archer shielded Shirou from Gilgamesh’s volley and not to beat on a dead horse, but Shirou has been known to be prone to survivor’s guilt. However, Archer betrayed Rin, let Shinji carry her off, potentially to her death no less, and didn’t exactly apologize or explain his actions either. Her loyalty to him is admirable but seems more than a little misplaced. The other fishy point here is just how Shirou has been able to go from an absolute amateur fighter, at the series’ beginning, to someone even remotely capable to challenging a Servant like Gilgamesh in such a short time frame. The likely explanation, of course, is that Shirou was able to sap some experience and knowledge from Archer during their fight. Still, it doesn’t really feel like Shirou has earned his newfound know-how just yet. Regardless, it seems that the final fight will come down to Rin, Shirou and Saber versus Gilgamesh but you have to wonder whether they even really stand a chance. Rin doesn’t seem like she would be much use and even with his projection ability, Shirou isn’t nearly experienced enough to match a seasoned fighter in a deathmatch. Logically, it should all come down to Saber but it seems that this episode is setting up her death flags, specifically the scene in which she asks Shirou and Rin to promise to come back in one piece.
On the whole, this episode served mostly as a breather for what promises to be an exciting conclusion to the series. There were plenty of light-hearted moments and a good amount of comic relief at Rin’s expense but there were also some hints of backstory too. Shirou saw some of Rin’s older memories and a few stand out; a funeral, presumably for Rin’s father; a priest threatening Rin with a dagger but most importantly, the first time Rin saw Shirou. We don’t know for sure that that was the first time, but it would be cuter if it was, so now it is. It tells us that what Rin noticed about Shirou first wasn’t his looks (clearly) or his sharp wit (also, clearly) but his determination – Shirou obviously didn’t recognize himself (or did and was just rubbing it in), but there is something oddly innocent about that being the moment Rin acknowledged Shirou’s existence, as opposed to a moment of flashy brilliance (which Shirou wasn’t likely to produce in any case). The other two scenes are enough to stir some curiosity but seem unlikely to really affect things, though it is odd that we have not seen a sign of Rin’s mother thus far. Perhaps being disabled keeps her restricted to her room or, more likely, she too passed away shortly after her husband. Either way, the Grail cares not; even as the protagonists are spending quality time with each other, the Grail is being summoned and time is running out and only next week will tell what direction this is all going to go.