After almost two full seasons, it’s finally time for the final showdown but unsurprisingly enough, our heroes’ plans go awry right off the bat. Assassin makes a surprise return as he holds Saber to the promise she made in their previous encounter while Gilgamesh decides that Shirou should entertain him for a bit while they all await the end of mankind. Despite being the penultimate episode, it felt like this episode was still all about build-up – we didn’t get the chance to see anything really exciting this week from either of the two fights. Saber helps wrap up Assassin’s fate but given what we know it was impossible that Assassin would have given Saber any real trouble while the fight between Shirou and Gilgamesh ends predictably enough for now. This episode, ‘Incarnation’, isn’t entirely without substance but like last week’s episode, it doesn’t really capitalize on the narrative momentum that the confrontation with Archer built up and instead feels like the show is saving all the good stuff for its finale, which is understandable but also leaves this episode a little anaemic. Having said that, it’s clear that the stakes are getting higher – the Grail is gathering momentum, and there are hints that Gilgamesh might be messing with forces that even he may not be fully equipped to handle.
This one of those episodes that has more dragging it down than helping it stay afloat and the biggest culprit is this fight between Saber and Assassin. Had this fight happened somewhere in the middle of the season, it would have been perfectly acceptable but this close to the finale, you can’t help but feel that Assassin is just more of a nuisance than an actual threat. While it would have been mildly disappointing to have him just fade away after Caster’s defeat, bringing him up again at this point just seems so unnecessary. Perhaps he was brought back into the spotlight, from a narrative standpoint, to keep Saber from entering the battle too early or perhaps his story just needed a conclusion and this was the last opportunity to provide it but either way, the fight, short as it was, could have been done better if served some purpose in the larger scheme of things. Maybe it could have made Saber realize something about herself that could have turned things around in the final battle or perhaps Assassin could have at least weakened her – as things turned out, he was pretty much just brushed off and it weakened the conclusion to his own character since becomes pretty much a footnote in the bigger fight.
The bigger problem though is Gilgamesh himself. It’s a little disheartening to see him turn out to be such an alien adversary – the show’s previous antagonists like Caster, Berserker and especially Archer, all seemed relatable to some degree. We could sympathize with Caster because of her backstory, Berserker’s physical prowess and loyalty to Ilya earned our respect and Archer, of course, was the most sympathetic of the three as a result of his identity and familiarity. However, Gilgamesh has nothing to offer along those lines – he comes off as brash, arrogant and self-centred. None of that is a problem, really; after all, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a villain has to be someone we can understand. The issue is that after seeing these others villains’ motives for their own actions, Gilgamesh’s motivations feel insufficient. We spent a good amount of time delving into Archer’s story and what drove him but by the end, his motives made sense even if you didn’t agree with them. In Gilgamesh’s case, his plan to annihilate humanity doesn’t just feel clichéd, it feels out of place. It’s possible that that’s the point; Gilgamesh is a demigod from a time when the value of a single human life was very different from the show’s current timeline but the problem is that after the show has spent all its time carefully building up various character’s personalities and ideals, to have a final antagonist’s plan be so very generic feels disappointing. On the other hand, Gilgamesh, as a character, is rather difficult to dislike. While the rationale for his motives are a little lacking, Gilgamesh himself is immensely entertaining, just by virtue of him being utterly dismissive of the threats the rest of the characters pose to him. Even with Shirou’s new enhanced abilities, he is no match for Gilgamesh and that’s before the latter pulls out Ea, a sword (device?) that seems special even by Gilgamesh’s lofty standards. If nothing else, this episode made it absolutely clear that the gap between Shirou and Gilgamesh is much wider than we thought it might be, and that’s saying something.
All of this leaves the series finale with a lot to live up to – Gilgamesh must be dealt with but so must the Grail. Saber’s declaration that she has only enough mana for one all-out fight is setting up her sacrifice and the end to her part in the story but the bigger question is how Shirou will step up and deliver the final blow. There’s no question that he has to be the one to deal with Gilgamesh – from both a narrative and thematic perspective. From a narrative standpoint, Saber’s ‘final blow’ from Excalibur will require her to deal with the Grail and so Shirou has to be the one dealing with Gilgamesh. From the thematic point of view though, Gilgamesh’s inability to see any value in the millions of lives that he will be taking puts him diametrically opposite Shirou’s ideal of saving the world and should prove a sufficient means to conclude Shirou’s journey. The finale will also need to conclude Rin’s part in this story as well as the war’s aftermath. It should make for an extremely interesting 24minutes, if nothing else.