So, after last week’s detour, we find ourselves back in the thick of proper war related things. When we last saw our characters, we were moving firmly away from the set-up part of the story and strongly towards the meaty, moving parts. Kirei’s overall irritation and dissatisfaction with Tokiomi’s way of doing things has been building up and he looks like he could make move at any moment while Kiritsugu had set off to settle things once and for all with Kayneth. Kayneth, it should be noted, once again proved that age old story telling truism – if something seems OP in act 1, prepare to see it get its ass kicked in act 2. That little saying definitely holds true in the larger Fate-universe – FSN Caster and Berserker are good examples but so is Gilgamesh if you think about it. Kayneth for all his talk of nine generations of magic, isn’t doing so good and his life is in the hands of a wife who doesn’t particularly care and a Servant who lacks proper leadership. Elsewhere, the hunt for Caster, despite being initiated several episodes ago, has yet to be concluded; it feels like whatever urgency the characters felt in capturing Caster has died down pretty sharply over the course of the last couple of episodes; it used to be priority number one but now it feels like it’s more of a ‘nice-to-have’ than a must.
The opening scene shows Rider charging right towards the Einzbern mansion. When we last saw him, he and Waver had torched Caster’s hideout but hadn’t really formed any sort of plan for what to do next. If you thought he was here for serious business however, you just don’t know Rider – he basically turned up to ask Saber (and presumably Irisviel as well) if she wanted to grab a drink with him and Waver; a double date of sorts, if you will. He’s wearing the most casual kind of attire imaginable so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that he’s just there to suss out what Team Saber is up to. He’s trying to talk Saber down from fighting again, but this time from a different angle – previously, he asked both Saber and Lancer to join his army but both Servants obviously refused him. This time, he comes at it from a more rational, pacifist perspective; the War is, at its core, a mechanism to decide who gets the Grail and so, Rider reckons, there is no real need to fight if they can just decide who gets the Grail. I’m assuming then, that Rider isn’t really aware of the Grail’s true nature? That he doesn’t realize that the Servants have to die in order for the Grail to even materialize? That little caveat makes any negotiation between the factions inherently unreliable because while the Servants may have incentive to collude in the short run, they have absolutely no incentive to keep their respective sides of the bargain in the long run. Regardless though, Rider’s plan to do determine who between him and Saber is more ‘kingly’, though how exactly he plans to measure such a thing is up in the air. Surely, neither of them will willingly admit to being less kingly than the other?
Of course, any discussion of rulers and their rights is incomplete without Gilgamesh there to provide scathing remarks and wanton condescension – the blond Servant strolls in late and immediately insults everyone present. Pretty much everything Gilgamesh says and does in this part of this scene is literally dripping with condescension – he comments on what a dump the Einzbern mansion is (to be fair, there was a battle fought there not too long ago), how plain the vintage of the wine (to be fair, Rider got it at the supermarket) is and how unrefined it all is (to be fair, Gilgamesh is kind of a tool). Not wanting to be the kind of guest who doesn’t bring anything to the party (I’m sure Kirei must have made some comment about it), Gilgamesh proceeds to provide some top-shelf, creation-myth level booze – now the party can really get started. If you thought it was hard convincing either Saber or Rider that they were less kingly than the other, can you imagine that conversation with Gilgamesh in the mix?
With that, the conversation begins to shift into what this episode is really about – the Grail Dialogue. It’s sort of like the Holy Grail War except it’s a war of words, not swords. Gilgamesh opens with his claim to the Grail; by virtue of being the oldest and having the greatest treasury, Gilgamesh claims the Grail as his own because by definition, all treasures are his. It’s not exactly the best argument I’ve heard but Gilgamesh sounds so sure of himself and his position so absurd that it’s really difficult to figure where to begin rebuking him. Of course, anyone who points out how deeply flawed his logic is just dismissed as a mongrel (he really loves the word, doesn’t he?). Gilgamesh, not being a man for half measures, doesn’t just claim the Grail but goes on to state that anyone else who claims the Grail is just a thief stealing from Gil’s vast treasury. If you read in between Gilgamesh’s braggadocio, he is basically portraying himself as a sort of benevolent, omnipotent god-king. He says that he is happy to share his treasures (by which he means literally every treasure ever conceived) with his people and subjects but with no one else. It’s like saying all that is good and just flows from the King but anyone else who does the same is a phoney and a thief. It’s not a bad ruling principle, really; certainly, it’s one that historically had a good run before fading away. Let’s see what Saber and Rider have to offer to counter it.
Saber has been quiet so far but Rider’s carefree attitude gets to her and she finally speaks up. Why does Rider want the Cup so badly? His answer is very much in line with his whole character, or whatever we’ve seen of it so far; he wants to be reborn, to live life again. Like Pinocchio, Rider wants to be a real boy and get another shot at conquering the world. It makes sense if you think about Alexander the Great’s life – he was on track to conquer literally everything until dying all of a sudden at 31. It makes sense that he would want to be reborn so he give it another shot. Gilgamesh and Saber both find this notion to be ridiculous; Gilgamesh is indignant that Rider would be willing to fight him for such a ‘small thing’. Is reincarnation really that trifling a detail though? It seems like a pretty big deal, if you ask me. Saber, as righteous and noble as always, finds both men to be selfish and self-centred. She declares her wish to save Britain (I seem to recall her precise wish was for her to never have become King so that someone more worthy could have done a better job, but maybe I’m remembering it wrong).
Meanwhile, Kirei and Tokiomi just watched from a distance as this idle conversation goes on. It seems that Tokiomi will use this little gathering of Masters to deploy Assassin and test Rider’s mettle. Honestly, it sounds like an exceptionally idiotic plan – with Rider and Saber present, the odds of Assassin being able to accomplish anything is practically zero. If Tokiomi really wanted to test Rider, he could just unleash Gilgamesh and see what happens, though technically, that could be a little risky. Back at the Banquet of Kings (which really should have been the episode’s title instead of ‘Grail Dialogue’), both Gilgamesh and Rider are bemused by Saber’s attitude. Basically, if I had to summarize it, it’d be as follows:
- Saber: The good, noble, chivalric king. She believes in servant leadership, that it is a privilege and a responsibility to serve your country and that the King’s life and happiness belongs to the people and welfare of the nation. It’s a very conventional interpretation of heroism, one that no one can really question in theory. However, the reality turns out to be very different – when you live that perfect life, you become an ideal. We see this fairly often in science fiction or fantasy – how often does the usual messianic figure end up cutting himself off from his loved ones and old friends because he cannot be both a casual friend and the saviour of the world? Saber says it herself – when she became the King, she stopped being a person. Rider, like Shirou after him, finds this deeply unsatisfactory and Saber herself deals with this a lot in Fate/Stay Night. I love that it’s so easy to just agree with Saber but only if you treat the question in the most superficial manner possible. Should a leader be just and selfless? Why, of course! Should a leader also be charismatic and inspirational? Certainly! These notions
- Rider: The charismatic leader. He dreams bigger dreams than anyone else and in the process he inspires his people to make those dreams a reality. Rider is under no delusions – he knows that the process of achieving those dreams might not necessarily be in the best interests of the people. He is selfish, in that sense, but aware of that selfishness. Above all, he doesn’t believe in having regrets – you get one life to accomplish your dreams, and in his mind, you can’t spend that one precious life worrying about the greater good and things like that. One of the things he said really resonated with me: “I shall grieve. And I shall weep. But I shall never regret.” At each point in his life, he made what he thought was the best decision and part of being an adult human being is just accepting that you’ll mistakes but moving on and not dwelling on them.
- Gilgamesh: He pretty much shut up when Rider and Saber went at it but he clearly shares more of his perspective with Rider than Saber. His style of leadership seems basically be ‘Might makes right’. He will enforce his own laws and justice, and basically call himself King until someone forces him to stop. He’s sort of a benevolent dictator – he will be nice to those who accept his absolute authority but ruthless with those who don’t. He doesn’t rely on inspiration or nobility – he relies on overwhelming force to put down any opposition. To be honest, his perspective is probably the least developed of the three and thus, it also feels the flimsiest.
Some comments on the above: Rider pretty much tears Saber a new one. He hits her right where it hurts – her insecurities. By the end of it, she has no retort whatsoever because each point that Rider, who doesn’t know Saber’s story, raises not only directly corresponds to a painful event in Saber’s life but is also a point that she could never counter. Saber’s response to all the failures she experienced in her life is essentially to ask for a do-over instead of accepting both the good and bad that came with them.
After this, shit gets very real very fast, but I’ll try to keep up. Gilgamesh gets a little creepy towards Saber but it seems that the Banquet of Kings is at an impasse – words have failed and swords were drawn. Just then, Assassin, who clearly can’t read the mood, turns up. I can’t imagine why Assassin, even with Kirei’s Command Seal boost, thought it was a good idea to turn up at that exact moment when tempers of all three powerful spirits were flaring. Assassin also seemed hilariously proud of its many-in-one characteristic, as if that makes any difference to the three Servants it was confronting. Rider first invites Assassin to join, but Assassin, once again failing to read the mood, rejects his offer with a snigger and with that the meeting ends. Rider asks a final question: ‘Must a King be alone in his superiority’. Before I talk about the awesomeness that is Ionian Hetaroi, let’s think about that question. Saber clearly believes that the King must stand alone and above his subjects; Rider’s greatest criticism of her was that she saved her people but never led them. Saber is the kind of leader who found that it gets lonely at the top but Gilgamesh, who also clearly believes that the King must stand far above his people, seems to be immune to that loneliness (though that’s not true). Gilgamesh takes great pleasure in the solitude of a King but Rider’s Noble Phantasm will surely make even him stop and think. Rider’s Ionian Hetaroi is a magnificent Reality Marble that recreates Alexander’s Companions – each of the soldiers summoned in the Marble are Servants and at their head rides the one and only Alexander the Great. Assassin’s death is a foregone conclusion, of course but you get the sense that this great show of power wasn’t meant to swat Assassin but rather as a demonstration to both Gilgamesh and Saber. It is Alexander’s answer to his own final question.
With Assassin gone, Rider departs on a sour note. He no longer recognizes Saber as a King and the implication there is that he’s lost his respect for her. There doesn’t seem to be any particular ill feeling but it’s obvious that Rider is greatly disappointed by Saber. His parting remark to Saber about the nature of her idea of kingship ties in very well to the issues that Saber deals with in the Fate route and Saber too reflects on how even in her own time, her comrades would leave because she couldn’t understand them and their perspective. Both Gil and Rider recognized that Saber is living in the past, full of regrets and what-ifs despite leaving a legacy as great as either of theirs. The episode ends with Saber probably feeling even worse about her past than before; not only did she fail to save her country, she also failed to be a good leader to her men. This episode is easily one of my favourites – this meeting between three legendary figures really dove deep into their respective philosophies when it comes to leadership. If I myself had to pick one, I think the society, and the world, is better served by people like Saber but I can’t deny that I’d rather be like Rider than Saber. It’s the difference between doing what you know to be right and doing what you know will make you happy. If there is no conflict between the two, great; otherwise, your choice really just depends on what you value at the end of the day.