This post has spoilers for Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero (up to episode 16). If you do not wish for certain information regarding plot points from this series or other related series to be revealed to you, you might want to consider not reading any further.
Sweet Mother of God, what a fucking episode.
This is an episode filled with conflict and confrontations, not just in terms of the physical clashes and assassinations but also in terms of the age old battle between idealism and practicality. We get the long-awaited conclusion to the battle between Kiritsugu and Kayneth, as well as final fight between Saber and Lancer, but beyond that, we finally see the deep rooted ideological conflict between Kiritsugu and Saber addressed in the open, in one of the most powerful scenes of the series so far. This episode was the very definition of a WHAM episode, with multiple characters meeting their respective makers, but it was also a very thought-provoking one. I’ve had mixed feelings about a bunch of the pivotal characters involved in this episode for a while now and this episode has only made that worse. That’s not criticism either; within this episode I went from detesting Kayneth to kind of feeling bad for him to being just plain horror-struck at what had happened to him and that’s a testament to the way these characters have been developed. Today’s post will be a little longer than usual because I just have so much to say about the events of this chapter but I’ll try to keep my thoughts are organized as I possibly can.
This episode stacked up a really impressive body count and I think it’s only fitting that we open today’s discussion by remembering those who are no longer with us. First up: Kotomine Risei, the corrupt priest in charge of overseeing this whole affair. Each death in this episode was surprising in its own way, but none more so than Risei’s because I never considered him to even be in danger. Perhaps after being exposed to so much of the Fate universe (I just picked up Fate/Strange Fake (manga) earlier this week, solid recommendation, I can’t wait to finish Fate/Zero so I can dive into it fully), I should know better, but for some reason, I just didn’t think that Kayneth, of all people, would just straight up shoot the judge. Kayneth seemed a little like Tokiomi in that he was very much a representative of the ‘establishment’ – he was a teacher at the Clock Tower and from what I could gather, a fairly prominent member of the Mage’s Association. His assassination of Risei then was more a sign of how desperate he was and of how low he had fallen; he was painfully aware (perhaps even more so than most of his opponents) of how precarious his position was and it seems his determination to level the playing field overpowered his better judgement. It wasn’t enough to Kayneth that he win (i.e. obtain the Command Seal) but also that his opponents lose (be unable to receive theirs), which is the kind of cold rationality that I’m more accustomed to seeing from Kiritsugu really, especially after this episode. It’s unlikely that there will be any major fallout from Risei’s assassination since Kayneth himself is dead and Risei is a secondary character at best. It will be very interesting, however, to see what Kirei’s response to this will be, given his own crisis of faith.
Next, we have Lancer. I know that Diarmuid doesn’t have a particularly large fan-base and understandably so since he is just so bland compared to Cu Chulainn but it seems that being summoned into the Lancer class just never ends well. Diarmuid is the second Lancer (well, first chronologically, I guess) to not only be bound to a shitty Master who doesn’t appreciate him at all but also to die by forced suicide. My feelings about Diarmuid are a mix of sympathy and frustration. I’ve mentioned in the past that I find Lancer and Saber’s obsession with chivalry really frustrating but at the same time, on some level, I respect their commitment to it. All Lancer wanted was a good Master to serve and an honourable way to die. With Kayneth in the picture, the former was never an option – and the scene just prior to Saber’s arrival made that abundantly clear – but even the latter was cruelly denied to him thanks to Kiritsugu’s intervention. Lancer and Kayneth never had the strongest relationship but when Sola-Ui was kidnapped, it hit an absolute rock bottom. Kayneth tore into Lancer, attacking him from every angle – his past, his chivalry and his ineffectualness. Lancer takes the verbal beating bravely enough but he just cuts a really sorry figure. Their interaction resembled nothing so much as an abusive couple – Kayneth being the asshole boyfriend who was permanently ungrateful and passing the blame and Lancer being the worn down, burnt out girlfriend who was struggling to make the relationship work. You could see Lancer’s hopes for a good Master fade when Kayneth accused him of seducing Sola-Ui and conspiring against his Master and he just looked so dejected and forlorn. For a while though, it did seem like Lancer would get his second wish when Saber appeared to settle the score. The whole ceremony surrounding their duel gave me a moment’s hope that Lancer’s nobility and selflessness would be rewarded as he and Saber faced off in a pure duel but the Fate/Zero universe is not a particularly forgiving one and Lancer is left cursing his Masters and the human nature. Lancer’s curse has some obvious foreshadowing since the Grail is cursed, as is literally everyone present at the scene, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Lancer’s curse wouldn’t be a simpler explanation for the whole Angra Mainyu effect which so far no one seems to know of. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Lancer tainted the Grail, but rather that if Fate/Zero is aiming to be a self-contained show, his curse would make for a more elegant explanation than Angra Mainyu which adds a new level of complexity to the Grail’s already complicated mechanics. Going back to Lancer though, his death was a powerful one I think because his final words are pure rage at a world that has no shred of decency in it, whether in his own time or now. It really shows the audience of just how low these characters have sunk to obtain their heart’s desire and ties in very elegantly with Kiritsugu’s point that the battlefield is a hellish, nightmarish place.
We’ll get to Kiritsugu and his deeply cynical view of the world shortly, but before that, let’s say our good byes to Kayneth and Sola-Ui. When it comes down to it, I hate every aspect of Kayneth’s character except the one thing that really humanizes him; his love for his wife. Apart from the genuine love he has for Sola-Ui though, Kayneth really is a terrible human being. He has no real sense of honour or morality (but then again, in this universe that might be a good thing), he is full of envy and mistrust, he is an awful Master; he is a nasty piece of work all around, really. Yet, he’s taken his fair share of beatings – emotionally, when he sees Sola-Ui’s open crush on Lancer and physically, when Kiritsugu breaks like Bane did Batman. Both of those events are enough to get a twinge of sympathy from me, but nevertheless, I was hoping he would get his sooner rather than later. What Kiritsugu did to him however, was beyond brutal – it was an utter annihilation of Kayneth in every way. I have to wonder why Kayneth still loves his wife though; not that long ago, she broke his fingers to torture him into giving her his Command Seals (that worked out well!) and has generally been mean and condescending towards him. It might just a Stockholm syndrome kind of thing, where he has managed to convince himself that Sola-Ui would never have done any of that if it weren’t for Lancer seducing her. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing and it was a little heart-breaking seeing him cradle his disfigured wife in his arms before being mercilessly gunned down and then killed by Saber. Kayneth died a broken, shattered man; he had pretty much offered no resistance at all throughout the episode and it’s hard not to pity him but let’s not forget that this guy shot a priest earlier in the evening. Also, if he was smart enough to think of a plan like Kiritsugu’s, he would totally have gone through with it so I won’t be shedding too many tears for him. I want to talk about Sola-Ui but I can’t find it in me to say more than this: she was a total bitch and good fucking riddance.
While a lot happened in this episode, to put it mildly, my real take-away from the episode was just how different the characters. You have the whole range of the cynicism spectrum in this episode – with Saber’s idealism glowing brightly on one side and Kiritsugu’s deep bitterness on the other. Let’s start with Saber. Her entire world view has come under some serious fire in this series – first from Rider who attacked her leadership and then from Kiritsugu who tearing her morals apart. The thing with Saber is that she has lived her life by a strict moral code; the code of knightly chivalry. She is the epitome of what that code produces – a good, dutiful king; righteous, courageous and loyal. Yet, in a sense, she has to stick to that code because the cost of not sticking to it would be catastrophic. I don’t just mean that in a practical sense (Excalibur’s power comes from the strength of her beliefs, as she informs us this episode) but also on a psychological level. If she accepts Kiritsugu’s philosophy that there is no good killing and that her notion of chivalrous fights is little more than glorified murder, then she will have to accept that her life (which features a good many battles) is nothing but a string of atrocities and that is just not going to sit well with her notion of herself as a good knight.
Does that mean that Kiritsugu has the right of it? That there is no point to having laws and ideals when it comes to violence? A part of me rejects that notion – after all, there is such a thing as a clean death and just because violence is a part of human nature does not mean that we have to cater to that lowest common denominator. Saber’s stance, the stance of the Geneva Convention, and the stance of human decency all tell us that while sometimes violence is inevitable, there are some standards that have to maintained and that the necessity of violence doesn’t provide give us the right to just do whatever we want. Yet, Kiritsugu’s position seems to be one that someone who’s actually been through battle and has seen it close up would adopt – the notion that there is something noble and glorious about battle is a dangerous one. Once you’re out on the front lines getting shot at and shooting people, you realize that honour and glory aren’t worth a thing. Saber has been in enough battles to know this but I suspect that those same notions of honour and glory are so deeply embedded in her that she simply cannot see what is right in front of her eyes, and like I said, if she accepts that honour and glory are meaningless, then suddenly, she has to question what she has fought all those battles for, what she has sacrificed so many of her fellow soldiers for. Coming back to Kiritsugu though, I know that we tend to be fairly forgiving of Kiritsugu because of his role as protagonist and because we know what he’s really fighting for but there is also no denying the fact that anyone who can carry out a plan as cruel as his is almost certainly a psychopath. He clearly carries a deep bitterness in him, and yet, one gets the sense that he is one bad day away from a total mental breakdown. I know that breakdown is coming; something is going to change him from the man he is now to the man Shirou loves so much but for now, he is taking his ‘ends justify the means’ approach all the way to its logical conclusion.
What really struck me was that Kiritsugu was very much aware of the cyclical nature of violence and how violence tends to beget more violence. History has shown us this on countless occasions but in the Holy Grail, Kiritsugu has a way of breaking that eternal cycle. He doesn’t need to know how to end it himself; he will let the omnipotent cup decide and implement this magical solution. In that sense, the ends really do justify the means because the violence that he uses to get the job done will be the last time violence will ever be needed – or so Kiritsugu believes. It’s a strange position for us as an audience because on one hand, you can sort of see the logic but you also know that the whole endeavour is a fool’s errand to begin with. It’s difficult, sometimes, to see Kiritsugu carry this enormous burden on his own soul while knowing all the while that it’s for nothing. To some degree, that’s a feeling that runs through all of Fate/Zero and it’s inevitable to some extent because it is a prequel and some things are set in stone because we know what comes next but that doesn’t make those moments any easier to watch. Before I wrap this up, I also want to talk about Iri. She hasn’t done much of note in the last few episodes but she really made an impression on me in the final scene. She has often been a passive partner to Kiritsugu but in this episode, she was really firm in getting Kiritsugu to explain himself to her and Saber. It was the first time I’ve seen her really get stern and it’s a nice change from her usual more light-hearted personality.
With that, I’ll wrap up this week’s post with a few pointers about things to come. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Kirei will handle his burgeoning bad-guy-boner and how he will deal with his father’s passing. It’s clear to anyone paying attention that Kirei’s on the brink of turning fully evil and I can’t help but think that his father’s passing will let Kirei cut his ties with God once and for all. This episode will also have some long term implications on Kiritsugu’s relationship with Saber. It was never a strong one, true, but after this point, you have to assume that it’s totally broken down. With Irisviel’s fate up in the air, it seems unlikely that she can continue acting as a medium between the two sides for much longer.
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