This post has spoilers for Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero (up to episode 19). 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.
After two long episodes of backstory, it’s good to be back in the thick of things. This week’s episode, ‘Return of the Assassin’, is fairly eventful – we catch up with Irisviel and the rest of team Kiritsugu as they make preparations for the final stages of the War, and we take a look at what Team Rider and Team Berserker have been up to in the aftermath of the battle at the river. One thing to remember is that very little time has passed since that battle; the number of episodes separating events can easily deceive us into thinking that it has been a long time since Caster’s demise, when in actuality it’s been just a day or two. The events at the end of the episode – Maiya’s death and Irisviel’s capture – seem like they will be the catalysts for getting the business end of this story going as the various factions begin mobilizing for a final showdown. We also see Kiritsugu shed his reservations about what he has to do – he seems to be steeling himself for the unpleasantness that’s coming ahead though we see that he is not nearly as a cold hearted as he believes himself to be.
We’ll open today’s discussion with the primary focus of this episode: the two women in Kiritsugu’s life. You get the feeling that so far in the series, though they spent plenty of time together, Maiya and Iri never really understood enough until their final scene together. Sure, there was plenty of mutual respect and trust – both women knew that the other was wholeheartedly committed to seeing Kiritsugu’s goals and ideals out to their respective bitter ends, but neither really seemed to understand why the other was as dedicated as they were. As it turns out, both characters’ motivations are simple enough to understand. To Maiya, Kiritsugu is a somewhat creepy mix between father figure and mentor, but she seems to think of herself as an instrument more than a person (this seems to be a recurring theme in the orphans Kiritsugu picks up). She has dedicated her life to being useful to Kiritsugu in whatever capacity she can – her life had no meaning before him so the way she sees it, he’s free to do with her life whatever he wants. It’s not a very deep philosophy and Maiya isn’t a particularly complex character either – she’s pretty much your run of the mill strong, silent badass type. She’s hyper-competent without every stealing the spotlight, dutiful to a fault but utterly lacking in agency of any kind. That sounds like criticism but it’s really not; there simply isn’t enough time or space to flesh every single character out and though that means we won’t always care as much about their demise, such is the fate of a secondary character. I admit that most of my reaction to Maiya’s passing came more from Kiritsugu’s uncharacteristically emotional response than from the death itself – even in death, it seems Maiya was as useful as ever.
Compared to Maiya, Iri’s motivations were more complex but honestly, not a whole lot more so. While Maiya followed Kiritsugu out of loyalty, Iri supports him out of love but also because she has a more personal stake in the game. Iri admits, when questioned, that she doesn’t really care all that much about humanity since she’s always been a little far removed from them for most of her adult life. Instead, she cares because Kiritsugu’s goals will leave a better world for him and their daughter, because his success will ensure that their daughter lives a better, happier life than Irisviel herself was given. Her final speeches, both to Maiya and Kiritsugu, were touching in similar ways. I doubt that Kiritsugu will see Irisviel again; their scene in this episode had the unmistakable tone of a final farewell to it. The simple, sincere gratitude she expressed to both Kiritsugu and Maiya was heart-warming – and a little bittersweet given that her own death is fast approaching. We’ve known since the beginning that Irisviel would have to die for the Grail to manifest itself so it’s not that this comes as a surprise but it’s still a loss to deal with. The dramatic irony of many of the hopes and dreams she expressed to Maiya and Kiritsugu wasn’t lost on me either; we all know just how few of the dreams Iri has for the future will come to pass – Ilya will not be spared her mother’s fate, Kiritsugu will achieve nothing and neither of them will find much happiness in the days to come. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I consider Irisviel’s character to be one of the major successes of Fate/Zero. We came into the series knowing next to nothing about her character (I don’t recall her even being mentioned in Fate/Stay Night) and through her very human displays of innocence, determination and righteousness, she was able to win us over quite convincingly, particularly in this second season.
All of that serves to just make me all the more invested in her abduction. Rider’s kidnapping attempt is a strange one and one that I don’t know how to make sense of. We know that this Holy Grail War, which so far, despite all the bloodshed, has been progressing fairly smoothly, ends in catastrophe. I can’t help but wonder if we’re fast reaching the point where that downward spiral into chaos begins. I’m not convinced that it was Rider who killed Maiya and ran off with Iri and while I certainly can’t rule the possibility out, I think there’s enough (circumstantial) evidence against it to be at least sceptical. Now, I’m clearly biased here since I like Rider and don’t want him to be the kind of character who kills other characters I like. Now, Rider said, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to target Saber next but it seems very much unlike Rider to use such clandestine methods as kidnapping. Yet, he did also say that the battle with Caster had weakened him more than even he had realized and that could have led him to conclude that the only way to even the odds against Saber was to take Iri hostage. There is also something about the episode’s title – ‘Return of the Assassin’ – that makes me wonder about the possibility of a new Assassin Servant but I’m rejecting that idea because it’s too late in the story for new Servants. Apart from that, I felt that the kidnapping scene was over in the blink of an eye and that alone appeared suspicious. The episode goes through such lengths to make Rider sympathetic – focusing on his friendship with Waver, his desire to ‘save’ Saber and so on – that it just seems odd to squander away that goodwill by attacking a faction that the audience sides with. I think this episode perfectly illustrated one of the biggest reasons I love Rider. When he realizes that Okeanos never existed, he simply laughs and accepts that he blundered. It’s no small thing to accept that your entire life’s purpose was meaningless and it’s even more impressive that he doesn’t, for a second, express regret. I think those following Saber’s style of rule would rue the fact that they sacrificed so many for so little but Rider is able to leave that burden behind him. You can argue that that indicates a certain callousness on his part and it shows that he never truly cared about his soldiers’ lives but I don’t think that’s it – the soldiers believed in their general and Rider didn’t intentionally try to mislead them. He made an honest mistake but it wasn’t like he betrayed them. Apart from that, I noticed that the episodes are dropping more and more hints that the Grail might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. The artefact is being mentioned less and less as a wonderful wish fulfilling device, and more and more as something a little more ominous.
We end the week’s discussion with Kariya and Berserker. We haven’t seen these two for a while now but we do get some juicy bits of information thrown our way to reward us for our patience. We get confirmation that Berserker has a personal grudge against Saber. His ‘darkness’ was created out of the shadow of the light that she cast, he says and taking that metaphor at face value, that could mean one of two things. Either he was literally created to counter her brightness by her numerous enemies or he was a knight who was always chasing Saber but couldn’t catch her. I find the second possibility much more interesting given the implications it would have about Saber’s style of ruling. If Berserker was a knight who constantly felt inferior because he couldn’t live up to Saber’s high code of honour and was thus cast aside, wouldn’t that fit in perfectly with the narrative of Saber – as a righteous King who couldn’t lead or save her own people – that Fate/Zero is trying to tell? Either way, Berserker has some prime beef with Saber and his hatred is keeping Kariya up at night. Speaking of Kariya, he’s not doing too well. In fact, ‘not doing too well’ could very well be a TLDR summary of Kariya’s entire arc in Fate/Zero. His dear old dad is doing predictably little to improve the situation – adding to Kariya’s physical anguish with some pretty unnecessary emotional trauma. It seems that Kariya is getting one final familial boost in this war though informing him (and us) that it came at the cost of Sakura’s ‘purity’ was far, far, more information than anyone wanted.
Four Servants remain and the dynamics between them are complicated – Rider has something to prove against Saber, and Saber will be out to avenge Maiya. Berserker and Saber have some bad blood that needs to be let out as well and somewhere in the background Gilgamesh is looking down on all these mongrels and waiting for someone worthy to entertain him. In keeping with March madness, I think we can draw up a semi-final bracket – though I’m cheating since I already know the finalists: (Saber vs Berserker) and (Gilgamesh vs Rider). I can see a case for Rider vs Saber too but the way I see it, Berserker has to fight Saber at some point or his entire character would be pointless and there’s been too much talk of Rider saving his final Ionian Hetaroi to take Gilgamesh down for that to not happen. Five more episodes to go!