[Anime] Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Conspiracy Theories (Episodes 7-10)


This post is the third in a series covering ‘Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’. The previous posts can be found: here (episodes 1-3) and here (episodes 4-6). This post contains spoilers for episodes one through ten, with some speculation for episodes beyond that.

I came into this post fully intending to do at least 5 episodes. For reasons that will become clear soon, I scrapped that idea and stopped at a point that was rather emotionally soul crushing because I needed some time to absorb and reflect on what just happened. Thinking back on some of the earlier posts, I’m more than a little amused about how I’ve treated King Bradley. I don’t know what it says about me that I was (and sort of still am) willing to give a character holding the title of Fuhrer the benefit of the doubt. I mean, there is absolutely no way that Hiromu Arakawa (author of Fullmetal Alchemist) named him the way she did without knowing who the most recent Fuhrer was, right? So given that, it’s almost guaranteed that Bradley’s not a good dude. Yet, he is treated in such a light hearted way that I can’t help but wonder if I’m being misled somehow. The show’s signalling is at odds with my instinct but I’m going to stick with my gut until proven wrong.

Normally, this would be where I reflect on last week’s post and talk about things I missed, but I ended up covering everything I wanted to cover last week and so let’s just jump right back where we left off – Ed and Al have a new lead and are returning back to Central…

Episode 7: Hidden Truths

…only to find it burned to the ground by Lust. Gluttony smells Scar nearby and moves to attack him. We learn that Mustang intends to become Fuhrer himself – perhaps its his way of reforming the government from within? Scar and Gluttony’s fight attracts attention. The military thinks that Scar died, but Lust and Gluttony reveal that he escaped but that he is injured. Lust reports to someone called ‘Father’. The brothers find Sheska who has extensive knowledge of the books in the 1st Library. Sheska has copies of the research from Marco’s books and is happy to help the brothers – at first it seems that the data is useless, but Ed apparently sees something that the others don’t. Also, it seems like Ed’s research stipend is pretty generous. I’m not really sure what is being achieved from a plot perspective if the information in the library can just be obtained from somewhere else rather easily. It was a fun little detour but kind of a waste of time.

As expected, Ed realises that the research is encrypted to prevent plagiarism and the group sets to work deciphering the texts. The scenes are a good way of showing (without ‘telling’) the boys’ extensive knowledge of the world of alchemy – they appear to be very well read and have a solid understanding of a number of different fields within alchemy. Of course, they could also be spouting nonsense and I wouldn’t know any better.  They finally solve the code after 10 days of hard work but it is not what they think it is – the key to the philosopher’s stone is human sacrifice. In fact, it’s many human sacrifices for a relatively small stone. I guess I should have seen something  like that coming though; if the Law of Equivalent Exchange is to hold true (and you’ll note that it is a Law, not just a lame theory like gravity) then all the additional power that the philosopher’s stone confers has to come from somewhere, right? Perhaps it could have come from some rare earth mineral or something similar but then that wouldn’t be very dramatic, now would it? This is also setting up the core moral conflict of the series – if the only way for Edward and Alphonse to get their lost bodies back is through human suffering and death, what would it say about them if they chose to use such a method? In a way, it would be fitting – they lost their bodies trying to reverse death and now, by using death they can regain those lost bodies.

This latest setback deals the brothers’ morale a blow – there is a frustration that each time they get close to a solution to regaining their lost bodies, the solution turns out to be fake or unfeasible. Ed wonders if they will ever get their bodies back and is about to ask Al a difficult question (I expect it is something along the lines of whether Al blames Ed for Al’s current condition) when Armstrong interrupts them. Armstrong knows the truth about the philosopher’s stone too and sympathises with the brothers but inadvertently gives Ed a new idea. There is a research lab right next a prison, a dark but practical way of getting the live bodies needed for this kind of research – they suspect that Marco has further data stashed away there. This brings us back to the point about quandary of what to when less than ethical means may lead to some exceptional ends  – do we accept that the lives lost are a necessary evil for the wonders that a philosopher’s stone can do? Or do we discard the potential of the stone to save the lives? Armstrong points out that things might get political if it’s true that the government and Bradley know that such research is being done – the prison being set up next to an ‘illegal’ research lab surely isn’t a coincidence. I wonder how we would feel if we knew that our governments were conducting biological weapons research on prisoners – would we accept that it is the cost that we pay for defending ourselves and staying ahead in the weapons race? Or would we be horrified that such a crime is taking place in our modern day and age? I suspect we would all genuinely feel the latter but might be forced to admit the truth of the former.

In any case, despite Armstrong’s warnings, the brothers sneak into the ‘abandoned’ research lab, which is suspiciously being guards despite being allegedly abandoned. Inside, Ed sees lights – more signs of activity, while Al, keeping watch outside is attacked by a mysterious masked figure. A quick note from me before we move on to the next episode – I am really enjoying the complexity that the show is depicting in how shadowy powers operating behind the scenes are working together to keep themselves in control. I don’t know any of this for sure just yet, but consider it a working theory:

  • we know that the government is militaristic in nature. For example, we have not seen something like a parliament or senate, and the military also has an unusually large amount of power and influence
  • Bradley has used overwhelming force to pacify certain areas, and perhaps has also used it to expand his country’s existing borders
  • we know that the government is using prisoners to create (poor, but functional) copies of the philosopher’s stone. If they can mass manufacture it, the army – already full of powerful alchemists – would be nigh unstoppable. But where would they get that many human sacrifices? It’s almost like they would need some kind of systematic mass murder…like a genocide or something…
  • with a military loyal to Bradley and armed with increasingly refined philosopher’s stones, there is not going to be anything that can stand in Bradley’s way. It makes sense then that Bradley is willing to use all of his influence to achieve that end, even if it means corrupting the justice system and abusing his (admittedly dictatorial) power

This is just a theory, of course – we’re early enough in the series that anything is possible and even if I were right, it doesn’t really tell us anything about how the conflict will be resolved. I wonder if the series will go down the route of Edward and Alphonse deciding to remain the way they are because they don’t want to be ‘healed’ through a mechanism born of human sacrifice.

Episode 8: Research Laboratory 5

Al is attacked by ‘Number 66’, Ed by ‘Number 48’ (Slicer), both former death row inmates with their souls affixed to armour (just like Al!). Ed is having a rough time in his fight but Al handles Number 66 just fine. Al, however, is surprised to see that 66 (‘infamous’ serial killer Barry the Chopper) is an affixed armour entity like himself. They end up talking about their circumstances; Barry suggests that Ed and Al aren’t actually brothers. Barry is able to get Al off his mental game by suggesting that Al isn’t a real person but something that Ed invented out of thin air. We find out that Slicer wasn’t just one person but two – the head and body of the armour are operated by different brothers. Ed has take a couple of wounds and is close to death when he uses Scar’s technique to defeat Slicer.

They ask to be killed after their defeat but Ed doesn’t want blood on his hands – he considers the soul affixed armours to be people (he kind of has to because if not, what does that say about Al?). Al is having a rough go of things on the outside. Just as Ed is about to get Slicer to talk about the origin of the philosopher’s stone, Lust and Envy show up and kill the brothers. They describe Ed as a ‘precious sacrifice’ (why? I guess we’ll have to find out later) and leave after taunting and roughing him up a little. They burn the facility down after telling Ed that he is being kept alive at their pleasure. Outside, Al is struggling with his identity and the possibility that he isn’t real – he recalls Edward wanting to ask him something from the previous episode. The facility starts to crumble; but Envy saves Edward to returns him to Al. The facility collapses, and Kimblee is freed. He doesn’t seem like a particularly pleasant individual – he remembers the Ishvalan incident with fondness. The episode ends as we learn that Mustang is attracting attention (in a good way, I think) from the higher-ups in Central.

This wasn’t a particularly eventful episode – a lot of the episode time got taken up the fight scenes and the back-and-forth banter between Slicer/Edward and Barry/Alphonse. It was fun to watch but not noteworthy enough to put down here. I’d be interested to see what role Kimblee has to play in these events – it seems strange that an alchemist, who was fully on board with the Ishvalan genocide was then locked up by the State that ordered that genocide but the others who took part weren’t. We know that he is not against the State per se; he refused Isaac McDougal’s offer in the first episode but it seems that the State is anti-Kimblee. I can’t tell at this stage if Kimblee is an asshole or just a jerk with a heart of gold. Did he choose not to side with McDougal because he thought McDougal stood no chance? Or because he does not believe in the cause that McDougal was fighting for? As for Mustang, who was at the Ishval as well, is the attention he is attracting a good thing? I can’t imagine that Bradley is too keen on the idea of sharing power and anyone rising through the ranks is a potential threat; of course, Mustang isn’t quite as the Fuhrer’s level yet but if he becomes popular with the troops and people, he could mount a significant challenge. It will also be interesting – should this arc play out – to see if Mustang can overcome the institutional corruption and change things from the inside. If not, then his promotion could be a way for us to learn more about what Bradley is up to and how he intends to achieve his goals.

Episode 9: Artificial Feelings

Edward gets a lecture from his minders about running off on his own. We learn that State Alchemists are the equivalent of Majors in the military. I expect that the Alchemists exist in parallel to the military, since we rarely see anyone other than Armstrong and Mustang wear military uniforms. Edward asks Winry to come down to fix his arm, Al is still brooding about whether he’s a real person. Winry arrives and temporarily feels bad about making a mistake on Ed’s arm’s maintenance but Ed didn’t even notice. He mentions that Al has been acting strangely recently. Hughes comes to visit as well, and ends up ‘convincing’ Winry to stay at his place while she’s in town.

It’s Elicia’s birthday and she and Winry hang out for a bit. Winry is worried about the boys and feels bad that they didn’t talk to her about it. Hughes explains the boys’ feelings to Winry and cheers her up a little. He mentions that there are things that boys don’t like to talk about – Edward doesn’t mention his near death encounter with Scar and Slicer to Winry since he doesn’t want her to worry but he does confide in her about Al’s growing distance. However, soon see a fight erupt between Edward and Al when Ed makes a thoughtless comment about Al already being so big while he’s remained short. Al has thought himself into a fury about whether he’s real or not and he asks if he’s a fake. Edward inadvertently receives an answer to the question of whether Alphonse resents him for his current situation, and saddened, leaves the ward. Winry scolds Al while explaining Edward’s feelings to him and relating her own memories of how anxious Ed was that Al would hate him forever. Ed and Al have a heart to heart and Ed reminds him of all their shared memories and they make amends.

The topic of how people express their feelings is interesting. For a minute, I thought that we were going to go a very different direction with this topic – when Hughes mentioned that boys prefer actions to words, I was worried that we were going to revert back to the dated stereotype of boys not having feelings and girls being constantly overly-sensitive about their emotions. The end of the episode made the moral of the story clear, however – Edward and Alphonse obviously have emotions (this would be a terrible story if they didn’t) but Edward isn’t always great at expressing those emotions. As a result of him not being able to express those emotions to those he loves, they end up feeling isolated and thinking that they care more about him than he does them. Winry was hurt that she did not know how much danger Edward was in, for example. Alphonse’s emotional outburst was not truly Edward’s fault – Al’s reluctance in communicating with his brother led to him needlessly stressing himself out, thinking about Barry’s provocations. The key message here is – as Winry points out at the end – that communication (through words, not just actions) is important in any kind of relationship. Speaking of Winry, I do hope she sticks around – I like the big sister role she plays to Edward and Alphonse, and she brings a different kind of energy to the group’s dynamic. Hughes, like I keep saying, has grown on me a lot – at first I thought he was just a gag character, but since then, he’s been revealed to be competent, thoughtful and compassionate. He and Mustang have different approaches to leadership – Mustang is more brasher and aloof – but both seem to be great superiors and mentors.

We end the episode looking at Scar, who recalls an encounter with Kimblee and wakes up in the care of an Ishvalan family in the slums of East City. I’m not sure if it was a memory or a dream, but I think Scar could have a pretty sympathetic back story – in my mind, none of his actions so far, could be considered irredeemably evil. Yes, he’s killed some people and that is a crime, but let’s be honest, there’s a bunch of people even in our world who are alive only because it would be illegal to kill them. It also seems that Scar was very much disoriented in that scene – was he lost? Was he searching for someone? I guess it remains to be seen.

Episode 10: Separate Ways

We learn of Mustang’s motivations for climbing to the top of the political ladder – he wants to be in a position to protect the people. He makes this decision in the aftermath of Ishval; Hughes decides to support him in his journey. In the hospital, Hughes, Armstrong and the Elric brothers discuss their findings, but Bradley interrupts them. It turns out that Bradley is aware that the military has been taking part in some troubling experiments but cannot find the source. Is this a case of Bradley himself not having enough actual political clout?

He stops them from investigating further but says he trusts them; there’s only two possibilities here – either he is on their side and will try to lend them his support from his high office or he is part of the conspiracy and intends to mislead them away from the scent. I tend to favour the former at the moment, however; given how much power and influence Bradley has, surely it wouldn’t be out of the question for him to simply have the lot of them arrested or even assassinated for digging too deep? In fact, he could arrest the brothers for ‘breaking in’  to a secure military facility. So perhaps my theory up above is wrong; maybe Bradley is not source of the problem but at the same time, he is being awfully cryptic about how he knows all this and it does seem very convenient that he turns up to stop the investigation just as it’s getting started.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the show’s sense of comic timing is rather interesting. Bradley’s interference in the investigation is played off in a rather light-hearted manner and Bradley as a character continues to toe the line between sinister and goofball. For a second, when Bradley stated that he would have ‘tasks’ for the gang from time to time, I suddenly pictured him as a quest giver in a RPG. Winry walks in, just as Bradley leaves and the gang makes plans to head South – Winry to Rush Valley, the home of automail freaks like her, and the Elric brothers to Dublith where their old teacher resides. The Elric brothers are apprehensive about meeting their old master but it looks like we have a training arc coming up. We learn that Leto and the riots in Liore weren’t one-off incidents; similar border wars and uprising have been occurring in the North and West as well. I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love how large the world feels – even though it might objectively be a small country, the fact that we are getting information about various locations within Amestris and even visiting several of them is fascinating and draws me deeper into the world.

Hughes is troubled by his findings and is beginning to put it all together – the riots and uprising are fronts to generate conflict which in turn results in deaths. Those deaths are the fuel for the production of philosopher’s stones. Lust pays him a visit, he is about to be assassinated but he fights her off somehow, but doesn’t kill her. He almost calls Bradley but rethinks it – he must be wondering what we all are: how did Lust know and who sent her? Bradley is looking more suspicious by the second but we don’t know for certain, not just yet anyway. Hughes decides to call Mustang from an external phone so his call can’t be traced. If I were him, I’d be very worried and would keep a guard around myself. If they got to him once, they could do so again with ease. However, he probably doesn’t know how many of the ‘sins’ (I don’t have a better word for them yet) there are.

He tries to call Mustang but military protocol blocks and before he can get around him, Envy, in the form of Maria Ross (one of the Elric brothers’ minders) gets Hughes at gunpoint. Hughes identifies that the Ross before him is fake but it doesn’t help him. Hughes almost fights Envy but Envy takes the form of Hughes’ wife in the moment’s hesitation, shoots Hughes. Hughes is too weak to speak to Mustang and Envy hangs up, leaving Hughes…to die? Wait what? Ok, so the scene changes and I’m not 100% sure that Hughes dies, but if Hughes dies, I’m going to be pissed. I suppose I should have seen it coming given how much screen time we got with Hughes and his adorable family but fucking hell, I did not expect them to actually take him this early. This is going to set the plot in motion in a big, big way. I’ll hold my thoughts on this until we get confirmation one way or another, but damn, this is a great way to build narrative tension.

Nope, he’s dead. Fuck me sideways with a hot poker, he really did die, just like that. The funeral scene is heavier than the Nina scene, somehow. The Nina scene was troubling and tragic but this…this is something else. Hearing Elicia ask her mother why they were burying her father was a punch to the gut but what knocked me out was Mustang’s chocked farewell. It certainly is raining.

Emotionally, I’m still stunned that Hughes was killed at all. Envy using Gracia’s form to kill Hughes was just cruel, given how much Hughes doted on his family. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Hughes was too good for this world; he was a perfect role model, a quick witted officer and a compassionate family man. It’s always the good ones that have to die for it to mean anything. From a narrative point of view, I think this could be the spark that lights the entire plot on fire. Thus far, the plot has been putting a lot of pieces on the board but there has been a slight lack of urgency to matters; yes the brothers have a purpose and there is an outline forming of the overall plot even if we don’t know much about it, but Hughes’ death could be the catalyst that spurs the characters into action. I don’t think that Winry and the Elric brothers know of Hughes demise just yet – when they find out, I’m sure this emotional wound will be reopened – but they will also want justice for Hughes.

Mustang begins his investigation, with discreet help from Major Armstrong. Mustang quickly pieces a few things together – that there is an organization responsible for Hughes’ murder and that some senior officials are involved, perhaps even Bradley. Mustang is missing the full picture however; he does not know the connection between human sacrifices, the civil wars and the philosopher’s stone. It’s an interesting choice from a story telling point of view – now the audience is in a position where they know more than the characters. The Elric brothers have not pieced together than the recent uprisings could be connected to the philosopher’s stones either. Such decisions are a little risky however, if the characters don’t figure it out soon, then the story risks frustrating the audience. However, it would not exactly be very plausible for the characters to figure out all the pieces of the mystery right away either, would it? We’ll have to see how this plays out.

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I was going to push for more episodes in this post but I needed a bit of time after the events of the last episode. Maybe next week, I’ll finally hit that illusive target of 5 episodes per post.

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