Takes a while to get back on its feet, but it manages to fulfill its promise by the end.
While episode 10 and 11 show signs of improvement from the previous 3, for the most part it stuck to its guns and didn’t bother polishing them. The battle scenes are still a sight to see and the romance between Shirou and Rin continues to develop well, but it still seemed hesitant at sharing screen time among characters or forming a gradual build-up. After the writers made such a bold step in the past, moments like these felt like they lost confidence and stuck to delivering what fans remembered in the quickest way possible.
Fortunately most of the highlights were presented well and made up for some lackluster build-up. Kuzuki’s identity as a master didn’t amount to much surprise, but changing the setting to an abandoned gas station, ditching his scene involving how Caster acted on her own, and focusing on his lack of empathy for innocent lives makes him much more menacing and cold. Even with Shinji technically being a master again, Gilgamesh was clearly in charge and his personality seems to have changed from an arrogant warrior with wits to a wise, calculative schemer. And while Shirou’s reveal as a Projection magic user felt rushed/anti-climactic, they clearly showed how powerful it could be and how harmful the after-effects were to his everyday life.
This led to one of the few tender moments with Archer when he confronts Shirou about his malfunctioned magic circuits. Obviously the point of this scene was to explore the potential and flaws of Shirou as a character, but it seems like relevant criticism this time rather than a bitter crap on his ideals. For once Archer stopped being a dick towards him and took on the role of a harsh teacher, something we’ve only seen hints of during his conversations with Rin. Speaking of conversations with Rin, the talk between her and Shirou during the snow is what ultimately sold me on their romance. There were plenty of scenes before this showcasing how natural their teamwork is, and it’s made evident that she’s the one that’s advancing their relationship. But that scene had a perfect balance of tender comfort and angry concern which was not only appropriate for their characters, but appropriate for actual couples.
If that scene is what sold me on their relationship, the last episode is what sold me on the entire show. While somewhat predictable to me, everything about the dating segment at the start had me feeling fuzzy inside. I just loved seeing the childish side of Saber as she wandered around all the shops, and it’s nice to see how Rin and Shirou can get the tsundere reaction out of eachother. But once it shifts to a darker tone though, we get a flurry of new content mixed with some excellently presented moments from the source. Caster still kidnaps Fujimura and steals Saber from Shirou, but the change of venue from his home to a bounded field outside, Fujimura being kidnapped while visiting Kiritsugu’s grave, and having Archer being the one to save both Shirou and Rin makes the whole experience feel fresh and make sense. They even have Caster be responsible for revealing Shirou’s past involving the grail war and pointing out that his refusal to involve innocents not always being a strength. Sure he’d refuse an allegiance with Caster without batting an eye, but he’s willing to leave his command seals vulnerable for the sake of Fujimura and lose his servant in the process.
Even with the scenes after this massive plot point, they still found time to expand on certain segments that were never animated before. Archer and Rin share a moment that re-establishes their sense of partnership, Shirou finds the pendant that shows the weight of his debt towards Rin, a ruthless scene involving Caster’s methods of controlling Fake Assassin, and even a detailed look into how Caster captured Kirei’s church without him ever losing. And all of it tops off with probably the most appropriate mid-season break i’ve seen in a split cour show this year. Without ending on a cliffhanger or forcing a rushed conclusion, it leaves our characters in a dire situation with a glimmer of hope at the end. Shirou’s lost everything at this point and Rin goes on her separate way leaving a stern warning, but the looks on every participant in this war makes it clear that this is only the beginning. And that beginning is signaled by the most satisfying form of fanservice this show could provide: a badass cover of the original FSN OP “Disillusion” sung by Lisa. The nostalgia vibes I got from thse 4 minutes of eargasm had me jumping around with glee once more, and that hype can be delivered if the 2nd season takes notes of episodes like this.
There’s no denying that my final thoughts on this season is a mixed bag. It spent half of it’s run-time hyping me for an improved experience, disappointed me by diving back into it’s comfort zone afterwards, then won me back with the promise of a better future. Only time will tell if they can keep this up 3 months from now, but even the later material after this point has enough great moments to stand on its own. So whether it throws pretty lights on highlights or actively try to make a better product, I have no doubt that the 2nd half in April will be a satisfying conclusion to this modern epic.