Back on the Sword Art Train! Last episode was, well, pretty messy. Not only did it seem bizarrely dedicated to proving the wretchedness of the non-beta characters (for multiple definitions of beta even OH SHIT SWOOSH sorry), its ending had pretty much the same issues the first episode did – a combination of awkward narrative leaps to get the story where it’s supposed to go and a theatrical flair that turned drama into self-parody. And at this point, one of the central complaints generally leveled at SAO is becoming clear – the show really, really wants you to identify with Kirito, and some of the choices it’s making on that front are, well, pretty silly from a non-Kirito-aligned perspective. The one-man-army fight, the Batman speech, the trenchcoat. And this all gets back to things I’ve always said about how characters are defined.
Good character writing depends on the author creating a person whose background and specificity come across as genuine enough that even if you disagree with that character, or don’t relate to their situation, or even don’t actually like them as a person, you can still empathize with why that particular person would act the way they do. If you make your characters seem alive, any kind of viewer will be able to relate to their struggle, because what makes them sympathetic isn’t the specifics of their personality, it’s the believable humanity the collection of their variables represents. For a great current example of this, check out Hunter x Hunter – it’s currently in an arc that contains close to twenty key characters, but the viewer is invested in each of those stories because each of them has their own distinct way of expressing what makes them tick. They each have their own method of self-expression, their own motivation, their own quirks, their own fears.
Here, we haven’t quite gotten that. Aside from his antisocial tendencies (which the show doesn’t really seem that consistent about portraying), Kirito’s basically a blank slate – meaning for the audience to already sympathize with him, they have to become him, and fill in the gaps in his personality with their own choices. This is why harem leads are generally so generic – because they’re not supposed to be a specific person, they’re supposed to be the audience. Same with many protagonists in YA novels – Bella Swan is pretty much a nobody because if she were a somebody, the readers would have more trouble seeing themselves in Edward’s arms. Every action such a character takes that defines them as a unique person threatens to break the spell of escapism, and so generally they remain vehicles, not people.
Which means that, as a person not particularly interested in action-adventure escapism, I’m not really so hot on Kirito’s character at the moment. Good character writing is preferable not just because it’s more true and resonant, it’s preferable because it also works for everybody – shell-writing only works for the people who want it to work. So I’m hoping Kirito gets a bit more definition soon, though the fact that this is indeed one of the Big Complaints about SAO doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation.
That said, last episode certainly did leave us with some momentum, at least – they’ve broken through the first floor with Kirito both in the lead and apparently now Public Enemy #1. That definitely gives us some ripe drama to work with!
One last thing – I’m getting a good number of “I like this show, but I’m excited to see how you tear it apart” comments, and so I just wanted to add that you guys are awesome readers. I assume pretty much all my theory essays demonstrate how much I care about respecting the validity of all our various experiences of shows, and it’s heartening to see you all also appreciate how important that is too. You guys are great.
Alright, enough preamble. Let’s Sword Art Online.
0:01 – …11th floor, huh? Wait, and April 8th? When was the last…
Welp, once again we’ve skipped one of the most dramatically fertile options. Let’s see where we go instead, I guess
0:16 – Still doing what he does best – making friends through force of videogame competence, not personality. Again, I really like this – it’s something that’s both very true to how people deeply invested in hobbies (and less good at social interactions) tend to act, and something that could naturally play into the “validity of the game world” focus THAT EVERYONE KEEPS TELLING ME ABOUT IN THE COMMENTS GODDAMNIT GUYS I CAN FIGURE OUT THE THEMES FOR MYSELF
0:31 – A gentleman NEVER asks a player his level! I like that this isn’t something inherently known, though – last episode really played up the players not really trusting each other, and this plays into the show’s mercenary politics in a very natural way
Oh shit their new album just came out brb
1:06 – Suspiciously damselish
1:14 – Good. Glad they noticed
1:50 – New girl, new guild. So we’re into those side arcs everyone talked about, I guess. This was the last episode I originally watched, and the structure was one of the big reasons I dropped it – I felt about as enthusiastic about episode 2 the first time I watched it, but the one thing it did have was momentum. I didn’t care about Kirito and the show seemed kind of silly, but I did want to see what happened next. Jumping from that to random vignettes basically kills all the tension built in those first two episodes, and renders Kirito’s big speech even more meaningless than it would be otherwise – it basically resets the character board. And considering this girl isn’t the one in the OP, whatever they’re baiting here doesn’t have particularly sharp teeth
3:07 – Oshit cameo I lied
3:36 – I love the ominous chimes with this title. I guess there’s a special Christmas event?
3:40 – Dang, with them a whole month. And they’ve progressed ten floors! Guess he really doesn’t want to be alone
4:06 – A month to gain three levels? These noobs are terrible
4:15 – Hah, pretty great. There’s a whole in-game culture at this point. Of course you’d have people who usually run the blogs now selling the Weekly Raid Review
4:28 – More about the selfishness of everybody. This writer sure has a dim view of humanity. Even if you were trying to act in your own best interest, isn’t the ultimate goal here just “escape as fast as possible?” You don’t get points for first place – aside from not wanting to have your grinding circuit mobbed, you’d think having more people with more full information would only lead to faster progress. Meaning the logical conclusion would be that they don’t know much meaningful information, and really just do know somewhat more efficient grinding patterns. Which is fair enough, I suppose
4:42 – Don’t quite follow this one
4:48 – Protected from what? How are the high-level players protecting these dudes? Or does he secretly know Kirito is basically Level Jesus, and is urging him to abandon them and go find his true calling up with the raiding pros?
7:32 – Well, this will end well
Okay, this episode has definitely had a few interesting pieces so far. There was Keita’s speech, which Kirito described as a “set of ideals” but which really boiled down to “willpower willpower friendship friendship.” There was the celebration over their daily gold, where the most interesting line to me was “we can almost buy the house of our dreams now!” And now we’ve got Klein basically pitying Kirito for his choices. Add it all up, and it seems like the line we’re building here is complacency with this system versus the will to fight against it.
Which is interesting, because Kirito’s shtick seems to partially be that he feels most at home in this world, and yet embracing a life here seems to be correlated with “giving up your pride/humanity” or something. That could actually go to pretty interesting places, so I hope these ideas continue to be pursued
7:44 – Sword Art Online: stalkers welcome. I’d say “why wouldn’t her friends use this ability,” but there are plenty of valid explanations for that, and it’s not important to the story. I’d mainly like to head unfair plot hole accusations off at the pass
8:39 – So yeah, looks like we’re going there pretty much immediately.The will to fight!
9:51 – Do I need to point out what they’re doing with light and dark here? Well, consider it pointed out. Simple trick, pretty much always effective
10:14 – Kirito is insatiable
10:19 – Is it actually unusual to him that she’s afraid of dying? Kinda weird
Anyway, as far as Sachi goes, it seems pretty obvious she’s gonna die, and die in a hurry, considering her entire characterization so far has been “afraid of getting hurt” and “doesn’t want to die.” Which is basically the inverse version of what I was talking about with Kirito’s characterization, and pretty much just as bad. If they want me to actually care about her character, they have to define her as a unique person I should be invested in before they start throwing all these death flags – otherwise she’s not a tragedy, she’s a statistic. Meaning that, just like with Kirito, people won’t automatically invest in her character – the ones who care, like with Kirito, will be the ones who actively want to care. And to those who didn’t arrive predisposed to invest in any tragedy the show feels inclined to dole out, they aren’t really offering much incentive to
10:27 – Huh. So is this implying he’s just sort of naturally gifted in the “will to fight” indicative of the high-performing characters? It’s an interesting distinction to make
11:20 – Whoa slow down there buddy
12:08 – This is a nicely directed sequence. Good tension-building
13:20 – Damn, that was good. I wasn’t particularly invested in these guys, but that was a really well-orchestrated little tragedy. This show knows how to hit some beats
13:23 – Hah, quite the scene transition
13:30 – THE WORST CHRISTMAS
14:57 – Dang, that sucks. Guess socializing ain’t worth it after all
15:46 – I also like that Klein is just popping up from time to time as representative of the now-core players. It’s another detail that sort of fills out the impression of a larger world going on around Kirito. The big time/floor skip here was also good for that – it’s clear that this is Kirito’s story, not the story of this world, and so it’s just an evocative series of accomplishments going on in the background of his own personal issues. Which is actually much more my kind of story – I prefer adventure and worldbuilding as window dressing to things occurring on the relatable, human scale
16:04 – Oof, that’s great. Klein tries to scare him off by making him fear death, but death and the fear of it have been on his mind for months. Brutal little bit of character truth there
16:56 – Well that’s, uh, remarkably generous of him. Guess Klein’s just always wanted to say that line
17:35 – DEATH TO SANTA. There’s actually something kind of absurd and poignant in attaching all these important character moments to the damn arbitrary ephemera of an MMO. It’s true, too – I have many great memories of doing things that were on their face very silly in videogames, purely because those moments were invested with real poignance by me and the people I was playing with
18:23 – Aw, that’s a spirit breaker
19:04 – Damn, that’s an elegant callback. This is all actually working pretty well – I didn’t care about, uh… Sachi, but I can buy that Kirito cared, and he’s the one we’re being given reason to invest in. This episode is faaar more subdued and effective in its storytelling than the first two, and is using this premise in a meaningful way to tell a solid little personal story.
This is actually a damn good episode, you guys!
19:57 – Back to resolve
20:22 – Who wouldn’t?
21:28 – Digging that knife in
Damn! That was a really good episode! I wasn’t really moved by it, but if I had been given reason to be invested in Sachi’s character, I wouldn’t really have any complaints with it – it used the world well, raised some themes to explore, and handled all of its dramatic moments extremely well. Hell, it even gave Kirito something completely valid and human to fight for! That was miles ahead of the first two episodes, and actually has me pretty excited to continue. Bring on the next one!