So. That ending.
Pretty bad, huh? Yeah, it was pretty bad. I was kinda just nodding along at the time, because frankly, at this point I don’t really expect anything out of Sword Art Online. It’s not going to pull its pieces together, it’s not going to wow me with thematic turns or character revelations or clever worldbuilding inversions. It’s a good day for Sword Art Online if Sword Art Online manages to get its pants on.
But yeah, that ending was bad. Bad on an overt level, bad on an underlying level, bad in basically all the ways a thing can be bad. Oh! Not visually. It actually had some pretty great, well-used animation. But everything else? Well, let’s run it down.
On a narrative level, not only did the finale fail to draw in all this first arc’s lingering, relevant pieces (which were helpfully laid out by last episode’s commenters, and included such potentially useful loose ends as Yui’s existence, the revival crystal, and how married couples share inventories), but it instead decided to just resolve things through a series of “and then our heroes succeed just because” deus ex machina. There certainly wasn’t any narrative weight to this one – if this battle wanted to have heft on a base storytelling level, it undercut that pretty completely. It just felt like a succession of events the author knows stories tend to end with, not the sequence of events that would have successfully ended this story.
On a character level, we ended this arc with Asuna at pretty much her worst point so far (“my life has no meaning without Kirito”), Kirito remaining his entirely neutral self, and our villain ultimately… not knowing why he did any of this? I dunno, this show doesn’t really have character arcs outside of that one Asuna dictated to the audience. Kirito was affected by the death of Sachi (sometimes), but how did he actually grow from that? We flashed back and saw him get mad about it, but did he actually change? Eh.
On a thematic level, what the fuck. We actually had a theme going there, what with the “learning to embrace the validity of digital experiences” stuff that kept cropping up even in the vignettes. And then, at the end, how does this resolve? Well, it doesn’t – Kirito just wills himself to not die in order to beat the bad guy, the bad guy (and yeah, I’m gonna keep saying “bad guy,” because this guy has clearly not earned the right to be called an antagonist – he’s just a Force of Evil) has a completely unrelated speech about Why We Videogaming, and then everybody goes home. I gave one clear example of how this could have been resolved last week – if you want another, how about leaning on the villain’s “people keep surprising me in this world” refrain, and have the ways people have made this world their own actually have a meaningful impact on the resolution. Or hell, you can even keep his speech, and have his “I don’t know what I wanted anymore” lines be overtly reflective of how our experiences change our expectations of life, mirroring the goddamn protagonists. Almost anything would be better and make greater use of this show’s existing resources than just resolving it with Kirito Manning Up and a completely unrelated Final Villain Speech.
And on a worldbuilding level, well, I sure hope you weren’t actually trying to appreciate this show on a worldbuilding level. Last episode made it achingly clear that Aincrad is not a world Kirito is independently inhabiting – it is a world generated by his personal need to have awesome stuff to do. So, uh, good luck with that.
But even given all that negative stuff, I honestly am not disliking SAO. How can I get mad at it for failing in ways it’s never indicated any ability to succeed in the first place? It’s a silly adventure about a guy parading around and saving waifus. SAO is not ashamed of what it is, and I’m happy to say I’m actually pretty much enjoying it. You don’t have to only like good things, and many of the ways SAO is bad are actually extremely entertaining to me. I welcome the terrible stuff – just straight-up failing as a narrative means your story will be boring (because story craft is actually how you generate intrigue, excitement, and emotional investment, not just an arbitrary set of rules we apply to stories to feel superior), but if you fail spectacularly, your failings can become their own reward. I’m apparently about to enter the “bad half” of SAO, and I am actually pretty excited about that – what is bad is often fun, and what is fun is good.
So let’s do this, SAO. Let’s see just how bad you can get.
0:15 – Ah, memories. I kinda feel like this is a show that actually might benefit from the weekly schedule. It tends to very often assume a level of audience investment that it hasn’t really earned, and spacing out the episodes is actually a decent way of countering that problem. What we’re flashing to here was the “status quo” for all of one full episode, and the relationship that we were meant to care so much about at the finale was only really articulated across a handful of scenes – but when you stretch the consumption of those moments out across a few months, the headspace those connections occupy makes it feel like you’ve really known these characters for a much longer amount of time. It’s an interesting reflection on how our methods of media consumption actually kind of change the nature of the media itself – you’ll have a very different relationship with a sequential comic you read once a day every day for five years than with one you burn through the archives of in a weekend, even if you’ve physically consumed the same amount of media either way
0:49 – This is a nice little sequence. Again making great use of those particle effects to grind in the thin illusion of this world
0:56 – Very nice shot. A very convenient visual metaphor
1:04 – And this is just beautiful. Love that they left the rocking chair there, a lonely reminder of the peace he just lost
1:34 – I like the lack of color and room design. A sharp contrast to the vivid colors of his virtual realities, and that window with the limp little plant makes this feel more like a hospital than a home
2:24 – Oh, really? That’s where we’re gonna be this season?
Well, I can complain about Asuna being a prize if that’s actually where this goes. As for now, that was an excellent opening sequence! Just legitimately very good
2:40 – Say hello to new girl and new girl’s boobs. SAO gotta SAO, I guess
3:01 – Oh. Great.
Damnit OP, you’re supposed to make me feel excited for this arc!
I mean, I could bluff, but this is one of the major complaints with the show, so I obviously know where this is going. Just gotta see how it plays out, I guess…
4:15 – This is a nice sequence. This episode is being directed very well and letting a lot of stuff speak for itself so far
5:22 – I like this line and little exchange. It seems like a very awkward, human conversation. Stuff like this, where characters don’t actually gracefully bounce off each other, is very good for illustrating personalities without telling them to you
6:00 – This is a nice shot. Also, dang, Kirito’s rich
6:03 – Yeah, seriously, do you? I’m not gonna be happy if you’re also OP in the real world, Kirito
6:20 – AW SHIT HE CRUSHED THE SHIT OUT OF THAT WATER BOTTLE KIRITO NEEDS NERF
6:39 – Kirito’s resume is just “DOESN’T PLAY BY THE RULES” scrawled across a blank sheet of paper
7:20 – Wow, guess those rehab sessions really paid off. Nice animation here, though. And even choreography!
7:54 – And he does the SAO sword-sheathing. That’s pretty cute. I wonder if we’ll actually cover SAO PTSD?
8:18 – Editor’s Note: Getting good at fighting games gives you fuck-all skills in the real world
9:07 – Honestly, the storytelling in this episode is such an improvement over the first half that it feels like a different show altogether. This feels confident – it’s letting events unfold as the characters experience them, and not rushing to tell you things or tripping over itself in pacing
9:15 – Alright, let’s not start with this quite so early, SAO
9:35 – Like, imagine if all of us didn’t watch way too much fucking anime. How would this scene even parse? “What’s his sister so hung up about here? Does she think he’s wasting away pining for a girl who will never come back? Maybe… maybe she sees Asuna as reflective of the world that stole her sibling away? I see no coherent reasons for this character’s actions.”
Instead, we just heave a collective ‘goddamnit anime’
10:31 – Right. Of course. All part of the Master Plan from the guy whose motivation was “Eh. I forget.”
10:44 – Wow, she looks pretty good for being in a gaming coma for two years. I looked way more malnourished than that back in college
12:16 – I don’t like the sound of this
12:23 – What in the fuck
12:34 – WHAT IS GOING ON
12:45 – WAIT HOLD UP
12:52 – This is a nice shoWAIT SERIOUSLY ARE THEY IMPLYING ASUNA’S FATHER IS GOING TO GIVE HIS COMATOSE DAUGHTER TO THIS RANDOM DUDE
13:12 – AGH WHAT THE FUCK
13:15 – FUCK YOU SWORD ART ONLINE THIS IS NOT HOW YOU WRITE ANTAGONISTS
13:18 – “Pardon me while I NOISILY SNORT THE HAIR OF THIS COMATOSE TEENAGER.” Has this author ever actually interacted with a human being
13:36 – So this is actually the conflict the show is expecting me to be invested in for the next dozen hours. Looks like we’re in for a wild ride
13:58 – So wait, what is even the endgame of this plan here? He marries a comatose girl, and… what? Either she never wakes up, and he married a comatose girl, or she does wake up, and says “Dad, I actually hate this dickbag,” and that’s that. And why would he even want to marry a girl who can’t stand him? Because he’s evil? Because that’s what evil people do, apparently?
Goddamnit SAO, I expected you to go crazy, but not THIS crazy!
14:24 – Welp, time to turn the resolution to this absurd situation into something that can be arbitrarily solved through a new videogame, I guess
14:48 – REKT. THAT’S RIGHT, KIRITO
15:15 – And why would he even explain any of this to Kirito, anyway? What advantage could blowing his cover with Kirito possibly have? He just can’t help himself from making a cackling villain speech? Did this author actually learn everything he knows about storytelling from Legend of Zelda?
15:36 – IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP ME NOW, HERO. Wow. Wooooow
15:43 – Goddamnit. Just my luck to live in a world filled with cartoon villains
16:36 – It’s not your fault, Kirito. You’re putting up with shit that literally no human being has to deal with. Your problems are so absurd they defy investment
16:49 – She asks, hungrily
17:00 – STRAIGHT INTO THE CLUTCHES OF MY GREATEST FOE. This arc is actually about saving a comatose waifu from a scary Other Man. Goddamnit, SAO. I just… goddamnit
17:25 – SHE SAYS, CANNILY
So I guess they’re cousins, then? Not like it actually matters. Incest is a weird issue because of the power dynamics involved in a romantic relationship with someone you grew up with as family, not because of the “blood related” marker anime always cares about
Of course, this show isn’t going to cover any of that. Incest is an otaku fetish for very specific reasons, and so we’re gonna get an imouto who can’t get enough of her oniichan whether we like it or not
19:18 – Yeah, it’s playing this like a revelation, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference. He’s still the big talented older brother she’s always looked up to, which plays into the “saving helpless women” fantasy so much of anime revels in
19:53 – HIS HEART, AS FAR FROM ME AS THE MOON IN THE SKY
20:29 – Man, this show’s selling this girl pretty hard
21:05 – SO MOE
21:08 – AND IF YOU LIKED THAT, YOU’LL LOVE THESE
21:15 – Yare yare indeed, Kirito. Yare yare indeed
21:22- And an immediate shift back to trying to use her advice as a character turn. I guess we’re supposed to be taking her seriously as a character again! Thanks for everything, fanservice
21:55 – Literally moping in a cage. The ride never ends
Wow. You guys really, really, really weren’t kidding. That episode actually started really strong, but the second Evil McCacklington showed up, the crazy train flew right off the crazy train rails. I got what I wished for, I guess – the second half wasn’t boring-bad, it was hilariously, ludicrously bad. Awesome. Thank you for being so crazy, SAO. Your crazy brings a tear to my eye.