And the journey continues! Last week’s episode was far and away the best thing Sword Art Online has ever done, so I’ve got moderate hopes for this one. ‘Moderate’ because last week pulled basically the most obvious and necessary trick for fixing Sword Art Online – it removed Kirito entirely. This, tragically, is apparently not allowed to be a long-term solution, so this week the challenge will likely be in maintaining last week’s energy without Kirito dragging everything into his power fantasy vortex. Fortunately, last week’s episode was also just well-composed and featured a number of solid action sequences, and that sort of stuff can work perfectly well even with Kirito around. And so, for maybe the very first time, positive thinking isn’t just a coping mechanism – things might really actually possibly turn out okay. Let’s do this, Sword Art Online. It’s a beautiful new day.
0:11 – Another Sinon episode? I am every kind of okay with this.
In all seriousness, if we’re actually getting a look into both Sinon’s real and virtual lives, then it kinda seems like SAO’s author has grown up a bit in his understanding of engaging storytelling. Character-building was essentially an afterthought in the original SAO – the plot was always foregrounded, which gave the audience little to actually hang their investment on. If you were invested in that first arc, it was likely either through a love of the base premise or an investment of personality in characters like Kirito that the show itself didn’t really demonstrate. This was somewhat improved in Alfheim through Sugu’s actually reasonable arc, but that was still secondary to the plot, and Alfheim’s terrible series composition didn’t help either. Hopefully the third time’s the charm – establishing Sinon’s reason for taking solace in a virtual world early would really help give this arc some emotional grounding.
1:59 – Goddamnit SAO you and your episode titles. This isn’t Shiki, calling your episodes shit like “BITTER SKULL” isn’t part of your damn aesthetic
2:09 – Good ol’ bullying. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best ones – there’s little more understandable than taking refuge in videogame strength because of stuff like this
2:20 – Haha, those bully designs. It’s kinda funny how so often it’s just either side characters or bad guys who actually get to look visually interesting
3:03 – Great shot. And Sinon’s actually terrified of gun violence because of something from her past? That’s definitely a more interesting place than I figured they’d take this. Hm
3:20 – I know SAO’s not the show to do it, but they could really take this to some dark, relevant places. A girl who’s bullied at school using videogame escapism to exert power and get over her fear of guns? I know school shootings aren’t the thing in Japan that they are in America, but this is a lot of really charged variables here
4:08 – Already feeling sorry for the guy I’ll assume will be this season’s Recon. A moment of silence for all ineffectual male rivals 🙁
4:37 – Aw yeah, talkin’ shop. I like the shop-talk – a big part of playing competitive videogames is talking about playing them, and I think it humanizes these characters to have them treat the game as a game, and not always as a Totally Immersive Alternate Reality Experience
5:11 – Just like a sniper. Or maybe a shy person. Incidentally, Sawashiro was a great voice actress to choose for someone with a confident “alternate self”
6:11 – Aw shit he’s started moping. It’s all downhill from here
6:26 – Is the show actually drawing attention to the fact that even videogames are heavily influenced by arbitrary things? That you can’t really think of them as a “fair” fantasy, and thus they are still reflective of the real world? Is this season actively dismantling or addressing all the bad elements of the first one?
Seriously, what is going on here? It feels like the author respecced into self-awareness or something
6:45 – And he’s even begging off videogames because he has to think about his future? But… but what happened to my power fantasy? How am I supposed to call this escapism if it’s actually poking holes in its own private world? Goddamnit SAO, it’s like I don’t even know you anymore
Seriously, this is all great stuff. What an upgrade
7:40 – That’s a little ominous
8:50 – Aw shit, moment of truth. Can SAO keep its cool and depict the loneliness of Sinon’s home life without destroying any of its emotional credibility by leering at her at the same time?!? Stay tuned
9:12 – Aaand she actually owns a gun. A sweet future gun, at that
9:38 – Another great shot. Nice choice to grey out everything except the blood. At that moment, it’s all she can focus on
10:02 – I like how the lights are framing this like an interrogation – like this is a story she’s told in a formal context many times before
11:51 – DAMN. That’ll do it
12:45 – Too much. Yeah, the whole episode’s been building to this, but it’s still too much. When you play for the highest possible intensity, you tend to drown out all emotions but intensity, and it turns into self-parody. See: basically all of Attack on Titan
13:14 – Much better. Focusing on the gun while we listen to its repercussions. Even visual storytelling is in part about leaving some things to the imagination
13:36 – Another nice shot. They definitely overplayed the climax of that flashback, but these shots are all good
13:54 – SINON THAT IS SOME MONKEY’S PAW SHIT DO NOT WISH FOR THAT. Any wish granted, and all it costs is your agency. Kirito is the Ursula the Sea Witch of this story
Goddamn you Sinon. God damn you
17:18 – This is a very important shot. Well, at least they left Sinon alone this episode
18:10 – FUCK THAT TAKE IT ALL OFF
18:58 – Wow, three episodes in and Kirito still doesn’t actually make it to the virtual world? Well joke’s on them, I don’t even actually care about that. But yeah, pacing is normally a thing that’s good to have, and so I’m sure some people are a little annoyed right now
19:52 – So wait, why does she even need to be comfortable around guns? Like, once she gets out of high school, I doubt random people are going to be abusing her phobia all the time – most people don’t need to be comfortable with firearms. Particularly in Japan, which I’ve heard isn’t quite as crazy about loving death-instruments as some other countries
20:00 – So for her, there is a clean disconnect between the virtual world and the real one. It might have to do with stakes, it might have to do with emotional connection to others, it might have to do with memory – but that distinction is real in a tangible way for her. Hopefully this ends up actually conflicting with Kirito’s philosophy
21:48 – DUN DUN DUN
That was a pretty good episode! The ones focused on real-world drama tend to be better than the virtual world ones in general, and though I think this one tripped up with overdramatics at the climax, the base concept at least laid out Sinon as a reasonably articulated person. It wasn’t subtle, but SAO never is, and I’d rather have this than have Sinon just not having a character/arc – frankly, I don’t trust SAO to illustrate a character one piece at a time, so if it just wants to dump her entire characterization on us right now, I’m okay with that.
Additionally, a number of the ideas this episode alluded to seem to directly complicate either subtext or overt themes of the first season – the meritocracy of videogames, their “truth” as an alternate reality, and their value altogether were all called into question by Sinon’s actions this week. I don’t expect SAO to suddenly become a piercing investigation of its own prior mistakes, but these were certainly all interesting choices in their own right. This episode wasn’t nearly as fun as last week’s, but it managed to be respectable in an entirely different way, which is also a good sign. Carry on, Sword Art Online.