Exciting news, friends, Romans, countrymen: We are now officially thirty-two percent of the way through this accursed series. Is that a significant number? Not even slightly, but it does mean we're approximately 1/25th further through than we were last week, and that warrants cracking open a bottle of bubbly and crying into it.
This week's episode promised action, and battles, and cool battle action, and I guess it sort of followed through on that promise. As the Red Faction, led by Shirou, launches an assault on the Black Faction castle, all the Servants (bar Jack, thank god) are mobilised. Cornering Vlad (Lancer of Black), Atalanta (Archer of Red) and Karna (Lancer of Red), the latter the strongest Servant of Red, seek to use teamwork to overwhelm the enormous power he wields. As Achilles (Rider of Red) flies out, he is lured away from the battle to a private confrontation between himself and his old mentor, Chiron (Archer of Black); meanwhile, Avicebron (Caster of Black) mobilises the enslaved Spartacus (Berserker of Red) to wreak havoc on the Red Faction. Sieg, arriving at the battle, convinces another homunculus to help him free the others. In a forest, Frankenstein (Berserker of Black) comes face to face with Shirou, who offers to let her join the Red Faction.
I always feel like ninety percent of these summaries are just me listing the endless, interminable designations that all of these characters have.
So, we get action -- in fact, this episode is almost entirely action, of varying stripes and qualities, with Achilles vs Chiron on one end (as the show tries to hinge the stakes of their battle on the audience caring about their relationship, not realising that none of us care one whit about their student-mentor relationship, because we don't care about these characters), and Atalanta plus Karna vs Vlad on the other.
I should hasten to add that what makes Atalanta and Karna vs Vlad good isn't that it's the flashiest, although it very much is, with them all pulling off various flashy attacks and then making ominous remarks at each other -- it's that it's the only battle in this entire battle-laden episode that has any actual stakes.
Since it's been established already that Vlad is by far the most powerful Servant in play on either side, and since we know that Karna is the most powerful Servant that the Red Faction has, we know beforehand that there could be actual consequences if this battle goes awry. If Vlad wins and kills Karna and Atalanta, then the Red Faction is down two Servants (making their pool a measly four, one of which includes Shakespeare, who doesn't fight because he's a playwright), including their heaviest hitter; if Vlad is killed, then the Black Faction loses their nominal leader, and the most powerful Servant in the series dies before we're even halfway through.
See? Stakes. They're not difficult to set up, audiences want to be invested in what's going on -- and yet, the show completely fails to set up any kind of stakes for any of the other battles. We don't care about any of the other characters, and moreover, we have no strong views on how their deaths would affect the tide of the war.
That's a problem that sits over this entire episode, in fact: We don't have any sense of how the wider battle is going. Both sides are throwing disposable armies at each others, and the Servants are all in various battles, but there's little sense of how the battle as a whole is turning out: Who has the advantage here? Are the Red Faction making any progress? Are the Black Faction pushing the Red Faction back?
We get a hint of strategy, in that we get Karna and Atalanta singling out Vlad; we get Astolfo besieging the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; and we get Avicebron taking out Achilles' chariot so that Chiron can have his wicked way with him -- but we don't have any clear ideas of what the strategy for the larger battle is.
Part of this is because the battle doesn't have any clear goal except for 'defeat the enemy Servants.' The Red Faction isn't trying to take Castle Yggdmillenia, or steal the Grail -- instead, both sides are just fighting wars of attrition, with the hordes of unimportant cannon fodder just serving as background noise.
(Also, let's be entirely honest with ourselves, that battle between Vlad, Atalanta, and Karna isn't going to end with a decisive victory for any of them -- one side will decide to leave, because god knows this show is allergic to giving us any kind of pay-off to anything.)
Meanwhile, our most interesting characters are largely absent. Obviously, they're saving Mordred and Sisigou up for the next episode -- their only appearance in this one is a brief scene in a car -- but that would only work if I cared about literally anyone else in this series, and I don't. The closest thing to a non-lionpals character I care about is Avicebron. Think about that for a moment. Avicebron.
Okay, predictions for next episode: Achilles and Frankenstein might die, but I suspect it's more likely that one or both of them will escape -- but if one of them is going to die, it'll be Frankenstein, in order to give Shirou some villain cred. Achilles is more likely to be saved by Atalanta. Mordred and Sisigou will most likely join the battle, either joining Atalanta and Karna against Vlad, or fighting Spartacus. Astolfo will fail to penetrate the Hanging Gardens, Sieg will fail to free any homunculus, but may end up in a confrontation with Avicebron.
Of course, let's be real, this show is a mass of disappointments, so it's equally possible that four minutes in the entire battle just gets called off because of inclement weather or some nonsense like that.