So, over at Mark Watches I’ve been commenting on Mark’s reviews of each episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and this is, I feel, one of the more interesting episodes, so I figured it could serve as my Thought of the Day. If you haven’t seen the series, um, spoilers through episode 22? Though I suspect this would be more confusing then spoilery.
So the most obviously interesting thing about this episode, for me at least, is the way it draws parallels between different characters. In both families, the older brother is shorter and better at alchemy, while the younger is a better fighter and has a strong moral code. (Which is not to say that Scarbro or Ed are at all bad people, just that Scar and Al think about morality more often and more deeply than their older brothers.) Then of course there’s Ed protecting Winry, which immediately makes Scar think of his brother protecting him–what’s most interesting about that, however, is not the very obvious Ed-Scarbro parallel, but what it does to Scar and Winry.
In that moment, Scar must realize that he is playing the role of Kimblee–a mad bomber, a force of destruction for the sake of destruction, following a code utterly inscrutable to anyone else. That, as much as Ed’s resemblance to his brother, is what makes him hesitate–has he become the man who took his family from him? But what no one seems to notice in that moment is that if Ed is Scarbro, then the parallel for Winry is Scar: overwhelmed with loss, weapon in hand, prepared to take her revenge on the monster who senselessly slaughtered her family without cause. But she can’t, because she is a better person than Scar, and because she is a healer and maker, not a warrior; her hands, as Ed puts it, are not made for killing.
But if she is being paralleled to Scar, is that true for him too? Scar was a warrior, yes, and in the dub that is all he is stated to be; but in the sub and manga he is a warrior-priest. We see in his flashback that he is horrified by the Ishbalans who want to use alchemy to fight back, but his reasons are not, interestingly, religious, even though the religion of which he is a priest forbids alchemy. Rather, they are moral objections based on a virtue ethos–he is horrified by the bloodlust the men display, and by the idea of unleashing the same destructive force that has been brought to bear on Ishbal. His hands, ultimately, were no more made for killing than Winry’s (or, to go back to the original parallel the episode set up for him, Al’s). Scar is not a monster, whatever Winry may say; he is something much more dangerous and frightening, a man who has lost his way.
The three stages of alchemy, as Scarbro says in this episode, are understanding, decomposition, and reconstruction. Scar has been doing a lot of decomposition thus far in the series; here at last we see the first glimmers of him understanding. Much, much later, in the final few episodes, will he reconstruct; only then will his transformation be complete.
My second-favorite thing about this show is the many, many ways it finds to work alchemy on its characters. (My absolute favorite is the way events that would be mere drama in most shows–traumatic events that influence the characters, spark a bit of development, and then are left in the past except where the continuity explicitly calls back to them–instead keep coming back up over and over. Nina is never forgotten; 18 episodes later in an almost entirely unrelated scene, she’s brought back up because the pain has never gone away. She serves no plot purpose here, just a natural consequence of Al trying to stall during the fight with Scar, but at the same time it is completely natural for the characters to discuss her, because the pain is still present and real for them. The show, in other words, doesn’t treat Nina as a one-time plot device for advancing Ed and Al’s characters; like a real person, she leaves echoes throughout the rest of their lives.)