"Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" Vol 5: Pox Dei
Like a high-calorie, high-carb Thanksgiving feast, the final volume of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the kind of thing to prove Mae West wrong: Too much of a good thing isn’t always wonderful. Mercifully, it is all over now, and such is my relief at finally being done with this story that I’m hard pressed to say anything much about it. So let’s keep this short.
For what feels like a couple of thousand episodes now, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has been dragging its army of characters toward a final confrontation. It’s been a complicated process, and it continues to be so, because each character has his own path and has to fight through multiple battles or conflicts to reach a final resting place; and since the good side and the bad side each have a battalion or more of characters, the narrative soon becomes very tedious. It’s very nice to see Scar and Fuhrer Bradley face off against each other; and to see the Armstrongs (with help) take down Sloth; to see Greed and Father go at each other; to watch Envy disintegrate in the face of self-realization; to see Pride reduced to very small circumstances. But it takes forever to get through all of them—and the running time also includes the surprise arrival of supporting characters you’d forgotten about, and the tactical maneuvering of third- and fourth-rank extras in the battle for control of the central citadel. The emotional impact of these multiple departures is further deadened—and the running time further padded—by the way it treats each like a symphonic tone poem of Wagnerian intensity and Mahlerian length. Yes, each of these characters deserves a big, emotional climax and send off, but these lose all power when piled on top of each other.
The series also doesn’t know how to say “Enough!” when it comes to topping schemes with counter-schemes. It long ago became apparent that Amestris was to be sacrificed in a gigantic alchemist spell, and it is satisfying to discover that one of our heroes actually has been plotting to block this scheme. But it is less satisfying (naturally) to learn that the bad guys have a counter-counter-scheme; aggravating to find that the good guys have a counter to the counter-counter-scheme that (dismayingly) is subject to a counter of its own by the bad guys. And just when you think there couldn’t be any more surprises, that’s when the rabbits start popping out of hats and asses. None of the twists is ill-prepared, exactly, but, as with death scenes, the power of a good twist is inversely proportional to the number of them that show up. By the end of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood you are less shocked by the twists it’s taken to get there than by the fact that the twists finally stop coming.
Even thematically the show doesn’t believe in stopping well short of much too far. It named its homunculi after the seven deadly sins, and its mordant explorations of the psychology of the demonic might have impressed even the author of The Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength. But the demonic is much easier to dramatize than is the divine—it is much easier to approach zero than infinity—but Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood can’t resist bringing God into it. You needn’t have special theological training to feel that it has rather failed to capture anything remotely resembling the idea, and the final reveal about Father’s plot feels less like a stab at high horror than like an ultra-campy attempt at ontological depravity: it tries to go farther than which cannot be conceived.
I’ve deliberately avoided spoilers and details, because if you’ve come this far with the series you will want to experience each moment (which individually are quite good) for yourself. There is no single bit that especially drags and no death that isn’t poignant; you may mist up a little over even the worst of the homunculi. But you really will want to pace yourself when watching it. Indigestion is never fun, especially when it mars the memory of a really fine experience.