In an alternate timeline, the British Isles have stood unchallenged (other than losing said isles and assuming America as their new homeland) and become the ruthless powerhouse that is the Britannian Empire, brutally conquering other countries and rechristening them with the number in which they were taken.
In the conquered Japan, Area 11, Britannian teenager Lelouch Lamperouge lives in the Tokyo settlement as a student.
….Hold on, haven’t we been here before? And weren’t there a bunch of dangling plot threads, mostly dripping with blood? Indeed because as the second season of Code Geass begins, we discover Lelouch has received a fate worse than his expected death. Brainwashed into literally believing his own fake civilian identity, he’s spent an entire year living this delusion and believing Zero and his Black Rebellion to be terrorist incidents unrelated to himself. Cast in this role to serve as bait for C.C., it’s not long before they are reunited and the truth is set free. Zero has returned to reshape the world.
The actual specifics of the current status quo are slowly revealed over the early episodes as we learn that both Lelouch and Suzaku survived their face off that ended the previous season, with the still enraged Suzaku offering Lelouch as a bargaining chip to personally enter the ranks of the Emperor’s personal Knights of Round. As Lelouch has lived his false life, Suzaku has continued to burn with hatred for his former friend and become one of Britannia’s most feared pilots on the global stage. Upon hearing that Zero has returned he becomes personally invested in the matter to determine if the man behind the mask is Lelouch or another. This creates an intriguing situation for the early episodes as Lelouch, now aware of the web of security that tracks his every move, has to renew his campaign while not breaking the illusion of blissful ignorance. To Britannia’s credit, the security monitoring him is nearly airtight, including placing a child assassin called Rolo as a fraudulent younger brother. It’s a welcome return for our mastermind protagonist as he outmaneuvers and blackmails his way back into power.
However, it has to be said that the machinations and counterattacks of this season aren’t as entertaining. A big part of what made the first season work was that the plans of Zero and his rivals were often genuinely brilliant and offered clever plot twists few could predict. This time victory against impossible odds seems to simply be a foregone conclusion rather than an exercise in great scripting.
The presence of Rolo renews the question of what became of Nunnally, kidnapped in the previous finale. We receive an answer to this early in the season and it really is the best use the show could have got from the character, pushing her into a far more active role and one where her beliefs and actions clash with those of her brother. Lelouch’s constantly stated reason for his campaign was to make the world he believes his sister would want, so placing them in conflict loudly challenges what direction he will take and makes Nunnally an active character rather than a MacGuffin in a wheelchair.
Nunnally’s new role also forces the story to extend beyond Japan into countries and continents such as China, Europe and even Britannia itself. The Chinese Federation play a sizeable role in the first half of the season as the Black Knight’s attempt for asylum sees them become entwined with the local politics. This is a fairly pointless subplot as we become aware of the plight of Xingke, a Chinese warrior who equals Lelouch in planning and Suzaku in piloting. Although it does go to show there is further strife beyond the conflict we’ve been following thus far, I really didn’t care about Xingke or his attempts to protect a weak willed child empress who is bullied by the dominate eunuchs.
The revised status quo additionally changes the role of Kallen. An important character previously, her presence at Lelouch’s capture now makes her one of the few aware of his dual identity, and as such changes her relationship to him. Now aware of his true identity and his power of Geass, she joins his inner circle but is still kept at a distance by both himself and C.C., allowing her character to explore the collective Black Knights mixed emotions of loyalty and uncertainty.
Although the season isn’t as strong as the previous one it isn’t really until the last third that it truly loses itself. From day one we’ve been told that eventually all Lelouch’s lies and machinations will come back to topple him. So when the show finally starts to address this it is with great shame that Lelouch suffers not for his own disregard or supposed evil, but because other characters seemingly lose their brains. Indeed a large part of these events is a painfully forced romance between two characters, evolving from an acceptable subplot in the first season. The final stretch does explore some respectably mature themes that in part sidesteps the trap of a saccharine fairy tail ending, but in other ways excruciatingly indulges it. The result is an ending where I can appreciate the intent but certainly not the execution.
There’s also the problem of the mystery of Lelouch’s mother and why his father Emperor Charles seemingly let her die. Charles is a much more prominent character this time and although I appreciate the attempt to show us how the man he is today was shaped by childhood tragedy (indeed a seemingly intentional parallel to Lelouch), the explanation just really doesn’t flow with the tyrannical man who likewise enforced such standards on his own children and entire kingdom. The revelations of C.C. that are tied to this part of the plot feel far more consistent and rewarding, allowing in turn to explore her relationship with Lelouch which has always been one of the most engrossing elements of Geass’ story.
Mecha seem to receive a larger role this time round with Suzaku’s Lancelot having entered general production as the Vincent. It’s fun to see how well other characters do with a machine of the same spec to the super one Suzaku got ample use from. The Lancelot itself and its Gurren rival continue to be upgraded across the season, culminating in what seems to be the Sunrise standard of winged, beam spamming mecha. A questionable departure from how genuinely realistic the mecha have been previously, but the final battle of the show makes this completely worth it for the ingenuity it shows on the part of the story-boarders and animators. Suzaku’s fellow Knights also bring with them a few interesting custom machines but an idea with such promise is inconsistently enforced.
As with the first season I opted to watch the dub soundtrack. While I’d generally enjoyed this cast last time there were a few disappointing performances that thankfully step up this time round. Rebecca Forstadt benefits from Nunnally being given a deeper role. Although it’s still a questionable performance the character’s greater range invites her own. Amongst the newcomers, Spike Spencer performs admirably as Rolo, making a character sympathetic when they could have been melodramatic instead. Everyone else continues to perform just as superbly as before, with Johnny Yong Bosch masterfully handling the extreme gauntlet of emotions that Lelouch travels across the season.
Unlike the first volume which contained subtitled Japanese commentaries and dubbed Picture Dramas, R2 is limited to simply credit animation variants and production art. I appreciate this is because the American releases lacked similar but it’s a shame after how the previous extras felt so involved.
Code Geass R2 is a release I can only really recommend to those who have already seen the first half of the story and want to know how it all ends. Although it isn’t the absolute train wreck some describe it as it gets lost in half realised ideas and audience pandering far too often to be a worthy continuation of the superior first season. It debatably suffers from the same problem as its sibling Gundam 00’s own second season, with network enforced retooling and questionable new characters getting in the way of a story that had previously been on a fine course.