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Ed and Ling (and Envy, too) reemerge from Gluttony's gut to be reunited with Al, only to discover that Al was in the process of meeting with the figure the Homunculi refer to as “Father” – who happens to look exactly like Hohenheim! All Hell breaks loose when Scar and May Chang also show up. In the wake of that mess, Ed and Al get their formal introduction to Wrath and are warned not to stick their noses too far into Homunculi business lest those they care about (i.e. Winry) be endangered. After a talk with Hawkeye, who fills in the gaps for Ed about the awful story of putting down the uprising in Ishval, Ed comes to the conclusion that he and Al's best chance to get their bodies back involves studying alcehestry – and to do that they have to track down May Chang. Their quest leads them north to Brigg's Wall, Amestris's border-guarding northern fortress, where Major Armstrong's sister, Major General Oliver Mira Armstrong, reigns over a harsh, tough bunch. There they encounter the Homunculus Sloth, discover that Solf Kimblee, the Crimson Alchemist, has been freed from jail and set on Scar's path, and piece together something of the full truth about a grand plan for Amestris which spans centuries. Things get more complicated when Winry is brought to the scene (to reinforce her hostage status) and Scar shows up, but under the circumstances can the Elric brothers even consider him an enemy this time? And who else can they really trust?
Meanwhile, back in Central, Hawkeye has a very scary run-in with Pride as she struggles to maintain safety and sanity in her status as a walking hostage against Mustang, while Mustang calls in an old friend for help. On another front, Hohenheim contemplates finally taking action himself.
This set, which spans episodes 27-39, begins with a reflective piece focused on Hohenheim which is about 80% recap of the first 26 episodes and 20% delving into Hohenheim's own motivations. After that, though, things really begin to sizzle, and quickly. Though the next twelve episodes occasionally pause for a retrospective piece, such as further revealing reflections by Hohenheim and Hawkeye's account of her past and the events in Ishval, they otherwise charge forward with a tightly-packed regimen of action, scheming, and menace. Want to see the sum and substance of what makes this version of the story great? Check out these episodes.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this span of episodes is that it is nearly devoid of side stories. Other than the recap episode, nearly every scene in every episode is somehow related to the bigger overall plot lines. Even the content of its retrospective pieces is directly relevant to current events. For instance, what happened in Ishval shaped the current attitudes of characters like Major Armstrong and Hawkeye; seeing the boisterous Armstrong so downcast and the unwaveringly firm Hawkeye so dead-eyed from what they had to do there is heartbreaking. Hawkeye also gets another one of this season's best sequences in her harrowing encounter with Pride (it may not be who you expected it to be) and how much it shakes her in the aftermath. That, combined with the thinly-veiled threats cast against Winry to keep the Elric brothers in line, the disturbing scheming of General Raven, and the overwhelming power of Father, gives this series a sense of menace well beyond what the first TV series ever achieved and a tightness to the writing not as evident earlier in the series.
The scheming is another big draw here. The earlier episodes dropped plenty of hints that some kind of grand plan was going on behind the scenes in Amestris, but not until this block of episodes do viewers start to get a sense of what that plan actually is. The scope of it is mind-boggling, but one would expect nothing less from a shonen series running a single main plotline over the course of 64 episodes. Its intricacy and execution so far do an excellent job of getting viewers interested and giving the Elric brothers and their allies an awesome problem to confront and difficult foes to defeat; too often shonen series depend primarily on having personally uber-powerful Big Bad Guys at the core of things to provide the full threat value (and this one does, to an extent, have one in Father – seeing Scar completely flummoxed by an individual foe is a treat), but here the systemic corruption that the Elrics, Mustang, and others must contend with is even more daunting, and that is a challenge that most other shonen series lack.
These episodes offer some great characters and character development, too. While the highlights may be Winry's Round 2 with Scar and the aforementioned scenes with Hawkeye, we also get to see that Hohenheim is not the uncaring, irresponsible bastard that he earlier appeared to be; he is a man who does care but simply does not know how to relate to other people, even his own progeny. We get to see more of the pasts of Hawkeye and Mustang and understand how they hooked up (and get some suggestion that Hawkeye may have her own alchemy-related secrets, unlike in the first series) and see Scar start to question more deeply the nature of his own actions. Ling also heads in an interesting direction, the consequences of which will, no doubt, have an impact for the rest of the series. Pride finally pops up in physical form, and Sloth gets some feature scenes as he figures into a couple of episodes big-time, but the bigger treat is new character Olivier Mira Armstrong, who is cut from the classic hard-ass mold but is also insightful and impressively righteous in her convictions for all of her “this is a harsh place where you must be strong to survive” bluster. Kimblee's expanded role is, by comparison, a disappointment, as he simply does not come across as aggressively evil enough to be exciting and does not cut it as a manipulator.
Of course, Fullmetal Alchemist would not be what it is without its action scenes and humor, though this season does not have as many pitched battles as earlier 13-episode sets. This season's regular episodes open with one of the most intense and hairy battles to date, a multi-sided affair which eventually involves the Homunculi, Father, Scar, May Chang, Ling, chimeras, and the Elric brothers, but then lays off on the heavy-duty action for a while until a Scar/Kimblee battle comes up and Sloth's burrowing results in a heaping amount of trouble for everyone involved. Along the way the series offers no shortage of humorous asides, some of which continue to be annoying in the same way that they were earlier in the series while others sparkle (General Armstrong's comments about the stolen food several years earlier, for instance).
The artistry and technical merits remain on par with what has been seen previously in this series: very sharp most of the time but not without weak points and occasional brief visual flaws. Highlights here include the aforementioned tweaks to character designs in the flashback episodes, Pride's horrifying nature, Olivier's character design, certain automail mechanical designs, and some color contrasts and uses of gray in the mining town in the later episodes. On the downside, the minimal variance in facial structures, especially in female character designs, becomes more noticeable in these episodes. The musical score also maintains the same high standards seen earlier in the series, with highlights here including the ominous vocals used in various places. New opener “Golden Time Lover” is a decent but bland pop song, while new closer “Tied Hands,” which primarily features Winry in its visuals, is solid but not quite up to the level of “Let it out.” Both get more up-tempo replacements for episode 39.
Recurring roles in the English dub continue to do either mediocre or stand-out jobs, as established by earlier volumes. Caitlin Glass and Todd Haberkorn in particular get some additional nice work as Winry and Ling, respectively, while Scar still is the weak link. Amongst new roles, Stephanie Young is a suitable fit as Olivier and Troy Baker makes a good-sounding new incarnation of Greed. Patrick Seitz so subsumes himself into the role of Sloth that he is unlikely to be recognized.
The thirteen episodes of the Blu-Ray version of this release come on two disks in a now-standard 9-4 distribution. Extras on the disks include clean opener and closer on the second disk and one English audio commentary on each disk, one for episode 28 and the other for episode 36. Both feature line producer Mike McFarland hosting 2-3 of the English voice actors and predominately stick rather closely to the series. Both disks also have the now-standard but no less irritating arrangement of not allowing one to shift between the vocal tracks without going out to the Set-Up menu and providing no option to view the dub with subtitles on. The disk encoding uses an AVC/MPEG-4 codec with 1080p/24 resolution, producing a picture that still has minor glitches for visual nitpickers but generally looks a little better than the earlier two sets. The Japanese track uses lossless Dolby TrueHD 2.0, while the English track uses Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The latter give a little fuller surround sound experience.
Funimation's release of this set, perhaps not coincidentally, nearly coincides with the series' return to TV broadcast of new episodes on Adult Swim, and perhaps also not coincidentally, the next set is due out around the time that the AS broadcast will hit the end of this set. If done intentionally, that seems like a fairly effective marketing gimmick. In general, though, of the sets that have come along so far, this is the one most worth owning.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Generally strong English dub, great musical score, very involving.
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